The Man in the Mud Room

Part 1, January 2015

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

Callum Lange’s stride didn’t vary as he climbed the last few feet toward his property. It used to take him 40 minutes to make the walk from the highway up to the gate, but now he could do it easily in 20. Well usually in 20, but today he was carrying a pack with his groceries in it, as well as his laptop, his mail, and a couple of tomes by Jared Diamond he’d picked up at the library, so maybe he’d been slower.

He pulled his cell phone out of the waist pocket of his purple fleece jacket to double check his time and saw that he’d missed a call. He stopped, wondering who had thought to call him, then edged forward slowly as he peered down at the number. It was a 360 area code, so local, but he didn’t recognize the number. He grunted surprise low in his chest.

At the gate to his property he stopped again, feeling the chill of the October air on the tip of his nose, and debated calling the number back while he still had cell phone reception. He thought about the pint of s’mores-flavored ice cream in his backpack and the letter from his ex-partner on the job in NYC, which he was curious to read. He also thought about the game of Pirateer in his yurt that he was playing with Suleka and the fact that he was only 45 minutes shy of their self-imposed time limit to make a move. He peered at his cell phone again, wondering if it was Suleka who had called him, but her number ended in 24, not 77. Lange didn’t have any of his contacts stored in his smart phone because he figured it would help keep his brain cells limber to have them all memorized.

He slipped the phone back into his pocket, having decided the call could wait, and scissored his legs over the 15-foot-long gate to his property. Walking down the gently curving, gently undulating, quarter-mile-long dirt road that led into the flattest section of his 80 acres, Lange listened to the songbirds around him as he thought about the last time he and his partner, Jimmy Vonortas, had seen each other.

It was Lange’s final day of work for NYPD and he was cleaning out his desk when Jimmy, who’d been temporarily suspended for shooting a suspect who was fleeing the scene, burst into the squad room.

“You’re leaving?” asked his Greek-American partner, both hands out at his sides in a how-could-this-be gesture.

“I told you I was retiring,” Lange answered.

“Yes, but you’re leaving?!” Vonortas insisted, coming around the desk despite himself to help throw Lange’s personal items into a box.

Lange shrugged. “I’m flying out to Washington tomorrow, yes.”

“How can you? How can you leave New York?”

They’d had this discussion many times and Callum Lange was tired of hearing about how he could buy ice cream at 2 in the morning in Manhattan, a concept that didn’t interest him in the least. But Jimmy Vonortas was about 20 years Lange’s junior and even though they’d only been partners just over a year, what they’d gone through together with the shooting had bonded the young man to him. “If you only knew where I was going,” Lange sighed.

Jimmy threw his athletic body down into a hardback chair next to the desk and slid forward so his torso was at an angle to the seat. “Yeah, I know, I know, the Magic Skagit!” he growled. “You don’t even know why it’s called that.”

The older detective sucked on his dentures a moment before replying. “Nobody does,” he said softly. “That’s what makes it magic.

That had been a year and four months ago. Since then he and Vonortas had e-mailed a few times, mostly about the investigation, but it was always stilted, impersonal. A handwritten letter though—well, that had the potential to be different. Lange looked down, suddenly aware that his right hand had drifted up to the spot by his left shoulder; even through the fleece he could feel the hard, wrinkled skin of the scar.

A strong, high-pitched, fluty call to his right took his mind out of New York City and into the forest around him. He stopped, mid-stride, and ran his eyes over the trees alongside the road. There he was, sitting on the branch of a Doug fir; a bright yellow-breasted, red-headed Western tanager. Lange felt a surge of regret that he didn’t have a pair of binoculars with him to get a closer look at this beautiful little bird. What he needed was a small, high-quality pair that would live in his pocket for just this kind of occasion. The regret quickly dissipated, however, with his enjoyment of the bird’s throaty, repetitive chirp ch-chirp ch-chirp ch-chirp.

Lange stood for a few verses, then took off down the road again, buoyed by his constant amazement that he was lucky enough to live in such a place. In fact, he was so pumped he almost missed the footprints in the wet mud.

But he didn’t. As soon as his eyes caught them, he stopped and bent forward, glad that this one section of his road almost never dried out, shaded as it was by tall trees on both sides. Curiously the footprints only went in one direction, toward him, suggesting that whoever made them had left by this road but not come in this way. Unless they’d just skirted the wet ground on the way in. Didn’t make a lot of sense for them not to skirt it again on the way out, Lange thought. But then he’d met a lot of people whose actions didn’t make sense.

He crouched down and stared at the telltale tracks in the dark, shiny, muddy circle splayed across the center of his road. He tipped his head to the right, then the left, and narrowed his eyes. There were three different footprints in the damp dirt, each one sufficiently well defined that he was pretty sure he could determine the brand and size of the shoes that made them. Maybe even the idiosyncratic walking patterns of the person wearing them. He huffed to himself; in NYC he could do that; or even better, have someone do it for him. Out here, he’d have to look up shoe soles on the Internet and keep searching until he found a match and since he had just gone to the local library to do what he wanted online, he wasn’t about to go back.

He spread the fingers of his right hand apart and used the distance between his thumb and his pinkie to guesstimate the length of each print. Two were longer than his spread hand, considerably longer, and when he held his hand against the length of his own foot, he found the same to be true. The third footprint was smaller. So maybe two guys and a woman, Lange thought to himself. Or two adult males and a kid? None of the footprints had a deep tread pattern, so Lange guessed they were made by sneakers, not hiking boots.

He stood up and reflected a moment. Most likely it was teenagers, using his place to drink. Or smoke. Or both. He edged around the wet ground, heading for his yurt, then changed his mind. He pulled his smart phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick photo of the prints. Just in case. Then he walked on.

He was still conscious of the timeline on his move in Pirateer, plus he wanted to see if there was further evidence of this visit his property had been paid. The one thing he really hoped was that if they’d come to party, they’d taken home the empties. The thought of litter set his teeth on edge.

At the end of the road, the land opened up to a wide, rugged plateau with views out over the valley below. Lange’s yurt was directly ahead, with the door facing him and one half of its circle nestled up against the trees. The other half, which held the only window in the entire canvas wall, faced out toward the rest of the ledge and the view. Nothing looked disturbed, as far as he could tell from the outside. He veered to the right and eyeballed a simple pole building he’d erected late in the summer to house his John Deere tractor and lawn mower, as well as sundry other items he was accumulating for his future log cabin. His searched the ground in front of the building for signs of possible trespass, but it looked undisturbed; his tractor, chainsaw, and tools inside the structure under the blue metal roof were untouched.

Lange strode forward, his lithe, six-foot-one frame moving comfortably, easily, across the uneven terrain as his Red Wings scrunched through the woody ground cover. He slowed when he reached his log pile and walked a lazy rectangle around the perimeter, looking for empty beer cans. But there were none. Satisfied but still curious about what had brought uninvited visitors to his property, he began the journey over to his yurt.

Dusk began to descend on his mountain hollow and as Lange tried to rub the cold away from the end of his nose, he pictured a cheery fire in his woodstove. He walked past the steps leading up to the door of his yurt and over to his long, tidy stacks of firewood. He contemplated just grabbing an armload, but when he thought about how toasty he could get in his yurt with the fire going, he decided to get enough for the entire evening. He walked around the wheelbarrow, which was lying upside down on the ground at the end of the stacks, and bent forward to grab the handles so he could flip it right side up.

That’s when he noticed the hole in the rows of firewood at the back of his stacks. Dammit, he thought, somebody is getting at my wood! Just last week he’d dumped a bucket load of cut and split alder out of his tractor onto the ground over here, thinking he’d add it to the stacks, but when he came back to it a couple of days later, the pile looked smaller. Except dumped like that and covered with a tarp, he couldn’t be sure. Now a U-shaped hole under the sheet metal cover on his furthest, driest stack made him sure.

What he didn’t understand was, why his firewood, so far up the mountain? And why on foot?

Part 2, February 2015

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

Lange filled the wheelbarrow with pinkish-yellow wedges of Douglas fir. He would enjoy the snapping sounds it made as it burned. Might even take his mind off the fact that someone had been on his property, pilfering his firewood, he grumbled in his mind.

He lifted the handles and was halfway to his yurt when he was interrupted by the cell phone jangling in his pocket. It so startled him, lost in thought as he was and not knowing that he had cell phone reception here on his property, that he dropped the wheelbarrow and narrowly missed having it land on his foot.

“What!” he barked into the phone.

“Am I bothering you?” a female voice barked back at him.

“No, but …”

“So that’s how you always answer the phone?”

“What are you …” Lange stuttered, then regained his composure. “Who is this?”

“It’s Suleka!”

“It doesn’t sound like Suleka.”

“It doesn’t? How should I sound then?”

“Okay, maybe it does now,” conceded Lange. “You were distorted before.”

“I’m always distorted but that’s beside the point.”

“Very funny,” remarked Lange, without sounding like it was funny at all. Then he remembered something. “Did you call earlier?”

“No.” Suleka paused, but when Lange didn’t fill the void, she went on. “Did you get Detective Deller’s message?”

“Frankie left me a message?”

“Yes.”

“Well then no. But you know I don’t usually get cell phone reception up here.  The fact that you’re getting through now is kind of an anomaly.”

“Is that why you bit my head off when you answered? You were so blown away that you got cell service?”

“No, I was blown away that I didn’t break my foot by dropping a load of firewood on it when my phone rang!”

“Are you hurt?”

“Well, no …”

“You want me to call back so you can try again? Give you a reason to whine?”

“Now you are bothering me,” Lange complained, and just as quickly changed the subject. “Say, do you know anything about someone stealing my firewood?”

“Nooooo!” Suleka dragged the word out, filling it with concern, and Lange could picture her brown eyes softening and her thick, dark brows coming together the way they did when she heard something that disturbed her. “Somebody stole your firewood? How did they get past your gate?”

“They walked. Which limited how much they could steal …” He heard a small gasp from her end. “What?”

“People have been talking about a rash of small thefts on Highway 530, which isn’t that far from you.”

“Small thefts? Like what exactly?”

“A can opener, a quart of milk, beans that were soaking in a pot on the stove …”

Lange tipped his head up, thinking about this. It was almost dark now and the motion sensor light over his door popped on as a bug flew past it.

“Callum? Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m here,” Lange replied. His mind wanted to chew over the information she’d just given him, but he knew it couldn’t until he stopped being on the phone with her. “Why did you call me?” he asked suddenly.

“Oh,” Suleka responded, remembering her mission. “Well, Detective Deller wants you to help with this missing woman case.”

“A woman’s gone missing?”

“You didn’t hear about that?”

“You know I never hear about things around here.”

“Usually, yes. But you went to the library today.”

Lange was perplexed. “What’s that got to do with anything?” Then he honed in on what interested him. “Who went missing?”

“Margery Breckenridge. Margi, is how she’s known. With a hard g. She and her husband, Sam, live over on Rockport Cascade Road. He was away for a few days and came home Sunday to find the house empty. But her car was in the driveway and her purse was on the counter in the kitchen where she always left it, so he figured she couldn’t be far. He waited and then when she didn’t show by dinnertime, he called some of the neighbors but nobody had seen her, so he waited some more. When she didn’t show up by bedtime, he got worried and called the Sheriff.”

“I’m guessing his wife doesn’t carry a cell phone?”

“Well, she does, but it was in her purse …”

“… in the kitchen,” finished Lange. He had more questions, but he knew there wasn’t any point in asking Suleka. She tended to have the bare bones of any story floating around the Upper Skagit, but not more than that. Plus the accuracy of her information depended on who gave it to her. He suddenly noticed that he was cold, the October evening having penetrated his fleece jacket, and his urge to get inside and start a fire in the woodstove grew. He pulled the cell phone away from his ear to hang up, when he remembered something. “How did you know I went to the library today?”

