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Dirty Deeds in the Cornfield

Dead End

 

The sun was setting when Peppy and I drove east of town, looking for Doris McKinnon’s farm. I’d spent a tense two hours at the hospital, but had finally received a reassuring report on Ms. Albritten—Nell, I’d learned when I went through her wallet looking for her Medicare card.

I’d seen Albritten into the emergency room, and made sure she was getting priority attention, before checking in at the front desk. The ambulance driver was standing there; t turned out he was the same person who’d come for Sonia Kiel twelve hours earlier—he was working double shifts this week.

“Are you with some kind of Guardian Angel organization?” he demanded with heavy humor. “You go through the streets of Lawrence looking for ladies who’ve keeled over?”

“Hard to know what you would do without me,” I said, trying to get into the spirit of the exchange.

Actually, I was tense. Say a little scared. I was in a strange town with a woman who had a bitter history with the place. If something I’d said or done pushed her over the brink, I would be in a lonely spot.

Albritten had never lost consciousness. She’d thrust her pocketbook and phone at me as she was wheeled past, making the crew stop to watch me lock the door before she let them put her in the ambulance.

“Better you than them. At least I’ll know who stole my money if it disappears,” she said to me..

I followed the ambulance to the hospital. While I was filling out forms for them, I went into Albritten’s phone. Her son’s number was fortunately one of seven numbers in her favorites screen. It unnerved me when he answered the call with, “Yes, Mama?” but of course her name had shown up on his own phone.

He lived in Atlanta, he said, when we’d sorted out who I was and why I was calling. He demanded to speak with the doctors. I explained who he was to the people at the intake desk. After some back-and-forthing with the emergency room team, the intake head told Todd the doctor would call him soon, but right now was taking care of his mother and couldn’t be interrupted.

“Just who are you, though, and what were you doing with Mother?” he said, when they’d given me back the phone.

“Do you remember Emerald Ferring?” I didn’t say I was a detective, just that I had come from Chicago looking for her, and a neighbor had directed me to Ms. Albritten.

“She was in the middle of telling me about the farm where the Ferrings moved back in 1951 when she suddenly collapsed.”

“She’s never had heart trouble,” he said. “Nothing wrong with her health. What else went on? Was she agitated? Did you try to get her to do something she didn’t want, like sign over the title to the house? It’s in my name, so you’d be out of luck.”

“No, Mr. Albritten.” My lips were stiff: this was the kind of accusation I’d been afraid of. And it’s a sadly common scam these days, vermin preying on the elderly. “When you talk to the doctors, see if they’ll let you speak to her.”

When he’d finished worrying and accusing and decided he needed to book his flight to Kansas City, I called Lotty Herschel in Chicago. It was mid-afternoon, when she’s usually at her busiest, but she let her clinic nurse put me through to her. I’d texted her a few times from the road, but we hadn’t actually spoken since I left Chicago on Tuesday.

“You did the right thing, Victoria,” she said. “Get the doctor’s name; I’ll call him later this afternoon. Try not to worry; you couldn’t do more than what you’ve done.”

I sat in the waiting area, trying not to worry. I tried to occupy my mind with reports for clients in Chicago, but the city, and my life there, seemed as though they belonged to some movie I’d watched years ago. I couldn’t remember the details or why they should matter to me.

I had several urgent texts from Troy Hempel. Did you find Ms. Emerald? What did the woman you were speaking to tell you?

She’s in the hospital; I’ll let you know if she’s able to tell me anything. I leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and tried to concentrate on my breathing and not on the yammer of the television. It seems as though one of the torments of modern medicine, besides incomprehensible bills, endless waits on phones and waiting rooms designed to serve as better, and outrageous drug prices, is the constant blare of a television in every room.

“Have her parents been to see her?” I asked.

There had been no visitors, although a man had called around noon to check on her; one of her brothers, the nurse thought he’d said.

At length one of the interns came out to give me good news about Ms. Albritten: all her cardiac signs were stable. They would keep her for twenty-four hours to monitor her, but she should be fine. Yes, I could go back for five minutes to give her her phone and handbag in person.

She was dozing: even the strongest-hearted old woman gets worn out by an ambulance ride and an hour of poking and x-raying. They’d given her some kind of sedative, so that when I gently touched her arm she stared at me with puzzled eyes.

I reminded her that we’d been speaking about Emerald Ferring, that I was in from Chicago looking for Ferring.

Albritten tried to struggle upright. I pressed the buttons on the side, but a nurse who’d been hovering outside the cubicle came in.

“No disturbance for you, Ms. Albritten.”

“One thing,” Albritten said through narcotic-thickened lips. “What I say ‘bout Emral’?”

“That she and Lucinda had moved out to Doris McKinnon’s farm east of town.”

“I say ‘bout McKi—Kin?”

“No more,” the nurse said, taking me by the arm.

“Need know,” Albritten insisted.

“You said she was a white woman who rented to black students. You said you hadn’t seen her for years. And then you collapsed.”

Albritten relaxed into the bed and shut her eyes. “S’right. Not see. Long time.”

The nurse nodded significantly toward the exit. I bent to assure Albritten that her son would be arriving the next day, and a corner of her mouth twitched into a smile.

Before leaving the hospital, I made my way to the intensive care unit. I identified myself to the charge nurse as the detective responsible for getting Sonia Kiel and Naomi Wissenhurst to the ER last night.

