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 (9 page)

BOOK: September Fair
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I snuck out early
the next morning to avoid Mrs. Berns’ and Kennie’s questions about my night with Johnny. If I wasn’t going to answer them for myself, I certainly wasn’t going to answer them for those two. I headed toward the Agriculture Horticulture building south of the campground for a scheduled interview with a Battle Lakean. A person could walk from one end of the State Fair to another in less than half an hour, quicker if the place was just waking up, like now. The farmers and 4-H kids with animals at the fair were out and about, but otherwise, people slept on in their trailers and tents.

The air smelled fresh with a crisp hint of the fall to come. The temperature was supposed to hit the lower eighties by noon, which would cook that leafy smell from the air soon enough. I zipped up my cotton jacket and swung into the Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall for tea and pancakes on my way. The sound of clinking plates under an aroma of fresh-brewed coffee was welcoming, and I entered the screened-in area glad for company but not wanting to talk to anyone. I listened to farmers in a friendly game of one-upmanship, trying to out-story each other. An old guy in a red plaid shirt had been coming to the State Fair for longer than anyone here—over forty years—so he swept that round, but his friend in the jean jacket had grown the largest pumpkin in fair history three summers ago. He’d snagged a grand prize ribbon and bragging rights for eternity. There was much laughing, hearty slaps on the back, and the dark coffee kept flowing.

By the time I left it was nine a.m., and I was feeling almost normal. I wanted to fall in love with Johnny, but it just wasn’t in my cards. Better to avoid it all together than suffer the inevitable pain. I had more important things to focus on anyhow, most notably doing my job for the newspaper and helping Mrs. Pederson find out what had happened to her daughter, though that was turning into a bunch of dead ends.

Before then, I had a wider obligation to the
Battle Lake Recall
. I needed to cover the launch party of Henry Sunder, a Battle Lake legend whose third book was being released today in the building, as the regulars called it. It was a bit of an odd location, as all his books were on hunting and trapping, but Henry was a peculiar man. A loner who resided in the woods south of town, he lived off the grid. He was known around town as a hermit until about five years ago, when he discovered the Internet and iUniverse while visiting the library. Since then, he wrote books espousing his life philosophies, including the need to live off the land and generally keep your nose clean. He’d arranged for iUniverse to publish his tomes on demand, and sold them to people all over the world by advertising on a modest website, www.earthwarriorbooks.com.

This venture brought him in the library regularly to use the computers, which is how I knew him. About three years ago, he’d met a woman online, a fan of his books, and they’d gotten married. She had produced fraternal twins from the union: a boy named Hunter and a girl named Gatherer. They called her Gathy. Henry was a nice enough guy if you overlooked a few peculiarities. Specifically, he didn’t brush his teeth because he thought fluoride was poisonous, he sewed all his own clothes by hand and so always looked like he was going to a casting call for a Neanderthal movie, and although he washed and brushed his hair, he’d never cut it in his adult life. It hung halfway down his back, ending as a buttocks curtain. Years ago the hairs must have given up any idea of working as a unit, and the ends split every which way.

The book he was releasing today was called,
Entrails, Ears, and Bones, Oh My! How to Use the Whole Animal.
He must have a friend in high places at the State Fair because when I entered the Ag-Hort building, I found him dead center in the round floor plan, right next to the Information booth. He was surrounded by his books and wore a peaceful smile.

“Hey, Henry. How’s business?”

He stood to greet me. “Mira! Thanks for coming. I just got here myself.”

“Well then, welcome to the fair. I’ve been here since Thursday. It’s been quite a wild ride.”

His face sobered. “Terrible thing about that Pederson girl. They know what happened?”

“Poisoning, they think.”

“How’d she get her hands on poison?”

I shrugged, laying my hands out. “Someone probably slipped it to her, but no one knows how. They can’t even be sure what kind of poison it was until the toxicology reports are complete, and that could take weeks.”

“I feel so bad for the parents. If anything ever happened to Hunter and Gathy …” he shook his head. “Lisa’s home with the kids. They’re helping me to put together a care package for the Pedersons. A community’s got to come together when tragedy strikes.”

I tipped my head, wondering what would be in a Sunder care package. A soft purse made from the skin of a bear’s nose? Water bottles crafted from dried pig bladders? It didn’t matter. It was the thought that counted, and Henry was a good person. I interviewed him for over a half an hour, asking about the focus of the latest book and what he was planning next. I wrote the answers on paper with a pencil, even though I had the laptop slung over my shoulder.

At the end of the question and answer session, I slapped my notebook shut. “Thanks, Henry. That’ll make for a good article.” People were starting to crowd into the building and eye Henry with interest. “Want me to bring you some food around lunchtime?”

He held up a bag of dried meat with red flecks in it. “Brown-bagging it.”

“OK. See you around.”

He waved to me before commencing to sign copies of his books for a gaggle of admirers in animal skin vests and headbands. Some people might say he had a cult following, with the emphasis on “cult,” but everyone gets to choose their own spot in the world.

I found a wooden bench in a quiet spot in the round building, which was by now swarming with folks crowding in to check out the stalls full of Minnesota-grown apples and the Home and Garden exhibit. I could smell the black earth and growing things of the exhibit from here, about twenty backyard displays featuring exotic and native plants and flowers pruned and coaxed in every direction possible. Made me miss my garden, which is where I had spent a good chunk of the summer, tending my vegetables and generally communing with the dirt. Yanking out the computer, I fired it up, preparing to organize and e-mail the article on Henry. I almost hoped that the wireless wouldn’t work. No such luck.