“Britta told me you’d been in.” Lange didn’t say anything. “She works there.”

“I know that.”

“Well, I’m never sure with you,” Suleka countered. “Some people you acknowledge and some you don’t.”

Lange looked at the phone again and hung up, having already moved on in his mind to the next thing. He slipped it back in his pocket, pulled the zipper on his jacket up under his chin to keep his neck warm in the fleece collar and lifted the wheelbarrow, pushing it through the rutted dirt and scraggly, ankle-high brush toward the door to his yurt. Now that the heating season was starting, he’d have to blade this area of ground, he thought to himself, maybe even order some loads of gravel to make this journey with the wheelbarrow easier.

He reached the two steps leading up to the little platform outside his door and set the wheelbarrow down. He leaned forward and loaded his arms with firewood, then climbed the steps to his door. He nudged the handle down with his right elbow until it let him push the door open and walked into the round, canvas space. Even with the firewood in his arms, he made a beeline for the Pirateer game.

He leaned down, freed his right arm, and moved one of his pirate ships three spaces down the trade winds and five spaces across the diagonal to take Suleka’s ship with the gold. Done! He flipped the gold coin onto the thistle decal inside his ship and set Suleka’s skull and crossbones decaled ship on the matching flag next to her harbor, so it was out of the game.

He glanced at the clock over his bed and awkwardly scribbled down the time of his move on the piece of paper next to the game. He and Suleka played on the honor system and neither of them cheated. Now she would have 24 hours from the time she saw the board again until she had to make her move. Not that she would need it. Lange was always impressed with how quickly she made her moves—as if she could see the game and was always one step ahead of him. Fortunately that was only in Pirateer. Every other game they played he had a tendency to dominate.

He crossed to the wood box and let the firewood tumble out of his arms into it, creating a series of rolling booms like thunder in the distance. He unzipped the collar of his fleece jacket a few inches and brushed the front clean of wood chips.

Then a thought occurred to him. He stopped, narrowing his eyes and gently sucking on his retainer. Stealing beans and milk and a can opener suggested someone homeless and hungry. At least, in NYC that’s who he would have been looking for. Stealing his firewood fit this profile too, especially since, as Suleka had said, the other thefts had happened not far from his property. The only thing was, he was sure there’d been more than one person at his place. So maybe it was a family, working to steal what they needed. But then why walk as far as his place for a couple of armloads of firewood?

Lange pushed his thumbs under the straps of his daypack and pulled it off his shoulders. The pack slipped down his arms. He caught it in his left hand and swung it onto the black leather footstool he had in front of its matching chair by the wood stove, thinking he’d empty the groceries out of it after he lit a fire. He’d been hoping to go up into the pass tomorrow, do a little early season deer hunting, but if Deller needed his help maybe he wouldn’t. He crouched in front of the woodstove and picked up a starter brick of compressed sawdust, made from waste wood at the local guitar manufacturing business. He ran his thumb lightly over the outline of a guitar pressed into the top of the 3-inch-thick yellow oval, then slipped it into his wood stove. He snapped apart a 4-by-4 square of cedar kindling with his fingers, leaned the pieces up against the guitar brick, and searched the hearth for a sliver of pitch wood. Once he found one, he pulled the lighter out of the pocket of his pants and flipped open the lid, intending to light the pitch wood. But then he stopped again.

What made him think they’d walked? Maybe they’d driven up to his gate, left the vehicle, and hightailed it in from there to grab what they wanted of his firewood. He made a phuhf of exasperation. Some people! A light glow was beginning to radiate across the skylight above him and he tipped his head toward it. It would be a full moon tonight.

Lange went back to the pitch wood. The resin on the fir was like gasoline the way it lit right up. He held the flame against the cedar and watched it lick around the thin sticks of deep brown until they caught. He dropped the pitch wood under the kindling and sat back on his heels. The flames grew, engulfing the cedar and making pockets of orange in the surface of the guitar brick as Lange balanced longer and larger lengths of wood on top. He wondered whether ownership of a vehicle was really in keeping with people who were homeless? And hungry? And did any of this really matter, he thought, in light of somebody going missing?

He closed the door to the firebox and stood up, watching the flames leap toward the wedges of fir on top. He heard the first loud snap of gas igniting and knew that his fire was well under way. He wanted to stand there longer, watching the lights flicker and grow, but that wouldn’t help find this missing woman. He slipped his hand inside the pocket of his jacket and let his fingers touch his cell phone. Then he made a beeline for the door to his yurt.

Part 3, March 2015

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

Lange kept a utility flashlight sitting on a shelf next to the door, which he grabbed on his way out. As soon as he’d cleared the threshold, he felt the cold of the October evening again and tugged the zipper on his fleece back up under his chin.

He trotted down the steps and turned to the right, intending to head for the gate to his property, where he knew he could get cell phone reception, but after just a few strides he remembered the spot between his firewood pile and his yurt, where he’d received the call from Suleka. Why go all the way out to the gate if he didn’t need to, he asked himself.

Lange abruptly turned to the right again and took a dozen steps toward his firewood. He switched the flashlight from his right hand to his left and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He looked for bars; nothing. He walked a few more paces; still nothing. He took his eyes off the phone and shone the flashlight over the ground to see if he could find the tracks from the wheelbarrow and stumbled on some bracken underfoot. He pitched clumsily sideways two steps, his right arm extending out reflexively as a counterbalance, and heard his cell phone chime, meaning he had a voicemail. He bounced immediately to the place where his hand had been and spied the bars of service. He ignored the two voicemails indicated on the screen and dialed Deller’s number from memory. She picked up instantly.

“Are you on your way?”

“On my way where?”

“Didn’t you get my voicemails?”

Lange paused. “I just found service on my property.”

“Meaning you didn’t listen to them, right?”

He imagined she was giving him a piercing look with her dark brown eyes and squaring off her shoulders to disinvite backtalk. “I thought it would be quicker just to call you.”

There was a pause. Deller’s tone was softer when she spoke again and Lange knew that she’d remembered he was just a helper here, not one of her deputies. “I was hoping you’d come and take a look around the Breckenridge property.” Lange didn’t say anything. “I assume you’ve heard about this?”

He hadn’t said anything because he was wondering how much he could do at this hour. “Suleka gave me the basics but … it’s dark.”

“Not inside the house it isn’t.”

“But she didn’t go missing inside the house.”

“You sure about that?”

Lange’s adrenaline spiked. “You’re thinking something happened inside the house?”

“Well I’m not….”

“Why? What did you find?”

“It’s not exactly what we found …”

“Are you there now? Can I come over?”

“I was hoping you would.” Frankie Deller’s tone was pointed and Lange ran quickly through all the possibilities why.

“Is the husband there right now?”

“Uh huh.”

“And you think he’s involved?”

“Mmmmmmmm,” murmured Deller, in a high enough pitch to indicate it was a possibility.

Lange didn’t need to know more. He was feeling the signs of the hunt and wanted to get started as soon as possible. “Can you text me the address?” he said striding once more toward the door to his yurt. Then he remembered the spotty service on his property and pulled the phone away from his ear. Damn—call failed! He rushed back to where he’d been standing and looked at his phone, but the service indicator gave him no bars. He lifted the phone high above his head and moved it around. Still nothing. He reached the other way, down toward the ground, and it rang. He thrust his right ear down to the phone, eager not to miss the call, and answered with his butt up in the air. “Yes?” he shouted, as if the level of his voice might make a difference to whether he kept the person on the line or not.

“You don’t have to yell,” said Deller. “I can hear you.”

“Well I lost you there …”

“I gathered that.”

Lange was irked that she wasn’t picking up on his sense of urgency. “And I’m in kind of an awkward position …”

“Me too!” responded Deller and Lange knew she meant with the husband being there. “I’ll text you the address, but—”

“I’ll ride my bike over.”

“If you’ll let me finish,” insisted Deller and Lange bit down on his urge to tell her to hurry up before he got a crick in his back. “Suleka’s on her way over to get you.”

“She is?”

Almost as soon as he said it, Lange heard Suleka’s Nissan chugging down his driveway toward him. He swiveled around to face her in his forward bend and instantly lost Deller again. He snapped himself upright, but Suleka had already seen him with his butt in the air and called out the open window of her truck, “Well I’m not surprised you bark when you answer the telephone if you do it cramped over like that!”

Callum Lange twitched his lips, searching for a pithy reply, but when nothing came to mind, he huffed, “Let me close the wood stove down and then we can leave.”

Suleka was already halfway out the Nissan however. “We’re not going anywhere till I’ve had a chance to look at that Pirateer board.”

Lange was already on the move and flapped his hand dismissively. “We don’t have time for that!”

“You don’t, maybe. But I do. I’m assuming you made your move.”

“I did. But Deller made it sound urgent.”

“That’s okay. It won’t take me but a second.”

“You can’t know that!” She’d caught up with him at the door to his yurt and he stood back, letting her pass in front of him.

“’S’nice and warm in here,” she said, making straight for the game board. “What time did you get home?”

“I don’t know. Ten minutes ago maybe.” He strode across to his woodstove and threw another piece of wood on the small fire.

“Your woodstove is pretty efficient to have got this place so toasty in 10 minutes.”

“It is, but I also have the electric heaters running off the hydro.” He tightened down the last of the drafts on the stove, straightened back up and turned around to find Suleka standing right behind him. “You made your move already?!”

She just smiled as he rushed back to the board. “Do you have groceries in this backpack?” She was pointing at the blue and grey daypack he’d deposited on the footstool.

“My ice cream!” Lange wailed.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.” She flapped her hand at him as if he should go back to what he was doing. “Just don’t spend too long looking at the board.”

But the 60-year-old ex-detective from NYC had already seen the move she’d made; she’d taken his thistle ship, got back the gold and was heading for her harbor unimpeded. Damn! He took a big breath in, extending every inch of his 6-foot-1 frame and ballooning his chest, then deflated instantly, with a noisy huff of frustration. He glanced at the clock across the yurt, next to his bed, and marked down the time on their score sheet. Now he was back to having 24 hours. “I wish I knew what makes you so good at this,” he grumbled.

Suleka closed the door to the freezer, flipped her long, dark braid over her shoulder and slipped her hands inside the front of her denim overalls to rest on her plump belly.  “You’ve got to think like a pirate to catch a pirate.”

“Whatever that means,” he grumbled, crossing the yurt to head out the door again.

Suleka ran her eyes around the circle of the yurt. “I don’t see any electric heaters.”

“They’re under the floor.”

“That’s where the heat’s coming from?” She stepped out of one of her muck boots and put her foot directly on the plywood floor. She giggled as she felt the warmth radiate through her green and yellow striped sock. “This is delicious,” she told Lange.

He rolled his eyes although truly, he was pleased. He’d always wanted to live in a place with radiant floor heat and even though the yurt was only temporary, he’d decided to try it out. Especially since he’d found a way to have free electricity. “We really should get going,” he told her.
She slipped her boot back on. “You know, the creek on my property is pretty steep.” He stepped past her and opened the door. “Maybe you could show me how to make hydro-electricity.”

“Maybe.” He motioned for her to step outside and when she did, he closed the door behind her. Then he looked up at the sky. There were stars everywhere, shimmering in the night sky like sequins on a country singer’s dress. He wondered whether the missing woman was somewhere in these mountains, looking up at these same stars.

“You coming?” Suleka asked.

He flipped around and saw her standing halfway between his yurt and her truck. He crossed the small platform outside his door in two strides and trotted down the steps. “This missing woman,” he remarked as he came up alongside Suleka. “Why does Deller think the husband is involved?”

“Margi’s husband?” They walked together the last few feet to the Nissan and broke apart to go to their respective doors. Suleka took hold of the handle on the driver’s side and shrugged at Lange over the top of the cab. “Maybe because he’s dating a 23-year-old?”

