Read September Fair Online

Authors: Jess Lourey

Tags: #soft-boiled, #mystery, #murder mystery, #fiction, #amateur sleuth, #mystery novels, #murder, #regional fiction, #regional mystery, #amateur sleuth novel, #minnesota, #twin cities, #minnesota state fair

September Fair (3 page)

BOOK: September Fair
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In a reaction I still can’t explain to this day, I pulled Jenny out of that small room instead of calling for help. It was a primitive animal instinct, wanting to protect her and hide her from the monster, but part of me also wanted to flee from people discovering what had happened. Her parents would be so disappointed in me for allowing her to get hurt. They had told us to take care of each other.

It was the bride of Frankenstein who stopped me at the next station. I was dragging Jenny by her arms, her head lolling toward the floor. The bride appraised the situation quickly and flicked on the lights in the hall, revealing a worn and dingy space that was as impermanent as a stage. She grabbed a phone from behind a panel and called for help, and Jenny was whisked outside and into an ambulance within minutes. It took me longer to find her parents, and then her brother, and the four of us hurried to the hospital. Jenny received ten stitches on her scalp, and I took her and her parent’s quiet demeanor during the long ride home as anger at me. They never invited me out again.

Afterward, in a ridiculously exaggerated response to any mention of haunted houses, my feet started to sweat and my intestines went soft and rumbly. It was a crazy reflex, I knew, but one I carried with me through the rest of high school. Even now, almost exactly fifteen years to the day after the event, that fear is as powerful as a sleeping giant inside of me, which was exactly what I was thinking as the lights went out in the Dairy Barn, bringing me precariously close to reliving the terror of that long-ago day in a darkened building crowded with panicking strangers.

True, the Dairy building was bigger than the haunted house and none of the farmers and suburban moms crowded around were going to yank out a chainsaw or tickle me with Freddie Krueger blades, but the sensation was just as I remembered it. Blackness. Strangers. Little sparks of panic flashing like fireflies, igniting waves of fear. The smell of the fair faint but constant inside the building—mini donuts, animals, dust.

I wasn’t the only one terrified by the sudden darkness. People in the Dairy Barn pushed like one huge creature toward the entrance. I felt like I was falling but there was nowhere to go. Someone yanked at the camera around my neck, and I clutched it closer. A woman yelled for Isaiah, and then a little boy yelled for his mom. The dairy smell, which before had been faint, was made sour and amplified by the darkness. I thought I heard a growl, a low, primal, dog sound. I was just about to scream when a brilliant sliver of light sliced through the absolute black. Someone had cracked a door. We all sighed. We were in a building, civilized humans. Two more seconds, and every light in the building switched back on, washing the interior in a safe, yellow glow.

At first, none of us in the Dairy building made eye contact. I think we were all embarrassed. No one likes to discover they’re two minutes of darkness away from crazy. Around me, people chuckled uneasily and cracked bad jokes.
How many cows does it take to change a lightbulb, anyways?
I kept my head down and made for the one lighted exit in my line of sight, just a little to the right of the butter-carving booth. The floor of the booth was at shoulder level, and it looked empty except for some blocks of butter that were knocked over. Milkfed Mary and the sculptor must have panicked when the lights went out and started flailing for a door. Oh well. They were no more a coward than the rest of us.

A scream began near me and tore across the cavernous Dairy Barn. I figured it must be a delayed reaction, or somebody had just discovered their purse had been stolen when the lights were out. I kept moving forward and was beside the booth when a second shriek, this one a long, continuous wail, escaped from behind the blue curtain to my left. The screaming was loud, wordless, and female, and I was just about to swish back the curtain when something in the butter-carving booth snagged my eye: a cherry-red hand sticking out between two felled blocks of butter in the spinning booth. Had Milkfed Mary been crushed by falling butter in an ironically dairy-themed re-creation of the
Wizard of Oz
?

The booth turned inexorably, bringing first her blonde hair into view, and then her eyes, open and sightless. The woman next to me was also staring into the booth. She gurgled.

