Murder Among the Oaks
by Bill Kowaleski
As they drove off, Cindy stared straight ahead — scared, confused. Sean had assured her that she was doing nothing illegal, that all she had to do was let him know when oak buyers came into town, tell him where they stayed, what they did. But if Gina was telling the truth, Cindy might have been an accomplice to a murder. If...
She wasn’t working lunch that day and so drove the Infiniti back to the cabin after her breakfast shift. He hadn’t returned. She wanted to confront him, find out whether she was an unwitting accomplice.
But as she sat shivering in the musty loveseat where, six months ago, she’d first learned who Sean really was, she considered another possibility. If he was capable of killing one of his own kind, what could he do to her? He was a drug dealer on his planet, after all. A criminal. She wanted to know more. Wanted more than anything to know for sure whether he was a murderer. She’d have to do something, unpleasant though it would be.
The sawmill was a dusty, noisy place. She walked past two overhead doors, open on this warm, late-autumn day, toward the trailer that housed Gerry’s modest offices. She could see him through the window, talking on the telephone.
To the right was Gerry’s house, recently added onto — clumsily, she thought. It had been a small, two-bedroom Cape Cod painted garishly in the green and gold colors of Gerry’s beloved Packers, but just a few months ago he’d stuck a suite of rooms on the back so that the house now looked like it had been mated with another, larger, boxier one. Thankfully, the tall pines that pressed closely around the house softened its ugliness.
She stopped, unsure whether to go to the office or ring the doorbell on the house, where she thought Gina might be. Just then she saw movement from the trees.
Gina emerged in the same red sweater and too-tight jeans. Her eyes locked onto Cindy’s. She stopped abruptly. “And to what can we attribute the honor of this visit?” she asked, her voice as sarcastic as it had been in the Tall Timber.
“Can I talk to you a minute?” asked Cindy. “I need to know the truth about Sean.”
Gina stood silently, tilted her head, then said, “First you tell me what you know. Let’s go into the house. It’s more private in there.”
She’d never seen the inside of Gerry’s house. It had... a man’s touch. There was a huge, gray conversation pit assembled from a dozen pieces of couches and ottomans. An enormous flat-screen television filled the wall opposite the picture window. An open pine cabinet, eye-high, full of electronic equipment leaned against a wall where speakers, taller than she was, filled the corners.
Beyond the living room she could see a single step up to a small dining area with rustic, heavy, oak chairs around a table that was so rough she could only assume Gerry had made it himself. A chandelier made of deer antlers hung low over the table. The walls were covered with photos of coaches and Packers players so thickly that she couldn’t say what color they’d been painted. A scale model of Lambeau Field sat atop a brick fireplace mantel.
“Yeah,” said Gina when she saw Cindy’s head swiveling. “A real mess. I’m trying to teach him some good taste, but it’s a project.”
Cindy sank into one corner of the pit and said, “So what do you want to know?”
Gina sat in the opposite corner of the conversation pit. “Your boyfriend. You got any idea who he really is?”
“Sure, he’s from Chicago. He buys oak for some company that makes stuff for rich people.”
Gina broke into raucous laughter. “What a lousy liar you are, girl!”
Cindy affected her best hurt look and said, “Hey, who you callin’ a liar?”
“What did you hiss at me in the Tall Timber? You said they found one of my people buried in the woods. Now why would you use those words?”
“You work for some Twin Cities outfit, right? I just meant someone from Minnesota.”
Gina smirked. “After we talked I went right over to the morgue. I told them one of my co-workers had gone missing. Asked whether anyone had turned up. They showed me that skeleton.”
“Oh.” Cindy thought carefully. There seemed no point covering anything up, then. And she needed to know the truth about Sean.
“OK, I know he’s from some planet where oak resin is a drug. Your planet too, I suppose. I know he’s wearing some really amazing disguise.”
“Did he ever take it off for you?”
“Yeah, it was creepy.”
“So why are you still sleeping with him? Doesn’t he disgust you?”
“No, it’s funny. I just choose to see what I see, not imagine what’s underneath. His disguise is so perfect that it feels and acts like real skin, and his face looks totally natural, expressions and everything. And besides, he’s really, really good in bed!”