Lange pushed his lips tighter together; that would explain it.

Part 4, April 2015

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

Once they crossed the bridge over the Skagit River, Lange sat taller in his seat and leaned forward, wanting to see if he could somehow detect the homes that had been burglarized. “Were they along this stretch of the highway?” he asked Suleka.

A crease appeared in her brow. “What?”

“The houses that were broken into?”

“I think. Maybe.” She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“How come?”

“Well, I didn’t find out their names! You know how it is …”—she circled her right hand in the air—“… a friend told me …”

Lange pounced. “Which friend?”

“Shari. She lives down here.” Her face opened up with realization. “Not far from where we’re going, actually.”

“Did she have something stolen from her too?”

“Who? Shari? No.” She said it like she was sure, but then her head swayed from side to side as if she were having second thoughts. “Well, not exactly. Not like the others.”

Lange wanted to press her for clarification, but in the few months that Suleka had been working for him, buying his groceries, cleaning his yurt, driving him places, and once helping him with a case, he’d learned that he was better off waiting for an explanation than asking for one. Tall spindly trees lined the highway to their right and even though it was dark, Lange used the beam from the headlights to count 15 trees before Suleka continued.

“She didn’t have anything tangible taken. What happened was Shari came home from the store last Wednesday …” She cocked her head to one side. “What day are we today?”

“Tuesday.”

Suleka squinted, as if calculating something. “Then no, it was Thursday. She came home from the store last Thursday and when she took the groceries into her kitchen, she heard the dryer going in the mud room. So she thought Russ—her husband—must have got home early from his trip to the VA hospital, started some laundry, then gone out to the garage to work. He’s rebuilding the transmission on their grandson’s Toyota pick-up.” Suleka paused and cocked her head to one side again. “Or is it a Chevy pick-up?”

Lange sighed and looked out the passenger window again, this time at a patch of scrubby wetland with spindly trees in the distance. This was going to take longer than he thought.

“Anyway, she unpacked all the groceries and went upstairs to do something on her computer and a little while later, she looked out the window by her desk and saw someone walking across her backyard …” She paused, then blurted, “… in their underwear!”

Lange knew that she expected him to be surprised so he dutifully spiked an eyebrow when she glanced at him even though, in his time in NYC, he’d seen a lot worse than people running around in their underwear.

Suleka snorted a little laugh. “Crazy, huh?”

Lange nodded.

“Anyway, as soon as she saw this, Shari went tearing downstairs to get her husband, but once she got to the kitchen, she could see this person through one of the windows going into her mud room. She put two and two together and figured out that Russ wasn’t home—it was this guy doing his laundry in her mud room!”

“Was it a guy?”

Suleka looked startled by the question. “I assume it was. She didn’t say otherwise.”

“Did she get a good look at him?”

“He was in his skivvies so I’m guessing yes.”

“Guessing?”

“Do you want to hear the rest of the story or not?”

“Go on,” he sighed.

But his interruption had caused Suleka to lose her train of thought. “Where was I?”

“She realized her husband wasn’t home …”

“Oh, yes.” The Nissan arced to the left, turning onto Rockport-Cascade Rd., and sped up. “She realized her husband wasn’t home, so she thought maybe instead of just going and confronting this guy—this person, sorry—she ought to get her Smith and Wesson semi-automatic. So she went back up to her bedroom, because that’s where she keeps it, but by the time she got the pistol loaded and went back down to the mud room, the freeloading launderer was gone. So, you see,” Suleka explained, “he stole time in Shari’s washing machine but not her food or anything like that.”

“I wish we could be sure it was a man.”

“Why? What difference does that make?”

“It could have been the missing woman.”

“Margi? No. Shari said the person had long, straight, dark hair, and Margi’s is short, curly, and greyish. Plus, why would she wash her clothes at Shari’s when her place is not half a mile away?”

Lange didn’t really know. It was just an idea on his part. He shrugged. “Like you said, people do crazy things.”

“But Shari would have recognized Margi.” Suleka braked as the Nissan approached Illabot Creek, and indicated to turn right, into a driveway, all the time looking at Lange. “Wouldn’t she?”

Lange sat forward again. “Is this the place?” he asked.

Suleka nodded. “Sam and Margi’s place, yes.”

The headlights of the car shone on a cabin with a steeply sloping shed roof covered in grey sheet metal that almost matched the weathered grey of the shingled walls. It didn’t look dilapidated so much as lived in. And loved. Suleka drove the Nissan down a narrow driveway lined with smooth river rock, and Lange could see well-tended planter boxes at the base of the house, glass chimes and dried flowers hanging from the eaves, and gourds of varying colors and sizes grouped around the front steps. It was October, after all, he told himself; the season for squash on the steps.

A sleek, silvery Crown Victoria with Sheriff emblazoned on the side looked markedly out of place parked next to a row of firewood, which obviously bothered the resident Chihuahua, who kept charging the car from the steps leading up to the deck, yapping ferociously, then scurrying back with a few bug-eyed glances over its shoulder.

Suleka wanted to avoid crushing the tiny dog, so she pulled up almost at the end of the driveway and switched off the Nissan.

In one swift move, Lange got out. He could see Deller’s back through one of the downstairs windows, her dark ponytail swishing across the shoulders of her navy blue jacket as she shook her head from side to side. He slammed the door to the Nissan shut, thinking she’d turn and acknowledge his arrival, but instead she walked away from the window and slowly disappeared into the well-lit interior.

He moved away from the Nissan, toward some painted rocks sitting at the base of the planter boxes. They had large, brightly colored, 3-D-looking spots on them that gave the effect of beads in blown glass. It was a simple enough design, but very eye catching. And strangely appealing, Lange thought.

“Watch out!” Suleka shouted across to him.

“What?” he cried and looked down to see his left foot almost crush the Chihuahua. He performed an off-balance dance around the pup, who continued its race, unperturbed, across the gravel to the steps, then promptly turned around and began charging the Sheriff’s vehicle again. Lange stepped back to give the dog an uninterrupted run.

“I don’t know why I stopped you now that I think about it,” Suleka confessed, as she walked toward Lange, letting the Chihuahua pass in front of her. “I’ve never liked that dog.”

“Whose dog is it?”

“Margi’s. She thinks the world of that mutt. Takes her everywhere.”

Lange’s blue eyes narrowed. “And yet the dog’s here and she’s not.”

“Yeah. I’d say she didn’t leave voluntarily.”

Lange nodded, already glad Suleka had come with him. He lowered his voice. “Does anything else strike you as being wrong?”

Her brown eyes darted left and right behind her glasses as she became drawn into the act of detection. They settled on a simple pole building that was blocked by the Sheriff’s car. “Her bicycle’s here,” she said.

“Which means …?”

“Well, Margi always rides her bicycle when she goes out wildcrafting.”

“Wildcrafting?”

Suleka splayed both hands out, palms up, in front of her. “She likes making art with things she finds in the woods.” She nodded up at the porch. “Like the dried flower arrangements. And she makes bird feeders out of fir cones, and paints on those mushroom-looking things that grow on the sides of trees. You know the ones, with the pale tops and dark bottoms. What are those called?”

“Conks.”

“That’s right. Conks. So if her bicycle’s here, I’m thinking she didn’t go missing because she got lost on one of her wildcrafting trips.”

“She always travels by bike?”

“To go wildcrafting, yes. At least, that’s what she told me. And Coco”—she pointed down at the dog—“rode along in the basket on the front.”

Lange nodded again.

The Chihuahua ran between them again, on her way back to the steps, and Lange watched, then followed, with Suleka tagging along behind. At the bottom of the steps they both made way for the dog to do an about turn before climbing up to the porch that ran the width of the cabin. An array of geometrically painted gourds with tiny, orange lights strung through them lit the way to the door, and Lange took in the basket of apples, the corn stalk scarecrow, the painted, wooden “Welcome” sign, and the threadbare armchair with a knitted, multi-colored blanket thrown over the back.

On a table, to one side of the armchair, a yellow butternut squash had been cut into and part of its soft interior emptied onto some newspaper. The squash had obviously been there a while, because the moisture had dried on the newspaper, causing it to curl and buckle. It looked like the carver had just walked away and left the mess for someone else to clean up.

But where was the knife that had been used to cut into the squash?

Part 5, May 2015

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

The door to the cabin opened and Frankie Deller stood in the doorway, smartly dressed in a navy blue pantsuit, her Glock in its usual place on her hip. She nodded Lange in and he stepped over the threshold without saying a word, then looked back at Suleka and nodded her in too. “This is Callum Lange,” said Deller, “the detective I was telling you about, Mr. Breckenridge.”

The downstairs of the cabin was open plan, with a small kitchen immediately to the right and a short wall between it and the rest of the downstairs. A kitchen table sat at the end of the wall, between the door and the living area, and beyond that Lange could see a woodstove in the far left corner of the cabin. A gaunt, grey-skinned, older man sitting on the right side of the table, with his back to the kitchen, threw an acidic look in Suleka’s direction. “Where’s my wife?” he demanded.

“I have no idea, Sam.” She stepped past Lange to be closer to him.

He curled his lips, bitter. “She’d better turn up soon before I get arrested for something I never done.”

He slumped forward, wrapping his long-fingered hands around a coffee cup on the table in front of him, and Lange saw the sadness in the slump of his shoulders. “When did you last see her, Mr. Breckenridge?”

“Thursday morning,” he growled. “I been over this already with her.” He pointed a gnarly finger at Detective Deller, who had moved to a spot at the far end of the kitchen table, with her back to the living room. To her left, Lange could see a photograph pinned to the wall, next to a calendar, underneath a cream-colored, wall-mount Trimline telephone. He took a step toward it and stared at a slightly younger Sam Breckenridge, his arm slung casually around a short, slight, curly haired woman. “Is this Margi?” he asked, pointing at the photo.

He heard Breckenridge grunt behind him. “Uh-huh.”

“And she didn’t tell you if she was going somewhere special? Or somewhere different?”

“No! How many times I gotta say it. No! She never tells me where she goes when I’m away and I don’t ask.”

Lange turned around to face him. “I’m only thinking if she knew she was going away for a few days, to visit a friend or a relative, she might have mentioned it.”

Breckenridge relaxed a little with the friendliness in Lange’s tone. He leaned back in his chair and let his arms hang down on either side of him. “Well she didn’t. She wouldn’t have wanted to spend overnight at a friend’s house ’cause nobody likes that dog ’cept her. And she don’t have any relatives live around here.”
He looked up, his gaze blank, making Lange think he didn’t have the guile to lie.

“Was she depressed?”

Breckenridge slumped forward again, looking sullen. “Why do people keep asking me that?”

Lange glanced at Deller; she lifted her eyebrows as if to say, go ahead, but Suleka beat him to it. She stepped closer to the kitchen table and touched the husband lightly on his shoulder. “She might have killed herself, Sam.”

Breckenridge looked blank again. “Why would she do that?”

Lange had seen something behind Breckenridge, on a shelf just above his head. He came around behind Suleka to take a closer look just as Deller said, “You are having an affair with a much younger woman.” Lange stopped and focused on Breckenridge.

The man looked genuinely confused. “That’s what you’re worried about? Margi don’t give two hoots about that!” He looked at Suleka. “Does she?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Suleka said, like this was a question she hadn’t contemplated before. “She’s never said anything to me.”

“We’ve been married a long time,” Sam went on, addressing himself to Lange. “And I’ve always messed around on her. She knows that. She told me long as I don’t leave her, she don’t care.” He sat up straighter. “We’re happy enough. She’s a good cook. And she keeps the place tidy.” He said both like they were terms of his wife’s employment and Lange could imagine Deller and Suleka biting down on some salty repartees. “No, I’ve said from the start, I think she went off on one of her gathering trips and took a fall.”

