Iced Malice, page 3
The ping of an incoming message sounded only minutes after she’d sent the email to Brynn.
I don’t know when we’ll be home.
You know where the cards are. Why don’t you do the reading for her?
Oh, my God. Definitely not an answer Kendall expected. Sure, she knew where the cards were but do a freaking reading? The message was definitely Brynn-like, short and bizarre. Annoyed, she answered:
Are you kidding me? I can’t do that. Give me some idea when you’ll be back so I can tell her to call you.
Kendall waited for Brynn’s next email. Five minutes passed before she realized that Brynn was not going to send a response; Kendall would have to tell Mrs. Lindblad that she hadn’t been able to get in touch with Callandra.
There was a tap on her door, a tap at just the right height for a little old lady. Cursing inwardly, Kendall opened the door to Leona, who carried her coat over one arm.
“It was awfully hot down there. Did you get in touch with Callandra?”
“I’m sorry. I did hear from her and she has no idea when she’ll be back.” The woman’s face crumpled into dozens of added wrinkles, and tiny tears appeared at the corners of her eyes.
Kendall tried to lighten the mood. “That Brynn—she’s such a kidder—she even said I should do a reading for you.” Kendall forced a lukewarm chuckle.
Leona brightened. “Oh, would you? That would be wonderful.”
I should have seen that coming. “Oh, no. Really, Brynn was just joking about that because I have a key to her apartment.” Another idiotic revelation.
“But you must know how to do it or she wouldn’t have suggested it.’
The woman wasn’t getting it. Kendall didn’t know how to end her predicament graciously. Malkin rubbed against her legs again, and emitted a few tiny meows. Even the cat was against her.
What the hell? She’d spread out the cards and tell Leona Lindblad the cards were in her favor, and there were no death threats imminent in her near future.
Kendall led Leona into Brynn’s apartment. The air, stale and cold with the heat turned down to fifty, seemed fitting for what was coming. She found the cards, sat Leona down at the small table Brynn used for readings, and tried to remember what Brynn did first.
Brynn used an antique deck of playing cards that were left in the apartment along with all the other belongings of Madam Vadoma, aka Ethel Weissbrodt. No one had ever claimed the former tenants things when she died. Brynn had rented the apartment “as is” and kept many of Vadoma’s things out of respect for the dead, including the deck of cards she used for readings.
Not much was coming back to her; Kendall would just have to fake it. She took the cards out of the old silk scarf they were wrapped in, shuffled them, and placed four of them face up in a row in front of Leona. Then Kendall took the deck, reshuffled, and placed two more rows of four on the table above the first.
Damn, she remembered that she was supposed to have Lindblad do the shuffling. No do-overs, Kendall thought. She had to get this over with.
She remembered Brynn putting them in rows but couldn’t remember if there should have been more than three. She’d just wing it.
“The row closest to you represents what will happen in the future, the middle row what is going on in your life right now, and the one farthest from you represents the past.”
Damn, now what? The first row consisted of all black cards, and Kendall recalled that was not a good sign. She tried to pull out of her memory what Brynn had told her was her usual message to women asking about their last days on earth. She would have to rattle it off as best she could.
“The cards aren’t real clear on exactly when it will happen,” she began, hoping she could get away with using it instead of saying your death. “That isn’t unusual and probably means that it won’t happen in the near future. The row for your future indicates that it would be wise to have everything arranged, so you should spend some time putting your will in order and be sure all your financial records are updated. The more organized you are, the easier it will be for your loved ones when the time comes.” It wasn’t totally a load of crap; it was sound advice for someone Leona’s age.
Oddly, the woman didn’t look relieved. Does she want to die?
“That’s really all I can tell you. If you like, I’ll leave the cards here on the table, and Callandra can call you when she gets back.”
Leona rose from her chair and offered Kendall some bills.
“Oh, no. You don’t have to pay me,” Kendall said. “You can work that out with Callandra later.”
Kendall picked up Leona’s coat to help her into it and saw that the woman had tears streaming down her face. She buttoned her coat, then pulled out a lace-edged, white handkerchief and dabbed at her tears.
“I’m sorry,” Leona said. “It’s just that . . . I’m so frightened.”
Kendall felt herself getting roped in. “Mrs. Lindblad, I’m a police detective.” She showed Leona her badge. “If there is something threatening you, maybe I can help.”
“No, no. That’s all right. My problems are not a police matter.” Leona managed a smile and handed Kendall a piece of paper on which she had written her name and number. “Please. Give that to Callandra for me.”
Kendall watched her leave. She would call the Department of Human Services tomorrow and have one of their people drop in on Lindblad. A lot more elder abuse occurred than the public was aware of, and in case that was what the woman was frightened about, they could help her.
In the hallway, she thought about the hours that were left before her usual bedtime and decided she didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts. She’d go to a movie then stop in at the R-Bar to see if anyone there had noticed who was with Chuck Wetzel when he left the bar on the night he died.