“Yeah, we all are. Our secondskin enhances the experience.”
“So does Gerry know...”
“No, and you’d better never tell him if you value your life!”
“Sean tells me that the first rule for you people is to not make trouble here, to keep your disputes among yourselves. Wouldn’t killing one of us screw things up for you?”
Gina sat silently a moment, then sighed and said, “So you’re his lookout, I’d guess. He pays you to tell him when our kind come into town?”
“Right. They all end up in the Tall Timber, so I’m perfect for the job.”
“Gerry’s just as good. We all buy oak, and he knows about every transaction up here.”
Cindy shifted in her sunken cushion. This small talk was going nowhere. Time to get to the point. “So Gina, tell me, what happened in the woods? Why was there a skeleton of one of you Sirians with a bullet hole in the skull?”
“I warned you to stay out of this. The more you know, the worse it is for you.”
“If Sean is killing your people, then I don’t want to help him no more. I gotta know. I don’t want to be a criminal.”
“Honey, we’re drug dealers. You’re hanging with a rough crowd. We can’t go to court to resolve our disputes. There’s only one way to deal with someone who cheats you, who steals from you.”
“But Sean seems so nice. He’s always good to me, never hurts me, never even gets mad at me. He’ll shake his head and laugh if I make him mad.”
“You’re on his team, hon. We’re fiercely loyal to our own clans. But if you ever betrayed him there’s no telling what he’d do. Far as I’m concerned he’s total scum.”
“What’s he done to you?”
Gina looked away, as though she were deciding how much to tell Cindy. Then the smirk returned to her face. She said, “He was my mate once. A long time ago by the reckoning of your short little lives. But he always had a thing for you Earthlings. Such a pervert. So he dumped me — not for you, understand. That was maybe thirty of your years ago. You weren’t born yet.”
Cindy felt confused. “He’s that old?”
“Hon, he’s about two hundred and sixty of your years old. But that’s just middle age for us.”
Cindy took that in for a minute. No wonder he spoke so many languages, knew so much, always had an answer for every question. She leaned forward. “You call him a pervert, but you’re Gerry’s friend with benefits far as I can see.”
“I’ve got my reasons for hanging with Gerry, and they’re none of your business.”
Cindy stood, walked in front of Gina, put a hand on her shoulder, looked down, and said, “OK, time to get to the point, darlin’. Did Sean shoot that Sirian they found in the woods? Yes or no?”
Gina waved her hand. “Who knows? There’s probably been five or six killed just in the past year. He’s killed somebody, that’s for sure. Whether it’s the one they found, I can’t tell you for sure.”
“In the Tall Timber you seemed pretty sure. You said you were gonna get even with Sean. Who was that Sirian they dug up? Was it one of yours or one of Sean’s?”
“Honey, stop with the interrogation. I’m tired of your questions. Why don’t you ask your boyfriend?”
The door banged. Cindy’s head shot up. She saw Gerry walking into the living room. He smiled when he saw Cindy.
“Well, you girls are getting to know each other a little better. That’s great!”
He walked to the conversation pit and plopped down next to Gina, putting a meaty arm around her and nuzzling her neck. He looked over at Cindy.
“So what brings you here, Ms. Tall Timber waitress?”
Cindy seethed with anger and frustration. Why couldn’t Gina just tell her what she needed to know? This phony woman was telling her a phony story, she just knew it. There had to be a way to trip her up, a way to shock her into telling what she knew. Cindy had a crazy thought. She was already standing right next to Gina. It would be so easy...
“Your girlfriend here has a surprise for you Gerry,” said Cindy. “A really big surprise. Are you ready?”
Gerry’s face crinkled in confusion. Gina looked up at Cindy, and in an instant her face said that she knew what Cindy was about to do. But it was too late to stop it.
Cindy had always been an athlete. She’d taken her little high school to the girl’s state soccer championships, and she’d won the game almost single-handedly. She’d won the Northwoods Marathon just last year, and had done the Birkie cross-country ski race every winter, placing high in the women’s division three times. She had a confidence about her body that surprised the men she’d known, men who couldn’t match her strength and quickness. Gina, a slight, fine-boned Sirian, was no match at all for Cindy.
