Lending a Paw: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery (Bookmobile Cat Mysteries) (10 page)

“Hi. I’d like to talk to Detective Devereaux or Detective Inwood.” She made no move, so I added, “It’s about the murder of Stan Larabee. I have some information that might be useful.” Or not. Since they were the trained professionals, they were the ones who would be able to figure it out.

“Your name?”

“Minnie Hamilton.”

“I’ll see if one of them is available.”

I hummed the
Jeopardy!
song to myself a few times and eventually the tall and thin detective came out into the entryway. Devereaux or Inwood? I couldn’t remember.

“Miss Hamilton. You have something for us?”

“Hi, Detective. I heard a story yesterday that I think you should know about.” I looked around. There wasn’t anyone else in the small lobby; there also weren’t any chairs. Not even a bench. “Should we go somewhere else?”

“A story,” he said flatly.

“Not a made-up story. Something I heard.”

“Secondhand knowledge, then.”

Irritation started to climb up the back of my neck. “A young woman overheard a conversation between Stan Larabee and a woman. The woman made a statement that could be construed as a threat.”

“Uh-huh. Construed as a threat. So it wasn’t really a threat.”

“She said, and I quote, ‘Not if you were the last man on earth. I daresay the next time I see you will be at your funeral.’”

“So you’re quoting the girl who was eavesdropping on the woman who was talking to Larabee?”

Said like that, it sounded lame. Still. “Yes,” I said.

He looked at me. Down at me, since he was more than a foot taller. “Their names?”

“The young woman’s name is Lina. I don’t know her last name, but she works at the Lakeview Art Gallery.”

“Uh-huh.” He made no move to take out the notepad I could see sticking out of his shirt pocket. I itched to yank it free and write the information down myself. “And the woman’s name who made the purported threat?” he asked.

“Caroline,” I said. “Caroline Grice.”

He blinked once, then said, with zero inflection, “You think Caroline Grice killed Stan Larabee.”

The irritation zoomed up into my skull and exploded in my brain. “What I think is that last week I was told to pass on any information about Stan’s murder. So I’m passing along what I heard. What you choose to do with it is up to you.”

He sighed. “Miss Hamilton, thank you for coming in. But we hear stories like this all the time. Sometimes they’re true, sometimes they’re not. We’ll sort it out, though, don’t you worry about that.”

“I’m not worried. I’m just trying to help.”

“And we appreciate it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”

He nodded and left, abandoning me to wrestle with my irritation all by myself. I felt head-patted and . . . and managed. I hated that feeling. Just because I was young and female and short didn’t mean I was brainless.

“Or clueless,” I added, walking out of the building with fast yard-swallowing strides, thinking furious thoughts.

What a waste of time that had been. He hadn’t taken anything I said seriously. Maybe—I smiled a cruel smile—maybe I should send him a copy of
Little Girls Can Be Mean
. You’d think police officers would be glad to listen. You’d think they’d be happy to hear anything that might help an investigation. You’d think—

I stopped short.

An appointment, he’d said. Some appointment.

I watched the tall, thin detective get out of his car and walk through the front doorway of the most popular diner in town.

Cha
pter 9

I
t was almost nine p.m. when I left the library, but thanks to the time of year and the combined geographic facts of being north of the forty-fifth parallel and being at the western edge of the Eastern time zone, there was still almost an hour of daylight left to me.

I walked home through the backstreets of Chilson, avoiding the busy main downtown blocks, thinking about dinner. There might, just might, be some spaghetti sauce in the freezer, and I was pretty sure there was a box of spaghetti in the cupboard. Yesterday I’d picked up salad-type items, so the only thing I needed would be—

Thud!

A man’s voice called out. “Ow!” (Pause.) “That freaking hurt!” (Pause.) “A lot!”