In a classic work-avoidance move, I checked my e-mail before typing the article. I had one message from Jed, my house-sitter, two from the Battle Lake library, and one from … my heart started pounding: “[email protected].” We had never emailed before. Was this advance warning of a restraining order? A request to please forget I knew him? My fingers were suddenly trembly, and I decided to read the e-mails in the order I’d received them. Johnny hadn’t emailed me until five o’clock this morning, so he’d be last.

I clicked on Jed’s message, and like him, it was short, sweet, and vaguely troubling:

Mir, the house is fine. Tiger Pop sure likes the catnip, doesn’t he? Luna says “hi.” Don’t ask Mrs. Berns about the bathroom wall.

Love, His Jedness

The first message from the library was written by Curtis Poling, whom I was surprised to see knew how to e-mail. He must be at least ninety years old and came across as an old-fashioned guy, but I should know better than to judge a book by its cover, especially when it came to Battle Lake’s elderly.

You call this work? I sit at a desk and talk to people about books all day. You might want to worry about me taking your job for good, except it’s cutting into my fishing time. There’s a box of books came in the mail for you. We’ll leave them until you get back.

Curtis Poling

When I opened the second library e-mail, I saw it was also from Curtis, written a day after the first:

Everything’s still good. Those of us from the Senior Sunset who are mobile are taking turns. We’ve extended the hours, and some of the ladies took it upon themselves to dust every book and wash every leaf on every plant. You could read by the reflection of clean surfaces here, I swear.

You remember Janice Applet from the Sunset? Turns out she used to be a grant writer. Said she’s coming out of retirement to see what she can find for the library. I had to kick her off this computer to e-mail you. Oh, and I’m donating my collection of fly-fishing books to the library. First editions, good as new.

We’re having the time of our lives. Don’t hurry back.

Curtis Poling

The Japanese had it right. Respect the elderly, for they are amazing. Feeling better since finding out my home, animals, and primary job were in order, I double-clicked on Johnny’s e-mail, immediately had second thoughts, and crammed my eyes shut before I could read the short message. I’m normally a “rip-the-band-aid-off-quick” sort of gal, but I guess I didn’t want to find out Johnny had once and for all realized what a loser I am. Sigh. Enough. Get it over with. I opened one eye, and then the other:

I’m sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have rushed things like that. It was good to see you.

Johnny

The hammering in my ears receded. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t being filmed for some prank show, but only saw families in the Ag-Hort eating apples, sniffing flowers, and giving Henry a wide berth. A little smile tugged at my mouth.

Johnny was sticking with me.

I didn’t want to think what that meant, so I began typing my coverage of Henry’s book release:

Local Author Takes His Wares to the State Fair

Battle Lake native Henry Sunder launched his latest nonfiction book on the fourth day of the Minnesota State Fair. The book,
Entrails, Ears, and Bones, Oh My! How to Use the Whole Animal,
is the third installment in the
Don’t Get Left Behind
series. The first two,
Tracking for Dummies
and
Putting Meat By: How to Make One Day’s Hunt Last through the Winter
, sold so well that Sunder was invited to the State Fair to celebrate the publication of the third.

Sunder is a Minnesota treasure who loves and respects the land he’s grown up on. He can track a deer for miles over dry ground, catch fish with his hands, and make camp in a snowstorm. He’s a throwback to the pioneer days, when people didn’t own what they didn’t need. When asked why he prefers his frontier lifestyle, Sunder said, “Because anything else ain’t living.”

His launch party was well attended. Sunder plans to use the money he makes off of his most recent book to buy replacement parts for his windmill and a new crossbow for his wife. He said he also promised his children, Hunter and Gathy, a new set of picture books. He’s currently at work writing his fourth nonfiction book, tentatively titled,
Puff It, Stuff It, or Make a Muff of It: 101 Uses for Prairie Grass.

I was satisfied with the article, which I sent immediately. I wasn’t normally a fan of hunters, having found them to be a monosyllabic, selfish bunch in general, but I could admire a person who lived in rhythm with his world. I punched the “send” button and while I was online, began to search for information on Milkfed Mary, 1977, the year Janice had said she’d won the first runner-up title.

The Midwest Milk Organization kept a pretty schnazzy website and had a file for each of the Milkfed Mary pageants. Unfortunately, the files consisted of a brief press release and were entirely focused on the queen. Her runners-up didn’t get so much as a mention. Shelby Spoczkowski had been the winner in 1977, and the only two things I could definitively say about her after viewing the article were that she didn’t like facial hair—despite a head full of curly dark tresses, she was completely eyebrow-free—and mozzarella cheese was her favorite dairy product.

I was just about to e-mail myself a copy of the 1977 Milkfed Mary press release for later perusal when the cell phone Ron had forced on me jangled in my purse. A passing mother held her children tighter at the sound of Barry White’s voice, and I made a mental note to change the sex-drenched ring tone. “Hello?”

“James. Ron Sims. You interviewed Henry.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“Were you just sitting by your computer waiting for the article to land on your lap?”

“Yes. I got the recipe article yesterday and realized you were sending me one a day to make it look like you were actually working.”

“You’re a putz.”

He didn’t respond. “What else did you uncover on Ashley Pederson?”

BOOK: September Fair
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