“Do you have a phone?”

She nodded at her purse but made no move to open it. The crimson and completely dead Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy had her transfixed. I dug into the woman’s purse and dialed 911 for the second time in my life.

“What is your emergency?”

Oh, Jesus, this was all happening too quickly. I hadn’t thought about that. Talk about sounding like the mother of all prank calls. My best bet was to make it swift and vague. “I’m at the State Fair. In the Dairy building. Milkfed Mary was getting her head carved out of butter, and something terrible happened to her.”

“What happened to her, ma’am?”

“I think she’s dead. Send someone quick.” And I hung up, dropped the phone back in the woman’s purse, and made for the blue curtain from which a scream was still emanating, though it had grown fainter.

Let’s get this straight. I wasn’t going back there to be a hero. The truth is, I’m no Wonder Woman. What I
am
is a lifelong prisoner of guilt, sometimes on work release but never far from my cell. That is, in a crisis I usually know what the appropriate action is, which leaves me two choices: act immediately, or prepare to get squashed beneath so many “what-ifs” and so paralyzed by fear of karma catching up with me that I will spend the next lifetime wishing I had acted, turning the missed moment over and over in my head like rosary beads. Thank you again, Jenny Cot and Leatherface.

So I pulled that blue curtain back, scared as a kicked dog at what I’d discover. I imagined lots of people squished like Milkfed Mary, a room full of bright red Flat Stanleys with only one person inflated enough to still be shrieking. Imagine my relief to see only the butter-head artist sobbing and being comforted by another woman with a cell phone in her hand and a strange expression on her face. Behind them, hundreds of boxes of spoons lined the wall, which ended in a door. The door was flung open, and two people in white aprons appeared and strode quickly toward the sobbing woman, their faces masks of concern.

Everyone was focused on helping the sculptor, which meant that I had to do it. I needed to step into the gruesome booth and make sure nothing could be done for Milkfed Mary. Though I had recently vowed to avoid corpses at all costs, I couldn’t be 100 percent sure she was beyond suffering without checking, and my resolve to play it safe melted like sugar in a rainstorm. Dammit. I turned and forced myself up the steps that only the sculptor and a reigning Queen and her court should ever travel. I opened the door. A wash of icy air chilled my skin, forcing goose bumps. Inside, the center of the floor turned, slowly and relentlessly, ignoring its ghastly cargo.

Milkfed Mary, one Ashley Pederson of Battle Lake, Minnesota, lay sprawled on the floor, red as an apple and still as a rock. Only minutes earlier, I’d watched her in her full youthful glory, hamming it up for the cameras and basking in the attention she’d earned. But now, her lifeless body curved around the white carving station in the middle of the booth. Two butter slabs pinned her right arm and another trapped her left leg. Only one hand wore a mitten. The room was chilly, but not cold enough to freeze the greasy yellow smell of one thousand pounds of butter. I stepped forward to check her pulse just for appearance’s sake when I was pushed roughly from behind.

It was the woman who had been comforting the sculptor. She was all business in her red power suit, grimacing at me from under her perfect helmet of hair. “The State Fair EMTs are here. They need to get at her.”

I moved out of the way but not before looking through the glass of the booth at the hundreds of people staring up at me. For a moment, I had a flash of Ashley’s last moments, on display like a crown jewel, or a two-headed goat. It gave me a shiver that stuck with me as I was hustled out of the booth, away from the curtain and down the long hall of spoons. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to take a bath in Purell.

But even in my benumbed state, I wondered what had turned Ashley’s skin that color. Was it some sort of dairy virus, or a latent but deadly Oompa-Loompa gene triggered by a constant 38-degree temperature and slow, constant circular movement? More importantly, had I just exposed myself to a contagious peril?