“But her …” Suleka started and Lange nudged her back with his elbow a couple of times. She took the cue and shut up.

“Can I look around?” Lange asked.

“Have at it!” Breckenridge agreed. Then pointed at Deller again. “Although she already did that so I doubt you’ll find anything.”

Lange looked across at Deller, who made sure the husband was focused on his coffee again before she blinked her dark eyes toward the kitchen area.

The ex-detective swiveled around and took in the bay window overlooking the deck with a basket full of fall foliage sitting on the wide, white-tiled sill, the sink perpendicular to the window, with cabinets above and below, and the fridge to the left of the sink, opposite the window. His blue eyes honed in on what Deller must have been pointing him toward: the dark, round, nickel-sized stains on the floor mat in front of the sink. They were pretty well hidden in the pattern of sunflowers, but after the years he’d spent on the job in NYC, finding them was like muscle memory for Lange. Of course, they could have been there for a while. He let his eyes trace back, from the mat, past the dog dishes on the floor under the window, to the front door; no more stains.

He stepped over to the sink. There were a couple of dirty mugs and plates, a greasy skillet, a pot that looked like it had dried oatmeal in it, a bowl, a few utensils—evidence of the two days Margi hadn’t been around to clean up after her husband—but Lange’s trained eye caught a smear of dark red-brown where the sink met the counter in front of him. He kept searching and saw three, tiny, brownish splatters on the underside of the faucet and a big splotch on the blacksplash to the left of the sink. He began to picture Margi being stabbed in the neck with the knife she’d used to carve the pumpkin. He waited to see if he heard anything from the missing woman, but it was quiet over by the sink. Quiet with a feeling of sadness.

Lange backed up a step and lifted a curtain under the sink. The garbage was there, exactly as he’d thought it would be. He tipped it toward him. There was an empty, family size chip bag on the top. He lifted it gingerly and looked underneath. “Bingo!” he whispered. He glanced over his shoulder and caught Suleka’s eye. “I need a bag,” he mouthed, hoping to keep it between them.

She threw an awkward look at the others before moving toward him and Lange heard Deller’s shoes tapping over the wood floor. “Did you find something?” she said.

“What?” came Breckenridge’s voice, followed by the sound of a chair scraping across the floor.

Lange sighed. So much for doing this without an audience. Suleka peered over his shoulder and he watched her mouth drop open and her head pull back at the sight of the knife. “Is that blood?” she asked, obviously perturbed.

Before he could answer, Deller shouldered past Suleka and held an evidence bag down close to the trash. “Here. Put it in this.”

Lange leaned forward to oblige when a thought fluttered into his mind then out again before he could catch it. Damn, he hated when that happened. He was missing something, but what? It was something that he’d seen, something nearby. He suddenly felt crowded in the tiny kitchen and contemplated dumping the trash and legging it out to the porch, where he could look up at the moon and refocus his inner lens. Where the chill of the night air would inject some clarity into his thinking. But Breckenridge interrupted his escape plan. “You found the knife, huh.”

The two detectives turned and looked at the man, saying nothing so he might incriminate himself further. Unfortunately Suleka hadn’t been trained in the art of keeping her mouth shut. “You knew about this?” she balked, pointing at the knife.

“Yeah. I found it in the sink and I figured Margi cut herself.”

“You didn’t think it might be evidence?”

“Yeah, I did. But I didn’t want the cops thinking it was evidence I stabbed her or something,” he said, thrusting his chin forward, belligerent.

Lange blinked at the man. Now that Breckenridge was standing, he didn’t look as old as he had slumped over in the kitchen chair. He was maybe 50, tall and angular, with the start of jowls on his jaw line and artificially darkened, slicked-down hair. Lange couldn’t figure out if he was truly as transparent as he sounded or just a great liar. He blinked again and saw Deller watching him. She obviously couldn’t make out this guy either.

“Was it the only thing in the sink, Mr. Breckenridge?” Lange asked.

“Uh uh, no. It was under Margi’s oatmeal bowl. I guess she didn’t clean one of the mornings after breakfast.”

Breckenridge looked out the window next to him as if hoping to see her out in the dark there. “She does that sometimes—gets so involved in one of her craft projects she gets behind.”

“Would she leave the dishes for days?”

Breckenridge shook his head. “Never. She never went to bed with dirty dishes in the sink.”

So one day, in the last week, she’d had breakfast and not been home to clean up, thought Lange. But which day? And why?

Part 6, June 2015

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

“When did you find the knife in the sink, Mr. Breckenridge?” Deller asked.

“Today,” he answered. “I wanted to make nachos for lunch, so I was looking in the sink for the cheese grater.”

Lange’s mind went instantly to fingerprints. “And you felt it?”

“No, I saw it! Blood an’ all.”

“And you just picked it up and threw it in the trash?”

Breckenridge’s jaw jutted forward again. “I picked it up with that sponge Margi uses to wash the dishes.” They all stared at him. “Hey, I didn’t want to touch it! Not with the blood on it. Plus your deputy …” He looked at Deller. “The one that came and talked to me? He’d already given me the stink eye, like he suspected me of doing something bad to Margi, so I wasn’t gonna put my prints on the knife.”

Lange had had enough. He tipped the knife into the evidence bag, let go of the trash and squared off in front of Breckenridge. “If you find anything else that you think might be useful to us, please leave it alone.”

He marched outside and stood for a moment on the deck, looking up at the gloriously incandescent harvest moon. What is it I’m not seeing? he thought. Deller came out to stand beside him. She placed the knife in the evidence bag on the porch rail in front of them. “A sponge!” she complained. “So much for prints.”

Lange grunted.

“Maybe he’s smarter than he seems.”

“Permit me to doubt! Although I think he’s right; she cut herself. Maybe when she was carving that gourd.” He nodded toward the butternut squash on the porch table. “And she ran to the kitchen sink to clean up.” He looked up at the moon again, chewing on his dentures while he thought. “Whatever happened, it was the last thing that happened before she went missing.”

“If she is missing.”

“If she is missing,” Lange agreed.

“You think the cut was bad enough she went to the Emergency Room and something happened from there?”

“Then why would her car be here?”
A skittering to their left caused them to turn. The Chihuahua was at the top of the porch steps, head tipped back, glaring at them like they shouldn’t be there. They waited, in full standoff mode, then watched the little creature race across the porch, trying to avoid eye contact while constantly glancing at them, and dart in through the partially open door behind them. Lange reached back and closed the door behind the dog. “Tell me what you know,” he said.

Deller slipped her hands in her pants pockets, flapping her elbows out. “Not that much,” she confessed. “Breckenridge called us on Sunday night and spoke with a deputy, who told him to wait overnight since it was late and there was no real timeline on when Margi may have gone missing. If she’d even gone missing. Breckenridge called back early the next morning and our dispatcher said he was agitated—borderline abusive—like he was really worried. So Deputy Collins drove up here to follow up.”

Lange snorted and the sound ricocheted off the trees around the cabin. Deller got defensive. “Hey, Collins may not be fast but he’s thorough.”

Lange didn’t press it. “Go on.”

“With Margi’s car and purse being left here, Collins was initially concerned, but then he found out from Breckenridge that there’s a women’s retreat up at Baker Lake, which Margi had talked about going to. It started last Saturday and goes till tomorrow, and Breckenridge said if she had gone, it was almost certain that one of her friends would have driven her.”

“He didn’t call to see if his wife was there?”

“There’s no cell phone service that far up the mountain.”

“Oh.” Lange chewed on this. “So Collins drove up there.”

Deller nodded. “He did. But no Margi. Her friend was there and said that Margi hadn’t gone along because all the fall colors were out and she wanted to get some boughs and leaves for her craft projects. I guess she makes items that she sells at holiday sales. Does pretty well from them too. Collins came back down and shared this information with Breckenridge, who got worked up all over again because this was what he’d been saying from the start—that Margi had gone out gathering and maybe taken a fall. And he told Collins that if she’d gone wildcrafting over by Lake Caskey, which she did a lot, then what if she’d fallen into the lake? Although now that I say that, I think he may have been blowing smoke because he told us both that he didn’t know where Margi went when she went out gathering.”

“And he didn’t tell anyone that she always went out gathering on her bicycle, in which case, why is it here in the shed?”

Deller’s nostrils flared. “Well, Collins obviously thought Lake Caskey was a lead,” she continued, “because he called Search and Rescue. But they were up Illabot Creek, looking for a missing hiker–a guy they subsequently found and he was fine, he’d just lost the trail and hunkered down overnight—so they didn’t respond till this morning, when they spent a good chunk of time walking the woods around the lake. But,”—she shrugged—“well, you know.”

“Why did they search if there was no car in the area suggesting she was there?”

Deller’s nostrils flared again. “They were looking for a bike.”

“So Breckenridge did tell him she traveled by bike?”

“Yep.”

“And Collins didn’t see the bike was here?!”

A coyote yipped half a dozen times farther up the Cascade, but Lange kept his eyes on Deller. He watched her cheeks flex in anger—whether at him or at Collins he didn’t know and didn’t give a damn—then her shoulders slumped in resignation. “Apparently not.”

Lange stormed to the end of the porch. This was a mess! Badly handled from the get go. “Why didn’t you call me in sooner?” he barked.

Deller stomped down the porch after him. “Hey, I wasn’t called in myself until just this afternoon and that was after Collins came back here and found out from the neighbors that Breckenridge has a girlfriend. A very young girlfriend!”

Lange looked off into the distance at the inky black silhouettes of the trees against the moonlit sky. Somewhere out there was a person of interest eating canned goods pilfered from the homes around here, and a woman without her dog.

Her dog!

Immediately Lange caught the thought that had eluded him, swung around and marched back into the cabin, Deller behind him. Suleka was sitting opposite Breckenridge at the kitchen table, talking softly with him. “Was the dog inside when you got home, Mr. Breckenridge?”

“Uh huh, yep.”

“And was there food in the dog bowl?”

Breckenridge became defensive. “I fed her!”

“I’m sure you did,” soothed Lange. “I’m just curious if the bowl was empty when you put more out?”

“Yeah, mostly. Except for what she’d spilled out onto the floor. That’s what made me think to feed her. I thought Margi would have a fit if she saw that mess so I scooped it up and dumped it back in her bowl.”

“And the dog ate?”

“Nope. Wasn’t hungry then, I guess.” He looked over at the tiny pup, chowing down on the dry dog food in her bowl as they spoke.

“Does she often spill her food out onto the floor?”

“No. Not usually. She’s very tidy. And Margi’s tidy when she feeds her.” He shrugged. “I guess she was agitated, with Margi not being here. Dogs do that, huh?”

Lange contemplated this for a moment before going on. “Did Margi ever walk out into the woods close by the house for her wildcrafting activities?”

Irritation flicked across Breckenridge’s face. “Maybe. I don’t know for sure. All I know is I’d come home to baskets of leaves and twigs and ferns and crap like that on the kitchen table. Sometimes she’d tell me where they came from, sometimes not. Does it matter?”

“I’m just trying to figure out why Margi left her dog behind if she went out gathering.”

The husband’s eyes grew bigger and his face filled with consternation as he looked across at the dog again, and Lange couldn’t tell if it was because he’d forgotten that detail when plotting his wife’s disappearance or because he was now truly scared that something bad had happened to Margi.

Suleka must have assumed the latter, because she leaned across the table and forced him to make eye contact with her. “We’ll find her, Sam. We’ll find her.”

Part 7, July 2015

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

The last thing Lange examined before he left the Breckenridge home was the painted gourd he’d seen sitting on the shelf above the kitchen table. He’d moved to take a closer look earlier, but had been interrupted by the talk of Breckenridge’s infidelities.