She leapt onto Gina, got behind her where she could fully control her, wrapped her legs into a figure-four, and yanked on Gina’s hair. The mask came off easily.
“There’s your girlfriend, Gerry! Do you like a girl with green skin, with no nose, with a head that would look good in an Easter basket, with eyes like giant black saucers? What do you say, Ger?”
Gina’s alien head was inches from Gerry’s. He stood calmly, smiling, slowly shaking his head. It wasn’t the reaction Cindy had expected.
“All the oak buyers look like this, Ger. They’re from a planet called Sirius Prime. The oak resin is a drug for them, like heroin for us. They’re criminals on their planet. They’ve been fighting each other here, maybe killing each other and burying the bodies in the forest. They have these pipe thingys that transport the logs to their planet. Aren’t you shocked? Am I going too fast for you?”
“I know all that, Cindy,” Gerry said. He didn’t look angry, surprised, or even upset. He seemed... sad. “Look, you really shouldn’t be here. Maybe it would be best if you left now.”
He turned toward Gina and opened his mouth. Out of it came the same high-pitched whistles and chirps she’d heard from Sean when he manipulated the transporter. Cindy gasped, sprang to her feet, vaulted an ottoman, and ran out of the house as quickly as she could.
Once outside, she slowed to a walk, but then she heard footsteps running behind her. Gina rushed up, pushed her against the garish green siding, and whispered into her ear, “If I were you, girl, I’d get outta town, way outta town. Like Australia. Like Mongolia.”
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
“Nobody does what you did to me and lives. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not gonna kill you in front of witnesses, but first chance I get...”
“You gonna bury me in the woods too, Gina? Better dig a deeper grave!”
Cindy pushed her away and walked slowly toward the Infiniti, hoping her show of defiance was convincing, but shaking with fear as she walked.
As she drove to the cabin, her mind raced. Why had she agreed to get involved in all this? The two hundred thousand a year Sean was paying her was irresistible, no doubt about that, but it wasn’t looking like enough at the moment. She wanted out, but it seemed like it might be too late. How was she going to keep herself alive?
When she opened the door to the cabin, Sean was sitting in the loveseat, staring at the screen of his hand-held communicator. Without looking up he said, “Where you been?”
“Well, that’s a story! I’ve just had quite a little chat with Gerry Andersson and his tart, Gina. She wants to kill me.”
He looked up. “Kill you?”
“Yeah, and by the way, Gerry Andersson is a Sirian. Did you know that?”
“Oh, sure. But he’s gone so native I’d almost forgotten. He’s a loner, doesn’t belong to any clan. And that Packers fetish of his is really over the top! I wonder why he never goes back...”
“Hey, Sean. At the risk of repeating myself, Gina wants to kill me!” She shouted it. Then she explained.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I can take care of...” He whistled something in his language then said, “Oh sorry, that’s her real name. I’d better just call her Gina.”
Gina scared her, but she had her doubts about Sean too. She had to take the risk of asking.
“Gina said you killed that Sirian they dug up. Did you?”
“That’s not the way my clan does things. I could push him through a tunnel with an endpoint on some remote planet he’d never be able to leave. I could drug him so that he’d forget why he’s here and just leave on his own. There’s no reason to kill anyone.”
She sat down beside him, put her palm under his chin, lifted it, and gave him a long wet kiss. He didn’t resist. He’d reassured her — a lot.
She pulled away. “What am I gonna do? Gina told me to move to Mongolia if I want to stay alive. Maybe that’s a good idea. We could go in your transporter.”
Sean threw back his head and laughed. He fell to the floor, still laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“Mongolia! That’s what. She’s really got you spooked. Let me handle her, I know her only too well. But stay right here until this is resolved.”
“But don’t you think she’s gonna attack me here? She could sit on that hunting platform out there and just wait for me to walk by the bedroom window.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s how she’ll do it. Where else? It’s isolated, and she can get me too. We Sirians love two-for-one deals.”
“So let’s go somewhere, quick!”
“I’m not running away from her. Let me handle this.”
She sat on the loveseat while he poured her some of the expensive wine he’d brought from Chicago. As she sipped, she said, “OK. I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski