Cutwork

Cutwork Book CoverChapter One

For a while, Detective Sergeant Mike Malloy thought this was going to be another one of those screwy cases, the kind his amateur nemesis would get involved in. (Mike couldn’t have defined “nemesis,” not exactly like in the dictionary, but he was certain it described a certain woman who was messing up his career by interfering where she wasn’t needed.)

It started Sunday morning, during a thunderstorm. The town of Excelsior had only two investigators in its little police department, so in addition to normal working hours, Malloy and his partner had twenty-four on/twenty-four off standby duty. Today Malloy was on, and so had to restrict his fishing to Lake Minnetonka. Which was fine, Minnetonka was the finest bass lake in the state, one of the finest in the country, probably. Plus, the weatherman Malloy had come most nearly to trust said it would clear before eleven.

Excelsior was also a very quiet town, so when his beeper went off while he was still in the garage loading up his boat, he was surprised.

Walking to the kitchen to phone, he decided it was probably another in the short series of burglaries plaguing the town. Someone was climbing into unlocked cars parked over at Maynard’s for Sunday brunch and, if there was a garage door opener on the visor, checking the glove box for insurance cards that gave the home address. Then when the folks came home from brunch they’d find someone had gone in through the garage and stolen all the easy-to-fence stuff.

So instead of going fishing, Mike would have to spend most of the day taking statements and filing reports. Damn.

He dialed the number and got an answer on the first ring.

“Sergeant Cross,” said Jill Cross.

“Malloy here, whatcha got?”

“A homicide down at the art fair on The Common.”

This was so far from what he was expecting that all he could say was “Huh?” He hated when he did that, it made him sound dumb.

Jill repeated herself in that cool voice of hers – she had never said “Huh?” in her life, probably – adding, “The reporting person is Irene Potter – “

“Oh, Christ!” he interrupted. Because Irene Potter was Excelsior’s craziest lady. And the only time Irene had been in his office on official business, she had brought along Betsy Devonshire, AKA Mike Malloy’s nemesis. (That had been when Mike began to learn he had a nemesis.)

But just as if he hadn’t interrupted, Jill continued, “And the person in charge of the fair is Deb Hart. Ms. Hart is here at the scene, which has been secured. I’ll ensure that Irene is here for you, too. The forensics team is on its way. Be warned, the scene is kinda, um, messy.”

Oh, Jeez. That last, coming from the unflappable Jill Cross, didn’t help. “I’ll be right over.”

Mike called the woman next door to tell her he had a call and could she keep an eye on JR and Mary Beth until he or his wife got back? The woman sighed but then said sure, send them over.

Mike got into his wife’s voice mail at the nursing home and left a message, then drove his blue Chevy 4X4 over to the park. It was only six minutes away, but the rain had about quit by the time he got there. He pulled into the single vacant parking space on Lake Street that overlooked the park. A wilted cardboard sign marked it as reserved for emergency vehicles. Since he was wearing faded jeans and a chambray shirt with fraying patches on the elbows, he turned his ID folder inside out and hung it on the shirt’s pocket so the gold badge showed. Just like the cops on TV. He remembered to take his lucky fishing hat off and leave it in the truck.

The storm’s purple clouds were only a short distance out on the lake, lightning still visible in them, and audible rumbles of thunder.

He stood a minute at the top of a plain wooden staircase leading down to the park, to look the scene over. Lake Street, which he’d just come up, ran along the lake until The Common began. Then the park stayed down near lake level while Lake Street climbed a steep hill. People alighting from their cars halfway along had to come down a bluff via the staircase. The street then went downhill until at the far end it was level with the park again.

This section of park, a grassy field at the bottom of the stairs, was covered with hundreds of square white tents in neat double rows, with a single row along the lakefront. The tents were like stores, open at the front and full of art stuff for sale. The art fair was an annual event; Mike’s wife had gone last year and come home with a sheet-iron sunflower that weighed twenty pounds and rusted so bad it killed her favorite rose bush.

Mike had no doubt where the problem was: an ambulance, two squad cars with their lights flickering, and Excelsior’s new fire truck were at the far end of a vertical row. Mike could see the deep grooves cut by the tires of the vehicles in the soggy grass, and decided to leave his pickup where it was. He ducked back in it briefly to get a notebook and pen from the glove box.

The sun broke through as he went down the wet staircase, a slim man in his late thirties with a freckled face and a thin but sensitive mouth.

