Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery (8 page)

BOOK: Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery
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My first year in Chilson, Tammy had brought suit against a commercial property owner over a driveway easement adjacent to one of her properties. Two days after she won the lawsuit, a monstrous fence went up that forced her neighbor to rework the entrance to his ice-cream shop. It had been a financial hardship for the well-loved, yet not terribly lucrative, business and Tammy had lost much local goodwill over the incident. Rumor had it that she’d said, “So what? I make my money from the tourists, not the locals,” which had, of course, only made things worse.

On a personal basis, I knew that Tammy had a tendency to return books late and then try to argue her way out of the fines. This didn’t endear her to me, but I tried to look on the bright side. At least she was borrowing books. But what bright side could there be in this case? Roger was dead, and Tammy was looking for someone to pay the price.

“Stephen, I . . .” No words came to fill the empty space. I looked at my boss. I had no idea what expression was on my face, but he softened the slightest bit.

“Minnie, I will have to inform the library board of the recent events.”

Of course he would. He probably already had.

“The board will also be made aware of the progress of Ms. Shelburt’s lawsuit,” Stephen said. “The library’s attorney has already been contacted and has said that there is little doubt that the library will eventually be cleared of any wrongdoing, but Ms. Shelburt will undoubtedly make sure no stone is left unturned.”

I swallowed. The library attorney was eminently qualified for this kind of thing, but his hourly rate was higher than my first out-of-college paycheck. Once again I wanted to say something, but there still wasn’t anything I could think of to say. “I’m sorry.” The words came out in a whisper.

“Yes.” Stephen adjusted his glasses. “Your reaction speaks well for your character, but you cannot let your emotions interfere with what needs to be done. Duties still call, Minerva.” When I nodded slowly, he returned his attention to the computer screen.

I knew, from long experience, that this was my cue to retreat, but halfway down the switchback stairway, I stopped stock-still.

If Tammy was suing the library, was she also going to sue
me?

*   *   *

All through the morning, I brooded over the question. Sure, every volunteer on the bookmobile signed a waiver of responsibility, and the library’s insurance covered bookmobile-related incidents for those on board, but did any of that truly mean anything when something so horrible as a death had happened?

I debated contacting the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services to ask whether anyone had any experience in such matters, but decided to wait. Maybe I was worrying unnecessarily. And maybe Tammy had only threatened to sue. Maybe when she got over the
shock of her brother’s death, she’d drift away from the need to make the library pay for what had happened.

Maybe all that would happen.

And then again, maybe it wouldn’t.

I fidgeted away the rest of the morning, and at lunchtime I donned my almost-dry coat and headed out into the rain.

By now the morning’s dripping had rendered the weekend’s snow almost invisible. What little remained was in the piles tossed up by plows and under the shelter of building eaves and trees. It was the time of year when, if you didn’t have a calendar handy, you wouldn’t know for certain whether it was November or early April.

Keeping my head down, I walked quickly through the mishmash of downtown architecture, past the county building, and to the adjacent sheriff’s office.

“Hi,” I said, pushing back my hood and smiling at the deputy at the window. “May I please speak to either Detective Devereaux or Detective Inwood?”

“Detective Devereaux is out on medical leave.” The deputy eyed me. I tried to look tall and confident. This was a hard thing to do when faced with a high counter that reached almost to my chin, but I could, and did, meet the deputy’s gaze with a calm assurance.

“Is it serious?” I asked. The detective and I weren’t what you might call friends, but we had a relationship that was working, more or less, and I hoped whatever was wrong was fixable.

“He won’t be back until after Thanksgiving,” the deputy said.

“Then how about Detective Inwood? Is he around?”

“Let me check.” He asked for my name, reached for his phone, and dialed. Though he spun away from me to talk, he glanced at me once over his shoulder.

I smiled brightly, and he turned away. My interior self, which was not nearly as polite as my exterior self, snorted. I could just imagine that conversation. The detectives and I had a history, some of it positive, much of it not. They saw me as impatient and interfering. I saw them as slow and stolid, especially when it came to law-enforcement issues involving people whom I knew were law-abiding citizens of the sort who would never be late returning a book to the library, let alone anything as violent as—

“Ms. Hamilton? He says you can go back.” The deputy pushed a button, the door to the inner sanctum unlocked, and I went on through.