The gourd, however, continued to catch his eye. It was an acorn squash, turned into a canvas for a painting of a black bear walking through the woods. It was cleverly executed, with the ridges on the gourd giving depth to the trees that were acting as camouflage for the bear. It wasn’t the kind of art that Lange usually liked, but he liked this one. “Did Margi paint this?” he asked.

Breckenridge craned his head around and looked up. “Yep,” he grunted. “And it’s mine.”

“I wasn’t going to—”

“Lot of people have tried to buy that one,” he went on, overriding Lange. “But Margi gave it to me.”

“You know, I saw that up there,” said Suleka, gazing up at the gourd, “but I didn’t think it was Margi’s. I’ve only ever seen the ones she does with the colors on them. Like the ones on the porch.”

“First time she tried wildlife,” boasted Breckenridge, “and everyone says how good it is. I had somebody offer me four hundred bucks for that one.”

Lange had been about to touch the gourd but changed his mind. He spun around and pulled both sides of his mouth down at Deller, impressed. She flexed her eyebrows back at him as if to say, “I told you.”

“Your wife’s obviously got talent,” Lange remarked.

“Yeah she does. You should see the new ones.”

Lange narrowed his eyes, curious.

Breckenridge went on. “When Margi saw how much people liked the bear, she did others: a deer, a bald eagle, a coyote with its cub—a whole bunch of different ones.” He paused and Lange could almost see the images running through his mind. “The one with the wolves is my favorite. I bet she sells that for a ton of money.”

Suleka perked up in her seat. “Can we see them?”

“I don’t know where they are,” Sam Breckenridge said, looking around. “She had about eight or nine of them in a big fruit box, here on the kitchen table.”

“You think they’re missing?” asked Lange.

“Nah. She probably moved them out to the backseat of her car already, ready to take to a shop or a fair. Something like that.”

Thinking of the rash of burglaries close by, Lange pressed it. “Have you noticed anything else missing from your house, Mr. Breckenridge? Anything at all?”

“Just my wife,” he replied with an edge of surliness. But the lines in his face got heavy with sadness as he looked up at Lange. “Ain’t that enough?”

Lange could think of nothing to say to this, so he nodded and left. He strode out the door, across the porch, down the steps, and crunched across the gravel driveway, leading Deller and Suleka to a point far enough away from the cabin to ensure privacy. The temperature had dropped to a biting near freezing and when he spun to face the women, he noticed that they huddled in close to him, without touching, as if proximity might bring them some warmth.

“What are you thinking?” Deller asked.

“I’m thinking $3,600 is a lot of money to find sitting on the kitchen table.”

“The petty thief moved on to bigger things?” asked Suleka.

“What petty thief?” The gap between Deller’s eyebrows narrowed.

“You haven’t heard about that?”

“You can explain in a minute,” Lange jumped in, impatient to keep moving forward. He looked at Deller. “Do you know if the friend up at the Women’s Retreat stopped by to find out if Margi wanted to go, or just called?”

“No idea. I could hook you up with Collins, but he’s questioning the girlfriend right now.”

“That’s okay. I should go talk to this woman anyway. D’you have her name?”

Deller pulled a small, red, spiral-bound notepad out of her jacket pocket and flipped through the pages, trying to beat the cold by going fast. “Mary Lynn McCracken.”

“You know her?” Lange was looking at Suleka, who sank farther down into the black knit scarf around her neck. Around them, downed branches and limbs were already popsicle white with hoar frost and everything was quiet in a way Lange had never experienced in New York.

“Uh-huh. Not very well though. You think she might have seen something?”

“She might,” said Lange as he moved away, his mind leapfrogging to the possibility of the gourds in the back of Margi’s car. He saw a Toyota pick-up that he assumed belonged to Sam Breckenridge parked perpendicular to Deller’s Crown Victoria and a white, Subaru station wagon in the shed. That was probably Margi’s. He walked toward it, using the light from the moon to scour the ground for signs. Signs of what, he wasn’t sure, but he had a sense that there had to be something that might point him in Margi’s direction.

The ground revealed nothing and Lange gave Margi’s yellow Schwinn bicycle, which was leaning up against the outside of the shed, a quick once over with his eyes, but saw nothing out of the ordinary there either. Behind him he heard Suleka recounting details of the local burglaries to Deller, her voice echoing out into the trees in the quiet of the evening. He slipped inside the shed to check the Subaru. He flipped his phone out of his pocket and activated the flashlight app. A bright beam of light shone on the back seat of the Subaru, where Lange saw nothing other than a small pet carrier. A deep hmmm vibrated in his throat. Where was the fruit box full of painted gourds?

He ran the flashlight over the front seats and the floor of the station wagon, and then walked around to the back of the vehicle. He squeezed the handle on the hatchback with the fingers of his left hand and it popped open, allowing him to move the flashlight over the floor. But there was nothing more than a few stray boughs, a leash for the dog, and a couple of cloth shopping bags. He let the hatch back fall closed and stood for a moment, sucking softly on the plate in the roof of his mouth. He turned 180 degrees, blurring his gaze in the dark on the other side of the cabin. He was supposed to find something out here, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t figure out what.

Lange became aware that Deller and Suleka had stopped talking and were watching him from where he’d left them standing in the middle of the driveway.He didn’t want them out in the cold any longer than necessary, especially since it didn’t seem that there was anything worth finding out here. But then he noticed that the women weren’t the only ones watching him. Coco was sitting at the top of the porch steps, staring at him with her big, round eyes. She was very intent, as if willing him to find something, and her posture caused Lange to crouch down, close to the ground, and shine his flashlight under the Crown Victoria. Yep, there was something under there, too far away to reach, but something small and white, alongside a hunk of vine maple. He stood back up, feeling an excited thrum in his chest. “Frankie, move your vehicle, would you.”

“You see something?” she asked as she crossed toward her car.

“Something,” he nodded, “but I don’t know that it’s anything. Just back up a few feet.”

Deller didn’t argue. She slipped into the driver’s seat, turned the engine on, and eased the vehicle back half a car length. Lange saw what he’d been looking at under the car and held up his hand for her to stop. He stepped toward the small white item and heard, before he saw, Coco racing across the gravel to get there ahead of him. “Stop that dog!” he yelled, fearing the tiny Chihuahua would chew the evidence before he’d even had a chance to examine it. Suleka lunged, Deller sprinted and Lange lurched forward, but they weren’t fast enough. Coco had the length of vine maple in her jaw and was dragging it across the gravel, growling at them to leave her alone.

“Oh that’s what she wanted,” Suleka remarked and looked at Deller. “No wonder she kept charging your car. You parked on her toy.”

Lange was squatting over the ground by where the dog had retrieved the vine maple. “Fortunately that’s not what I was after,” he muttered, his eyes on a small rectangle of white paper with a hole in one end. It looked like someone had written something on the paper, but it had obviously been stepped on and rained on so the markings were smeared and hard to decipher. Deller was peering over Lange’s shoulder. “What is that?” she asked. “A price tag?”

Lange blinked and pulled his head back, looking at the rectangle differently. “Oh now that could be,” he said. He pulled a Leatherman tool out of the pocket of his jeans, used the scissor attachment to gently lift the paper up off the ground, and dropped it into an evidence bag Deller was holding.

“I think I’ve found something else,” Suleka said. She was standing next to Coco and peering down at the ground.

Lange crabwalked over to her, shining his flashlight on the ground to be sure he didn’t step on anything important, and saw what Suleka had discovered. It was a cluster of small, opaque pearls on inch-long lengths of twine. He fished around in the gravel with the scissors to expose them and found they were being held together by a figure eight clasp on a silver hook.

“An earring,” he said as he lifted it up into the air.

Suleka gasped. “That’s Margi’s.”

Part 8, August 2015

Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Lange reassured Suleka as he stood up, “other than Margi lost her earring on the ground here.”

“But you’re going to put it in an evidence bag,” said Suleka.

“I am.” Lange suddenly felt tired. Why did he always have to be the one to cause the hope to cloud in people’s eyes? He offered Suleka a half smile and swiveled, expecting to see another evidence bag, but Detective Deller’s attention was on the dog.

Callum followed her gaze and saw the little pup sniffing slowly, methodically, at the moss on one end of the branch, her right paw intermittently popping up to touch at it, as if to release more of the scents contained within it. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

“I’m thinking that’s not a toy,” Deller said and glanced at Lange for corroboration. He nodded.

“Nooooo!” Suleka shrieked as she realized what they were implying.

Deller said nothing. She pulled a latex glove out of the other pocket of her jacket, stretched it over the fingers of her right hand, and bent toward the vine maple. Coco bared her teeth and snapped, but Deller wasn’t intimidated. She grabbed the stick in one swift move and marched it over to her car, the pup racing at her feet the whole way, yapping and jumping in frustration.

“We’re detectives, Suleka,” Lange said. “We’re trained to think the worst.”

“Somebody could have peed on that stick and that dog would take an interest!”

“That could be. But we don’t have much to go on here.”

Deller marched back toward them, leaving Coco scrabbling at the passenger side door of the Crown Victoria, obviously wishing for the reappearance of the vine maple. The Sheriff’s detective held out another bag and Suleka watched as Lange dropped the earring into it.

“What’s next?” he asked.

“I want to take these items to the lab and see what, if anything, has been written up on this … what did you call him?” she asked Suleka.

“The man in the mud room.”

“Yeah. That guy. It could be nobody’s filed a report because the thefts were so minor, but I’ll check.”

Lange opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it. He turned his focus on Suleka. “D’you think you can find out who exactly has complained of things missing from their places around here?”

“I’m sure I could,” Suleka replied slowly, thinking about it. Then she did a double take in his direction.

“You mean tonight?”

Lange nodded. “I’d appreciate it. If we get it narrowed down to a certain area, we might be able to use the Search and Rescue dogs to try to track the thief.”

Deller shook her head no. “I’ll be using them to track Margi.”

“That might amount to the same thing,” said Lange.

There was a pause, while they all digested this thought. The coyote yipped again, the sound rounder, more resonant, closer than before, and Coco gave up on the vine maple and hurried back to the cabin.

“What are you going to do?” Deller asked Lange.

“I’m going to interview Mary Lynn McCracken.”

“Again, tonight?!” Suleka repeated.

“There’s plenty of time,” countered Lange. “It’s what, five o’clock?”

“Can’t be.” Suleka pulled from her jacket the pocket watch she’d inherited from her father. “I didn’t pick you up until after five so it’s got to be—” she glanced at the face “—well, it’s almost 6:30.”

“If Mary Lynn McCracken did come here on Saturday, she might tell us something, even something random, that could point us in Margi’s direction,” Lange reasoned. He watched Suleka stare at him from behind her glasses and he could tell from the faraway look in her brown eyes that she was vacillating. “Before it’s too late,” he added.

She relented, but not entirely. “Couldn’t you at least call Collins first?” she asked. “Find out if he knows whether she was here before we go trekking all the way up to Baker Lake?”

“No need,” said Deller, looking over Lange’s shoulder toward Rockport-Cascade Rd. “He’s here.”

They turned and squinted into a pair of headlights easing toward them down the narrow driveway. It was Collins in the Ford Expedition. He stopped the vehicle about 30 feet from them, killed the engine, and climbed down, carefully latching the door behind him. He stepped solidly toward them, his stocky frame bulked out in his dark green, winter uniform, the nasal whine in his breathing overriding the sound of his footsteps on the gravel.

“Did you bring dinner?” Deller asked. Collins’ heavy breathing stopped as he hesitated, mid-stride, with a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look at his boss. “Kidding,” she said, without even a hint of a smile. “What did you find out?”

