This is Chapter 2 of Destroying Angel. You can find Chapter 1 here.
Whereas Wulff’s house was on the river side of the road, the lodge sat on a long drive up the hill away from the river. As we drove up, we swung around the back of the house to the kitchen entrance. Light was coming from the windows which spanned the width of the house.
We entered the kitchen and there around the table sat Andy McAvey, the handyman; and Tibaud, Negro’s right hand man and heir-apparent. They were holding mugs of coffee and huddled against the cold in the house, despite the nice weather outside. Leaning against the commercial range in the middle of the long wall facing the door was Ollie, one of the deputies. McAvey looked up as Wulff crossed to the woodstove in the middle of the short wall at the far end. He tisked to himself and set a fire.
“Rest of the cops just left,” said McAvey.
“Fine by me, they always spoil my appetite,” said Wulff who began bustling around the kitchen like it was his own, which it pretty much had been these last few months. “I’m famished,” he said has he walked up to the refrigerator. Ollie interceded. “You can’t go in there; Braster is coming back with a search warrant. Everybody is just sitting tight until that happens.”
“Ach!” said Wulff, “And here I am starving. I don’t suppose we can get him to bring a pizza?”
He looked around, “Where’s Crowley?”
“We called him, he left before the body was discovered. Nobody has heard from him,” said Ollie.
“He probably went to get the boat, and you know how the reception is out there,” I offered.
“Yeah,” said Ollie, sounding unconvinced.
Just then my phone rang and I took it out of my pocket. I listened and hung up. I took Wulff aside. “It’s Hershel, he got Rosalita out and said I can pick her up.”
“Excellent!” said Wulff rubbing his hands together. “You can get some food.” I shot him a look and headed out the door. Some things are more important than your appetite.
Before I got to the car, he came bustling out. “Just remembered to ask me for beer?” I blurted out as I opened my door, hotter than I meant to be.
“Oh, shush. We can’t discuss everything in front of Ollie can we? Look, Herschel didn’t get her out yet, that was a ruse to get you out of the house. We don’t have much time. Before you go, hit the cabins and give them a once over before the cops get here.”
“Looking for anything in particular?”
“Well anything that would point to the poisoner. And I certainly want my flies back, if you run across them.” That seemed like a strange request, but Wulff’s inscrutable self-absorption was always a background noise anyway.
“And if I find something?”
He looked me in the eyes and held his chin. “That’s a tough one. On the one hand, we want to clear Rosalita. On the other, I don’t much care who offed this bastard.”
“Times like this; I wish you carried a phone.”
He smiled. “There’s no reason you can’t use the house line. Just ring me there if you run into any moral conundrums.”
“Oh, and do bring back some food, would you?” Then he spun and was gone.
The driveway formed a loop on the backside of the house with the house on the bottom and six cabins arranged around the top, backs to shed barns and the hills that rose up to bluffs in the afternoon light. I went around the car to the first cabin on the other side of the yard. They were cute little one- and two-bedroom modular cottages. Each one was painted up with curtains, a full bath, and a sitting room with a little kitchenette. They weren’t locked, because who was going to steal from you out here but your fishing buddies? A key would just be another thing to lose in the river.
Of the six, four were occupied. Going counter-clockwise, the first one belonged to McAvey. I pulled the blinds and began to look around. The long front room served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. There was a bookshelf in the living room with some NY Times best sellers on it, Jack Reacher novels in particular, and below that some more academic texts on plants, notably Edible and Wild Mushrooms by Arora, and Stamets’s Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. The room was sparse and had some clothes dropped where they may, as well as a few dishes in the sink, like you might expect from a bachelor. In the middle of the little table was a bouquet of flowers which seemed odd, but he was the gardener, among other things. The refrigerator had a collection of Tupperware with various leftovers in them. I smiled. Rosalita took care of everybody, it seemed. I figured what the hell, and grabbed one for Wulff.
There were three doors against the back wall. On the left was his bedroom. The bed was unmade. I tossed the closet without finding much, but the dresser held some lady things, which were not in his size. So, Andy had a girlfriend and not a fetish. No crime in that, except I’d never seen her around. On the dresser was also a picture of light skinned Latina girl, maybe ten or so, very pretty. That and an Ansel Adams calendar were all I saw for decorations.
Next I hit the bathroom, and was not surprised to find a second toothbrush, feminine deodorant, shaving cream, razor, and hair products. That left the second bedroom. I opened that up expecting to find a catch-all full of gear, but the bed had been removed and instead there was a desk with a computer on the back wall under the window. On the wall to the right, another bench set up like a small laboratory with a microscope, flasks, vials, and burners. Curioser and curioser. Well, there was no way I was removing that before the cops came. Andy might have some explaining to do when Braster showed up, but there was nothing I could do about it now.
