I still had the key that Renee had given me to her carriage house. Stepping into the cold, torn-up building was a familiar sensation, never uplifting and with nothing here to improve on it. I changed back into my work clothes, got a trouble light, and hunkered down where we’d found the cache.
The top of the masonry foundation wall, about a foot wide, had become a rat highway; with the caked dung and debris, the surface was hard to see, and we hadn’t examined it closely yesterday. But as I moved the light beam, I spotted the pile of wood chips in a corner where rim and floor joists met, under the wall plate and studs-all dry old wood with plenty of updraft, a perfect place for a fire to start.
Shavings like that got scattered around during construction, although there was no apparent reason for this buildup. But a heavy sprinkling of a dark substance was mixed in, mostly congealed now but still finely granular in a few spots. I touched a fingertip to one of those and sniffed. It gave off the unmistakable acrid smell of gunpowder.
I made an effort to believe that this was just happenstance with a touch of freak coincidence, and that imagining anything else was buying into a folie a deux with Renee. But she was right. The powder hadn’t just sifted down through the floorboards; there was too much of it, and no gaps directly above the spot.
Before the rats had turned the volatile black powder sodden, a single spark could have set it flaring. Flames and firefighters’ hoses would have obliterated the setup; if any traces were found, there’d have seemed nothing strange about its presence in an area where a man had reloaded shotgun shells.
But the enamel jewelry box would have stayed more or less intact, with the fire mainly above it-the contents maybe heat-damaged, but still recognizable.
And investigators would swiftly have reached the conclusion that Professor Callister had hidden it there.
So had he? Or was Renee right again-that the real killer had established this slick ruse to divert suspicion from himself? The fire-resistant jewelry box seemed a notch fortuitous. Maybe he had provided it himself to fit his scheme, figuring that people would assume it had belonged to Astrid. Had he just stumbled across the photos somehow, maybe ransacking her cabin after the crime? Or had he known about them, and planned in advance to use them this way?
I poked around the study for a few more minutes without accomplishing anything, then admitted that I was mainly just stalling my visit to Sheriff Gary Varna.
As I walked across the yard to my truck, my gaze was caught by a vehicle a couple hundred yards uphill, in the woods behind the Callisters’ house. That seemed like an odd place to stop. There were no houses or anything else nearby. It wasn’t even a turnout; you’d have to pull off of Montana Avenue and drive a ways through the trees to get there.
The vehicle started to move immediately, pulling away and disappearing. All I could tell was that it was a mid-sized SUV, dark blue, several years old. They were a dime a dozen around here.
No doubt there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for its presence. That spot being an excellent vantage point overlooking this property, hidden from passing traffic and most other eyes, and the driver taking off as soon as I came into view, was all just coincidence.
Neil McMahon – Dead Silver
THE LEWIS AND CLARK COUNTY courthouse was a somber gray stone building that had seen its fifteen minutes of fame when the just-caught Unabomber was photographed on the steps outside. Besides housing the Sheriff’s Department, it was also the old jail, and you couldn’t fail to feel the gravity of that.
I’d been nervous about my offer to talk to Gary Varna ever since I’d made it to Renee. It was true that Gary was a longtime acquaintance of mine, and I could even call him a friend. And I thought he’d probably agree to an off-the-record look at what we’d found-not as a favor to me, but because he wanted to know what was lying under every rock, and he hated loose ends.
What worried me was that he suspected, correctly, my involvement in the disappearance of two men a while back. That had been the occasion for my last visit to the courthouse, handcuffed and flanked by deputies.
Now my relationship with him was a lot like Captain Hook’s with the crocodile. Gary patiently kept an eye on me, following the tick of my inner alarm clock, confident that one of these days, the little raft of phony alibis that I’d patched together would hit a reef. I was equally sure that he was right.
There was some comfort in knowing that if he really wanted to push it, he long since could have. In fact, I had reason to believe that he had even run interference for me during that investigation. But I couldn’t help suspecting that was because I was a morsel he was saving for later.
Meantime, we got along fine, although if I happened to glimpse him unexpectedly-and at six foot five, Gary stood out in a crowd-my blood pressure arced.
He was in his office, a cubicle as spartan as a Marine barracks, wearing his usual unofficial uniform: blue jeans pressed with a razor-sharp crease and a button-down oxford cloth shirt. He looked the part for his job-tall, lean, light brown hair just starting to gray. He was friendly as always, but as always, the gaze of his slate blue eyes started my mouth going dry. We chatted for a minute, until he paused expectantly.
“It’s about John Callister,” I said.
“John Callister,” he said musingly. “There’s a name that brings up memories. I was sorry to miss his funeral, but I couldn’t get away.”
“His daughter Renee’s in town. She was cleaning up his study and she found some photos and a piece of jewelry. She thinks they’re related to those murders, and I’m starting to think maybe she’s right.”
He didn’t move or speak, but his eyes focused a click.
I told him the story, adding that Renee hoped to keep this confidential. And while I cringed at snitching, I felt compelled to confess that she’d handled the items-and that she deliberately had the earring on display.
His displeasure was clear. “That kind of thing don’t wash, Hugh. I seem to recall you and me having a talk about it once before.”
“What was I supposed to do-physically restrain her? Come on, Gary. She’s being naive, sure, but she’s been carrying that weight all these years, and now this new jolt. It’s got to be killing her.”
He still didn’t like it, but he nodded curtly. “Put that stuff someplace safe, and for Christ’s sake, don’t mess with it any more.”
He leaned back in his chair, head tilted to the side.
“Well, I guess I’d agree to keep it quiet, at least to start with,” he said. “I got my own reasons for that. Most of the people who were involved would piss blood about reopening it. Makes them look bad, and real bad if they’re proved wrong. And there’s technicalities I don’t want to deal with, like the city police ought to be called in. But if something serious turns up, Miss Callister’s just going to have to take what comes.”
“I’m sure that’ll be fine with her,” I said.
“She don’t have any choice,” Gary said patiently. “You better explain that to her.”
His big-knuckled fingers started drumming the desktop. I interpreted that as sort of like a cat’s tail twitching-something was brewing.
“That case sticks in my craw about as bad as any I ever came across,” he said. “I pretty much had to watch from the sidelines. Didn’t have any jurisdiction up there in Phosphor County, and those fellas weren’t overly cooperative. I don’t like to break bad on my esteemed colleagues, but a fact’s a fact.” His face and voice stayed bland, but if there was anything that pissed Gary off, it was being kept out of the loop.
“Oh, it was one of those situations where there was a bunch of factors involved and they snowballed into a hell of a mess. Dave Rucker was the sheriff back then, getting on toward retiring, and he figured this was his last chance for the limelight. So he tried to handle it himself, and he botched it right from the get-go, and then he stonewalled to cover. Some dirty politics going on, too.”
That reminded me that Astrid had been embroiled in some antagonism over the Dead Silver Mine. And Tom Dierdorff had mentioned it at the funeral, and also implied a hidden backstory.
“Can you tell me your opinion, just between us?” I said. “About the Professor?”
Gary grimaced like he was in pain, and I knew it was real. He was ironclad in many ways, entirely willing to manipulate people and even ignore the letter of the law. But he still cared deeply about its spirit, and when he couldn’t enforce that, it ripped him up.
“I’ve never been convinced he was guilty,” Gary said.
Coming from him, that was pretty strong. I’d expected a more noncommittal response. But before I could phrase another question, he glanced at his watch.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to move you along-I got another appointment,” he said. “I’ll stop by the Callisters’ as soon as I can. Not today, I’m swamped-I’ll try for tomorrow.”
I thanked him and rose to leave.
“Hugh?” he said, as I got to the door. “Is Renee staying in that house alone?” Now he was leaning forward with his forearms on the desk and his gaze intent.
“She has been, yeah.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said. “Why don’t you pass that on to her, too.”
I walked to my truck feeling newly unsettled.
Renee was out there trolling for trouble, and Gary took seriously the possibility that it might exist.