Fractured Families: A Lottie Albright Mystery #4

Fractured Families: A Lottie Albright Mystery #4

2018 Colorado Book Award finalist for Best Mystery It’s the Garden of Eden. And the weather is absolutely freezing! The discovery of the body of a young man inside the ...

About The Author

Charlotte Hinger

Charlotte Hinger is an award-winning novelist and Kansas historian. The first book in her Lottie Albright series, Deadly Descent, won ...

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Chapter One

I blinked my icy lashes but it didn’t ease the brittleness of my contacts. I eyed the darkening sky and my anxiety grew with every ominous cloud bunching in the west.

“We should be getting back.” “Okay. Just a few more pictures.”

I groaned. I was in the strangest place in all of Kansas—The Garden of Eden. It gave me the creeps under the best of circumstances. Today, the approaching storm added to the sheer looniness of this creation, which is officially one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas. My husband’s visiting aunt, Dorothy Mercer, wanted to see all of these tourist attractions.

I usually liked this woman. But not today. She had airily dismissed my earlier concerns about the weather. “My name might be Dorothy, but I’ve too much heft to be blown away in a little breeze,” she’d said.

I faked a smile although I am totally weary of Oz jokes.

It was a good two-and-a-half hours back home from Lucas to Gateway City and weather changes in a heartbeat in Western Kansas. I wished we had postponed this trip.

I wasn’t sure why we were here. Keith’s Aunt Dorothy is a mystery writer and she refuses to give the slightest hint about any of her plots in advance. This ill-advised outing might be related to a forthcoming manuscript, or the whim of her overdeveloped curiosity. Or the damned Fiene perverse streak. Who knew? She lives in New York and her books regularly came in at eleventh or twelfth on the New York Times best-sellers list. Fourth, on a couple of occasions.

The wind increased. Snow began coating the sculptures, obliterating details. “Five more minutes, then we are leaving. That’s final.” My teeth chattered as I spoke.

She turned and looked at me with the disbelieving glance of a woman who was not used to being ordered around. Taller than I, even without her long black Chesterfield coat, she looked like a solid block of ice ready for the sculptor’s scalpel. She used a near-black walking stick heavily carved with a murder of crows. But her stride was sturdy and confident so I suspected the cane was along for whacking something or someone, not for steadying her gait.

A plain woman with a severe mannish haircut, Dorothy is a walking encyclopedia of historical and cultural information. She retains every bit of information she comes across and reveals very little about herself. We are all under a microscope. She likes me better than most of the Fiene in-laws because I have a PhD in history and am struggling to create a regional crime center. Which makes me a mighty interesting specimen indeed.

I held my ground. She grunted. I took it as consent. “Okay. Let me focus on Reaching Woman.” As soon as she lifted her Nikon, snow blocked the lens. She gave up and pulled a pen out of her purse and dictated her observations. A clever little device. Bluetoothed to a computer, her speech was subsequently transcribed into type.

“There are good postcards of Reaching Woman, Dorothy. We’ve got to get on the road.” A light snow was one thing. No problem. But a light snow could turn into a lethal blizzard.

“Okay. But I want to glance at the mausoleum, then, before we leave. I insist. Just a quick peek. I’m obviously going to have to come back this spring if I want to take my own photos. Damn. You know how much my fans appreciate my research. When I say I’ve visited a place, they can count on that being the truth.”

The Garden of Eden takes up a city block. It was created by Samuel Dinsmoor, a Civil War soldier and radical populist.

One hundred and thirteen bags of cement were used to create the joined sculptures that border the inner edge of the sidewalk and soar above the gloomy winter-stunned cedar trees. The figures illustrated Dinsmoor’s view of politics and damned the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and preachers he held responsible for America’s economic woes. His style was unique, yet reminiscent of ancient Mayan finds.

A glassed-in coffin of Dinsmoor himself lying in a state of perfect preservation topped off the exhibitions. He had studied mummification and left explicit instructions for the handling of his remains.

“You can’t take pictures inside the coffin gazebo,” I warned. “They keep it dark. And don’t trip over the concrete jug at the foot of his coffin. Dinsmoor said if he has to go below on Resurrection morn, he will grab it and fill it with water on the road down. If he gets to go up, he has a concrete angel outside the door to take him there.”

She shot me a look.

“God’s truth. Read his little autobiography if you don’t believe me. And if you leave him a dollar he promised to wink at you.”

She scowled. “Dead men aren’t funny, Lottie. The things I could tell you.”

I shut up. Oh, the things I could tell her.

