Past Imperfect: A John McIntire Mystery #1

Past Imperfect: A John McIntire Mystery #1

A grizzled Lake Superior fisherman with a massive allergy to bees dies very early one morning alone on his boat. Was he stung to death? John McIntire, retired from a ...

About The Author

Kathleen Hills

Kathleen Hills spent the first forty years of her life in rural northern Minnesota before leaving for the real world ...

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I

Constable John McIntire leaned into the rail on the Frelser’s forward deck, closed his eyes, and let the sharp morning air ease into his lungs. A brief and violent spasm engulfed his body. The barely perceptible rolling of the boat did nothing to ease the more pronounced waves in his stomach, and he breathed a prayer of thanks that the call had at least come before breakfast. Eight months into his career as keeper of the peace in St. Adele township, and already this was the second death to require his sanction. He didn’t feel himself in danger of getting blasé about such missions, but right now he wasn’t sure which caused his greater anguish, the lifeless body in the cabin below or its unfortunate location on a boat. Any boat.

Anchored in the wide mouth of Huron Bay, nose to the open lake, the Frelser faced a boundless expanse of mirror-smooth water. Phantoms of mist waltzed over its unruffled surface, filtering the rays of newly risen sun and wrapping the scene in a soft luminescence. It was a setting to inspire poets and painters, mysterious, serene, and, as far as McIntire was concerned, purgatory on earth. Ten more minutes on this tub and he’d be as prostrate as the man he’d come to see. He thought of the day, now literally a lifetime ago, when he  first met Nels Bertelsen. Met was not exactly the right word; the boy had come to ask for water and had spoken only to McIntire’s mother. It was Nels’ hair, milk-white and almost to his shoulders, that had so fascinated the six year old Johnny McIntire as he watched from his observation point on the woodpile, waiting while his mother split the kindling that he would carry to the kitchen woodbox. McIntire could see him still, trotting into the yard on an enormous black workhorse, his bare feet dangling, and those gossamer locks flying out behind, like the fairies in his Granny Kate’s nightmare-inducing tales.

This stranger had answered Sophie McIntire’s questions solemnly, in accents not unlike her own. His family had just come today. Yes, it was they who had bought the Association farmland. He had a sister who was twelve. Her name was Julie. No, his father wouldn’t be looking for work in either the lumber camps or the mines—they were going to plant apple trees.

McIntire smiled to himself as he remembered his mother’s reaction when she realized that the newcomers intended not only to plant apple trees—everybody did that—but to make their living at it. As she put it to her husband, “Those simpletons will starve to death long before they even get a sniff of their first apple.”

Ole Bertelsen hadn’t quite realized his dream of becoming Michigan’s most prosperous fruit producer, but he didn’t starve either. If in some winters the family had little more than potatoes and the occasional piece of deer meat on its table, they were not that much different from most of their neighbors. And Nels, at least, had survived and gone on to oversee the orchard operation himself before abandoning it to take up his father’s original occupation, fishing.

McIntire hadn’t been around to witness Bertelsen’s transformation from fruit grower to fisherman, but had not been surprised when he heard of it. Like the rest of the Bertelsens, the young Nels had been a slave to the family business. But regardless of the hours he put in pruning, planting, and picking, it was never too late, too dark, or too cold to squeeze  in some time on the lake. His allergy may have been the goad that pushed him from the fields to the water, but McIntire couldn’t imagine that he had needed a very forceful push.

From the first day of the spring fishing season, Bertelsen had been persistent in inviting McIntire to spend a day on the Frelser. McIntire was equally emphatic in declining. The last boat trip he and Nels had taken together was the  one that carried them across the Atlantic in the fall of 1917 aboard one of the world’s largest luxury liners, unhappily pressed into service as a U.S. Army troop ship. Memories of that pas- sage had kept McIntire out of anything bigger than a rowboat since. The mere sight of a whitecapped wave was sufficient to send him plummeting back through time to those interminable nights spent curled in a cramped bunk in the belly of the Leviathan as she plunged in darkness through cold black seas. He was only half joking when he said it was that hellish experience that had kept him from returning to the United States until air travel became a reasonable option. He’d found that air sickness was also no picnic, but flying cut the trip and the view was almost worth the loss of a little gastric lining.

Nels, McIntire recalled, had suffered no such agonies during that long ago voyage. On the few occasions that McIntire had left his evil smelling cot to stagger to an  open deck— and hastily to a railing—Nels had been there ahead of him, ruddy face to the wind and an expression that clearly showed he’d fallen in love. “Someday,” he’d informed McIntire, “we’ll be taking a ride on my boat.” The inward smile came again, a rueful one. Since his return McIntire had discovered that it was a rare event in St. Adele to hear the name Nels Bertelsen uttered without the added designation, “that bullheaded Norwegian,” and Nels had stayed true to his reputation to the end. He’d gotten his damn boat and had lured McIntire on board it at last, even if he had to die to do it.

A half dozen gulls wheeled and careened past his ears, engaged in a fray over some distasteful looking flotsam a  few yards  off the bow. Their shrieks were countered by a chest-wrenching cough, reminding McIntire that he was not alone on the tiny deck. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth, pushed his glasses farther up on his nose, and turned to Simon Lindstrom, an elderly man of dwarfish proportions and gnome-like features, features rosy and unlined, belying a lifetime spent on the  water.

Lindstrom sat hunched on the rail, resplendent in yellow waterproof overalls and a red wool shirt. He nodded to McIntire and emitted another stream of raucous coughing, rocking on his perch and crowing like a brilliantly hued rooster. McIntire swallowed bile and the urge to leap forward and yank the old man down to a more stable position. “Thank you for waiting, Mr. Lindstrom,” he said. “Was it you that found him?” Lindstrom struck his chest with his fist, cleared his throat, and leaned at a perilous angle to spit over his shoulder. His response, when it finally came, was in a creative merging of languages that took McIntire several seconds to unravel as, “Oh no, not me. It was Jonas there.” He waved the stem of his pipe in the general direction of two skiffs snugged up like nurslings to the Frelser’s side. In the stern of the nearest, an anemic-appearing youngster huddled in his Mackinaw, picking at a frayed spot on the knee of his dungarees. “My son Benjamin’s boy. He’s work with Nels two year now.” Lindstrom added this last with eyes cast down, the better, McIntire supposed, to negate any unbecoming note of grandfatherly pride.

“You mean Jonas was here on the boat with Nels when he died?” No wonder the kid looked so  peaked.

Lindstrom shook his head. “Nah, we just come out. I come in the skiff here, to pick my bait nets, and I take the boy along to Nels. Then he don’t need no ride to Nels’ place, you know. I go home to bait-on for Ben and me, but with this big fancy boat Jonas just sit by the stove and cut bait while Nels take her to the  banks.”

But Simon had not gone home, and it was tragically evident that Nels Bertelsen hadn’t taken anything much of anywhere on this morning. McIntire braced himself against the rail and pressed on. “Let me be sure I’ve got this straight. Nels was waiting for Jonas and netting bait fish here in the bay before going out to the fishing banks. You intended to drop Jonas off at his boat when you came to pull in your own bait nets?”

“Ya,” Lindstrom’s head bobbed emphatically, “that is what I just tell you. We pull up to the Frelser here, but damn if we see Nels nowhere. His nets is just hangin’ out the hatch, and still the fish is in, and nobody is pulling. We yell out, and Nels, he don’t say nothing. So the boy, he climb in the hatch too, and was right back out, quick as a wink. ‘Nels is just sittin’ with his pants down,’ he says, ‘and he ain’t breathin’ aytall.’ So I get on board and by golly there sits Nels, dead as the doornail. I tell Jonas he better hop back in that skiff and high-tail it home lickety-split. ‘Call the constabulary,’ I tell him, ‘Talk fast and talk  Swede!’”

The boy had indeed talked “Swede” when he made that crack-of-dawn call. It was a common ploy when ringing the constable on his six-party line with information the caller hoped to keep confidential. It seldom kept anything really interesting out of the public domain for long, but might have worked in this case. Jonas’s Swedish had been considerably less comprehensible than his grandfather’s  English.

“Go ahead and talk Swede too, if you like,” McIntire suggested, and began to do so himself. “What time was it when you found Nels?”

Lindstrom nodded and replied in the vaguely Gallic tones of his native Varmland. “It was getting pretty light already, after four, maybe almost four-thirty. I don’t wear a watch  on the lake—might lose it, you know. Jonas was out of here like a shot. I suppose it took him about twenty minutes to get home and call you.”

“So Jonas went for help immediately after you found the…after you found him?”

“Well, yes, he did. What do you think, we stopped for coffee? Maybe read the  paper?”

“I mean,” McIntire explained, “did you try to revive him or anything?”

Lindstrom dismissed the question with gutteral “ech” and a flip of his chin. “There was no chance of that. I could see right away that he was dead. If I hadn’t been sure of it, I’d have told Jonas to get the doctor. But I see you brought him along anyway.” He paused briefly, as if to underscore the folly of summoning a doctor to minister to a dead man, before going on. “What did he say happened? Was it a heart attack? Nels was still young. But he was a great one for letting himself get all worked up over things. That’s not good for the old pump, they say.”

Dabbling at four o’clock every morning in the liquid ice that was Lake Superior water couldn’t be too beneficial to that “pump” either. “I don’t think he’s done with his examination yet,” McIntire told him. “To tell the truth, it was Dr. Guibard brought me out. I don’t have a boat.” McIntire’s confession of boatlessness brought a droop to Lindstrom’s mouth, an expression of profound pity mirroring McIntire’s feelings toward those who were compelled to travel on water. One of Lindstrom’s remarks still mystified him. When he’d first boarded the Frelser and entered the dark cabin below, he’d tripped over a wooden box—a box that was stacked to the rim with the posterior halves of small herring, each wearing a large hook where, in the natural order of things, its head would be. It accounted for the seagulls’ breakfast, but didn’t quite fit with Jonas Lindstrom’s aborted plan to “sit by the stove and cut bait.” Not that it really mattered, but if McIntire was going to be here he might as well make some pretense of filling his  office.

“I understood you to say,” he said, “that Nels and Jonas caught their bait here in the bay, and Jonas baited the hooks while they were on the way to their fishing grounds. But there’s a box of baited hooks down there. Does that mean that Nels was waiting longer than usual for Jonas? Did he have time to string up those herring himself before he died?” “Oh, no. Like I said, Nels only got his nets half pulled in.

But he made a good catch, and he sure won’t be needing any bait today, so I kept myself busy while I was waiting for you to get here. And I can save my nets for tomorrow.” Lindstrom pushed himself off the rail, landing with a thump and setting in motion a shudder that ran along the deck and rippled upward through McIntire’s stomach to his throat. While the fisherman’s complexion might have escaped the ravages of icy wind and water, his joints obviously hadn’t. McIntire could almost hear the grating as Lindstrom painfully shifted from roosting position to standing. He then settled the suspenders of his overalls more securely on his shoulders and rapped the bowl of his pipe on the rail, sending a smoldering black lump hissing into the water. A sharp-eyed gull swooped in and downed the tasty morsel in a gulp. Lindstrom stuffed the pipe into his pocket and rubbed his hands briskly together. They were as gnarled as cedar roots with knuckles the size and color of ripe  plums.

“I have to be going now,” he announced. “I fish with Ben, you know. He’ll think it’s me that’s had the heart attack if I don’t get back soon. We should have been on our way an hour ago.” He called down to his grandson, “Jonas, get your ass in gear! Bring that skiff up now. Then I think you take the Frelser on.”

So, if McIntire had deciphered this correctly, he wasn’t expected to pilot the big boat back into town himself. It was the best news he had gotten so far that day, but it was adding to his growing suspicion that Lindstrom’s reasoning was as convoluted as his speech. “Mr. Lindstrom,” he asked, “if your grandson can handle this boat, why didn’t he just head back into St. Adele when you first found Nels? Why make two trips?”

And why drag me all the way out here to risk losing half my guts in the lake? he might have added, had he been a less charitable man.

“Well, hell, I think I can’t let Jonas do that all by hisself. And Nels, he ain’t in no shape to have the whole town come trooping in to have a look.” Lindstrom’s overlarge boots made a hollow sound as he crossed the deck, then turned once more to McIntire. “Nels Bertelsen was ornery as they come, but… well, you know, he didn’t hafta hire just a dumb kid like Jonas.” With that, he disappeared into the vessel’s pilot house.

Seconds later, he emerged through the hatch in the side of the hull and dropped with a grunt into the skiff. Jonas scrambled in through the opening and heaved the bait box out to his grandfather, who settled it lovingly against his knees. The outboard roared, the little boat gave a leap, and Simon Lindstrom sped off toward the brightening shoreline.

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