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 (7 page)

BOOK: September Fair
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The door to the booth was padlocked, and a shadow walking toward me from Dairy Goodness forced me to drop the curtain.
Nothing to see back here, folks.
I was about to scurry back out the way I came when a meaty hand clamped down on my shoulder, turning my mouth as dry as dirt.

“You’re in big trouble, miss.”

Why did police chiefs
always have meaty hands? I’d be more inclined to cooperate with them if their mitts were regularly proportioned. “I’m sorry, officer. I thought my partner went back here.”

He checked my press pass, which clearly identified me as a reporter for the
Battle Lake Recall
, and then raised his eyebrows to indicate I had one chance to revise my story for plausibility.

“Not my partner, exactly. Chaz Linder, with the
Pioneer Press
? He’s the one who asked you the embezzlement question.”

“I know.” This close, he smelled like Old Spice. The gray of his beetling eyebrows intensified his brown eyes, eyes that had seen lots of liars in their time.

“I wanted to ask him about the embezzlement because today was the first I’d heard of it, and I thought I saw him come back here. Is there anything you can tell me about that case?” To be a good liar, you have to have an innate sense of when you’ve gone too far. As the chief cocked his head, I realized I had passed that point when I first opened my mouth, and I waited to see what the consequences would be.

He sighed, brushing aside my question about embezzling and getting to the heart of the matter. “I’m sorry for the loss your town must be feeling, but you’re not going to help by getting in our way. The police department knows what it’s doing. Let us find out who killed Ms. Pederson, and I promise we’ll contact your paper when we know anything for sure. Deal?”

He could have made life difficult for me, but instead was letting me off the hook. Strangely, his kindness made my eyes go blurry with unshed tears. It must be the stress of the last twenty-four hours. I pretended to brush hair from my face to cover the fact that I was wiping my eyes. “Sure. Thanks. Can I go?”

He nodded and pointed toward the front door. I tromped outside, past the memorial of flowers and stuffed toys, past at least three television crews sharing the news of the tragic “Princess Poisoning” (Ashley would not be happy with the demotion, but alliteration is its own force), and across the street to the Cattle Barn to check out the dormitories. I owed Ron a story, and I still didn’t have much. I was hoping to flesh it out by interviewing Lana.

Inside the barn, the cows looked as happy as ever. Maybe “unconcerned” was a better word. Or “regal.” Was I getting obsessed with cows now? I usually saved that type of focus for Chief Wenonga, the hot, twenty-three-foot fiberglass statue I’d left behind in Battle Lake. That man, well, that fake giant with a six-pack as tall and wide as a refrigerator, was a hottie. He’d kept me mental company since I’d arrived in Battle Lake. Strong and silent, just like I liked ’em. Probably, someone needed to stage an intervention for me.

But back to the cows. They lowed and ate and pooped, and I walked past them on my way to the dormitory to see if the remaining princesses were around. When I spotted the police officers at the base of the dorm stairs, however, my plan and I did an about face. One run-in with an officer a day was my quota. I wasn’t ready to return to the stinky steambath of the trailer to write my article, so I decided to stroll the fair to organize my thoughts.

My favorite place so far was the International Bazaar, a huge tented area that was laid out like a world market. Food booths rimmed the outside of the Bazaar, and inside tiny shops were arranged in rows, separated by narrow aisles with musicians sprinkled here and there. I could hear easy Jamaican reggae played live near the hot sauce booth and walk ten feet to sample spicy olives from Greece while listening to dizzying Egyptian drumbeats coming from the booth one over with the mummy out front. The air was redolent with curries, vinegars, and the smell of sweet rice, and people bargained and hollered for my dollars and rearranged their shiny silks and cheap Austrian crystal jewelry to catch my attention when I strode by. It was anonymous chaos, and I loved it.

By nature, I am a bulimic shopper. I like to buy stuff on impulse, confident that it will fill that hole in my life. Within twenty-four hours, however, I realize I’ve wasted my money, and so I return whatever bauble had grabbed my attention. It was a bad habit, one I was going to break as soon as I bought the diamond-shaped prism throwing sunny rainbows across the walkway. Twenty dollars later, a prism in my pocket and a vegetarian gyro in my hand, I ambled through the wall of fair smells and sounds back to the Silver Suppository, which is what I had affectionately nicknamed the Airstream. Mrs. Berns and Kennie were both gone, and I took my laptop out on the front steps to write the article. At least there would be a breeze.