I didn’t go in with her. I had been here several times before and knew what she would find. The old man lying inside a glass-lidded concrete coffin. A macabre double-exposed life-sized photo of Dinsmoor viewing his own body completed the bizarre exhibition.

Dorothy came rushing out a few minutes later. “Lottie, there’s a body in there.”

“Of course. That’s what this place is about. Concrete bodies.” “No, a real one.”

Blood hardened in my icy veins at her announcement.

Icicles were now forming and hanging from all the bizarre shapes and bodies surrounding this block.

“Stay here.” I brushed past her and darted inside.

Crumpled behind Dinsmoor’s life-sized portrait was the body of a young man wearing a backwards seed cap. His denim jacket hung open to show a green plaid pearl-buttoned Western shirt. A patch of blood stained the right chest of the jacket.

Not much blood. Just a bullet’s worth.

His lashes were long and delicate. His mouth was a sweet rosebud parted to expose white, white teeth. His cheeks were fuzzed with the light beard of early manhood. Scarcely out of high school, I guessed. Starting his life.

The top two buttons of his shirt were open and I could see the white t-shirt underneath printed with the bright green 4-H logo. In each corner of the four-leafed clover were white H’s.

Somebody’s son. I didn’t know him. My husband probably would have if he had come with us today. Keith is a veterinarian and a lot of 4-H kids raise livestock. My throat tightened. This man-child had no doubt earnestly recited his dedication to the four H’s every month:

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty,

My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

The 4-H logo was plastered all over Carlton County; on fair booths, on parade floats, on posters around town, on bumper stickers. Signs on corner posts of family farms proudly proclaimed, “a 4-H family lives here.” The 4-H t-shirt told me he was rural. The fact he was wearing it beyond high school said he didn’t mind being thought of as square. I didn’t want to concoct a stereotype right off the bat, but the clothes! The t-shirt, the Western shirt, the denim jacket. His identity was as obvious as a gang tattoo.

I winked back tears. 4-H members wanted to be good citizens. Good people. “To make the best better,” was the national motto. My thoughts were irrational. All murders are wrong. Everyone matters. But it was especially offensive to me that someone would have killed this young man in the prime of his life who had wanted to make the best better.

I went back outside. I glanced at Dorothy. She didn’t belong here. Not now. But there was nothing I could do about that. Even though I’m setting up a regional crime center, I’m still the undersheriff of Carlton County. As an officer of the law it was my duty to deal with this murder right here and now.

There was a hell of a gap between my training and the pseudo accuracy of a mystery writer. But it could have been worse. I had read all of her books and knew she would respect the importance of staying out of a crime-scene investigation.

She intuited my concerns. “I’ll keep out of your way.” Her voice quivered with indecent excitement.

“Observe. That’s all. Come with me to the car while I phone Frank Dimon. He’s the KBI agent assigned to this region.”

“Won’t Sam be in charge?”

“No. It’s not in Carlton County’s territory.” Dorothy and Sam Abbott, the sheriff of Carlton County, had hit it off quite well. He appreciated her nuts-and-bolts questions and preened when she was around. She, in turn, admired Sam. She liked law-enforcement people capable of a few heroics when the occasion called for it. Sam’s the man for that. He looks like he stepped out of an old Western movie. He has a white droopy mustache, white hair that skims his shirt collar, a military bearing, and a distinguished Roman nose. He’s my husband’s best friend. They are both long on logic.

Dorothy strode beside me, slipped into the passenger seat, and kept quiet while I used my cell phone to call Frank Dimon at the KBI in Topeka. I gave Dimon the bare facts. “So we need a team here right now.”

“Actually, the sheriff’s department in Russell County is very effective. You need to notify John Winthrop immediately.”

“Sheriff Winthrop. I’ve met him. It’s his third term, I think.” “Right. Their force is larger than most. Six deputies. They have a lot of activity because of Wilson Lake.”

“I’ll do that right away. But I called you first because the ball is in your court. You need to sort this out. There’s a sign out front. “This property has been placed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.” Dead silence. Dimon never wasted words. He reminded me of Hotch on Criminal Minds. Then, “All right I’ll make the phone calls to see if this is FBI or KBI, or whoever. Seems like you brought trouble with you. For now, get the Russell County Sheriff’s Office involved immediately.”

“Okay. But I’m sure they won’t have a good team of criminalists. This will be mostly a courtesy call. Don’t be surprised if he tosses this right back in your lap.”

“That’s what I’m here for. You can’t be the one to officially call me in. It has to start with Sheriff Winthrop since it’s his county. But it might be your first regional case, so stay there.”