I was close to the marina, just outside Rafe’s house. Or what would be a house when he finished redoing the roof, siding, wiring, HVAC, and plumbing of his century-old fixer-upper. I stepped gingerly onto the warped porch floorboards, wood creaking underneath me, went up to the front door, and knocked. “Rafe? It’s Minnie.”

“I’d rather suffer without an audience,” came a strained voice. “Go away.”

“You know I’m not going to.” With that as warning, I opened the door. One quick glance was all it took. “I’m getting my car,” I said. “And then we’re going to the hospital.”

• • •

The lovely little town of Chilson had many things—outstanding views, a fine school system, a wide variety of stores and restaurants, and a top-notch library—but it did not have a hospital. Or an urgent care clinic. At first Rafe had pushed for me to take him to his doctor’s house. “It’s Monday, right? He’ll be out golfing, but he’ll be home by dark. A few beers in him isn’t going to hurt his sewing skills any.”

But as we argued, the wad of paper towels I’d made Rafe hold to his forearm started turning red. “We’re not waiting,” I said. “Pick a hospital.”

“Lots of choices.” He shifted to let me buckle his seat belt around him. “The Traverse City hospital is sweet, but it’ll take an hour to get there. Last time I got stitches, I went to Kalkaska and they did a good job, but my buddy Carl works at the Gaylord hospital and I haven’t seen him in a while. Then again, they say Petoskey has really hot nurses.”

By this time I’d started the car and pointed its nose north.

“I thought I got to pick,” Rafe said.

“You took too long, so we’re going to Charlevoix. It’s closest.”

“Oh.” He made a “huh” noise. “I didn’t think about that. Charlevoix will be okay, I guess. The view’s not as good as Petoskey. View of the bay is half the pay, you know?”

“Keep pressing on the paper towels,” I said.

• • •

Both the Charlevoix and Petoskey hospitals were built next to Lake Michigan. How you could rate one as having a view better than the other, I wasn’t sure, but since there was no lake view from the emergency room of either hospital, there wasn’t much point in starting a comparison chart.

“Nice slice,” the ER doctor said. He’d lifted the reddened paper towels and was studying Rafe’s forearm. “How did this happen?”

Rafe grinned at the doctor. “Little problem with the reciprocating saw. It wanted to go left when I wanted it to go right.”

“The saw won,” I muttered.

“Saws usually do,” the doctor said. “A few stitches and you’ll be good to go.”

Rafe glanced at the doctor’s name tag. “Tucker Kleinow,” he said out loud. “You new here?”

“I’m going to clean your wound,” Dr. Kleinow said. “This will sting a little. . . . Yes, I just moved up here last month.”

“Yeah?” Rafe asked. “Where you from?”

Rafe would pick at the guy until he found a connection of some sort. With Rafe there were maybe three degrees of separation. “Let the doctor work,” I said. “It’s not his job to satisfy your curiosity.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Dr. Kleinow said, giving me a brief smile.

It was a very nice smile and, I suddenly realized, it was on a very good-looking face that was about my own age. He had that blond hair that would turn white in the summer, and wasn’t so tall that I’d get neck pains looking up at him. A definite bonus. I glanced at his left hand. No ring.

Rafe caught my look and winked. “So, Doc, what does your wife think of life up north?”

“No wife,” he said absently, dabbing at the wound. “Haven’t found anyone who can live with the hours I work.”

“Weeeell,” Rafe drawled. “Isn’t that a coincidence? Minnie here is—”

“Is thinking you should be quiet and let the doctor stitch you up.” Rafe was kind, honest, intelligent, hardworking, and often funny, but the word “subtle” wasn’t in his vocabulary.

The doctor glanced from me to Rafe, reached a conclusion I couldn’t interpret, and went on with his work.

Rafe waggled his eyebrows. “Come on, Min, you got to—”

“Keep quiet.”

“You’re the killjoy of the century.”

“That’s me. Now hush.”

“Not even—”

I put my index finger to my lips in the classic librarian gesture. “Shhh.”

This time, with the needle approaching his skin, he shushed.

• • •

Rafe wedged himself against the passenger door and put his feet up on the dash. “That doctor caught your eye, huh, Min?”

I slapped at his ankles until he moved his feet. “None of your business, Mr. Niswander.”

“Yeah?” He snorted. “Bet you come asking about him inside of a week.”

The paternal side of Rafe’s family had lived in the area for thousands of years and the maternal side had homesteaded outside Chilson right after the Civil War. What Rafe couldn’t find out about someone wasn’t worth knowing. Speaking of which . . . “What are people saying about Stan Larabee’s murder?”

Rafe picked at the bandage on his arm until I growled at him to quit. “Larabee? Most are saying that he got what he deserved, that he was a cruel dude, and it’s a shock no one knocked him off before now.”

“Cruel?”

He shrugged. “Rich people don’t have a rep for being nice.”

Irritation flared. “That’s stupid. Money doesn’t have anything to do with being nice. Anyone from any socioeconomic group can be cruel. Matter of fact—”

“Hey, hey.” Rafe held up his good hand. “I’m just saying what they’re saying. You asked, remember? Don’t yell at me.”

“Sorry,” I muttered.

“Want to know what people are saying about you?”

Like I wanted a hole in my boat’s hull. “No.”

“About you and Stan’s death, I mean.”

That was different. “Sure.”

He settled back against the door. “The best one I heard is you killed Stan yourself because he tried to take advantage of you.”

I stared at him until the car’s tires hit the rumble strip on the edge of the two-lane highway. “That’s . . . that’s . . . ,” I spluttered, steering the car back to the middle of the lane.

“Yeah, I know.” Rafe grinned. “Nutso. I’m just saying what they’re saying. Ready for the next one?”

“Not yet.” I sucked in a few breaths, blew them out. “Okay, I’m good.”

“I heard someone say you saw Stan hiding something in the farmhouse, that some mob guy killed him for it, and now you’re scared they’re after you.”

“Somebody’s been watching too much TV.”

“Way.” Rafe nodded. “I heard that one at the diner.”

The diner. My anger at the detective went bright red all over again. He hadn’t taken anything I said seriously, not one thing. Was he even taking this investigation seriously? Maybe Holly was right; maybe they were pegging her for Stan’s murder and not looking for anyone else.

The back of my throat tightened and it took me a couple of swallows before I could say, “Anything else?”

“Normal stuff. There’s a ghost in the farmhouse who killed Stan. That no one killed him, that Stan set it up himself to look like a murder so he could make the ultimate payback.”

“Payback against who?”

Rafe shrugged. “Dunno. I heard that one at the auto parts store.”

“If Stan set it up to look like a murder, he would have set it up so someone would be framed for the murder.”

“Never said those boys were brilliant.” He grinned.

“So who are they saying killed Stan?”

“Besides you? Well . . .” He held up the index finger on his good hand. “There’s your boss. Doesn’t look right, the library getting all that money. And there’s Cookie Tom.” Rafe put up a second finger. “He hated Stan’s guts because of some boat deal. Stan sold him an old Century and the motor died on Tom first time he took it out.” Rafe smirked. “And there’s Otis what’s-his-name.”

“Rahn?”

“Yeah. Ran where?” Rafe laughed. “Word is old Otis was dating one of Stan’s sisters way back when and Stan dumped a bucket of pig feed on him right before he made the big move.” He looked at his fingers. “What was that, three? Yeah. Next is Bill D’Arcy.”

“Who’s he?”

“Nobody. He’s new in town. Hangs out at the Round Table and never talks to anyone. Which is pretty suspicious. So he’s four. And there’s that Holly you work with. The cops have been talking to her. And there’s Lloyd Goodwin.”

I frowned. “Mr. Goodwin? How could he kill anyone? He can’t even walk without a cane.”