Collins continued forward until he reached their huddle. “Not much,” he said, with a sideways glance in Lange’s direction. He pulled a spiral notebook like Deller’s out of his jacket pocket, flipped past the Miranda rights card he had clipped on the inside of the front cover, and continued through the pages till he found what he was looking for. His eyes settled on an entry and Lange couldn’t tell if he was just trying to avoid further eye contact or if he was really reading what he’d written. “Breckenridge picked up his girlfriend, Shelby, at her house Thursday morning to go on this camping trip with him east of the mountains and dropped her off Sunday afternoon, just before he came back here. She didn’t seem too concerned that Margi wasn’t here. She said Sam told her Margi’s been a bit out of it lately.”

“Out of it how?” asked Lange.

“I asked the same thing,” said Collins, still with his eyes on his notebook. “But she didn’t give me much of an answer. She said things like moody, spacey, difficult, but she couldn’t give me any examples. I got the impression she doesn’t think much of Margi, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think much of anybody.” He flicked his blue eyes up at Deller. “Except herself.”

“Did Breckenridge say anything to you about Margi being different recently?” Lange asked Deller. She shook her head no.

He turned the question, unspoken, on Suleka, who popped her nose and mouth out of her wool scarf to answer. “She has been a bit withdrawn but I thought it was because she was busy wildcrafting.”

“Did Shelby give you any ideas as to where Margi might be?” Deller asked Collins.

“Didn’t know and didn’t care,” he stated.

“So you think she’s not involved?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Collins said. “Not yet anyway. She didn’t seem to care if Margi was found, which made me wonder if she had a hand in her not being around. But if she is involved, it would have to be with the husband because they were together the whole weekend.”

“Or so they say,” Lange added.

“They camped with friends. I’m on my way to question the friends now.”

Deller looked perplexed. “Why’d you come back here?”

“To get Margi’s cell phone.”

“It’s in my car,” Deller tipped her head toward the Crown Victoria. “I was going to have someone call the last numbers Margi called. See if she said anything that might lead us to her.”

“Me too,” said Collins.

“Go right ahead,” Deller encouraged. “It’s in with the evidence bags.”

“Does anyone know when Margi used her cell phone last?” Lange asked.

“Friday night. I checked the first time I came out here,” Collins replied. He flipped through the pages of his notebook again and this time it was obvious he was reading his notes. “She called someone Friday, at 9:04 in the evening, and missed a call Saturday morning, at 8:11.”

“That was probably this Mary Lynn McCracken,” Deller said to Lange, “calling to see if Margi was going up to the retreat.”

“Mmmm no,” said Collins. “Her story was she told Margi to call her if she wanted to go and when she didn’t get a call by 8 a.m. on Saturday, she took off without her.”

“And without coming by here,” Lange pondered aloud.

Collins looked up from his notes to make eye contact with Lange. “She got kind of weepy saying she hoped nothing bad had happened to Margi, because she’d feel terrible for not stopping by if that was the case.”

There was another moment of quiet and then Suleka interrupted it by making a move. “I’m going home,” she announced, trudging determinedly toward her pick-up. “I’ll give you a ride if you want, Callum, but you’ll have to come now. I don’t want to call people too late to ask about the robberies around here and I want to have something to eat before I start.”

“Go ahead,” Frankie Deller said to Lange and followed Suleka’s cue by walking toward her own vehicle. Collins got in step behind her and suddenly Lange was alone in the middle of the driveway. “There’s nothing more we can do here tonight,” he heard Frankie call out to him before opening a door on the Crown Victoria.

But there was one more thing Lange thought he could do; he could wait for the sound of Margi to come to him. He tipped his chin up and let his blue eyes circle the silence in the night sky, waiting for the noises he knew he should hear if he were to solve this case. When nothing came, he made himself focus on the diminutive, mousy-haired woman with the shy smile he’d seen in the photograph, the black bear that she’d painted, the sheen of the animal’s thick coat captured in the light coming through the trees. Lange waited, expecting a noise in his aura to suggest that whatever had happened, it had been against Margi’s will. But as much as he strained, all he could hear was Deller and Collins talking low a few feet away from him.

He sighed. Maybe Margi had just walked into the woods on one of her gathering missions and had fallen into an unexpected grave. He heard Suleka start the Nissan and hustled over to climb in. The last thing he wanted was to have to walk home tonight.

Part 9, September 2015

Editor’s note: This is the ninth installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

Callum Lange was up in a Douglas fir tree the next morning, buckling a trail camera to the trunk when Suleka pulled in. He’d thought about this a lot during the night, when he’d found himself wide awake, staring up at the glow from the moon spilling in through the skylight in the pinnacle of his yurt. He’d bought this trail camera to watch for wildlife on his property, but there was no reason he couldn’t use it for security too. What was it Suleka had said? He had to think like a pirate to catch a pirate.

The Nissan chugged down the driveway and Lange tucked his head in close to the camera. Sure enough, he heard the clicking sound of photos being taken as the Nissan pulled into view and parked in front of his yurt. This was definitely the right place for it.

Suleka climbed out of the truck and began walking toward his tree. “You need me to drive you around this morning?”

“If you would.”

She looked up at him, one eye closed against the morning sun. “That nice Prius of yours will turn into rodent habitat if you don’t drive it every once in a while.”

“I drive it!”

“Not very often.”

“I don’t prefer to drive—you know that, not after the stress of driving in New York City.”

“I don’t prefer to drive either, but I do it.”

He creased his brow at her. “What are you saying? You don’t want to drive me around this morning?”

“No, I’m saying that’s a nice Prius you’ve got sitting outside the Ranger Station at Rockport State Park. Nicer than my old pickup.”

“You want to drive my Prius instead of your truck?”

She thought for a second. “Probably not. Does it have one of those new-fangled start buttons?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then definitely not.”

“So why did you—?” Lange stopped himself, knowing that trying to make sense out of the conversation they’d just had was futile. He changed track. “How did you see me without even looking?”

“You should know me by now,” she replied, flicking her eyes toward the Skagit River shimmering silver in the morning sunlight as it slithered through and around the landscape below them. “I see everything.”

He huffed and started to climb down the tree. He did know her and he had to admit she was very observant. Others were rarely so observant. Although, he thought, as he looked over his shoulder and stretched his right leg out to touch his toes on the ground, someone had spotted his firewood pile and knew when he was gone, so he definitely shouldn’t get complacent. That’s how they’d managed to steal from him in the first place. His left foot dropped down to meet the right and he dipped forward to brush off his sweatpants.

“What were you doing up there?” Suleka asked, looking up in the tree again. “Oh, I see it now. Very clever. Is that for your firewood thief or the deer?”

“Both, if I’m lucky.” He straightened up and stepped away. His chest puffed out as he filled his lungs with morning mountain air. It was perfectly chill, like good white wine, and smelled like fresh oxygen and icy dew and boundless amounts of chlorophyll. Not that any of those things necessarily had an aroma, but that’s what Lange liked most: the absence of smells. Garbage smells, subway smells, exhaust smells, sewer smells, all the things that permeated the streets of NYC.

“We got a good solid frost last night,” mentioned Suleka, her eyes on the patches of white twinkling across the ground as the sun hit them.

Lange felt newly invigorated. “What time is it?” he asked, striding toward the yurt.

Suleka trotted along beside him. “Ten till eight.”

“That’s kind of early for you, isn’t it?”

“Tell me about it,” she groaned. Then justified her early arrival with, “Deller sent me. Got any coffee made?”

“Sitting on the woodstove,” nodded Lange.

“Good. I’ll fill you in over a cup.”

They climbed the steps and Lange motioned Suleka to go in as he slipped off his dark brown rubber sandals. He stepped over the threshold and immediately his cold, bare feet appreciated the radiant floor heat. He lingered a moment, flexing his toes, before crossing to his sleeping area. “Help yourself,” he said, pointing at the ceramic drip coffee pot sitting on the woodstove. “I’m going to change my pants, so don’t look.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Suleka shot back, looking down at the coffee pot. She lifted it off the woodstove and turned her back on Lange to carry it over to the kitchen area. “Want me to pour you a cup too?” she asked as she set the pot down on the counter next to the sink.

“Thanks, yes,” Lange replied. He pulled off his sweatpants, deposited them at the foot of his bed and climbed into his jeans.

Suleka lifted two mugs made by the local potter out of the dish drainer and set them next to the coffee pot. She took the ceramic filter off the top of the pot and filled each mug with dark, aromatic coffee. “Got any milk?” she asked, opening the door to the refrigerator.

Lange was sitting on the bed, pulling on some wool socks. “Don’t think so,” he answered.

Suleka looked for the quart she’d bought last time she’d gone shopping for Lange, but didn’t see it. “Boy, you get through milk fast,” she remarked, closing the fridge. She picked up both mugs of coffee and, without turning around, called out, “You decent?”

“Yep,” he replied. He stood up and they crossed the yurt toward each other, meeting at his desk in the center.

“How’s the writing going?” she asked, handing him his coffee.

“Better.” He lifted the mug to his lips and let the strong, slightly bitter scent tease his palate before taking a gulp. The warmth flowed through his chest and hit the pit of his stomach. “Did you find out about the thefts?”

“I did. I got names and places and I can point out most of them as we head over to Mary Lynn McCracken’s house this morning.”

Lange gave her a piercing look. “Why are we going there?”

“Because she was the last person that Margi spoke to on Friday night. And she was the one that called Margi on Saturday morning.”

“The missed call.”

“Exactly.”

“So she didn’t just wait for Margi to call her.”

“That’s what Deller wants you to go find out.”

“Is she even home?”

“Who, Mary Lynn?”

Lange nodded.

Suleka was sipping her coffee and made a darned-if-I-know face over the rim of the mug at him. “Deller said the retreat ended at breakfast today, so she figured Mary Lynn’s either home or on her way home. And if she’s not home, she said you can do some scouting with the SAR dogs around the Breckenridge place. They got there at first light.”

Lange was shaking his head no as he gulped down some more coffee. “I want to talk to the girlfriend.”

“She works downvalley …”

“Not before noon. I already checked with Collins.” He marched over to the kitchen and set his empty coffee cup on the counter. “You ready?”

Suleka moved her mug around in the air, as if she were looking for a place to set it but was not quite ready to let go of it.

“Bring that with you,” ordered Lange. He had the door open already to leave.

“Do you even know where she lives?” she called out after him.

“Marblemount,” he called back, slipping his feet into his Redwings outside the door.

Suleka gulped down the last of her coffee and set the mug down on his desk just to annoy him. She hoped he’d know more than just “Marblemount” by the time they got up there.

Part 10, October 2015

Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

The drive to Marblemount was much more pleasant than the interview with Breckenridge’s girlfriend, Shelby. The fall colors on the trees rising up the ridges alongside the highway made brushstrokes of warm orange and soft gold through the landscape of evergreens. The field of blueberry bushes just before the farm stand was such a burnished copper-crimson that Lange made Suleka pull over so he could take a photo with his phone.

But Shelby, a petite, full-bodied brunette whose hair stood out from her head like she’d had an electric shock, took the mellow right out of Lange’s mind with her surly tongue and abrasive manner. Pointing her finger at his chest, she made it clear that she had nothing to do with Margi Breckenridge, other than sleeping with her husband, and that she didn’t intend to waste her time answering any of his questions, especially since they were probably the same questions that the Sheriff’s Deputy had asked her last night. And she knew her rights!

Lange sighed inwardly. He probably had enough of an impression of this snippy young woman to leave it at that, but he felt compelled to push a little further. “Aren’t you concerned for Sam Breckenridge that his wife is missing?” he asked.

“No,” she retorted. “He was gonna leave her for me anyway.”

“Are you sure about that?”

She put one hand on her hip and flashed her large, dark eyes at him, trying to appear alluring, Lange guessed. “Wouldn’t you?” she said.

He held back the retort that came to mind and tried one last time to get the facts. “And you were in Eastern Washington Saturday morning?” he said.

“I told you, ask that other deputy. I have to get ready for work.”

Once Lange and Suleka were safely inside the Nissan again, she made her assessment. “If I were Sam, I’d stick with Margi. She’s much nicer than that little vixen.”

“Maybe he’d already come to that conclusion,” Lange mused.

Suleka stared at him, intrigued, as she turned the key in the ignition. “And if she knew that’s what he was thinking …” she added.

They let the idea hover as the Nissan crossed the green metal bridge over the Cascade River and started down Rockport-Cascade Rd., Lange with his eyes on the sunlight dancing on the surface of the water, and Suleka hunched over the steering wheel, her head tilted in contemplation. Having turned it over in his mind every which way, the ex-detective from NYC finally sighed. “But she was away all weekend.”

“What if,” Suleka theorized, “Shelby planned a meeting with Margi for when she got back?”

Lange faced her. “To what purpose?”

“To talk about Sam.”

“But then why would Margi go?”

“What if it was Margi who wanted the meeting?”

Lange caught on immediately. “Because Sam was talking about leaving her …”

“And she wanted to talk Shelby into backing off. Or at least leaving some room for her in the picture.”

“So Shelby agrees, as long as it can be someplace in Marblemount …”

“… Where she knows Margi goes wildcrafting …”

“At a time when she knows Sam won’t be home.”

Suleka’s enthusiasm for the idea rose. “I mean, there’s nothing to say that she’s been missing since Saturday morning.”

Lange opened his mouth to agree, but then his enthusiasm deflated. “Except the dog food.”

“What?”

He stared out the passenger window at the river again. If the bowl hadn’t been so full he could believe Margi had left as late as Sunday afternoon.

“What about the dog food?” Suleka insisted.

But Margi must have been planning to be away to leave so much food out for the dog, Lange thought. No, there was no way she’s only been gone since Sunday afternoon.

Suleka hit the steering wheel with the heel of her hand and snapped, “Don’t you know how frustrating it is when you leave me out of the discussion?”

“What’s that?” said Lange, completely unaware of her torture.

She pushed her lips up to her nose indignantly; he could be so dense.

“Nothing,” she mumbled.

Lange sat forward as Suleka swung to the left, pulling into a short gravel driveway with a brown, rambler-style house at the end of it. A silver Taurus with a yellow bumper sticker that said Grandma’s Taxi was parked in front of the house and a woman, leaning into the trunk, stood upright as they arrived and gave them an unwelcoming glare. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with teased dark hair and red lipstick to match her red-and-black-checked jacket. “Is that Mary Lynn?”

“Uh huh,” said Suleka.

“Has she lived upriver long?”

“A few years I think. Why?”

“I don’t know. She looks more suburban than upriver.”

Suleka laughed. “Well that’s Mary Lynn for you.”

She switched off the engine and they moved at the same time to get out of the Nissan. Mary Lynn marched toward them, her black pants flapping against her short heels. “What do you—?” She stopped as the stern in her face suddenly changed to delight. “Oh, hi, Suleka!”

“Hi, Mary Lynn.”

“I didn’t know you were coming over today.”

“Well it wasn’t planned.” Suleka held her right hand out, palm up, preparing to introduce Lange, but Mary Lynn continued on as if he weren’t there.

“Oh, I wish you could have come to the Women’s Retreat up at Baker Lake. You would have really loved it.”

“Is that right?”

“Everyone was so friendly and it was peaceful and relaxing. Plus the food was amazing. They made primarily vegetarian dishes, all organic of course, and—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” said Lange, not feeling sorry at all but doing his best to sound sorry. “But we’re under a time constraint here.”

“It’s about Margi Breckenridge,” Suleka added. “You know she’s missing?”

Mary Lynn’s forehead creased. “Yes, I heard.”

Lange reached his hand out to meet hers. “I’m Callum Lange,” he said, “and I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Her mouth made a little O of surprise and then her face lit up like a kid’s on a merry-go-round. “You’re Callum Lange!” she gushed. “I’ve heard so much about you. I keep telling Suleka every time I see her, which is not that often because—”

Lange retrieved his hand from her grasp and interrupted again. “I believe you were the last person to speak to Margi Breckenridge before she went missing.”

“Was I?”

“You spoke to her Friday night.”

“I did,” agreed Mary Lynn. “We needed to confab about whether she was coming to the retreat or not and how I’d find out what she decided, but I didn’t know that made me the last person to speak to her. How spooky.” She wrapped her open jacket across her chest in folded arms as if the thought made her want to hunker down against the cold.

“You told Deputy Collins that you waited for Margi’s call to know whether you should stop by and pick her up for the retreat. When she didn’t call, you just headed up to Baker Lake without her.”

“That’s right.”

“Except you didn’t.”

Lange thought he saw a fissure of fear cross her face but it was gone so quickly he couldn’t be sure. “What’s that?” she said.

“You didn’t just wait for her call and then leave when you didn’t get one. You called her on Saturday morning.”

Mary Lynn McCracken frowned like she didn’t understand.

“There was a missed call from you on Margi’s phone,” Suleka explained.

Lange bit down on the urge to scold Suleka. She should have waited for Mary Lynn to give it up without prompting. Maybe some training was in order.

But Mary Lynn seemed grateful for the reminder. “That’s right! I did call Margi. I guess I really wanted her to come with me and, well, you know how bad cell phone reception can be up here.” She was looking at Suleka whose phone chirruped in her pocket at that very moment as if to disprove the point. Suleka looked surprised, then walked away to answer the call, coming to a stop next to the open trunk of Mary Lynn’s car.

“Well it is,” Mary Lynn argued to Lange. “People are always leaving me voicemails that I don’t get until I’m closer to the cell tower in Concrete so I thought maybe I should check. But Margi didn’t pick up.” Her face became glum. “I wish she had come with me. We wouldn’t be here now if she’d come.”

Lange thought for a moment, watching the frost making big, silvery drips on the bottoms of the pendulous cedar tree branches as it melted in the morning sunshine. “If you were worried about cell phone reception,” he said finally, bringing his focus back to Mary Lynn, “why didn’t you just stop by on Saturday morning to see if Margi wanted to go?”

“I thought about it.” She darted a look at Suleka, who was ending her phone conversation. “But I can be kind of pushy and I didn’t want to make her come.”

Lange nodded, as if he understood. Suleka walked back toward them and he could tell by the way she was looking at him that she had something important to relay. He just had one more question for Mary Lynn. “And you knew Margi was missing how?”

“I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and overheard someone talking about it.”

“Albert’s was open that early?” Suleka sounded surprised. She pulled her pocket watch out to check the time.

“I meant the gas station by the Baker Lake Highway,” Mary Lynn put in quickly. “I stopped there to pick up a few groceries and the Concrete Herald because I knew it was too early for Albert’s.”

But Lange had seen the flush on her cheekbones, had heard the backpedalling in her voice, and he knew they’d just caught her in a lie. What baffled him was why would she lie about where she heard the news?

Part 11, November 2015

Editor’s note: This is the 11th installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

“What time does Albert’s open?” Lange rapped out as soon as they cleared McCracken’s driveway.

“Nine.”

“And what time is it now?”

“Nine-ten.” Suleka tuned left on Rockport-Cascade Rd., heading for Hwy. 530.

“We’d better get a move on. That took a lot longer than I thought it would. Who was on the phone?”

“Charlotte. She owns the Inn on the South Skagit, just east of Concrete. Well, she and her girls own it. Anyway, she told me that one of her guests had a hand-painted gourd with wolves on it and she wondered if it was one of the ones Margi painted.”

“Was it?” The news had Lange on the edge of his seat, looking directly at Suleka.

“Well, she didn’t know. That’s why she called us, so we’d come and look at it.”

“It’s still there.”

“I guess. Yes. Well I’m not sure but …”

“How did she know about Margi’s wildlife gourds?”

“I told her.” Suleka thought about this. “No, maybe I didn’t tell her exactly, but I’m pretty sure I told Kathy, who either told Charlotte or Liz. And Liz would have told Charlotte.”

“I hope you’re not gossiping about our cases.”

“I wouldn’t call it gossiping …”

“But you tell locals information pertinent to the investigation?” Lange could feel himself getting more and more irate. They passed the Breckenridge place on the left, Search and Rescue vehicles plugging the driveway, and continued on, without getting distracted, to Highway 530.

Suleka was unapologetic. “If I think they need to know it, then yes, sure I do.”

“They don’t need to know anything,” Lange said emphatically. “Only I need to know it until the case is solved.”

“Then why did you send me off to find out who’d been burglarized?” Suleka reasoned. “I can’t get that information without talking to people and talking means answering their questions so they can determine if they want to help or not.”

“Why wouldn’t they want to help?”

“The Upper Valley is a small community, Cal. Nobody’s going to tell you anything they don’t want you to know. Anyway, I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about. My telling Liz or Charlotte—or maybe it was Nancy, I don’t remember—but my telling somebody about Margi’s artwork led to Charlotte calling us.”

“Which may not be of any help!” Lange stressed.

“That’s true. But what if it is one of Margi’s gourds? Whoever has it must have bought it from Margi, which means Margi took those gourds somewhere to sell. Which is why we couldn’t find them on her property. And presumably she took them somewhere on Saturday morning, without telling anyone where she was going, and maybe she’s still there.”

“Where?!”

“Wherever she sold the gourd!” Suleka hesitated, as if waiting for him to comment, but when he didn’t, she went on with her theorizing. “Or maybe she made enough money to buy a bus ticket to Vegas and she’s on her way to have some fun.”

“Did she ever talk about going to Vegas?”

“No, I don’t mean Vegas exactly. I mean … well, she could have gone to …” She had her right hand up in the air and Lange waited for her to name the place that would appeal to Margi. But nothing came. Instead she grabbed the steering wheel again and snapped, “Well, you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t—because if Margi ran off to kick up her heels, she would have taken Coco with her.”

“Well that’s just one theory. I’m not saying it actually happened. I’m just saying it’s a good job I mentioned these gourds in the phone tree because it made Charlotte call us when she saw one.”

“And I’m saying you should keep your mouth shut when we’re working on a case.”

“Hah!”

“Hah?”

“You’ll be saying that out of the other side of your mouth when you see where this gourd leads us!”

Lange chomped down on his irritation and thought about her statement as they crossed the narrow bridge over the Skagit River. Suleka’s idea might have some validity, but still she needed to know when to hold her tongue. Or maybe just when to stop acting like a friend to the locals he was questioning and start acting more like a detective’s assistant.

He snorted as they pulled up to the intersection with Hwy. 20; what in the world was he thinking? He wasn’t a detective out here on Sauk Mountain and Suleka had never agreed to be any kind of detective’s assistant. A little shopping and the occasional cleaning of his yurt, that’s what she’d agreed to when they’d met. It was just bad luck that she’d ended up driving him to a couple of crime scenes. Bad luck for her, that is, because he’d found her pretty helpful. Detective Deller, the only real detective in this whole set-up, must have thought so too, because Suleka was the one she called when she needed Lange’s help.

The Nissan turned left onto the highway. Deller hadn’t called him with the lab results yet, and it was what?—he slipped his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and looked—9:16 a.m. He focused on Suleka again, curious. “Did Deller tell you whether those items we found at the Breckenridge place revealed anything significant?” They came around a bend in the road and he saw the big trees of Rockport State Park. Suleka said nothing. “Did she?” Lange prodded. But again she was silent. Two small deer were browsing under the trees at the edge of the highway, but Lange couldn’t see them through the cloud of hostility fogging up the inside of the truck. “Oh what? You’re not talking to me now?’ he groused.

Suleka pounced. “No, I’m keeping my mouth shut. Just like you said.”

“I didn’t mean when talking to me!”

“Well how am I supposed to know the difference?” The words were innocent enough but Lange saw sarcasm in the curl of her lip. “Best I keep my mouth shut at all times.”

They were at the gates to the state park and Lange glanced right, to check on his Prius parked at the Ranger’s house, when he was distracted by the sight of some people coming out of the end of Sauk Mountain Road. Three people on foot, one markedly smaller than the other two, pulling a Red Rider Wagon full of—

“Firewood!” he yelled, pointing ahead at the boys now walking west on Hwy. 20. “That’s my firewood!”

“What do you want me to—”

“Pull over! Pull over!”

Suleka stomped on the brakes and jerked the truck over to the hard shoulder. Lange tumbled out before the Nissan came to a complete stop. “Freeze!” he yelled and three heads spun in his direction.

That’s when he realized he knew these kids. Liked them even. And had helped them more than once.  His surprise that they were stealing from him must have hit at the same moment as their surprise that he’d caught them because they suddenly dumped the red wagon and hightailed it away from him. Lange immediately gave chase; they might be young and fast, but he was practiced and he wasn’t going to let them escape without an explanation. The world around him narrowed to the sound of his breath, huffing in and out of his nose, and the beat of his feet on the asphalt pulsing in his ears.

And then an explosion—BAM!—and his left shoulder kicked back so violently his feet came out from under him and slammed him to the ground. A searing pain burned through his collarbone and he groaned, snatching at it with his right hand to try to make it stop. Somewhere through the thick fog inside his head he heard a voice, frantic, beside him. “Cal, are you okay? Are you okay?”

“Go! Go!” Lange whispered, waving down the street with his right hand. That’s when he saw the blood. He looked down to find a dark stain creeping across his shirt from the fire in his chest. He flopped back, writhing in agony.

“Are you okay?” the voice said again.

“I told you to go,” Lange insisted.

“I’m not chasing after those boys! I know exactly who they are and where they live, I don’t need to give myself a stroke trying to catch them.”

The fog began to lift at the matter-of-factness in the voice and Lange opened his eyes to see Suleka, kindly Suleka, leaning over him. Suleka, not Jimmy Vonortas.

“Are you okay?” she asked again.

“I don’t know,” he said, confused. “Am I?”

“You fell down but I don’t know that you’re hurt.” Her eyes were searching up and down his body and he suddenly felt exposed and embarrassed. He knew he was on the ground for no reason other than memory. Something had thrown him back to the streets of New York.

“I heard an explosion,” he offered sheepishly, sitting up and brushing himself off.

“A car backfired …”

“That must have been it.” He stood up and looked down the highway. The boys were gone. But he also knew where they lived, and he felt foolish for running after them. Even more foolish for thinking he’d been shot.

“Why did you fall down?” Suleka asked, as they walked back toward the Nissan.

“I just,” Lange started, then realized he’d have to listen to a million questions and maybe he wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Not without a whiskey in his hand. “I tripped,” he said.

Suleka looked at him. She knew he was lying but she also sensed this wasn’t the time to push it. “Well, get in,” she said. “Charlotte has other things to do than wait on us.”

“Can we stop at the boys’ house first?”

“We’d better. Because I have some questions for them!”

Part 12, December 2015

Editor’s note: This is the 12th installment of a monthly serialized story by award-winning author and playwright Nicola Pearson of Sauk City.

They rode down the hill and turned left, preparing to drop down to the singlewide mobile home where the boys lived. But there was no need. All three boys had stopped running and were scuffing their awkward-sized feet in an unhurried, teenage way along the gravel road, heads down, shaggy hair flopping down into their eyes. They were brothers—Zach, Casey, and Seth—the two oldest blonde and fair-skinned, and Seth, the youngest, stockier and darker. Different dads. Lange didn’t know for sure, but guessed Seth was 10 or 11, and the other boys closer to 15. He had interacted a number of times with all three of them and never would have guessed they’d steal from him. He rolled down his window and yelled, “Hey, I want my firewood back!”

This time the boys didn’t bother to act surprised. “You can have it,” said Zach.

“We never even wanted to steal it,” piped in Seth, his voice high with childish indignation. “And it wasn’t us that took your milk!”

“What milk?” Lange was confused.

“And what do you mean, you never wanted to steal it?!” Suleka was caustic.

They all three spoke at the same time:

“We were gonna pay for it …”

“You weren’t home …”

“We didn’t know how much …”

“What milk?!” insisted Lange.

Casey took control of the explanation. “We came to buy firewood, like, three days ago, but you weren’t there so we figured we’d walked all that way, may as well take a coupla armloads and make it right with you next time.”

His brothers joined in. “But then you weren’t there again yesterday.”

“And it was cold.”

“So we took some more.”

“But we have money.”

“Or we’ll work.”

“Whatever you want,” Casey ended.

“Why didn’t your mother just drive you up to buy wood?” Suleka interjected and the boys looked at each other and down at the ground so quickly that their embarrassment could have been missed. But it wasn’t.

“What milk?!” Lange asked for a third time.

“The milk in your fridge,” Seth said, as if this should have been obvious.

“You went into my yurt?!”

“No! But we’ve seen that guy go in twice now and both times leave with a quart of milk.”

Suleka puckered her lips in irony. “No wonder you’re always out.”

“Which guy?” Lange wanted to know.

“The one with the long hair that’s always sneaking through the woods.”

“You’ve seen him?”

“Sometimes. But he moves fast.”

“Does your mother know you’re roaming the woods when you’re s’posed to be in school?” Suleka admonished, and again the brothers became sheepish. She wasn’t about to ignore it a second time. “What’s going on?” she demanded. “Where’s your mother?”

Hurried glances from underneath fallen fringes and shuffling of feet indicated they really didn’t want to say, but Lange knew they would if he could just wait. He shot Suleka the full force of his clear blue eyes to hold her tongue. She took the hint. A ten count later, Casey reluctantly admitted, “She took off on a drug binge with her new boyfriend.”

“Is that why I’ve been seeing you walking the highway up to Rockport so much lately?” asked Lange.

They nodded. “To get groceries.”

Suleka’s hackles went up immediately. “She left you alone in the house with no groceries?”

“And no wood,” added Lange.

The brothers glanced at each other then back at Lange. “We don’t want anyone to know.”

“Else they’ll split us up. Put us into care.”

Lange checked with Suleka, but she avoided eye contact. The brothers had only been living in the Upper Valley a few years when mom had moved in with her previous boyfriend, but they’d obviously adjusted to life in the woods. Lange could understand their reluctance to move again, especially if it meant being separated. “All right,” he declared. “Come up to my place when Suleka is there with the Nissan and you can load it up with wood.”

“And it’s okay for us to work it off?” Casey asked.

“Sure.” Lange didn’t care whether they paid for the wood or not, but he knew they’d feel more comfortable giving him some hours. Then a thought occurred to him. “How come you ran if you were planning to pay me?”

More glances and shuffling, and Lange realized they didn’t have a clue. They’d run from instinct rather than guilt. He let it go. “Can you show me where this milk thief wanders?”

“Okay,” they agreed.

“It’ll have to be later though.”

“After school.”

“You’re not in school,” Suleka reminded them.

“Two-hour late start,” Seth shot back.

“Good. Good!” Lange emphasized, leaning forward in his seat. “Don’t want to give Child Protective cause to come looking for you.”

“Yeah,” agreed Zach. “Plus it’s warm at school.”

“School bus!” Seth snapped at his brothers, eyes bulging, fleshy cheeks quivering with urgency. They glanced up at the highway as their feet began moving away.

“Gotta go,” Casey said over his shoulder to Lange.

Suleka let the Nissan drift along the road beside them. “We’ll pick you up from school at 2:30,” she said through the open window. The sound of a growling diesel engine became louder and she glimpsed school bus yellow in her rearview mirror.

“Okay,” agreed the brothers, stopping in the middle of a wide spot in the road.

Suleka lifted herself up in the driver’s seat and craned her neck around to keep talking to them as the Nissan coasted by. “I’ll take you grocery shopping later too if you want.”

They turned away and she heard the accordion expulsion of air as the school bus stopped in the middle of the road. She put her foot down on the gas, moving the Nissan forward toward Highway 20 and The Inn. “One mystery solved,” she announced, relieved. Lange sucked softly on the plate in his mouth. The road narrowed as the Skagit River came in on their left. They both jumped as a bald eagle leapt off an overhanging hemlock tree branch directly in front of them. Its large, brown body dipped scarily close to the Nissan before the action of its wings, flapping hard and tight, propelled the magnificent, white-headed bird upward. “That was close,” Suleka grimaced, the white tail feathers zigzagging through a dense patch of trees to their right before disappearing.

Still Lange said nothing. He was watching the bird, but thinking about the brothers wandering onto his property when he wasn’t there. Maybe he should talk to them about that. Not that he necessarily wanted to deny them access to his place, because having them around periodically was a way to keep an eye on things when he wasn’t home. But he’d prefer to be informed immediately if they saw something unusual. Like the guy stealing his milk. Who knew how many quarts he’d furnished for this fellow? If they’d left him a note saying what they’d seen, he would have hung his trail camera sooner.

He yawned, arching his chest toward the sun pouring through the windshield now that they were on Highway 20, heading for Concrete.

“You want to tell me about the shooting?” demanded Suleka, and his moment in the sun was over.

“What shooting?” he queried, cautious.

“The one that caused you to do a header when you heard that car backfire.”

He felt himself slump; she’d figured it out. “It was nothing.”

“Didn’t look like nothing the way you were squirming around with your face all scrunched up.”

They were crossing the Baker River, and Lange looked past Suleka to where the Baker met the Skagit; usually they were two bodies of limestone-fed green water, but today the Skagit was a torrent of glacial melt chocolate milk. “We were chasing a suspect,” Lange began, letting his two worlds come together. “In the Bronx. I could hear my partner gaining on me from behind, when suddenly the suspect flipped around and shot at us. Next thing I knew I was on the ground, with my shoulder on fire with pain. Like someone had drilled a red hot poker into my collarbone and left it there.”

Suleka glanced at him. His fingers had crept toward a spot on his left collarbone.

“You weren’t wearing a vest?”

Lange shrugged. “We were detectives. We weren’t expecting a shootout.”

“Did you catch the guy?”

Lange nodded. “My partner, Jimmy, chased him around a corner and caught him scrambling up a metal fence. He screamed at him to freeze, but the guy kept climbing so Jimmy shot. When that didn’t slow him down, Jimmy shot again. But the guy made it over the top of the fence and kept on running. About 30 paces later he crumpled into a heap. Dead.” He rubbed the scar through his fleece jacket. “We think it was adrenaline that kept him going.”

Suleka slowed to let a logging truck go past her, then turned to cross the Skagit over the Dalles Bridge. “I can’t imagine,” she sighed.

“You’re better off not,” Lange told her. He sat forward, leaving New York City behind him, and looked past Suleka at middle Finney Ridge. Finney Creek came down from the mountains toward the Skagit and then turned left to run parallel to the river for a good 10 miles, then it dropped in south of the Dalles Bridge. He remembered when he was a boy, out visiting his uncle Glen for the summer, how they would stand at the side of Finney Creek, watching sunlight dapple the water braiding in and out around myriad tiny islands. His uncle would explain that the flatness of the creek meant the water flowed evenly, making it perfect for fishing. Lots of spawning grounds and not too many water pools. They’d tie on some lures and catch their limit of long, beautiful cutthroat trout.

Lange felt a sad sweetness settle on him, like he’d said goodbye to a loved one. Finney Ridge was made almost entirely of sediment and glacial debris, and intensive logging had caused sloughing and sliding, silting up the creek water and putting an end to the fishing. He clucked at the roof of his mouth.

“What?” Suleka asked, as they headed down the South Skagit, toward The Inn.

“This gourd better be worth the trip,” was all he said back.

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