When I called Winthrop he decided in seconds to turn it over to the KBI. “We’ll be there right away to secure the scene and to supply manpower, of course. But we’ll leave the forensics to the big boys. We don’t have the expertise.”

Smart man, Winthrop. I knew him from the regional planning meetings to develop an intra-county law-enforcement center with shared resources. I am the coordinator for this half-birthed enterprise.

“Thought you were going to fix all that for us, Lottie. So we don’t have to go begging to Topeka when we need help with forensics.” “We’re not that far along on the regional facility, John. In fact, there’s a huge fight right now over which counties in Northwest Kansas are included. But I’ll tell you all about this later.” I explained the complication of the Garden of Eden being a historic place and its connection to the Department of Interior. “So that’s why I called Dimon in the first place. Not that it isn’t a knee-jerk reaction by now.”

He guffawed. “I can understand why. Hope you didn’t bring trouble with you.”

I winced. The same words Dimon had used. “Crime isn’t contagious. By the way, Keith’s aunt, Dorothy Mercer, is  with me in the car. The reason we were here in the first place was because she wanted to see the Eight Wonders of Kansas and this was first on her list.”

The Dorothy Mercer?” “The same.”

“Wow. I’ve read all of her books. Hope she’s taking notes. It never hurts to have someone else’s impressions.”

Dorothy heard. She was indeed taking notes. And clearly tickled pink to participate in a murder investigation from the beginning.

“I’ll be there in a flash.”

I hung up and we waited for the team from Russell County. “You’ll like Winthrop,” I said. “He and Sam are good friends.” I started the car and turned up the heat, then eyed the gas gauge. I didn’t dare leave the car running for long. Shit. I couldn’t leave Dorothy sitting in this cold car. I had to take her with me.

“What a crime scene,” Her eyes darted all around.

“I’m going to call Sam in, after all, because for now the regional center is based in his office and Dimon wants to cover all of the jurisdictional possibilities.”

Even though I am Sam’s undersheriff, until the end of last summer I worked full-time at the historical society. Now I take oral histories and help edit difficult stories for the county history books. However, as soon as it’s up and running, I will move on from being Sam’s official sidekick to being the full-time director of the Northwest Kansas Regional Crime Center. I’m looking forward to it, despite loving every minute of my association with Sam. Carlton County is the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s worst nightmare—underfunded and manned by part-time deputies. We lead Western Kansas in murders, per capita. A regional center will change our approach to forensics and the need for the KBI to send a team from Topeka.

My husband, who is also our deputy, Keith Fiene, is officially sort of retired from law enforcement and officially sort of retired from his veterinarian practice. But he is still a reserve deputy and can be called on in a crisis situation. And, as for his retired vet status, the new Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, a recent graduate from Kansas State University, doesn’t like to work with large animals and he calls Keith for every little whipstitch.

In the past, my twin sister, Josie, a clinical psychologist, had consulted for our county. After several scary episodes, I doubt if she will step into that role again.

I grabbed my notebook. “I’m going back, Dorothy. I’ve called everyone I need to call.” There was a solar blanket in my emergency crate. And a hand-warmer. Maybe she would be warm enough without keeping the car running. “Why don’t you wait here? No point in you being out in this.”

She looked at me hard, made a sound somewhere between a scoff and a grunt and opened her door.

We trudged back to the mausoleum. I was freezing. Light snow was now light sleet. I glanced at Dorothy. How many layers of clothing did she have under her coat? She masked every expression. If she was weary or miserable, who would know?

We peered at the body. “He was murdered yesterday,” Dorothy concluded.

I stared at her. “Beg your pardon?” It was a rather stark assumption without having done any forensics. The man was wearing jeans, so she couldn’t tell anything about blood pool. Or much else.

She gave me a quick amused glance, sensing my doubt that she could know such things. “Nothing as dramatic as forensic work, my dear. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t notice it yourself. The Hill City paper is sticking out of his back pocket. Yesterday is the date.”

I was too embarrassed to speak.

Reviews of

Fractured Families: A Lottie Albright Mystery #4

“Hinger does a wonderful job connecting a young boy’s grim life with a horrific crime spree and the knotty problem of for-profit prisons.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The diary of a severely handicapped child proves both riveting and pivotal…”

Publishers Weekly

“A gruesome discovery confronts historian-turned-undersheriff Lottie Albright in Hinger’s chilling fourth Kansas-set outing (after Hidden Heritage). VERDICT Featuring a crime spree and a murderer, both as cold as the Midwestern winter setting, this whodunit will burn like frostbite.”

Library Journal