Carlotta’s face was in my mind the entire time I wrote.

battle lake loses beloved ambassador

Ashley Kirsten Pederson, 18 years old and recent Battle Lake High School graduate, died on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair. Ms. Pederson was beginning her duties as Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy when the tragedy occurred, posing for the traditional butter-sculpting of her likeness. Police believe she was poisoned, and that she unknowingly ingested the poison shortly before entering the butter-carving booth. They don’t yet have a suspect.

Kate Lewis, president of the Minnesota State Fair Corporation, broke the news at a press conference the day following Ashley’s death. According to St. Paul Police Chief William Kramer, they’re “considering all avenues open.” The chief said that he believed Ms. Pederson’s murder was an isolated incident and that none of the other contestants are in danger. He sent his condolences to the Pederson family and the town of Battle Lake.

Ms. Pederson was enrolled at Alexandria Technical College, where she planned to attend the Sales and Marketing program in the fall. She is survived by both parents, Carlotta and Gary Pederson, as well as her paternal grandparents, Ivy and Steggard Pederson. Funeral arrangements are pending.

I searched for wireless networks, found a free one, and sent the article hurtling through cyberspace to Ron’s desk. As it flew, I thought,
that’s not enough. I haven’t done enough for Carlotta.

The State Fair opens
its front gates to the public at six a.m. every morning, but most of the buildings inside don’t follow suit until eight o’clock or so. The Dairy building’s normal hours were nine a.m. to nine p.m., but it had not been officially reopened since Ashley’s murder. I hadn’t expected the situation to be any different this morning and so was not surprised when I found the building still cordoned off. The security detail out front had all the warmth of palace guards of London, standing stiffly with an angry set to their jaw. It wasn’t entirely their fault. The crowd of well-wishers and memorial stockers had grown impossibly larger, and a wall of teddy bears threatened to collapse on the guards. Three young women were lighting a white candle, which they placed next to a handwritten sign that read, “We lost you too soon. Let the angels guide you.” The candle was outshone a million times by the sun, already promising heat even though it was just pinking the horizon. Today would be a scorcher.

I turned toward the Cattle Barns, considering the oddness of humans. No way had all these people met Ashley, and if they had, by all accounts, they wouldn’t like her nearly as much as they thought they did. But she represented something to them, maybe lost youth or a rip in the bonds of community that they wanted to repair with the flowers and their tears. Whatever it was, I was grateful for the appearance of it, at least for the surviving Pedersons’ sake.

Inside the Cattle Barn, my heart gave a little skip as I saw the door to the dormitory was unguarded. I hurried toward it just as Janice Opatz came down, followed by a compact, well-dressed man who looked closer in age to me than to her. I tried to disappear, but too late. Janice had caught sight of me.

“Mira.” She covered the ten feet between us as her companion stayed back to speak with the police officer who had followed them down the stairs.

“Hi, Janice. Are the girls up there?”

She looked behind her absentmindedly. The movement of her hair released her signature scent, a combination of disinfectant soap and Aqua Net. “No. They’re not staying on the grounds. They’ll return soon, we hope. What can I do for you?”

“Um, nothing.” The fib came quickly. “I’m here to cover some Battle Lake dairy farmers for the paper.”

“I see. Where are their stalls?” She stared at me archly, but I wasn’t biting.

“Over there,” I said, indicating the entire barn. “Can I ask you something?” When she didn’t respond, I continued, scratching an itch that I’d had since I’d first laid eyes on her. “Did you used to be a Milkfed Mary?”

Her hands went immediately to her hair, which she fluffed despite its resistance to movement. It was a perfect shell of black. “First runner-up, 1977.”

“How long have you been a chaperone?”

“Three years after I wo— …” She caught herself and continued. “Three years after I ran. I’ve been the chaperone since then.”

I made a mental note to research the pageant of 1977. Janice had just about said she’d won, which was not nearly the same as being first runner-up. “And as chaperone, you were present the whole time Ashley was in the booth?”

“Of course.”

“And you didn’t see anything unusual?”

“I already answered that question for the police. Surely you were there, too?”