Inside, Detective Inwood was waiting. “We thought we’d be seeing you.”

I squinted up at him. It was a fair ways up. The first few times I’d met the two detectives, they’d always been together. You’d think that I’d have been able to keep their names straight, considering that one was tall and thin while the other was shortish and round, but it hadn’t been until a sympathetic deputy had told me that Detective Inwood, the tall and thin one, looked like a letter
I
and that Detective Devereaux looked like a letter
D
that their names got stuck properly in my head.

“We?” I asked. “I heard Detective Devereaux is out on medical leave.”

Detective Inwood nodded and ushered me toward another door. “Knee replacement.”

I winced. My primary cold-weather activity was downhill skiing, and I’d heard enough tales from former mogul jumpers to make me want to avoid the surgery at all costs. “He’s doing okay?” I asked.

“Says he’s getting bored watching so much TV.”

I made a mental note to put together a selection of
suitable reading materials, and entered the small meeting room that held a table, four chairs, and nothing else. It pained me on a deep level to see a room without a single book, but I kept my thoughts to myself and pulled out a chair.

“When I said ‘we,’” the detective said, “I meant myself and Deputy Wolverson. You might recall that he’s training to be a detective.”

As if on cue, the man himself walked into the room. “Sorry,” he said. “I got caught with a phone call.” He slid into the seat diagonally across from me and smiled. “Hi, Minnie. Sounds as if you had a rough time on Saturday.”

I glanced at Detective Inwood, who was settling into the chair opposite me. I wanted to tell him that his much-younger coworker here had the right attitude, that a little kindness could go a long way, but once again I kept my thoughts inside. Which probably wasn’t an entirely good thing, because someday they might come hurtling out of me in a manner I wouldn’t be able to control. But why color today with the pending doom of tomorrow?

“It was a lot worse for Roger Slade,” I said. “Do you have any idea who shot him?”

Deputy Wolverson glanced at his senior officer, so I knew what was coming. “I know, I know,” I said. “This is only the beginning of the investigation, all avenues will be explored, and you won’t rest until you get the right guy.”

A small grin formed on the deputy’s face. Detective Inwood, however, simply nodded.

“Exactly right, Ms. Hamilton. I’m glad you understand our position. All possibilities will indeed be considered.”

Something in the phrase sounded off to me. “What do you mean, ‘all possibilities’?”

He steepled his fingers and stared at them intently. “The obvious is, of course, the most likely answer: a tragic hunting accident. We are interviewing property owners in the area about hunting permissions and we’re talking to other parties who might have knowledge of poachers. However, there is another possibility.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, frowning.

Detective Inwood’s eyebrows rose. “Surely, Ms. Hamilton, with your recent experiences, you’ve thought about the one other thing that could have caused Mr. Slade’s death.”

I shook my head slowly, ever so slowly. I didn’t want to hear this. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

“It could have been murder.”

*   *   *

The possibility that Roger’s death could have been something other than an accident hadn’t entered my head until Detective Inwood shoved it there.

“Thanks a lot,” I muttered as I squelched my way back to the library. An accident was horrible enough, but murder? Roger was the nicest possible guy. He worked for a construction company that had a fantastic reputation. He’d helped his kids build tree forts and volunteered his time with Habitat for Humanity. How could anyone want to kill a guy like that?

With my thoughts not on what was in front of me, I stepped straight into a puddle deep enough that I felt wetness across my instep. Sighing, I trudged onward.

An accident seemed much more likely than murder. We’d been out in the middle of your basic nowhere, and it had probably been a bullet from a deer hunter with
very bad aim that had struck poor Roger. Then again, maybe there’d been some wacko up in those hills who’d felt like using a human for target practice. Things like that made you think there was no safety anywhere.

My breath sucked out of me, and I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. I turned in a small, damp circle, suddenly seeing threats where seconds before I’d seen only a quiet downtown.