I made one last quick look around the room, saw a waste basket under the desk, and there in the bottom were some mushroom caps. I whistled despite myself, went into the kitchen, grabbed a baggie, and carefully put them in it, then put the whole thing in the inside pocket of my coat. I closed the door, backed out and went to the next cabin.
Next was my cabin where I’d stayed the night before, but I’d cleared all of my gear out in the morning before the float and stashed it in my truck.
After that was Tibaud’s I tossed the place fast looking for hiding spots: the toilet tank, the freezer, between mattresses, ran my hand around the edges of the carpet looking for pull ups. Inside a valise in the closet I found ammo for the 9MM, but no gun. I left the ammo right where I found it. Like Wulff said, these weren’t good people and anything to put a little heat on them was fine by me.
The last cabin, was Negro’s. Being the victim, I tossed it quickly. No gun in the luggage, an expensive suit in the closet. A very expensive hand-tooled travel kit containing toiletries. A briefcase with some papers on his legitimate cacao business. No waders. Those must still be at the hospital, I figured. If the killer had done his dirty work here, there was no evidence. Three cabins, twenty minutes, time for old Abel to boogey into town. I grabbed the Tupperware with the leftovers, got in the Hudson and eased it down the drive to the road before I pulled out my phone and gave the lodge a call.
Ollie answered and I asked for Wulff. I could tell he was trying to figure out if there was any reason not to put me through when it sounded like Wulff took the expedient by grabbing the phone from him.
I gave him the brief run down on what I’d found, including the lab.
“Did you find the Waders?”
“I did not.”
“Go to the hospital and get those waders. Go through the pockets. Get anything you find.”
It seemed strange, but by now I know better than to second guess Wulff, and I had a good thirty minutes to figure it out rather than ask another dumb question. “Anything else?”
“Yes, we need to find Jerry before the cops do. Right now, we have a two-banana problem.”
“Coincidences are a lot like bananas. You can eat one. But even if you are really hungry, the second one is very hard to force down.”
“I never really thought about bananas that way before, but you are right, I could not eat two. However, despite this charming and insightful analogy, I remain unenlightened as to what you are referring to.”
He sighed like I was an imbecile. “I would have a hard time buying that Rosalita is at the one trout lodge in the world these two show up at. But I definitely can’t take that Crowley also knew them. Something stinks. Do some digging. Work backwards and figure out how they are connected.”
“Got it. One last thing.”
“Tibaud is armed.”
I eased the Hudson over the molded gutter between the road and the sidewalk and into the hospital parking lot. I was running a couple of scenarios through my head about what to say to get access to the waders, depending mostly on if I’d dated the nurse who was working the ER. I’d had a fair run of them a while back, and honestly was rather hoping that Julie might be on as I always felt we had unfinished business. My musings were interrupted, however, by Crowley coming out of the door, plastic bag-in-hand. My errand list just got significantly shorter. I strolled up to him and when he saw me he looked a bit like a cat who had swallowed a litter box.
“Abel, what are you doing here?”
I had my hands in my pockets, so I nodded to the bag. “Same as you, I suppose. I came to get Negro’s gear.”
His eyes narrowed and he unconsciously pulled the bag back, putting his body between me and it. I merely arched my brows and he became aware of his actions.
“Yeah, uh, sure,” he said, offering up the bag. I opened it. Inside was a set of silk long underwear, one of those mosquito-proof linen over shirts, a bandana, a baseball type cap with flies in the bill, waders, and boots. I pulled out the shirt and went through the pockets pulling out a license and steelhead catch card in a bright orange plastic case. I noticed he hadn’t marked his fish. I pocketed it, just in case there was some information on it. The waders had a fly wallet in the chest pocket. I opened it and looked, five of Wulff’s finest, which I put in my coat. I almost skipped the hat, but then reached in and pulled it out. Another dozen or so random flies, including one of Wulff’s. I took the whole hat and handed him the bag back.
“I don’t think you should be taking those.”
I looked at Crowley. “Why is that, Jerry?”
“Well, I’m sure Negro will be wanting them back.”
That’s when it struck me – he didn’t know. “Jerry, Negro’s dead. The cops are trying to pin it on Rosalita, and Wulff is trying to figure it out before that can happen.”
His mouth opened wide and he took a step back. “No! What are you talking about? He was fine when I left the house.”
“Not sure yet, maybe some kind of poison.” All the air went out of Jerry and he stood there in his plaid shirt and jeans looking a lot like a pile of laundry. “It wasn’t her. It couldn’t be her.” He looked up. “Why do they think it was her?”
“He’s dead, and her bags were packed. They are just trying to tie them together. Braster is on his way up to the lodge any minute with warrants.”
He looked genuinely shocked at the events. I thought this might be a good chance to catch him off guard. “Why was Negro here, at your lodge?”
His head snapped up and his eyes focused instantly. He looked a lot like a rescue dog slunk in the corner of a cage at the pound, scared but willing to do anything to survive, even if I meant sucking up to a little fat kid with candy all over his face. “He came to fish.”
“But he knows both you and Rosalita, Jer. The world is just not that small.” I was thinking right then of the two-banana problem. “How do you know these guys?”
“I need to sit down,” he said, and we turned to a bench beside the door. He sat heavily and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.
“These guys are bad dudes. The real thing, cartel stuff. About ten years ago, I was guiding them. We were coming into a nasty drift, I told Negro to sit his ass down, he wants to make one last cast. We hit the first hole and he just about goes in. The guy goes crazy. He whips me right across the face with a rod. We flip the boat, I go under, I try to get a hold of it, and he’s got the boat in one hand and his gun in the other. Pistol whips me right across the face, opening me up like a can of Vienna sausages and knocking me out. Down I go, getting pinned on a sweeper. At the end of all of it, the two of them get out and right the boat, leaving me there for dead. If it wasn’t for turbulence in the river working me against that branch and popping me up like bad gas in a bathtub, I would be.”
“That is cold,” I said.
He looked at me. “You know what they did then?” I shook my head. “They finished the float. Two days of it, fished the whole way out. I know, because I found my gear at campsites along the way. They just used it and left it. It’s a good thing too. I was in a bad way, having cracked my skull, and that gear kept me alive as I walked out.”
I whistled. “That is double-digit cold.”
“It took me a while to heal, but I wanted those guys dead bad.” He looked over at me and I just nodded. I got a few stories about revenge I could tell myself. “When I was well enough, I started stalking him. I watched him at work. I got to know all of his movements. Gradually, I pieced together his operation. That’s how I realized he wasn’t just any cacao farmer but also had the brothels and drugs. I’m a hunter all my life, been one on the land here, and they taught me to hunt men in the army. I thought it would be easy to off him, but these guys live in a whole other world of crazy. Tibaud, he’s good. He never lets his guard down. I started to lose my patience. So one day when they went to check on his operations, I just decided I would gun down Negro, Tibaud and anybody else with them.”
He looked away and I could see he was looking into the past like a drive-in movie playing out in the parking lot. “It was in El Paso. It was hot, the sun was straight overhead and my shirt was stuck to me. I didn’t eat or sleep much back then. I could smell my own stink. I was getting on loco: I smelt it, I felt it, I could taste it. It was then or never. They went in to this low yellow adobe building with the door right on the street, and I pulled up across from it, about one hundred feet down. I had my Ithaca 12-guage shotgun on my lap. When the door opened, I was just going to roll up on them, unload, and take off.” He looked at me again.
“That’s when Rosalita came running out. She had on a white negligee and was barefoot. She was looking around crazy, like some kind of animal fleeing a fire, and she was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Some kind of an angel. I just did what I had planned to do except when I rolled up, instead of shooting her I told her to jump in. They came out, I unloaded both barrels, we took off, and we have been running ever since.”
Rosalita had skipped that part when she told me the story. And a great story it was, but he still hadn’t answered my question. I was just about to point this out when a cruiser rolled up. Deputy Bertrand got out and stood there, his great red mustache under his nose like a cardinal had landed on his lip, thumbs hooked in his belt.
“Well, lookee here. What a coincidink, the three of us being here. What are you two boys doing on this fine day?” He made a show of looking around at the blue sky, and then cocked his head and stared at us.
Crowley held up the bag. “I came to get Negro’s stuff.
I slicked back my hair and popped Negro’s hat on my head, shrugging. “You know me and nurses.”
Bertrand tipped is head and held out his hand. “I’ll take that,” he said reaching for the bag.
I was about to mention warrants and all, but I really just wanted him gone so Crowley and I could get back to conversing. Crowley popped up off of that bench like a dog on point and trotted the bag right over to the cop. “Sure thing, Bertrand. Anything I can do to help get this cleared up.”
Bertrand looked at him. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Jerry shrugged. “Didn’t know Negro was dead ’til Abel told me. We left the boat on the river when we hiked him out. I went down early this morning to hike in and get it out in case we needed it.” He looked at me. “I was going to call you for a ride back to the truck, but I got a lift right at the take out from another guide before I could get even get reception.”
Bertrand listened to the explanation with his thumbs hooked in his belt, as if he didn’t really care. “You oughta maybe head home, Jer.” He looked at me. “What about you, loverboy?”
“I’m going to enjoy the sun and wait for shift change, but if you need me, you know where I am.” Then I stretched out my legs, pulled the cap down over my eyes, and folded my hands in my lap. I could feel Bertrand staring at me for a while trying to get the last word in, but I was already rerunning Crowley’s story in my head. Eventually, I heard Crowley’s diesel start up and go, and finally the cruiser took off with a squeal, but I still sat there for a bit, cogitating. Somehow, I’d choked down both bananas, and yet I was still hungry. I pulled out my tablet and went over everything Wulff had looked at. If there was a murder there, I sure was a lousy dick.
When Herschel called me, Julie still hadn’t come out of the ER and the day was cooling off as the sun descended. So I ambled back to the Hudson and headed towards the jail.
When I got to the station, Herschel was waiting in his car to catch me before I went in. “Abel,” he said, and we shook.
“I got here just as they were bringing her in. The stuff they got on her, they got without a warrant. Her room is in the house off the kitchen, they saw the luggage, and they just barged right in to it. So there was no way they could hold her, or even talk to her.” He looked at me. “It doesn’t mean they can’t bring her back if they find something.”
“Thank you for that.”
“It also means the gun is out. If they find anything on it, I’ll come down on them like a cement cloud at trial.”
“Don’t suppose I could get it back?” I asked. Just because the cops couldn’t use the info if they ran it, I had no confidence they wouldn’t run it. Plus, even though that gun was over fifty years old, it had never once misfired and I was kind of used to having it around, like an old grinning Rottweiler that never leaves your side but you know will protect you in a tight spot.
“Well, that is a gray area. They can’t use it, but I still have to go through some gymnastics to get all of that stuff back. To do that, I may have to tell them who it belongs to. I’m going to have breakfast with the DA, if I have to show up at his house to do it, but they can stall us that long. Besides, if you take it back to the house, it will be subject to the warrant. Best right where it is now.”
“She’s out and that’s the important thing. I was actually more concerned they could hold her on her immigration status than I was about the charges.”
“She caught a break there. Because of the, um, circumstance of her arrival in the US, she is eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Act and has been working towards her citizenship so she can bring her daughter Ella in legally. That and the fact that she is married to a U.S. Citizen means they have nothing on her there.”
“To Andy McAvey. I hope that doesn’t burst any little bubbles for you, Abel.” I could see a little smile, maybe a smirk from the solicitor. “Her daughter is the whole reason she tried to come to the states in the first place. To create a better life.”
I waved it off, “No, but it does clear a few things that were bugging me.” Like the picture in Andy’s cabin. But it also opened up a few more.
“She’s waiting for you inside, but before you go in, is there anything I should know?”
“Well, Abel, I’ve said about as much as I can for attorney-client privilege, but I know her story and I know how your chauvinistic ideals have lead you astray in the past. If you did something I should be getting out ahead of, it would sure help both of us to know right now.”
I looked at him and weighed out a few pros and cons of conflicting interests. “Nope, all good.”
He opened his car door. “You are the most trustworthy guy I know. And also the least believable. You take care, if you don’t, or if you haven’t, you’ve got my number.” He got in his car, and I watched him drive away. Then I spun on my heel and double-timed it up the steps to the station.
She was sitting there in the lobby in a cheap plastic chair, looking very lonely and a bit embarrassed. I grabbed her up without looking around. But when we turned to go, Braster was there.
“I thought I told you to stay out of it?”
“Actually, I just came into town for pizza and happened to run into Herschel.”
“We would’ve given her a ride just fine, as we’ll be going that way the moment the warrants are cleared.”
I shrugged, “Well, no need now. No sense in keeping a lady waiting.” I offered her the arm on the side away from him, tipped Negro’s hat and started whistling a merry little tune as we pushed through the double doors.
As soon as we got outside I realized her sleeveless shift was not going to suffice and she took my denim coat with a little smile.
Another smile and a little nod. I figured might as well come off the hero and bring some food back after all, but I also wanted to get a little time with her before I dropped her off, perhaps to be arrested for real this time. There were a few things we needed to get straight.
There was a little Mexican place on the corner that was open, mostly for the post-lunch, pre-dinner bar traffic, but that left us pretty much alone in the dining room. We sat down and the waiter brought the prerequisite chips and salsa. I ordered two coffees and he left us alone for a bit.
“Long day, huh?”
“Yes,” she blurted. “And I’m so sorry about the gun.”