The tents were emptying of people who had sought shelter from the rain. The artists were talking fast to the last of them, holding up items and gesturing. The tent he was passing was full of felt hats with floppy brims and fabric flowers. The artist wore one himself; he looked ridiculous. In the next tent there were glass cases on white pedestals under bright lights. In the cases were clumsy-looking rings and pins, some with colored stones. The prices on little cards in the boxes indicated the metal was real gold, the stones real gems. That didn’t keep them from being, in Malloy’s never-humble opinion, ugly. The next tent held kites. Not regular kites; there was one shaped like the Wright Brothers airplane that even had a silhouette of a man lying on it. Another was a three-dimensional pirate ship whose sails provided the lift like a box kite, probably. A really big one shaped like a dragon was being sailed skillfully higher and higher in the clearing sky. JR would love his dad to bring one of these home. But not right now.

Mike turned his attention away from the kites to focus on the tent at the end of the row.

Three men whose shoulder patches said they were from Shorewood were keeping a crowd back, a crowd that had been small when Mike first spotted it, but was growing fast now the rain had stopped. Mike edged his way through and started to say something to one of the uniformed officers, but heard another already on his radio asking for yet more help. Thank God for the agreement that all the little departments in the towns around Minnetonka would come to one another’s aid.

Mike went to the tent for a look. There were three men in civilian clothes standing with their backs to the tent, forming a screen of sorts. They were carrying the cases of equipment necessary for collecting evidence. Mike recognized one as an investigator from the state crime team, so probably the others were, too. Inside, a man with a video camera was recording the interior. The video operator moved aside and Malloy leaned way forward and got his first glimpse of the victim, sprawled on the floor in a big red –

Malloy immediately turned away, wiping his face with one hand. Jesus! Jill’s description of “um, messy” was um, right. He squeezed his eyes shut, blew gently and saw Sergeant Jill Cross looking at him. She was all crisp and calm, like this was something you ran across every day. She nodded at him and came over.

“What happened here?” he asked.

“A knifing. This is the victim’s booth.” Sergeant Cross was a tall woman, a natural ash blond, not at all skinny but somehow not fat, either. She had a face that went with her voice, cool and showing nothing of her thoughts. She wasn’t an investigator but a supervisor, and so was in uniform. Mike had gone from not liking her when she signed on as a patrol officer – he disliked female cops in general – to an uneasy admiration. She rarely put a foot wrong and had all but aced the sergeant’s exam a few months ago. On the other hand, she and his nemesis were good friends, and his nemesis was an interfering civilian, old enough to know better.

“Any idea who the victim is?” Mike asked.

“Robert McFey. He was a wood carver, and it seems his throat was cut with one of his own knives.” Jill glanced sideways at the tent, which had shelves in it with carvings of animals on them, and a couple more on a long table set like a counter across the open front.

“Any idea who might’ve done this?” he asked.

“Not yet. The weapon appears to be the small knife beside the body. There’s an overturned cash box in there that seems to be empty.”

“And Irene Potter saw it happen?”

“No, she found the body. She’s here selling her needle art, she’s got a booth just up the way. She came over for a look at his work and went off like the noon siren.”

“How long ago?”

“Just before ten, the fair was about to start.” Mike checked his watch. Ten fifty. “You want to talk to her?” Cross asked. “She walked off awhile ago, but she’s back.”

Mike sighed. “Okay, I’ll start with her.”

“You want me to stay?”

“No, no, just bring her over and then go back to crowd control or whatever you were doing.”

“Yessir,” she said coolly. Had he put that clumsily? Mike had never felt comfortable around Cross. He didn’t want a sexual harassment suit, which in his opinion every female cop in the country was spring-loaded to bring. He looked at her, ready to give a friendly smile, but she was already walking away.

Irene Potter was the same skinny little woman with shiny dark eyes and very curly dark hair he remembered. She wore a light-brown dress and pink Keds. Her earrings were shaped like tiny scissors, they glittered in the fresh sunlight. Like her eyes.

“Hello, Sergeant Malloy,” she said cheerily. “Isn’t this just dreadful?”

Mike pulled his notebook from a back pocket and slipped the ballpoint pen clipped to its creased cover off. He opened the notebook to a blank page, noted the time, date and Irene’s name. He said, “How did you come to find the body?”

“I believe I was summoned by a Greater Power,” she chirped, and he repressed a sigh. She continued, “I was arranging my pieces in my booth when all of a sudden I had this . . . urge, a powerful urge, to go look at Mr. McFey’s work, even though it was raining hard. I took my umbrella and – ” She gestured awe by raising both hands. “So beautiful! Such energy! I wanted to ask him how long he’d been doing his art but I thought he had stepped out. But he hadn’t. Because then I . . . I saw him. I think I screamed, but I don’t know for sure, except my throat is sore, and it wasn’t sore before. So I really think I must have screamed.” She put one slim hand to her throat and smiled like a schoolchild with the right answer.

