Down on the Farm
It was a hot Sunday in August and we traveled down Route 15 at sixty miles per hour with the windows wide open and Bob Dylan in the tape deck. The wind and music muffled conversation, so I focused on the countryside of second-growth timber and thought about other trips I'd made to Maine, starting thirty years back when I was a five-year-old with two doting parents in a '55 Dodge touring car.Route 15 is a broad two-lane highway cutting southeasterly over wooded hills, eventually running to the tip of Deer Isle on Penobscot Bay, We passed an occasional small town beside a lake, white clapboard houses and churches, then the road flattened out and followed the Piscataquis River through Guilford and Sangerville, our destination. It was five-thirty, when we pulled into the driveway at the farmhouse, where my '69 Rambler station wagon sat in the shade of two sugar maples, looking dusty, neglected and disreputable.
My name is Mallory, James Maxwell Mallory. I have been a private detective for about ten years now. In that time I have accumulated neither great wealth nor many possessions. Old friends, when I feel the need for luxury, are willing to share with me. A woman I know tells me it's because I am large--six feet two, one hundred ninety-five pounds--and almost a cop, and I don't covet their wealth, so people feel safe around me.
The farmhouse belonged to two old friends, Samantha and Jay Franklin. They'd acquired it--along with one hundred acres of hay fields, a fifty acre woodlot, thirty-six Jersey cows, two tractors, a manure spreader, and the services of a hired hand named Hank--back in February. Before that they'd lived in a three bedroom co-op on Manhattan's Upper West Side, overlooking Central Park.
We were returning from seven days of sailing on Moosehead, a big lake that cuts thirty-five miles into the wilderness territories owned, maintained, and protected by Scott Paper Company. There are landlocked salmon in the lake that spawn in the rivers filling it, and an abundance of moose, black bear, otters, and mosquitoes. We'd brought along a good stock of exotic supplies, caught a fair number of fish, and each night--on the chosen island, after an evening swim--Jay had improvised a gourmet meal on the two-burner Coleman, while Sam and I gathered driftwood for the fire that was necessary in the cool August evenings. After dinner we talked until the fire burned down, then I'd crawl off to my sleeping bag on the padded deck of the nineteen-foot Silhouette, leaving Sam and Jay to the privacy of a pup tent pitched on shore.
It hadn't bothered me to sleep alone with the stars and mosquitoes that lazy summer week. Just before heading north I'd finished tracking down a pair of swindlers who'd snatched half a million dollars from my client. One of the pair had died in an ugly way, and the other was now in jail. The dead one had been a woman, and I was trying to decide whether her dying had been worth the hefty fee the client paid with such enthusiasm. It probably wasn't, but she was gone, and I didn't plan to return the fee. Now I'd had my week of soul-searching, fresh air, and sunlight, and I felt fit and reasonably at peace with my conscience.
We were back in Sangerville in time for the evening milking. Jay went out to the barn while Sam and I unloaded supplies from the Jeep 4x4. That finished, I went to Jay's office at the front of the house, with its mahogany partner's desk and matching leather chairs, blue Oriental rug, and the gold-framed portrait of Judge Rupert B. Franklin, Jay's paternal grandfather. Nine months earlier the same furniture had filled an office fifty stories above Wall Street, with a view of the planet that would have made Zeus envious.
Zeus notwithstanding, I have never envied Jay his beautiful offices, since he has to practice law in them. Occasionally I test my feelings on that subject--it's important, because if I'd stayed in law school, I'd have been guaranteed similar accommodations by the unwritten part of the Harvard diploma--but I always come up pure. I prefer my own place, on the third floor of an aging health club at the edge of Boston's dwindling red-light district, the Combat Zone.
Sitting in the outsized chair behind the desk where old Judge Franklin had written a thousand opinions of law, I used my credit card to call Boston, activated the device that plays back the messages on my machine, and listened to three recorded dial tones. The machine has limited success snaring new clients, most of whom have problems they'd prefer not to divulge to a tape recorder.
Then Michael Garrison's voice came over the line. Michael's a partner at a large Boston law firm similar to the large Wall Street firm Jay had forsaken. Michael has the odd notion that holding a telephone to his mouth is undignified, so he pushes a button on his conference speakers instead and talks through the voice activated microphone. It gives his messages an echoing, prophetic quality.
The voice said, "Jimmy, remember Mary Wyman? You tracked down her niece six years ago. Mary's been threatened and badly beaten by unknown parties. Give me a call when you get back."
Then three more recorded dial tones, and that was it. I tried to think of all the people I knew in Boston who were mean enough to beat up a seventy-year-old woman, all the reasons they might have for doing so. I'd have to wait for details. On a Sunday afternoon in August Michael would be out on the manicured playing fields of the Bombay Hunt Club, waving a long-handled polo mallet at seven fellow Anglophiles on horseback.
Back in the kitchen Sam sat at the big yellow table. Her blond hair was lit by the last of the sunlight coming in through the screen door behind her, putting her face in shadow. She looked cool and contented, and smiled as I came into the room. There was a cold bottle of Geary's ale opened for me, and I sat across from her with the sun in my eyes and drank half of it in one long swallow. It tasted like good beers I'd had in Ireland, the kind that never get imported to the States.
"Can you stay a few days more," Sam said, "or must you return to the land of discord?"
She talks that way because she writes romantic novels and can't always turn it off. And she's from Ireland herself, so she said it with a lilt.
"Duty calls," I told her.
"More's the pity. Jay's out with the cows and Hank. Our hired hand is stewing over our gall at taking holidays."
"Probably because he's never had one," I said. I knew the real reason for Hank's attitude was Ben Chapman, an old bachelor who owned half the town of Sangerville, the man who'd sold the farm to the Franklins. Apparently Ben had long ago promised to will the place to Hank. So Hank harbored a grudge against the new owners, which manifested itself in subtle ways, like bitching about their vacations and leaving tractors running under bedroom windows at five in the morning. He had the added charm of despising me as another interloper from the big city. But he kept working for the Franklins--jobs are scarce in northern Maine--and they weren't mean enough to fire him.
I'd met Ben Chapman back in February, when he tried to sell the Franklins a manure pile. The pile was on their land at the time, but as Ben pointed out, it hadn't been listed in the purchase and sale agreement. Jay asked him, in that case, to please remove it.
It struck me at the time that Ben looked like a man who'd just stepped out of a manure pile, which was not unusual in those parts, except that Ben's brother was a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and had taught at Harvard when Jay and I were first-year law students. Jay had been Judge Chapman's law clerk after graduation.
"Hank's gotten worse in the last few weeks," Sam said. "Frankly, I'd like to sell the cows, shut down the dairy and be done with him. But then I think about Abby and the five girls."
I finished the Geary's and stood up. "Maybe I'll go out and help placate him."
"Be forewarned--Jay'll put you to work at the milking."
"It's been tried before." I let the screen door slam behind me and stepped out into the sunlight. The lawn and gardens in back of the house were enclosed by a short picket fence on two sides and by the long wall of the barn on the third. Beyond the fence a hay field ran uphill to woods, which were in shadow. The hillside itself was lit by the hot sun, the recently cut hay raked into lines that followed its contours. It looked like a Currier & Ives print of a summer evening in the country. I walked to the barn and stepped into the cool air of the milking room, where the thirty-six Jersey cows fed at two rows of stanchions under a low ceiling that was the floor of the big hayloft above.
It took a moment to adjust to the dim light. Hank was nowhere in sight, but Jay knelt on the cement floor beside a brown cow. Jay has a broad, sculpted face that reminds me of Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, except when he smiles and looks like Chevy Chase. At that moment he frowned, trying to get the suction cups of an electric milker over the teats of the cow. The milking machine made a lot of noise and looked like a nursing extraterrestrial.
He spotted me and shouted, "Ready for work?"
"I'm just a cow observer," I shouted back. "I never touch them."
He didn't smile, but went back to the suction cups while I observed. With their brown hides and soulful eyes, Jerseys look a lot like deer. That's what I was thinking when ninety pounds of tightly baled hay dropped out of the ceiling directly above my head. I jerked back so it hit me on the shoulder instead of breaking my neck, but the impact knocked me onto the cement floor. Hank appeared at the edge of the trapdoor in the ceiling.
"You idiot!" he shouted.
I almost laughed at him. He jumped from the loft and landed a few paces away as I got to my feet. I brushed sawdust from my jeans, then glanced up and recognized the look in his eyes--the look of a man who wants to bust heads and doesn't need much provocation to start. He was a giant, at least five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than I. I barely had time to wonder what the hell was wrong with the guy when he drew back his right fist for a barroom punch, I stepped into it, took it back farther than he'd intended, twisting the arm in one quick motion, then walking him up against the wall. He hit hard enough to shake dust out of the loft overhead. Jay switched off the electric pump and shouted, "Hank!"
I think it was the sudden silence of the pump that stopped him. I felt his muscles relax and I let him loose, taking two quick steps back. He turned and glared at me, said "Shit," and hauled off and kicked the fallen bale of hay. Then he pushed past and stalked to the open door in back and went on out. I rubbed my neck and looked at Jay.
"A little unresolved hostility, or was I standing where only a city slicker would stand?"
"You were standing just fine. You okay?"
I brushed off more sawdust and said, "I'm dirty."
We looked at each other and suddenly both laughed. "Reminds me of that night at the Dugout when the big Irishman got mad at you for playing Frank Sinatra on the jukebox," Jay said. Then he frowned, losing his Chevy Chase look. "It's because of Ben Chapman. Ben got himself killed this afternoon, cutting wood. Pulled a tree on his head with a tractor."
"Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Hank heard about it on the CB scanner, got real upset, and I told him to go home to his family. But Hank has never gone home in the middle of milking, so he stayed. I'm sorry, Jimmy. We'd better finish here and go in and tell Sam. This could be the last straw as far as Hank's working here."
"No pun intended, I hope." He smiled again, and I volunteered to help--I'd had some rudimentary instruction on milking machines during my visit in February. Working together it took us only about twice as long as it should have to finish milking and then clean the equipment. On the way back to the house I smelled coals burning in the barbecue, a nice summer smell. In the kitchen we found Hank's wife, Abby, at the table with Sam.
"Abby just told me what happened," Sam said.
"I came to apologized for Hank," she said with a gruff voice, keeping her eyes on Jay. "Are you hurt, Mr. Mallory?"
"I'm fine. It was an accident."
"Getting mad was no accident, but he's terrible upset about old Ben. That's no excuse, but maybe it's enough so you'll turn a blind eye this once, Jay. If Hank lost his job, it'd kill him."
"Never mind, Abby. It's all right."
"I just wanted to apologize," she said again. Having got what she came for, she stood up from the table and went to the front door, her head bowed.
Jay met her at the door and put his hand on her shoulder. "It's okay," he said. She smiled up at him, then back at Sam and me, and went out.
Jay closed the door and said, "Shit."
Sam shook her head sadly, "Poor Ben.: Then she looked at me and said, "You're a mess."
So I went upstairs to wash, and stopped in the guest room to change into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh T-shirt. Back downstairs half an hour later Sam was a lone again in the kitchen, at the counter opening the three Styrofoam packs of porterhouse steak we'd picked up before leaving Greenville.
I can't believe Hank attacked you like that, " she said as soon as I came into the room.
I went to the counter and pulled the cork from a bottle of red wine Sam had set out beside the sink. "People are funny," I told her. "He needed a target, and I was available. Why do you think he took Ben's death so hard?"
"Ben was like a father to Hank, or used to be before they fought. You father dies when you're still angry, with him, you feel a lot of guilt. I know about that."
"Ben didn't strike me as the fatherly type."
She shrugged, putting the last of the steaks on the platter. I got wineglasses out and poured us each a glass. We stood looking out the window over the sink, thinking about Hank's behavior. It didn't make any sense to me, but I decided not to worry about it. I was on vacation. Sam turned on the tap and washed her hands, then looked up at me and said, "I'd better take a look at the garden--it's probably overrun with killer vegetables after a week without attentions. Jay's upstairs changing. Would you throw the steaks on the grill?"
She took a wicker basket along with her. I got the steaks and my glass of wine and took everything out to the grill. The coals had burned down nicely, and I stood with my wine and the view of the hay fields and waited for the meat to char while the light faded and dew settled in the grass. Sam came from the garden with half a dozen yellow squash and gave me a rueful smile going past. "Full of weeds."
Jay came out to join me, bringing the bottle of wine. He sat on the steps and looked up at the hay field and the beginning of the sunset. "Nice to be in the country," he said. I swatted an imaginary mosquito and he smiled. When the steaks were done, we brought them in on the platter. Sam had set the table with blue cloth napkins, blue china, and the good silver. "Tonight we eat civilized," she said.
But what had been meant as a party turned out to be a wake for Ben Chapman. They told me stories about him, like the time a cagey tourist offered to a buy "a hundred dollars worth of land," and Ben brought him a wheelbarrow full of dirt. And the time Ben clobbered a hunter up from Boston who'd shot Ben's goat, thinking it was a deer, and the story got into The New York Times. Sam said, "We should call the Judge."
He's probably on his way up," Jay said. "We'll see him at the funeral."
I took a bite of steak and finished a glass of wine. The sun had gone down and it was getting dark in the the room. "Do you think Ben might have left Hank a few acres after all?" I said.
"I'm pretty sure he died intestate," Jay answered me. "He once asked me to draft a will, then changed his mind when I told him what my fee would be. Since the Judge is his only family, he didn't really need one."
"This isn't much of a send-off for you, James," Sam said. "Did he tell you, Jay, he has to leave tomorrow?"
"Urgent business in Boston."
"If you stay," Sam said, "we could go back up to the lake for another week." She said it with such a wistful note I was tempted to say I would stay. I thought a bit about the sail we'd just finished. The wind had been light out of the northwest most of the day, and we'd flown the blue spinnaker from the old spa at Kineo all the way down to Greenville, almost twenty miles. The sun had been hot, the trees lit up green, the sky blue and marked only by the high vapor trails of jets heading back from Europe to New York and Boston.
That's when the front door burst open and Judy, Hank's fifteen-year-old, ran into the kitchen sobbing.
It took us a few minutes to calm her down and learn the fact she'd come to communicate. The police had arrested Hank. They were charging him with Ben Chapman's murder.