“Yes,” I said, distracted by an agitated scuffle between a cow and her milker. “Right up front, taking pictures. I snapped something peculiar about the back of Ashley’s head, but I keep forgetting to enlarge the photo so I can figure out what it was. Say, I don’t suppose you know where I could find the sculptor, do you? Glenda Haines?”

“I don’t suppose I do.” She glanced over her shoulder. I followed her gaze. Her companion and the police officer had finished their conversation and were staring impatiently at us. “If you’ll excuse me.”

I watched her and the guy leave, considered asking the police officer now stationed at the base of the stairs where I could find the sculptor, and thought better of it. I needed to stay under the radar. Instead, I exited the barn and walked the fair, following a route I had mapped out the first day, one that took me past everything but the Haunted House. I walked, and I listened, and I smelled the air thick with the odors of cinnamon, fresh-spun cotton candy, and roasted pork chops. I spent all of the morning and the early part of the afternoon exploring the grounds. Walking jugglers captivated me for a short while, as did a puppet show staged by a local theater troupe. When the crying kids and irritable parents took all the pleasure from the show, I moved on. I scoured the far reaches of the fair, strolled through the Midway, and generally hit everything but the creepy games area.

It took me until nearly three o’clock in the afternoon before I’d been to all the corners of the fair. Now was as good a time as any to research the special State Fair edition of my “Battle Lake Bites” column. Ron’s wife had gratefully handed the food column off to me when I had started at the
Recall
last spring. I’d changed its name but otherwise kept the mission: find food representative of Battle Lake specifically, and Minnesota in general. What better place to do that than the State Fair? And the research would help to distract me from the thought of seeing Johnny’s band tonight, the only spot of true excitement I’d experienced since Ashley’s death.

Kennie’s news when she’d arrived, that Johnny’s band was scheduled to play at the Leinie Lodge Bandshell tonight, had turned out to be true. The bandshell was a roomy stage by the Space Tower. I’d checked out a great rockabilly band there last night, eager to scope out Johnny’s locale. The setting drew big crowds, and I was sure this would be an exciting night for Johnny.

I’d seen his band play once or twice around Battle Lake, before I knew who he was. The Thumbs’ music was an original mix of folk and rock with a bluesy edge. Johnny had started the group with three high school buddies. When they graduated and went their separate ways to college, they’d jam in the summer and play at parties, but they didn’t get any more organized than that until three of the members settled in and around Battle Lake to start their grown-up lives. Johnny had been the wild card, intending to return to Madison to begin his graduate program in horticulture this fall, but a convergence of events had kept him in Battle Lake. Since he was taking a year off, he was focusing his extra time on the band. Apparently, it was paying off.

I mosied over to the bandshell for one last peek before heading to the food stalls. The stage was empty, but people were sitting around on the grounds, picnicking and generally taking a rest from the fair. A lot of families had blankets, but most couples were sitting on the ground. I was about to make my way to the blooming onion booth when a group of three young blondes wearing tank tops snagged my attention. They were up close to the stage so I had to crane my neck to check them out, but two of them looked like Christine and Brittany, the flower-placing team I had met outside the Dairy building the day of Ashley’s death. I didn’t recognize the third.

I walked over, at first keeping to the perimeter so as not to draw attention to myself. When I was within fifty feet, I verified that they were the two runners-up. Brittany wore her hair in a jaunty ponytail, and Christine had hers fully feathered in a retro-Farrah flip. They both looked shiny and full of life, as did their companion. I would have loved to have been able to listen in to what they were talking about, but there was no way to slip in close enough without them noticing me. I settled for the direct route and clomped on over.

“Hi, remember me?”

Brittany shaded her face against the mid-afternoon sun and looked up. “Sure, you’re that girl from Battle Lake,” she warbled. “From the newspaper. Mira, right?”

“Right. Mind if I join you?”

“Not if you buy us a beer.”

I scrutinized Christine to see if she was joking. Her blue eyes were dead serious. “How old are you guys?”

“I’m twenty-two,” Christine said. “Brittany is twenty-one. Megan here is twenty-one, too.”

I had an ethical dilemma for two whole seconds, which is how long it took me to realize murder always trumps underage beer buzz, and I’m pretty sure the latter is what I was dealing with or they would have bought beers on their own. Besides, as Midwest farm girls, these three could have drank me under the table if I was still in that habit. “Be right back. What kind do you want?”

“Lite,” they all sang in unison.

I returned with three frothy plastic cups. The beer smelled bitter and wonderful on this steamy day, and I was glad to hand off the temptation. “You a Milkfed Mary, too, Megan?”

“Yup. I came in last.” She said this matter-of-factly, and I liked her for that.

“I ran into Janice. She said you guys aren’t staying at the dorms right now. Where’re you at?”

Christine wiped off her beer mustache. “The fair officials put us up at a Days Inn down the road. They assured us we’re moving back to the dorms Monday and getting back on track with our regular duties on Tuesday, though.”

“What are those duties exactly?”

Brittany shuddered. “The big one is sitting in that sick booth with a bunch of butter. Like, how gross is that going to be? Janice says the show has to go on, though.”

“And they’re using the same refrigerated booth Ashley died in?” I couldn’t believe that the authorities would allow that before they’d closed the case.

“Yeah.”

Christine chimed in. “Lana Sorensen’s first. She was the first runner-up, but now she’s the queen. She gets her butter head carved after some bogus mourning ceremony where the crown is officially passed over to her on Tuesday.”

Megan elbowed her. “I told you not to say it like that. Besides, you’re next. Right after Lana.”

Lana, the Milkfed Mary from whom Ashley had stolen something, according to these guys. “I am amazed they won’t let you skip the butter-carving part of the pageant. It does seem a little gruesome.”

“You don’t know gruesome,” Christine said, her tongue loosening up from the beer. “If you had to see the type of stuff we had to put up with—taping our boobs, putting hemorrhoid cream under our eyes so they don’t look puffy, starving ourselves to fit into those stupid gowns. These beauty pageants are a tough business, even if this one is better than most. Of course, the sponsors are down our throats all the time to make sure we keep up appearances.” She chugged her beer for effect. “It’s like we’re little kids being babysat. Today is the first time any of us have been on our own since Ashley died, and we had to sneak out to do it.”

Megan added her two cents. “Ya, Janice keeps a tight watch. I’m a light sleeper, and sometimes I wake up and she’s just standing next to one of our beds.”

The other two girls shivered. They’d heard this story before. “What’s she doing?” I asked.

“I dunno. I sat up once to ask her, and she shushed me back to sleep. I think she’s checking in on us. She takes her job real seriously.”

I already knew that. “Why do you put up with this pageant?”

Brittany shrugged. “Different reasons. Some of us have been on the pageant circuit our whole lives and we’re just used to it. Some do it for the money. The Milkfed Mary winner gets a full scholarship to college and $10,000. That can come in pretty handy. I think Ashley did it for the fame.”

“I guess she got that,” Christine said darkly.

I looked up at the sun dropping closer to the horizon. “You guys have curfew?”

“Not if they don’t know we’re gone. We’re supposed to be on lockdown.”

“What’re the three of you doing tonight?”

“You’re looking at it,” Christine said. “There’s a rockin’ band here in a few hours. We’re scoping out the cherry spots. You wouldn’t believe how hot the lead singer is. Did you see the posters? His name is Johnny something.”

“Leeson.”

“That’s right. ‘Mrs. Christine Leeson.’ How does that sound?”

They giggled, and I fought a flame of jealousy. Johnny had always been the pied piper when it came to the ladies. They loved that effortless smile, his easygoing personality, that wavy hair, and those strong hands. He had never paid much attention, and I didn’t know what business of mine it was anyhow. I’d made a clear point of telling him we were just friends. Gawd, it’s bad enough when adults play games with each other, and here I was doing it with myself. “Have fun. Maybe I’ll see you all later.” They waved happily at me, all taut and blonde and smiling. I tromped away.

I’d surveyed most of the food booths since I’d arrived but only eaten at the tame ones—Salem Lutheran Church for breakfast, Chinese food or tofu-on-a-stick for lunch, gyros or a bucket of salty, fresh-cut French fries for supper. If I was going to find food representative of Battle Lake, however, it needed to be a little bit quirky, a tad unexpected, and flirting with inedible. I strolled past the deep-fried Twinkies and the pudgy pies, the latter appearing to be cherry pie filling deep fried in a white bread pocket. I stopped at the Low-Carb German Meat Rolls and waited my turn in line.

BOOK: September Fair
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