Mike didn’t write any of this down. “Did you notice anyone hanging around his tent before you got this urge?”

“No, I was busy with my own arranging. It’s so important to get everything just right, so the eye travels naturally from piece to piece until it reaches the one that pleases the eye, that one he must buy.” Her eyes had gone dreamy and her hands moved upward again, this time arranging invisible works on an invisible wall.

“Yeah, okay, you weren’t looking,” said Mike. “I understand. But you got your stuff arranged and came over to look at this man’s wood carvings and you saw him. What time was this?”

“It was just a few minutes before the fair opened, though there were customers already starting to come through. It was raining simply buckets, but I had my umbrella, so I wasn’t afraid to go out of my booth. The fair opened at ten.” Mike kept looking at her, and she blinked and said gently, as to an obtuse person, “It was about five minutes before ten that I went to talk to him.”

He nodded and wrote that down. “Did you go in to see if he was still alive?”

She looked horrified. “No, of course not! He looked dead – he was dead. There was so much blood, he must have been dead. But I must’ve screamed because two people came running. I think one of them went in. I felt – ill, so I went back to my booth and sat down.” She nodded at his notebook to encourage him to write. He made a brief note to find those two people who came when Irene must have screamed. Satisfied, she went on, “And someone must have called 911, because pretty soon there was a police car, and an ambulance, and the fire truck came, too; it had been on the grounds, it’s the new pumper. Or maybe the fire truck came first, I don’t remember. And I wasn’t looking, I’d gone back to my booth to sit down, and my heart was going at a terrific pace, quite frightening. A squad car came, then Jill, and last those people who are taking pictures. And now you. I wonder why Betsy Devonshire is not here. I mean, she’s here, she was working in the information booth earlier this morning. But she’s not here.

Mike said firmly, “Ms. Devonshire has no business at the scene of a crime.”

Irene stared at him. “But she can help you, I’m sure she can. She’s so very clever about murder. You know that, Sergeant Malloy.”

Mike found a patient smile somewhere. “How about you let the professionals have a go at it first, okay? Then if we need to talk to her, we will. Now, did you see anyone running away from this tent?”

“No. All I saw was the body. And the blood. There seems to be a great deal of blood, doesn’t there?” She wrinkled her nose.

“Yes,” said Mike, trying not to grimace back. “That’s all I have to ask you right now, but would you mind waiting here for awhile, in case I have more questions later?”

“I can’t, I have to go back to my booth. People are moving around again, with more arriving now the rain’s stopped. Shopping. Shop lifting. I’m across the row, up three booths, easy to find. Number forty-nine.” She nodded her head toward a tent up the way and started off.

“Wait! Do you know – uh – ” He checked his notebook. “Deb Hart?”

A voice behind him said, “I’m Deb Hart.”

Mike turned around to see a sturdy woman with her hair pulled back tightly from her face, which was innocent of makeup and carefully blank of expression. She was wearing a loose-fitting blue denim dress under a clear plastic raincoat whose snap fastenings were all undone. “Are you in charge of this shindig?” Mike asked.

“Yes. Unfortunately.” Her blue eyes were intelligent and steady. “Mr. McFey was a very talented artist, and it is a terrible thing that he should be murdered here.”

“Did you know him personally?”

“No. Well, I talked with him yesterday after he was set up, but only briefly. He hadn’t been to many of these fairs, and this was his first time here. He won an award from us for his work, but I wasn’t his judge.” She looked around toward the tent, and Mike saw her dark blond hair was in a very long braid down her back.

“But you’re sure the body in there is his. McFey’s.”

Her head came back. “Yes.”

“Do you know where he’s from?”

“He’s from around here, Golden Valley or Hopkins, I can’t remember. Or Minnetonka?” She frowned, a little disturbed that she couldn’t remember.

“Do you know how to spell McFey?”

“Yes,” she said and did so.

“Is there next of kin to be notified?”

“Yes, a wife. He gave a separate phone number and address for her, out in Maple Grove, so maybe they’re divorced; but he listed her as the person to be notified in case of accident. I haven’t made the call yet.”

“That’s all right, we’ll take care of it.”

“Thank you.” Ms. Hart was relieved about that.

“Have you had a problem with stealing here?”

“Once in a while. Someone will take a piece, something small enough to fit in a purse or pocket, or up a sleeve, and walk away.”

“I was thinking of the money. Stealing from the cash boxes.”

“Oh. Well, no, not for several years. The fair is pretty well attended so it’s hard to do something like that and not be seen. Artists tend to put the cash box somewhere hard to reach, so other customers notice when someone tries to get at it. Is that what happened here? A robbery?”

“We don’t know yet. I understand there’s an emptied cash box in the tent.”

“Booth.”

“What?”

“Booth. These aren’t tents, they’re booths.”

That’s right, that’s what Sergeant Cross called it, too. He nodded and repeated, “Booth, then. There’s an empty cash box in there.”

“Oh. No one told me that. Interesting.” Ms. Hart looked thoughtful. “And stupid, really.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because nobody brings cash boxes in with yesterday’s receipts still in them, of course. And the fair was just getting underway today when this happened. There would have only been starting-up money in Mr. McFey’s box, just what he needed to make change.”

“How much would that be?”

“Not more than forty or fifty dollars, I’d say. How incredibly, incredibly stupid if a very fine artist is dead because somebody needed to steal fifty dollars.”

Mike wrote some of that down while she waited, but at last she said, “I – I’d like to go back to my other duties now, if that’s all right,” she said. She wasn’t looking at him anymore, but he could see that was because she was trying not to show how sad and angry she was.

“Yes, all right. How can I get back in touch with you, if I have more questions?”

“Look for my staff, people carrying walkie-talkies, I’ve got one, too.” She touched a big pocket on the skirt of her dress that was bulging heavily. And I’m carrying a cell phone as well.” She gave him the number, then turned and walked away, her sandals squishing a bit in the sodden turf.

Mike reviewed his notes. Okay, the dead man was Robert McFey, one of the artists selling his stuff here at the fair. His throat had been cut, probably by one of his own carving knives. His money box had been emptied, which probably meant this was about robbery. On the other hand, this guy wasn’t selling gold jewelry like the guy up the way, and had maybe fifty dollars, max, in cash, so why pick on him?

Maybe because not many people were around when the robber was looking for a mark. Or maybe because the robber was an amateur. Mike didn’t like amateur murderers for the same reason he didn’t like amateur sleuths: They don’t play by the rules. Like here. Only an amateur would go after a man in a place crowded with people, and so unprepared he had to borrow the murder weapon from his victim.

Of course, it was possible the victim was out of his tent – booth – for awhile and came back in time to surprise someone getting into his cash box.

Poor schnook, with the accent on poor. After all, selling wood statues out of a tent, that wasn’t any way to get rich. Harmless guy, probably, without an enemy in the world, who didn’t deserve to die like this.

Which might mean this would be difficult to solve. Such a dumb amateur as this murderer could be hard to find, because he was so far off the pattern most perps followed.

Truth be told, Mike preferred his victims also to be criminals. Dope dealers, for example. Pimps. Burglars. Loan sharks. The kind of pro with obvious enemies – and friends and associates who didn’t know what loyalty meant – all of them willing to drop a dime on the perp.

(Funny how slang sometimes got stuck in a time warp, he considered. Snitches still dropped a dime on people, even though pay phone prices had long since gone trotting past fifty cents in the Twin Cities.)

Of course amateurs were sometimes careless about leaving clues behind, and, once confronted, tended to blurt incriminating details. So maybe this would be one of those times.

It would have to be crazy Irene who found the body. Her bright but careless embroidery – to Mike, any decorative stitchery was by definition embroidery – had been pronounced Important Art, which only confirmed Mike’s opinion that the smoke in her chimney didn’t go all the way up. Most artists were at least a little crazy, weren’t they? She hadn’t helped her case by asserting that he ought to send for Miss Nemesis.

Deb Hart, Mike knew, owned an art supply store which catered to artists, but she wasn’t one herself. Also, she had run the art fair since it began twenty years ago, and both the store and the show did well, so it all went to show, right? Not an artist, not crazy.

She had said this McFey fellow was from one of the Minneapolis suburbs. He had written that down, gratefully certain there weren’t many Robert McFeys in the phone book. Now, if he’d been Robert Larson, that would have made his life miserable. The Twin Cities was lousy with Larsons.

About then, Sergeant Cross came back and said the police photographers had finished making their record of the scene on film and tape. Mike thanked her and walked slowly along the table, looking into the white tent. Booth.

It was just like all the others at the fair, square, the size of a kid’s bedroom, straight-sided, and so tall you could stand up in it, with metal bracing under its peaked ceiling that made it look like it went up easy, like opening an umbrella. A heck of a deal, he thought enviously, having camped for years in a low, slope-sided, rip-stop nylon tent that was hard to put up and easy to blow down. He looked back up the aisle. Not one tent – booth – had blown down in the storm just over. Heck of a deal.