I waved it off. “It’s actually a good thing they grabbed it before they had the warrant. You know, they’re on the way to the house right now, waiting to search it? Keeping everybody together so they can’t talk.”
“Why were you running? You know I was protecting you”
“It didn’t work.”
“What do you mean? I took Negro out and sized him up. He clearly remembers Jerry, but he has no idea who you are.” It seemed indelicate to say he runs a lot of girls and she was just one of them, but that was the impression I got.
She toyed with a chip, and her eyes lost focus. “It wasn’t him. It was Tibaud. He came to me when you were gone with Negro. He knew who I was. He said he still owned me.” Her eyes shifted to mine and I could see them wet with tears. I reached over to hold her free hand. She was trembling. I sensed there was more and I didn’t want to interrupt. “He said he knew I had a daughter in the Dominican and that she was trying to cross, too. He gave me a bottle and told me to poison Negro, or he would make sure what happened to me happened to her.”
It was spilling out now. “He said, if I did it and got caught to just take the blame and he would make sure that Ella was taken care of. Then he laughed, said he might do it personally.” She started hiccupping like people do when they are trying not to bawl. “He said that if I got any ideas, Ella was already on her way here, and if anything happened it would go through. Only him going back would stop it.”
She looked right at me. “She’s eleven. What would you do?”
I sure wasn’t going to answer that, or ask her what she did. In fact, right now, that is the last thing I wanted to know. Just then the waiter came. I picked up the menu and made a great show of ordering a heap of food to go. I asked her what she wanted, but she had sunk back into her own thoughts, so I ordered for her.
There was one thing I needed to know, and I was pondering how to separate out how to ask about the thing I wanted to know from the thing I didn’t want to know when suddenly she looked up at me.
“I did it. I put the poison in his food.” Which of course was exactly what I didn’t want to know. “I made wild mushroom risotto, and figured I could always claim I had made a mistake, claiming that I must have picked a poisonous mushroom and thought it was the horse mushroom, agaricus arvensis.” She looked very serious. “Theo always says we must use the proper names and not the ‘vernacular.’’’ Another moment while she composed herself. “I didn’t know what Tibaud gave me. I didn’t know it would take Negro days to die.”
Well that cleared the path to what I did want to know. “Where’s the vial?” Or in other words, is there any evidence?
“I had it on me when they took me in. But since they didn’t arrest me, they never searched me.” And with that she pulled it out of her purse and handed it to me.
I actually laughed out loud at that one. If Braster had done just one thing right, he actually would’ve had it all sewn up. In fact, if he truly covered all of his bases, he could still figure it out and sew it up, but I figured the odds at about 999:1 on that. Even Wulff would have a hard time thinking that one through. I looked at the bottle, a little clear glass vial with a black plastic cap, and put it into my pocket.
I looked at her beautiful face and my heart melted. She may never be my angel, but she was still an angel. Then I had a thought. “Did you really do it, or are you just confessing to keep your part of the deal?”
“I did it. I had to do it. I wanted to do it. But, I wasn’t running because of that; I was trying to get back to Ella before Tibaud, because I knew he would never really let her go. She was his insurance. He would torture both of us forever. Now, I need to confess, or Ella will have no chance at all. I was all set to when Herschel showed up.”
“Rosalita, that you absolutely must not do.” She looked at me and I could see I was having no impact on her. “Look, do you trust Wulff?” She nodded slowly. “Well, Wulff is on it, and he’s got an angle. I don’t know what it is yet, but if I know him it’s good enough to get you off. So you just don’t say a word, and don’t go anywhere. Got it?” The slightest of nods, it might’ve been a tremor. “You trusted me to start this; trust me and Wulff to finish it. Nobody here is going to let you take the fall for killing that pig, okay?” This time, the nod was more positive, although the eyes still showed doubt. “Just a couple of days Rosalita, and this will be over, I promise.”
I’d learned a lot about my friend tonight: a mother, married, and deadly. And she called Wulff ‘Theo.” Nobody, but nobody, calls Wulff “Theo.” He would have a fit over that, and then would absolutely choke to death to hear somebody he taught to cook claim they made a fatal error in the kitchen. That would not do.
As I looked across the table at her with her big black eyes and waifish smile, even now her childlike innocence still showed through. Before I could rectify my feelings with her actions, our food arrived and we took off. We both kept to our own thoughts on the way back, and I was hoping to beat Braster back to the lodge. Because even though I figured the warrants were really no longer an issue, I still had to strategize with his corpulence.
This is chapter 2 of Destroying Angel, a short-story tribute to Nero Wolfe. You can find chapter 3 here.