“Oh, yes, Detective. We were able to release Naomi: she needs medical attention but can get that at home: she’s taking a leave of absence from the university for the rest of the term. Sonia is still unresponsive, but of course she was in worse shape before she took the drugs and at least she is able to breathe on her own. The next twenty-four hours will be important.”

“Have Sonia’s parents been here?” I asked, curious. “Or anyone from St. Rafe’s?”

“A man phoned this morning; I think he said he was one of her brothers, but you’re the first person who’s actually come here. Would you like to see her?”

She led me into the back, where Sonia seemed like an appendage to the computers surrounding her. Her breathing was slow and shuddery: at the end of each exhalation there was a dreadful pause as if she weren’t sure she should start up again.

They’d bathed her, of course, and put her into a clean gown. Her face was slack, so it wasn’t easy to imagine what she would look like if she were awake and animated, but in repose she seemed to have her father’s square face and dark coloring. Lenore Kiel’s hair was thin and dirty blond, Nathan’s thin and white, but perhaps when he’d been young he’d had the same wiry black curls as his daughter.

Drugs and street life had coarsened Sonia’s skin. She had some old bruises on her arms, but I didn’t think they were track marks, more as if someone had hit her. Someone at St. Rafe’s or someone on the street?

I picked up one of her flaccid hands between my own and knelt to talk to her. “It’s V I Warshawski, Sonia. You called me this morning, to say you’d seen Emerald Ferring. You saw her on Matt Chaleff’s grave, you said. Matt Chaleff.”

I thought she might have twitched when I repeated his name, but it was probably wishful thinking.

“If you wake up, when you wake up, you call and tell me where he’s buried. I want to see Matt’s grave, okay?”

I held her hand a bit longer, massaging it lightly. Her fingers were rough, the nails cracked. An obscure impulse made me brush the curls away from forehead. When had her mother last touched her like that?

The nurse gave me an approving nod as I left. “The LPD should send you over when they need to question a patient; you have a good touch.”

I smiled in embarrassment. “I’ll talk to Sergeant Everard about it.”

I was glad to have Peppy with me as I rode out of town. The people I was meeting, the histories I was learning, were dragging me down. My friends were six hundred miles away. My lover—ex-lover? I still hadn’t heard from Jake—was even further. The countryside was desolate in the November twilight. Whatever farmers do in the fall must take place indoors. If I’d been by myself the desolation might have made me drive straight into the Kansas River.

My iPad showed the McKinnon farm about half a mile south of the highway between Lawrence and Kansas City. Once I left the highway, I was on gravel roads that didn’t have streetlamps. I drove slowly, keeping to the center of the road, headlights up.

At one point, showed up on my tail, a dark SUV, maybe a Buick Enclave. I thought I’d seen it as I got on the highway, but the traffic was heavy enough that I couldn’t be sure. Here on the county roads, we were alone. The hair on the back of neck prickled. Peppy, sensing my unease, stood , growling lightly.

At the crossroads between East Nineteen Hundred and North 2800 roads, the SUV turned south, where a sign pointed to the Kanawaka Missile Silo. I went north, my shoulder muscles relaxing, breathing easing back to normal.

After following North 2800 Road for a quarter of a mile, I came to a turnoff with a mailbox labeled McKinnon. Excellent.

The drive ended in a turning circle about a hundred miles from the road. I pulled up behind an elderly Honda and looked at the house. It was a square building, two stories and an attic, and it wasn’t just dark, but gave off that aura of emptiness you get from an abandoned building. I hadn’t taken the time to search McKinnon before I drove out; maybe she’d died and Nell Albritten hadn’t heard about it.

I got out, releasing Peppy from her leash. The dog tore off into the twilight, after who knows what Kansas animal: I hoped not a skunk. I shone my flash over the ground and the out-buildings—two barns, some sheds.

If Emerald Ferring and August Veriden had come out to see Doris McKinnon, they must have turned back and driven on. This was a complete dead end.

Peppy had raced back from her hunting adventure but had started nosing around the house, snuffling at the foundation. She disappeared again, this time at the back of the house. I called to her, but she started barking and whining.

“Come!” I said in my sharpest voice.

She came partway toward me, a darker shape in the dark night, but barked and whined again and turned back to the house. I followed her, my legs stiff, the tingling on my neck moving down my spine.

The back door was shut but not locked. Peppy can smell ten thousand, or maybe it’s ten million times better than I do, but when I pushed the door open, even my inferior nose picked up what she had noticed from across the field—the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh, the metallic odor of blood.

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  • Kate Mutters

    Love it! Thanks for sharing!

  • marianne boot

    Dear Ms Paretsky,
    thanks for letting me read this chapter. i do love your stories about VI.This one will be also great. Please hurry up.But you may take time off to have happy Chrismas days. My very best wishes. Marianne Boot (Holland)

  • Rebecca Anderson

    I am so looking forward to reading more!

  • I’m so ready for this! An opening chapter with tough old ladies, the mysterious hook of Doris McKinnon -a white woman who rented to black students – a missile silo somewhere in the vicinity, and the Kansas setting. And another of your signature details: V I brushing back the curls from Albritten’s forehead. Such a tender moment in V I’s tenuous connection with this stranger. Can’t wait to read more.

  • Claudia Wilch

    I am always ready for another Sara Paretsky novel. Can’t wait to read more.

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