The movie, the third sequel of an action film whose first and second follow-ups she had enjoyed but not so much the third, at least kept Kendall’s mind occupied for two hours. Nash had been gone for three weeks now. She had known she would miss him, but functioning on her own now that she had experienced the richness of her life with him was a lot more difficult than she had thought it would be.
Arriving at the R-Bar at ten twenty, Kendall scanned the bar for people who looked like regulars. On a Sunday night, she wouldn’t have expected the place to be very busy, but the bar itself was nearly full, with at least twenty people at the tables surrounding the dance floor. A deejay with sideburns nearly to his chin was parked on the bandstand, and a few couples were dancing to a song from the nineties.
Nick spotted her as soon as she took a seat in the middle of the bar. “Hi. Can I get you something to drink?”
Kendall ordered a beer and asked him to point out which of the customers were regulars. The first two she questioned remembered Chuck but weren’t there the night before. The others, a tired-looking couple in their late thirties, recalled seeing him but hadn’t seen him leave.
“Did you ever notice him talking to someone?” Kendall asked. “Maybe a friend he met here? Or came in with?”
They exchanged a look. “Not really,” the woman said. “He always came in by himself. Chuck was a friendly guy, always dancing with the girls before he had too much to drink, right Justin?” Her husband grunted.
“Did he ever go home with any of them?”
“I doubt it. They caught on pretty fast that his big interest was drinking, not them.”
Kendall talked to more people, and got nothing helpful. On her way out, she left Goracki a quick reminder to call her if he found out anything that could help her find out who had given Chuck Wetzel a ride home.
The people who had been in the R-Bar the night of Chuck Wetzel’s death, at least the ones Kendall had talked to, hadn’t been helpful. One reported seeing him leave with a woman, another said he’d left with a known gay man, kissing him as they left, and
Kendall had just started the necessary paperwork to close out the Wetzel case the next morning when she felt her cell phone vibrate. The call was from Maggie Cottingham, a local attorney who also did PI work and happened to be dating Kendall’s father. Kendall would return the call later. She tried not to take personal calls at work unless it was absolutely necessary.
The phone on her desk rang. The operator told her that a Maggie Cottingham was trying to reach her on official police business.
Leave it to Maggie to bend the rules; she was probably calling to ask Kendall what she should make for dinner on Sunday. Kendall had become a frequent Sunday visitor at her father’s house since he started seeing Maggie. One of the woman’s few positive attributes was her cooking, and Kendall always craved a good home-cooked meal enough to set aside her feelings about Maggie. Although, if she were honest, Maggie had been a lot easier to tolerate lately. Either Jim Halsrud was a good influence on her, or Maggie was doing some serious sucking up because Kendall was Jim’s daughter.
“Hi, Maggie, what’s going on?”
“We need to talk. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? I’ll meet you at the Café in a half hour if you can get away. I’ll even buy you a pancake.”
The Nucleus Café on Water Street, near downtown Eau Claire, was a popular breakfast and lunch spot and only a short distance from the station. Kendall loved their food, and her stomach growled at the offer, as if reacting to the word pancake.
“I thought this was official business.”
“About what? I can’t just bug out for breakfast.”
“It’s about Charles Wetzel’s death.”
“What about it? It was tragic, but it was an accident.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Do you have some information for me?”
“Meet me. I’ll tell you everything about it.”
Kendall set the report aside for later. Not that she thought anything Cottingham had to say would make a difference, but suddenly she was famished.
She arrived at the Café and found Maggie waiting for her. Apparently still celebrating St. Patrick’s Day even though it had been last week, she wore a bright Kelly-green sweater that had a row of white shamrock appliqués across her generous bust. Kendall couldn’t recall seeing Maggie in ordinary garb very often; the woman loved wearing holiday-related clothing,
“How are you doing?” she asked as soon as she saw Kendall.
“Let’s just get to it,” Kendall said. She wasn’t about to discuss her personal life with Maggie. Everyone assumed that Kendall was upset about Nash leaving; she was, but it was no one’s business but her own.
“Sure. Let’s order first.”
After they’d done that, Maggie said, “Charles Wetzel’s parents hired me to find out who killed their son. And they want to sue.”
“Seriously?” When Kendall met with the Wetzels, they certainly hadn’t been thinking about litigation. But they wouldn’t have been; it was the same day their son died. They had called her once since then, and Kendall had to tell them she hadn’t found out anything yet. She planned on calling them later today, letting them know she had explored every avenue, but she hadn’t turned up anything that indicated their son’s death was anything but an accident. Even the medical examiner agreed. “Who are they going to sue?”
“I’m not sure yet—the bar, the driver who dropped him off, the people who wouldn’t let him in or call 911—someone has to take responsibility,” Maggie said.
Kendall had a serious prejudice against people who filed frivolous lawsuits. Charles Wetzel’s death was tragic, but it certainly wasn’t the fault of the bar owner or the owner of the house where Wetzel had been found. She took a moment before responding. “Maggie, I’ve spent three nights in that bar trying to find a witness who saw Chuck leave. The ones who saw him leave each described his companion differently, vastly differently. And even if you got lucky and found the driver, don’t forget he was doing a good deed by making sure Wetzel got home. Sure, he should have waited until Chuck got in the door, but that’s hindsight. We had blizzard conditions here that night; the winds were more than twenty-five miles per hour. The driver probably didn’t want to sit there, stopped in a foot of snow and risk getting stuck while he waited for Chuck to get to the door and go in.