Because of the crowd of emergency personnel, I couldn’t escape the way I had come, so I elbowed through the white-aproned throng gathering between the connected anteroom to the Queen’s booth and the kitchen of Dairy Goodness, walking down the hall and past the glistening silver ice cream machines until I found a service door. I lunged out into the blistering heat and breathed deeply. A parked ambulance flashed its lights to my right, and behind it, two police cruisers pulled up. Of course the State Fair would have its own health and security personnel on the grounds. I walked past the Amphitheater and River Raft Ride to Clough Street, took a right, and ducked into the bathrooms at the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum. Inside, I literally and figuratively washed my hands of the whole ordeal. It wasn’t my fault she was from Battle Lake, right? I didn’t know her personally. The ambulance would haul her body away, and the police would find out what had happened to her, not me. I’d cover the story, of course. I’d report on any information the police released, but that’s as far as it would go because, while Ashley’s death was terribly sad, it had nothing directly to do with my life.

Once I had scrubbed the top layer of skin from my hands and face, I headed north to my trailer, keeping my head down and my hands to myself. The place was so crowded that I couldn’t walk a straight line for more than four feet, and on each side the smell of roasting meat competed with the sweetness of fresh Tom Thumb donuts and cinnamon-baked nuts. Overhead, the Skyrider carried people from one end of the fair to the other. They laughed and dangled their feet while sipping cool drinks and pointing out the sights, oblivious to the horror at the Dairy Barn. How long until word of the death of the queen spread? Would it clear out the crowds? Increase them?

I shoved those thoughts out of my head and navigated past the Kidway and toward the campgrounds. Crowds were less dense here. My trailer was parked just off of Cosgrove. It was a neat little twenty-two-foot vintage Airstream that Ron had remodeled inside to look like an early-1970s opium den, complete with white shag carpeting and beaded curtains. He had even applied those little flower-shaped floor stickers in the shower, which I believe were invented to keep stoned people from slipping and disappearing down the drain while bathing.

That was all fine because I had a bedroom in back, a kitchen with an electric stove, a dining room table, and a pile of books I’d been meaning to read. And right now, I wanted nothing more than to be alone to regroup and relax, and pretend I hadn’t just seen my fifth corpse in as many months. Ron would be calling me and ordering me to cover the story soon enough. I unlocked the door, hitched it behind me, and fell into the nearest bench.

“Mira? Surprise!

“Mrs. Berns?”

“Well it ain’t Cher. Who pooped in your pants?”

“What?” I sniffed the air.

“You look like you just found out your cat died. It didn’t, by the way. Some friends and I checked your place before I left, and Jed’s doing a fine job. A couple redecorating touches, but those were necessary after the party we had last night. I think you’ll agree they improve the vibe.” She pursed her lips and made a show of looking around. “Speaking of vibe, what the hell was Ron Sims smoking when he decorated this place?”

In deciding to quit drinking last month, I’d had more challenges than the average person. Mrs. Berns was one of them, albeit my favorite one. I took a deep breath, more like a gasping for air, really, and started at the beginning. “Why are you here?”

“I was listening to 103.3 out of Fergus. You know the station?”

I nodded. Or had a nervous tic. It looked the same.

“They were ‘getting the Led out’ when all of a sudden, they announce a contest. The first person to answer three questions correctly about Neil Diamond wins two tickets to his State Fair concert and backstage passes to meet him afterward.”

“Neil Diamond’s at the State Fair?”

Mrs. Berns tsked. “You might be cute, Mira James, but smart don’t always park in your garage. Of course Neil Diamond is at the State Fair. Didn’t you see all those old ladies with DiamondHead T-shirts walking around?” She indicated her own bedazzled top, which had in the center a life-sized, three-dimensional rendering of Neil Diamond’s head and shoulders. On the image, his face floated above the very top portion of an open-collared shirt, and a healthy patch of black hair that was either glued or sewn on sprouted from the vee of his collar, which was located on the part of the shirt that covered Mrs. Berns’ lower tummy.

“That’s fake chest hair, right?”

