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A VENTURE
INTO
MURDER

CHAPTER ONE

“Start at the beginning,” I said, stepping gingerly away from the corpse in the sand. It had a hole in its chest. But Elmer Knapp had none, and he proceeded at full throttle and with a bottomless fuel tank. Mr. Knapp had found the body.

“Me and the wife are from Bloomville, Wisconsin,” the octogenarian said, sweeping off his threadbare fisherman’s porkpie and mopping his head, its bald white pate divided neatly from his stubbly cheeks by a deep farmer’s tan. Like many vacationing heartland country dwellers of his generation, he dressed not in the Lands’ End shirts and stonewashed jeans of midwestern Baby Boomers but in faded military khakis and a flap-pocketed blue chambray work shirt buttoned all the way up, collar gaping around his tanned turkey neck. From his frayed pants cuffs jutted stained, scuffed work boots with lug soles. Dead center on his rawhide string tie lay a bright Navajo turquoise clasp, no doubt a souvenir from a vacation in the Southwest. He looked utterly authentic, and for the most part sounded the same way.

“That’s down near Antigo in Langlade County, you know. Last Saturday, that’s two days ago, we were going to go to Bayfield—that’s out by the Apostle Islands, you know—because Aunt Pearl has been poorly with the arthur-itis, and the wife wanted to get something pretty to cheer her up. But I can’t stand that gift-shop junk—you know, Bayfield is becoming touristier and touristier with every passing year, and all it’s doing is attracting the wrong kind of people from all over, you know, the ones who throw McDonald’s trash all over the highway, and . . .”

By this point most other police officers would have rolled their eyes and said in so many words, “Yes, yes, can we get to the point?” But I believe in letting witnesses rattle on, even elderly ones no longer inclined or even able to distinguish relevant from irrelevant. You never know what might spill out when a witness charges along under a head of steam.

“And?” I said in an encouraging tone.

“And I managed to persuade Elfrieda, that’s the wife, that her Aunt Pearl, who loves pretty stones, might like an agate or two from the shore of Lake Superior. So we decided to drive to Porcupine City and rent a cabin for a few days, as we’ve done a week or so every other year since 1957 or thereabouts, and hunt up some stones on the beach. That was last Friday. No, I said it was Saturday, didn’t I? What day is today?”

“Monday,” I said.

“Yes, that’s right, we have eggs Monday mornings,” Mr. Knapp said firmly. “It’s definitely Monday. Sunny side up.”

“Then what happened?” I said.

“After breakfast we started walking west down on the beach looking for agates. In the morning when the sun is low it’s best to keep it at your back so you can see the pretty rocks sparkling ahead of you, you know. It was kind of foggy, though.”

I nodded and jotted a word in my notebook. Foggy.

“After about an hour we heard a sport fisherman raise its anchor and start its engines maybe half a mile off the beach. That was probably the Mary-El. You know, that’s a party boat, takes people fishing.”

“Yup.” Another jot. Mary-El. A thirty-six-footer out of Silverton, just about the only sizable commercial sport fishing vessel along the 150-odd miles of nearly deserted Lake Superior shoreline between Ashland, Wisconsin, and Houghton, Michigan. I’d been aboard her myself a couple of times, on forays for lake trout.

“See her?”


“Just barely,” Mr. Knapp said.

“ ’Bout what time was that?”

“Eight-fourteen. I just happened to check my watch. It’s a Timex, you know, the best twenty-dollar watch in the world, never stops running. I got her at a garage sale. You know what I paid?”

He leaned toward me conspiratorially. “Two bucks.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a buy.”

“Damn right,” he said. Another thrifty child of the Depression, the kind who hunts for mail-order and garage-sale bargains, clips coupons, never pays retail, and always buys a used car. I admire those who are careful with their money because they have to be, as I suspected Mr. Knapp was, and pity the tightwads who don’t need to scrimp but still boast about their steals at Costco and Sam’s Club. The rich man who walks a mile to save a penny is a sad human being indeed.

“Was that Central time or Eastern time?”

“Central. I don’t change my watch up here. Makes me late to supper.”

Though it lies seventy-two miles farther west than Chicago, Porcupine City, seat of Porcupine County, runs on Eastern time, like the rest of Michigan except the four counties along the Wisconsin state line. Michiganders who live next to Wisconsin just find it easier to live by Central time. In Porcupine County, however, being on Eastern time means late dawns and late sunsets during the summer. Often last light doesn’t fade until ten-thirty.