“Chuck would have had to tell him where to stop. His driver might not have been able to see as far as that doorway through the blowing snow. And the witnesses I spoke with at the bar said he hadn’t been falling-down drunk that night. He was walking on his own. The driver wouldn’t have had a reason to be concerned.”
Cottingham puffed her rouged cheeks and blew out a breath. “I could file a civil case,” she added.
The waitress set their pancakes in front of them, along with syrup and whipped butter. Kendall spread her cakes with a generous dab of butter and poured syrup over them. She picked up her fork. “I hate lawyers.”
Maggie chuckled. “That’s why I make the big bucks—everybody hates me.”
They ate in silence until their plates were clean.
“Kenny, I appreciate your coming here and also what you told me about your investigation. I think the Wetzels felt like no one spent much time on it.”
“When you called today I was filling out my final report on the case. I was going to call them this afternoon.”
“You should do that. Regardless of what you think of lawyers, I have no desire to file a case that’s going nowhere. Even if I find the driver, these first-party cases are hard to win; juries don’t have a lot of sympathy for chronic drunks. The Wetzels are understandably upset, though, so I’ll take a shot at locating the driver. Nothing personal, but you’re a cop. I can act like a customer, and I’ll blend in. Who knows? A few nights at R-Bar and I might find the driver.”
“You don’t actually think the driver would go back there, do you?”
Grinning, Maggie grabbed the check. “People do stupid things all the time, Kenny. You have to learn to think like the morons.”
When Kendall got back to the station she discovered Ross had gone out on a domestic disturbance called in by two patrolmen. She went into Schoenfuss’s office. He had his head in his hands, his elbows propped on his desk. When he saw her he sat up and put down the electronic cigarette he’d been chewing on. “What?”
“I thought I would give you a heads up, sir; Charles Wetzel’s parents hired Maggie Cottingham to find the person who drove Wetzel home that night. They want to sue anyone who might be responsible.”
“That doesn’t change anything, right?”
“Cottingham’s investigation doesn’t change my opinion about what happened. I questioned every possible witness I could find in that bar. Everyone gave a different description of the person Wetzel left with. Even if I suspected that foul play could have been involved, how would anyone have known Wetzel would be there that night, intoxicated?”
“I thought you said he was always intoxicated.”
“He did occasional stints in rehab but none that were successful. Apparently this last drinking binge only started a week ago. His parents paid through the nose for a very expensive ‘spa’ up north and evidently it didn’t take—he only stayed on the wagon for a couple of months after he came home.”
“Are you sure no one wanted to get rid of the guy?”
“Everyone said he was a nice guy and a harmless drunk. I checked the relatives of the kids who were killed in his car when he was a teenager, but most of them don’t live here anymore. I think too much time has gone by for that to be a factor. If someone was upset that he didn’t get jail time, they would have gone after him a long time ago. It’s been five years since the crash.”
Schoenfuss grunted agreement. “The guy who owns the bar will call you if he hears anything, right?” he asked.
“He seemed to genuinely want to help. He’s afraid of being sued so there’s no reason he would
“Who are they going to sue? It sounds to me like the bar did everything right. It’s not the bar owner’s fault that Wetzel went home with the wrong Good Samaritan.” He shook his head. “Go ahead and close it. It’s unlikely anything else will pop up, but if it does we can always reopen it.”
Kendall returned to her desk and used the rest of her day to catch up on delinquent paperwork. She set the Wetzel file aside rather than close it out. Maybe Maggie had gotten to her, but it wouldn’t hurt to wait a day or two longer. She was about to go home, when her phone rang.
“Detective Halsrud, this is April Blotz. I thought you’d want to know that I visited Mrs. Lindblad this morning.”
Kendall had nearly forgotten she’d asked the social worker to check on the old woman. “Thanks. I wasn’t sure if you would find the time. I know how busy you always are.”
Blotz laughed. “I had a couple no-shows this morning, so I had some free time. I drove out to see Lindblad rather than call first and give her time to prepare for my visit.”
“Good plan. So what did you think?”
“Her grandson, who’s about thirty-four years old, is staying with her now. He just finished a few tours in the Army and wants to spend some time at home while he decides what to do with the rest of his life.”
“He isn’t married?” Kendall asked.
“No. She expressed some disappointment that he didn’t have children, but other than that she acted like she was proud of him.”
“She mentioned something about selling her house. Did she seem happy about him staying with her?”
“She said she was, but I could tell that something’s bothering her, you were right about that. She claimed to be in good health, and the house was neat. She said she was able to get around all right. But what’s troubling her might have nothing to do with the grandson. Hopefully, he’ll be able to help her work out whatever it is. She might be afraid that she won’t be able to keep up with the extra work of having another person in the house. It’s not unusual for the elderly to have mixed feelings about company, even a grandson.”
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