What was behind that fence?

Was someone lurking around the corner of that building?

Had I heard someone following me?

“Of course not,” I said loudly, but my voice came out much thinner and weaker than I would have liked. I cleared my throat and almost said it again, but decided that would sound like I was talking to myself.

Not that there was anyone to hear.

Was there?

I stood for a moment longer, willing myself to not be a scaredy-cat, then squared my shoulders and walked briskly back to the library.

Once inside, I shut myself in my office. “Think, Minnie,” I told myself. If I was ever going to get to sleep that night, I needed to reassure myself that Roger’s death was an accident. Only . . . how?

Everything I knew about guns came from an in-depth series of self-defense classes I’d taken last summer, and most of what I’d learned had been about handguns. Up here, deer hunters used rifles, and my extremely limited experience with those—an hour on the range with a .22—wasn’t going to help much. What I needed was to talk to a hunter.

I picked up the phone and dialed. “It’s Minnie. Do you have a minute?”

Rafe Niswander clucked at me. “You say a minute, but is that what you really mean?”

“No.”

“That’s women for you,” he said. “Never saying exactly what they want, always leaving us poor men to guess at what’s going on up in their heads. No wonder there’s such a communication gap.”

I put my feet up on my desk. “You’re making assumptions about my entire gender based on a single colloquialism?”

“Oooh, big college word.”

“The right word,” I said firmly. “And you have as many degrees as I do.”

“Don’t remind me.” He sighed. “It’s embarrassing sometimes.”

I snorted. For whatever reason, Rafe liked to pretend he was a country bumpkin, fresh off the farm and clueless about almost everything. It was an act that his middle-school students ate up.

“Fifty seconds already,” he said.

Whatever. “I take it you heard about what happened Saturday?”

“Yeah.” Rafe’s voice was quiet. “I meant to call you, but . . .”

Rafe was good at many things, from being a school principal to home improvement to boat repairs, but handing out sympathy wasn’t part of his skill set. “I know,” I said. “It’s okay. Anyway, I wanted to ask you a couple of things.”

“Fire away.” He paused. “Um, I mean, go ahead.”

“You remember where that gas station is, right?” I asked, my heart suddenly pounding hard. “Do you know any guys who hunt around there?”

“Nope. There’s no state land in that part of the
valley. Most of the property out there is owned by a timber company, and they don’t like guys hunting, because of liability reasons.”

“What about poaching?” I persisted. “Do you think there’d be much of that going on?” A guy hunting illegally—it would make sense for someone like that to have killed Roger.

There was another pause. “Minnie,” Rafe said slowly, his voice sounding suddenly serious. It was an odd way for him to sound and I wasn’t sure I liked it. “Why are you asking?”

“I just . . . I just want to know who . . .”

This time the pause lasted a lot longer. “Tell you what,” he finally said. “I’m going to give you two phone numbers. One is a guy who lives out there; the other is the conservation officer for that part of the county. And, for crying out loud, don’t tell them who gave you the numbers. I have a reputation to keep up.”

“Thanks,” I whispered. Coughed, then said more loudly, “You’re not so bad for a misogynistic, prejudiced redneck wannabe.”

“And you’re not so bad for an uptight know-it-all.”

His voice was sounding normal again, which was a small relief. I wrote down the numbers as he read them off, thanked him again, and started dialing.

*   *   *

Dinner that night was an Aunt Frances–inspired creation of seafood, coconut milk, and who knew what else. My contribution was washing the baby spinach for the salad.

“Another outstanding meal,” I said, dipping my soup spoon into the hearty mix. “I don’t know how you find the energy.”

“Oh, it comes and goes.” She covered her mouth to
hide a yawn. “And right now it’s going. Tell me a story to keep me awake.”

Normally I would have a funny library story for her, but not today. So I told her about Stephen’s tale of a pending lawsuit and I told her about my trip to the sheriff’s office. I also told her about my phone calls to Rafe, plus my calls to the guy who lived near the gas station, and the conservation officer.

BOOK: Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery
9.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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