“What happened next?”

“By and by, maybe ten minutes later,” he said, “Elfrieda tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Elmer, that’s odd.’ I looked up and saw a bunch of crows, half a dozen or so, way up the beach pecking at a log half in and half out of the water. Now crows don’t usually do that. They’re not shore birds, you know. I said to Elfrieda, I did, ‘You’re right, that’s odd. Let’s go have us a look.’ ”

Elmer sighed. “When we got there, Elfrieda said, ‘Elmer, logs don’t have arms nor legs.’ And I said, ‘This one don’t have eyes neither.’ The crows had been at it a while.”

He shuddered and looked back on the beach, where other Porcupine County sheriff’s deputies stood over the body, trying not to gag as the sun rose higher in the June sky and accelerated the processes of putrefaction. To my eye the half-naked corpse, a large and burly male lying faceup and clad only in jeans and a single sneaker, had not been in the water long, judging from the bluish skin and lack of bloat. The chill of Lake Superior most likely had slowed decomposition.

 “And that’s when we went to that cabin over there and, you know, asked them to call the arthur-ities.”

For a moment I thought Mr. Knapp had said “arthritis.” I took a deep breath. One more “you know” and I’d go nuts. Young people have corrupted the everyday language of many of their elders with that useless locution, and “like” isn’t far behind it. I was sorry. If it had not been for that I would have been persuaded that Elmer Knapp was an utterly pure and unspoiled old-timer from the midwestern countryside. They’re hard to find nowadays, what with television and the Internet turning the speech of too many people between the Hudson River and the Sacramento Valley into that of cookie-cutter Middle Americans of the youthful persuasion.

“Thank you, Mr. Knapp,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful. Now I don’t think we’ll be needing you any more today. Could you give me your address and telephone number in Bloomville, just in case?” He did so, and I shook his hand gravely. “Maybe you’d better look to Mrs. Knapp. She seems unwell.”

Mrs. Knapp sat disconsolately on a log nearby, as if she had suddenly been told that her salmon-colored double-knit pantsuit, set off by a bright yellow chiffon scarf, had been out of fashion for thirty years. It looked almost new, as if she wore it only on special occasions, like vacation days. Probably it was another product of the pinched thriftiness of the lower middle class. But I suspected that what really ailed her was the unexpected sight of an eyeless corpse.

“Who is it, do you think?” Mr. Knapp said. “What happened to him?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe a fisherman who fell out of his boat a few days ago.”

I didn’t tell Mr. Knapp about the dimpled perforation directly under the stiff's left nipple. I’d spotted it when I arrived on the scene an hour earlier. I would have bet good money the hole had been made by a bullet, although it was possible the corpse had been punctured postmortem by a snag as it rolled in the shallows. I’d told the two deputies who followed me on the scene to let the body lie as it was, then called my immediate boss, Gil O’Brien, Porcupine County’s undersheriff, and told him the facts. Right away Gil phoned the state police post at Wakefield, a little more than fifty miles southwest of the sheriff’s department in Porcupine City. Rural sheriffs rarely have the means or manpower to investigate suspicious human deaths in these semi-wilderness parts and generally let the better-equipped troopers do the job.

I looked out on the beach. Here, not quite halfway along the fifteen miles between Porcupine City and the vast Wolverine Mountains Wilderness State Park in western Upper Michigan, some fifty feet of sand spanned the distance between tree line and water’s edge—a fairly wide beach for this stretch. The lake was still this morning, the gentle lap-lap of the waves barely audible in the soft breeze. Heaps of skeletal white driftwood thrown up by spring storms spotted the beach like a bleached wooden boneyard, an ossuary of dead pine and cedar—except along the three hundred or so feet that belonged to the owner of the cabin Mr. Knapp had hailed. Evidently the owner was an anal-retentive sort. Unlike most lake shore property holders, who tended to prefer nature’s helter-skelter design and let their beachfronts alone, he had raked the sand clean so that it shone spotlessly white, like Waikiki Beach on Sunday morning. But there was no fringe of stately palms, only a thick line of birch and aspen broken by a few towering white pines left over from the logging days of a century ago.