On the table were wood statues, one of a lion about to take down an antelope that was very nice, very nice. And beside it was another one, of those little birds that chased and were chased by the waves on the seashore. Mike had seen those birds in movies and on television and once in person when he went to Atlantic City for a lawman’s convention. The seashore was represented by a smooth, wavy piece of wood with the birds stuck on it by their wire legs. It had five birds, one with its beak driven like a nail halfway into the wooden seashore. Nice, but not as nice as the lion.

Beyond the lion, at the end of the table, was a little clear-plastic holder with a couple dozen business cards reading Robert McFey, Artist in Wood, with a post office box and an email address. He wrote that information down in his notebook.

Surrounding the holder were a dozen small carved pieces, some knocked over, that were different from the serious pieces. They were like from a cartoon. A wolf, a crow, a possum, and other little animals, all standing up and dressed in human clothes with human expressions on their faces. Comical, clever. Mike would have liked to pick one up for a closer look, but he had better get on with the more important piece of information waiting farther back in the tent. Booth.

That’s what the murder victim was, now. A source of information. Mike braced himself with that thought and went for a look.

The dead man was thin, medium-height, with graying brown hair pulled into a pony tail and a graying light-brown beard trimmed rather long. He was lying in an uncomfortable-looking position, halfway to face up, one foot across the other ankle. He had on a big, loose navy-blue T-shirt with Let the Chips Fall Where They May printed in white letters on it, faded blue jeans, and an old pair of penny loafers that might have cost a lot when new. And his watch was a Rolex, though not the famous Oyster. And not helpfully broken by his fall to record the time of death. He checked it against his own Timex: eleven twenty-three, right.

The man had very obviously died from a big cut that slanted crookedly across his throat. From it, his life’s blood had spilled onto a kind of floor on which he lay. He, or someone, had laid down the big square of plywood – no, two pieces of plywood, side by side, to make the floor, and there were a great many gory footprints made by the first responders anxious to save him. The floor didn’t cover all the inside of the tent, there was a border of grass around it that was widest at the back. A tipped-over director’s chair was surrounded by tiny pieces of wood — the chips mentioned on his T-shirt — and a partly-finished cartoon animal was under the table. It looked like a shaggy dog, the kind whose ears tipped over at the ends, the kind who herded sheep, what breed was that? He couldn’t think, though he recalled that they made bad pets because they always had to have something to do. Oddly, the fur on the back of the dog looked like it had been braided. He frowned at that and then suddenly thought, That’s supposed to be Deb Hart. And he smiled, because it gave him an insight into her personality, or what the artist had thought of her personality. Then he looked at the lifeless hands of the clever man who had carved it and felt a stir of anger. The little carving knife he’d apparently been using had been taken and used on him, then left beside him on the plywood. It had a curved handle and a darkly-clotted, not-long blade. But long enough.

Though Ms. Hart’s identification didn’t really count, legally, since she wasn’t a relative, Mike was satisfied that this was almost certainly Robert McFey, whose name appeared on the business cards, the man who had carved the statues on the table and on the shelves back here. That one on the bottom shelf, of the fox with its front feet on a log, that was another nice one. The look on its face was alarmed, like it thought it heard dogs barking in the distance.

Mike bent forward. In front of the fox statue, on the plywood floor, was the cash box. It was of gray-enameled steel with a little key-operated lock on it. He’d seen them at outdoor sales before, where a cash register wasn’t necessary but you needed something to keep money in. The lid was open but the box was upside down. Mike took his pen out of his pocket and very carefully turned it over.

It was empty, of course. But the box had made a very nice protective cover for another footprint. Mike looked around but didn’t see that pattern anywhere else on the floor. There were some smears on the grass, but they were unreadable.

Mike stood and said to the uniform standing outside the tent, “Ask if anyone remembers moving or tipping over the cash box. And get the guys with the camera back in here.”

His thin mouth was pulled into a tight, satisfied smile. If the box hadn’t been tipped over by the crew, a major clue was right here.

He looked at the print. He knew that kind of pattern. It came from one of those very expensive sports shoes young males liked – and it wasn’t a brand new pair. Shoes that had been worn a while developed wear marks on their soles, marks as distinctive as a fingerprint. Mike had dealt with many young criminals and was pleased at how many of them didn’t realize this. They’d climb through a window from a grimy alley or freshly-spaded flower bed and leave a sharp footprint on a windowsill or the floor.

No, this wasn’t screwy after all. Only sad.