“If by fake you mean it isn’t really Neil Diamond’s, you are correct. Now stop interrupting. I was baking bread in the kitchen of the nursing home when the contest was announced. By the time I got my hands clean, three people had called in and lost. They answered the first two questions, but the third stumped ’em. I knew all the answers, of course, but I couldn’t get through. I was redialing, redialing, but there were so many idiots clogging up the line that I couldn’t make contact. Finally, a ring! The announcer picked up, and he asked me question number one.

“‘What was the first song Neil Diamond wrote?’ he asked. ‘Hear Them Bells,’ I told him, and you can bet I was right. Then he says, ‘What type of scholarship did Neil Diamond go to NYU on?’”

“Charisma?” I asked

“Nope. Fencing.”

“That explains the sword at your waist.”

“It’s an
epée
.
Neil will appreciate the symbolism. Anyhow, those were the easy questions. Number three was a killer.”

Did I mention Mrs. Berns is eighty-four if she’s a day? We should all be so lucky to age this gracefully. Here she was, her lipstick bright and shiny, her apricot-tinged hair crisp with curls. In fact, I think there was a curler or two still clinging to her scalp, which just added to her general
je ne sais quoi
. This impression was further accented by her eye-catching T-shirt over elastic-waisted shorts and the
epée
hanging saucily at her side. On her feet, ever sensible, she wore shapeless white tennies over booties with little colored balls at the heels. I loved the woman even though she made me crazy. Or maybe because of it. “And what was the third question?”

“Which Neil Diamond song contains the lines, ‘We danced until the night became a brand-new day, two lovers playing scenes from some romantic play’? And understand that the man has a gobzillion songs.”

“I don’t know.”

Mrs. Berns crossed her arms triumphantly. “‘September Morn.’ And voilà!” She pulled two laminated tickets out of the purse slung over her forearm. “You and me are going to meet The Man! Monday night!”

“Whuh? But it’s only Thursday. And I’m not a DiamondHead.”

“All it takes is one show, sister.”

“But why are you here now if the show’s not until Monday?”

“What else do I have to do? I’m retired.”

My chest tightened with worry. “Um, actually, you’re my assistant librarian. I left you in charge for the next ten days.”

She waved her hands. “Pah. A monkey could do that job. I left Curtis Poling in charge.”

Curtis Poling, the Battle Lake Senior Sunset resident who periodically fished off the roof into the grass below. His eccentricity made him a town legend, but he was also cagier than he let on. I knew firsthand that he was as sharp as a knife and completely responsible. He’d do for the moment. “Okay. How’d you get out of the nursing home?”

“Paid a woman to pretend she was my daughter and sign me out for a family vacation.”

“And you paid that same woman to drive you here?”

“No, I hitchhiked.”

“That’s dangerous!”

“You’re a fine one to talk, Ms. Finds Dead Bodies. And it’s not as bad as it sounds. That woman drove me as far as Alexandria, where I wandered around like I had dementia until a nice older couple stopped for me. I told them I was from St. Paul and didn’t know where I was. They drove me to the Lyngblomsten Nursing Home right over here on Como, where a friend of mine stays. She was in on the plan and welcomed me like her roommate. If not for the kindness of strangers.”

I shook my head and slunk deeper in my seat. After all, what were my options? She was a grown-up, and then some.

“You don’t need to look like such a sourpuss. I’m here and I’m fine. What’s wrong with you, anyhow? When you first walked in here, you looked like you seen a …” A shadow passed across Mrs. Berns’ face as she stared at me, her eyes growing wider. “Oh no. Tell me you didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Find another dead body.”

I sat up straighter. “Technically, I didn’t find it. But I saw one.”

“Someone OD on hotdish-on-a-stick right at your feet?”

“Worse.”

“You see one of those Skyride bubbles crashing to the ground and crushing young lovers below, popping them like slugs? I always knew that was going to happen. You wouldn’t catch me on one of those death traps.”

“Worse.”

“Out with it, then.”

I drew a ragged breath. “Ashley Pederson, the newest Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy? She died about an hour ago while she was getting her head carved out of butter. I was there, but so were a thousand other people.”

“Whoof.” She fell onto the bench across from me. “I’m surprised they let you outta your car. You’re the Grim Reaper in person. So how’d that little tart die?”

“‘Little tart?’”

“Yes. Her parents are nice folks, but they spoiled that girl rotten. She was as mean as the day is long. That’s what happens when you never say ‘no’ to a pretty girl.”

Ron, who was good friends with Ashley’s parents, had also confided that Ashley was ungrateful and uppity. “Entitled,” he had called her. I had never met Ashley in person—I’d planned to interview her immediately after the butter carving—but had on occasion ran into her parents when stopping by the
Recall
office. They were pleasant people whose life, by all accounts, rotated entirely around their only child. “They’re going to be devastated.”

“That’s an understatement. So how’d she die?”

“I don’t know. It started out everything was fine. Ashley was waving at the crowd, smiling like royalty, she stepped up in the booth, and the sculptor followed her. Everyone was snapping pictures, me included.” I indicated the camera still dangling at my neck.

“They’re in there for not more than five minutes, the sculptor carving and Ashley posing, and the lights in the whole building go out. Actually,” I said, realizing something that had eluded me, “all the power went out. I know because the ice cream machines stopped whirring, too. When the power came back on, Ashley was dead in the booth. And her skin was the brightest red I’ve ever seen. It was gross.”

“Probably the goat people offed her. They’re always conniving for their piece of the dairy market. You said this happened just this morning?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, let’s see ’em.”

“What?”

“The pictures. You said you were snapping them right before she died. You probably captured her last breath.”

My stomach turned. The camera suddenly felt heavy around my neck, like a yoke. I took it off and handed it to her, and as she turned it on, I remembered the feeling that I had watching Ashley through my viewfinder just before the lights went out. “You know, I noticed something odd about Ashley just before the building lost power.”

“Probably her guardian angel leaving her. No reason to stay if the girl’s about to die.”

“No, that’s not it. Go to the last picture.” I leaned over Mrs. Berns’ shoulder as she scrolled through the photos. The thumbnails displayed the image of a lean young blonde in perfect health, a crown glittering on her thick hair. “That one.”

Mrs. Berns selected the last photo in the lineup and enlarged it as much as the small camera screen would allow. “It’s of the back of her head.”

“I know.”

“What could possibly be odd about the back of someone’s head?”

I shook my head, frustrated. “I’m not sure. I didn’t quite have it when I took the shot. It was more of a sensation than a formed thought, and then the building went dark and I lost it in the commotion. Maybe if I upload the photo to my computer and enlarge it.”

“Maybe, but it’ll have to wait. We need to go.”

“Where?”

“To the scene of the crime, Mira! You’ve gotta cover it for the paper. People’ll be dying to know what happened.” She laughed dryly at her word choice. “So turn that frown upside down, and let’s hit it.”

“No.”

“You can’t just sit here and mope. If there’s as many people around as you said, no one can pin this one on you. She probably just choked on some flying butter, and you’ll feel better once you find out it was some freak accident.”

It would be nice to know she wasn’t murdered, which I was ashamed to say was my first thought. “You know I swore no more murder investigations the same time I gave up drinking,” I said, starting to cave.

“We’re not investigating. You’ll be doing the job you were sent to the fair to do: write articles about Battle Lake.”

“I don’t know …”

“I saw some deep fried Nut Goodies on a stick on my way over here,” she coaxed.

I sat up straight. “You didn’t.”

“I did. Let’s go. I’ll buy you one.”

I sighed. I hated being cheap, but not enough to do anything about it. “Fine. But you’re going to tell me all about this redecorating Jed’s done at my house. And we’re not doing any investigating.”

“I’m sure we won’t need to.”

And with those optimistic words, we stepped out of the Airstream and put our feet onto the most dangerous path the two of us would ever walk. We wouldn’t come out of it together.

BOOK: September Fair
5.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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