Through the trees I saw oncoming flashing red, blue and white lights, and checked my watch. It wasn’t even an hour since I’d called Gil. The state cops must have covered the fifty miles from Wakefield at ninety miles an hour, even though there was no life to save, only a corpse to investigate. The big Ford cruiser fishtailed to a stop on the access road in a cloud of sand and gravel. Smokeys like to make dramatic entrances, as if to emphasize their exalted status on the law-enforcement food chain, several links higher than their not-too-bright country cousins in the sheriff's department.

“Okay, girls,” said a gruff voice as a beanpole in blue blazer and khaki slacks emerged from the passenger side of the cruiser. “It’s ours now. Skedaddle.”

I laughed. Sergeant Alex Kolehmainen, the smartest state police detective and evidence technician in all of Upper Michigan, loved to play the stage bully with sheriff’s deputies. At first he spooked rookies. At a skinny six feet six he was all elbows and knees and Adam’s apple, like Tony Perkins in “Psycho.” His mock bombast, coupled to fast-growing gray stubble on his cadaverous cheeks, made him look like the Grim Reaper in a coat and tie. Sooner or later, Alex’s hamminess tipped off even the greenest probationary deputy that his fierce manner was all a put-on.

Alex, who had grown up in northern Wisconsin and served in the Army after college, like me, had started his law enforcement career as a lowly sheriff’s deputy himself, and he showed great respect for the kind of work we did. “You couldn’t ever get me to handle a domestic dispute again,” he often said of a common task country deputies hated. It’s a frustrating scenario: The abusee calls the cops. The cops arrive and attempt to restrain the abuser. The abusee suddenly feels loyal to the abuser, and the cops end up getting hammered by both sides. Occasionally the abusers—and even their mates—are armed as well as drunk or drugged. “That’s worse than wrestling a crocodile,” Alex says.

And like me, he had not yet married. Women quickly see past his lanky homeliness and set their sights on him, but Alex is a choosy sort. He likes women but loves the bachelor life more. Women invite him to dinner and sometimes he spends the night, but he's always gone after breakfast. Still his paramours forgive him, for he is dashing and generous and dumps his ladies so gently and magnanimously that they are barely aware of the end of the relationship. I doubt that Alex has ever been dumped himself. At least that’s how it seems. Though he and I are good friends, he has never talked about the women he has known. He likes and respects the ladies too much to tell tales out of the bedroom.

Alex stepped over to the body. “What have we here?” he said, broadly including me and my brother deputies in the pronoun. Not “What do we got?”, the hackneyed query of the movie cop. Alex is as careful with his grammar as he is with his tools. “Fill me in.”

As the responding officer I did. Alex nodded as I finished my much-edited tale of the Knapps’ discovery of the body, then went to work, photographing the corpse from several angles with an Olympus digital camera for quick results and a Nikon thirty-five-millimeter film camera for legal backup. He also gathered samples of sand and measured the water’s temperature, leaving no pebble unturned.

 “Anything else turn up on the beach?” he asked after an hour of meticulous labor.

 “Nothing we could see. We searched it for half a mile in both directions.”

“Okay, shall we bag him and drag him?” The Porcupine County Hospital ambulance waited behind the cruiser to transport the body to Houghton forty-eight miles east, where the medical examiner would perform the postmortem. Porcupine County has a coroner, but he’s an internist, and all questionable cases needing a pathologist go to Houghton. Suspicious ones often end up at the state police forensics lab in Marquette, the only one in the Upper Peninsula.
Alex stood up. “Most likely a homicide,” he said, officially voicing what we on the scene all thought of that hole in the man’s chest. “The doc’ll decide.”

“How long ago, do you think?” I asked.

“Hard to say. Could have been just a few hours, but maybe a couple, three days. I’ll have to get a range of water temperatures at this time of year.”

From June to mid-September Lake Superior’s inshore waters are often warm, sometimes topping seventy degrees Fahrenheit, but a sudden shift of wind can roil the lake, bringing up colder waters from the bottom and dropping the surface temperature into the low fifties in a couple of hours. It often takes hours of studying weather and temperature charts to arrive at just a rough time of death.

Alex stripped off his crime-scene gloves and tossed them into a hazmat container in the trunk of his cruiser. “I’ll call you when we know anything,” he said. “Probably be at least a couple of days, maybe a week.”

I nodded and shook his proffered hand.

“Thanks for keeping a clean scene,” Alex said as he shut the door of the cruiser. “That helps a lot. Honest Injun.”

He winked at me.

I winced only a little.

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