“Maybe that’s what he used before he got out his gun.” Rafe twirled an imaginary cane and whacked it on the dashboard. “Yah! Gotcha!”

“Why would Mr. Goodwin kill Stan?”

Rafe got in one more whack. “Wouldn’t. Neither would you or old Otis or Holly or Stephen or Tom. I figure it was one of his relatives. He had a ton of sisters and all of them had a passel of kids. Bound to be one of them, hoping they’d get money. Everybody says they’ll challenge the will. Or maybe there’s some old family feud and it ended up in murder. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, only with Larabees and former Larabees.” He laughed.

“I didn’t know Stan had so many relatives.”

“Oh, sure. He didn’t like them, is all.” Rafe grinned. “Can’t say I blame him. You ever met any of his sisters?”

“How many does he have?”

“Three?” He squinted, peering through the front windshield as if the view of the rolling countryside would jog his memory. “Four, maybe.”

“You’re no help.”

“Get what you pay for.”

“I’m paying for gas money to Charlevoix and back. Plus I spent my whole night on you. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Almost makes up for the time I spent fixing the roof of your houseboat last September.”

Point to Rafe. A big one. “And I still owe you for that.” Fall was the busiest time for his job, and he’d spent two straight weekends helping me repair my rotting roof. “I can’t believe anyone thinks I killed Stan.”

“Yeah, well, you know people. Some of them will say anything just so they can say something.”

I glanced at him. “Rafe Niswander, I’m not sure if you’re the smartest person I know or the dumbest.”

“Smartest,” he said, and put his feet up on the dashboard.

I pushed them down. “How many stitches did you just get? Dumbest.”

“Oh, yeah? Bet I can tell you something about Stan Larabee you don’t know.”

“You’re on.” I slid a five-dollar bill out of my front pocket and laid it on the console. Time spent with Rafe almost always resulted in a five-dollar bet and I’d prepared myself while he was getting sewn up. “Let’s see yours.”

Rafe
oof
ed and grunted and eventually got his wallet out of his back pocket. He put his five on top of mine. “That farmhouse where you found Larabee? He owned it.”

“He . . . what?”

“Paid cash for it a couple weeks ago.” Rafe nodded. “Heard it firsthand from a guy who used to work with the brother of the guy Larabee bought it off of.” He swiped the fives off the dashboard and shoved them in his front pocket. “Not much of a mystery, then, why he was out there. He was checking out his new digs.”

So, one question answered. But a bigger one remained. Why had Stan bought a decrepit farmhouse in the middle of nowhere? I opened my mouth to ask, but Rafe jumped in.

“But I got no idea why he bought it. Eighty acres in the middle of east county flatland?” He snorted. “Hardly anyone wanted to live there fifty years ago and no one wants to live there now. Real estate in that part of the county moves slower than my hair grows.”

He was right, and I said so.

“See?” He preened. “Smart.”

I pointed at his bandage. “Or not.”

He gave me a hurt look. “Hey, these things happen. I can’t be careful all the time, you know. No one can.”

Which was truth itself. I smiled at him. “Let’s go see what Kristen has for leftovers.”

“If she has steak to get rid of, will you cut it for me and not make fun?”

I held up my hand in the three-fingered Scout salute. “I promise.”

• • •

The next morning I walked a different route to work and passed the Lakeview Art Gallery. Closed, of course, that time of day, but I stopped and looked in through the wide windows at the paintings. Charcoal portraits, abstract acrylics, watercolors of water views.

Hmm.

The rest of my walk to work, my thoughts went from art to music to literature to libraries and back to art. By late morning, I’d come up with an idea, so I went upstairs and tugged on the lion’s beard.

“You want to do what?” Stephen asked.

His hair had a rumpled look and . . . I took a quick count of buttonholes. Yes, Stephen’s shirt was one button off. If he’d been anyone else, I would have smiled and made a shirt-buttoning gesture, but this was Stephen, and there were lines one was not invited to cross.

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