Murder Among the Oaks
by Bill Kowaleski
“They found a skeleton of one of your people in the woods.”
Sean leapt out of the bed, rising a foot straight up before alighting like a crouched cat on the cold cabin floor. There he was illuminated like a saint in a medieval painting by a shaft of low light piercing through the thick wall of trees just beyond the small clearing outside the bedroom window. The image was accentuated by the dark backdrop of rough pine-log walls and ceiling. She stared at his naked body, a bit short, but as perfect as the male form could be, and then moved her gaze up to his movie-star face. It was full of fear.
“What do you mean? Where?”
“Somewhere in the woods. Not too far from here. Deputy Walsh was out hunting. His dog dug it up.”
“Not anything my clan would do. Damn! Those Northerners are going to ruin everything. We’ve got to drive them out of here!”
“The Sheriff suspects it’s one of you oak buyers,” Cindy said. “I don’t think he’s close to the truth, but don’t underestimate him; he’s pretty cagy.”
Sean sighed. “If they find out what’s really going on this is going to be media central. I can imagine the headlines. We’ll have to abandon our whole operation. But then, so would the Northerners.”
Cindy moaned and said in a playful voice, “Hey, I’m getting cold here all by myself. Come back to bed.”
But he was already pulling on some jeans. “Gotta go back to Chicago and meet with my Directors.”
Cindy shivered as she stepped onto the frigid, plank floor. She quickly wiggled into her jeans then draped Sean’s down jacket over her shoulders.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, running out the door. She watched him through the window as he stood in front of the transporter, a section of pipe eight feet in diameter that looked no different from the conduits that directed water under the local county roads.
She could hear Sean speaking in his own language, a cacophony of whistles and chirps at the upper end of her hearing range. A panel appeared. He tapped it with both hands, then walked calmly in front of the pipe. Its interior had darkened, and the darkness now formed swirls like a miniature tornado. A blue light illuminated on the panel and Sean walked confidently into the swirl. Within seconds the panel disappeared, the swirls calmed, the darkness inside the pipe dissipated, and she could see through it again.
She’d seen the whole show quite a few times now, had even walked into the swirl herself once, when Sean had taken her to dinner and a play in Chicago. But it still amazed her, and reminded her of what a strange situation she’d gotten herself into.
She drove Sean’s Infiniti to the Tall Timber and worked the breakfast shift. Around nine, Gerry Andersson, owner of the local sawmill, sauntered in with his girlfriend. A real tart, Cindy thought.
The girl had appeared about six months ago, and Gerry had never bothered explaining who she was or where she came from. Why she hung around with dumpy, fiftyish, bald-as-a-monk Gerry was a bit of a mystery, though all the oak buying over the past year had made him the wealthiest guy in town. Cindy walked over and flipped to a new page on her order pad.
“When you gonna get some of that Neuske’s bacon?” Gerry’s girlfriend said, her voice loud and taunting. “You feed us crap.”
“It costs like what, fifteen bucks a pound?” said Cindy. “People up here can’t afford that. Where you from, darlin’? New York?”
“Oh, farther away than that. Ask your boyfriend where I’m from.”
Cindy felt a cold wave of shock in her gut. She stared at the woman’s too-perfect face; her breasts, jutting and erect under her tight, red sweater; her skin, flawless, her tight blue jeans hugging perfect, symmetrical hips. Yes, there could be no doubt.
Gerry didn’t react to their exchange. “This is Gina, Cindy. She’s a buyer just like your boyfriend.”
“Hi Gina.” Cindy offered her hand. “I kinda thought you might be an oak buyer. So do you work with Sean? Is that how you knew he was my boyfriend?”
Gina limply squeezed Cindy’s hand, snickering as she said, “Work with him? More like compete with him.”
“Aren’t there enough trees for all of you up here?” asked Cindy.
Gerry shook his head. “They look for trees with a very high resin content. There aren’t many that meet their needs. Something about making it easier to work... Is that it, hon?”
Gina smiled, an expression that seemed just a little off to Cindy, a smile that was not a smile. “Yeah, that’s it, Ger. We need to work it with delicate tools so it’s got to be a little more moist than most lumber.”
“They make sculptures with it...” Gerry began.
“I know what they do with it,” said Cindy. “Sean’s told me.” She stared into Gina’s eyes as she said it. Close up, she could see the whites were wrong: too gray, a faint outline of black around the edges. How could Gerry not notice?
“So you gonna take our order or what?” Gerry said gruffly.
After she brought them their food, Cindy considered her options. Normally she’d tell Sean about Gina and he’d take it from there. But he was in Chicago. Maybe she could resolve this herself.
When Gerry stopped at the restroom on the way out, she ran over to Gina and grabbed her arm. She leaned in closely and whispered, “You people need to clean up your act. The Sheriff found a body you buried. I’m gonna point the finger at you if you don’t get out of here and stay out of here.”
Gina smirked, pulled away, said, “Don’t be a fool, little girl. You’re in way over your head. Let your boyfriend handle the rough stuff. Who do you think put that hole in our agent’s skull? We’re gonna get even, I can tell you that. So stay out of the way.”
The muffled sound of a toilet flushing announced Gerry’s emergence from the bathroom. Gina turned to him, smiled, took his arm and walked him to his new Super-Duty XLT, coveted by every teenage boy in the county.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski