The Map Quilt
Book Two of the Buried Treasure series
Lisa J Lickel
Five Loaves and Two Small Fish Publishing
Inspirational cozy mystery
Just how high a price does a family secret command?
Death in rural Wisconsin is only the beginning to new chaos in Robertsville. What do a stolen piece of revolutionary agricultural equipment, a long-buried skeleton in the yard, and an old quilt with secrets have in common? Hart and Judy Wingate, who met in The Last Bequest, are back to solve the mystery of The Map Quilt. Hart’s new battery design could forever change the farm implement industry. But after the death of Hart’s most confrontational colleague in a fire that destroys Hart’s workshop, the battery is missing.
Matthew 6:24 (NIV) “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Prologue - 1860
Sasha Edwards crouched behind the huge maple, its burnished, drying leaves rustling in the night wind. Clouds drifted across a gibbous moon occasionally shading the cold light. Dust and the smell of ripe oats too long in the field whirled around the huddled group but mercifully, the stinging pests held off. Missy Slaw’s little boy sneezed and Sasha turned with a quick finger to her lips, frowning, though she realized no one could see it in the dark. She shook her head. She couldn’t tell if the rattle of the leaves had more purpose than what the evil air blew.
“Shh!” Sasha risked. Missy Slaw stroked her child’s nappy head while he tried to push himself closer into her great breast. Sasha could see the woman’s widened, teary eyes lit every now and then when clouds whipped past the halo of the moon.
Their planned getaway tonight no ordinary trip. Not that any trip was ordinary—just that this segment for Missy Slaw was almost the last leg of the long journey to Canada and freedom, and one of the safest. Sasha knew Norm would let her conduct this trip by herself only because he happened to be deep into the tobacco harvest.. A woman and child alone were no trouble, and this extraordinary case made Sasha boiling mad.
Freemen having to run simply because of the color of their skin infuriated her. Missy Slaw’s man had been lynched, his papers burned right in front of them, Norm had informed Sasha tersely, before he let her start out. It had traumatized that little one into silence, and no wonder. For shame to treat any child like that. The boy clutched the new quilt Sasha had given him, the last one the Robertsville Ladies Sewing Society made. They’d hurriedly stitched in Missy’s own freeman papers, good Union bank drafts and the deed to her property. The bank drafts were drawable on the Green Bay Union bank branch, which meant a stop, but it would be worth it. Missy jingled when she ran, and Sasha guessed the draft wasn’t the only money the woman secreted. Slaw wasn’t their real last name, but it was too dangerous to call them anything else.
They had just left the Edwards’ old drying sheds down by the stream and headed out toward the property line. Here’d be trouble, if there was trouble to be found. But Sasha never had a problem before, and it was dark. She should have felt safe under the shadow of her own big house not far away, but something didn’t feel right. The little boy moved restlessly. The odor of not having bathed in several days rose from all of them and would attract the dogs in no time. Nothing she could do about that now. Not even the very short stint Missy and her son spent in their drying shed could cover their scent. Harvest was starting and perhaps that would keep most men occupied while Sasha took her passengers out. But there’d never been so many bountymen before, and Sasha and Norm were worried. Usually this northern state was relatively safe for moving the runaways, but tonight everything cried trap.
Then Sasha heard it: the rolling barn door squealing on its tracks off in the distance. Norm was down at the sheds, getting equipment ready. Sasha could picture Old Man Hobart, or one of his hateful sons, out and poking about. She saw the silhouette as one of them straightened and slapped his thigh. “Hyear, there, Kip!” He whistled. “Come, boy.”
Oh, no! The dogs were with them!
“Those men—on that farm next, Missy—they claim to be Wide Awakes, but they’re not. They hate all your folks and would as soon shoot you as turn you in. I don’t know why they’re here, but I can guess. We have to be quiet. Maybe it’s nothing and they’ll go on. Wait. And keep quiet.”
“Wide Awakes! You don’t have them mobs here, do you?” Missy grabbed her little boy close. “They’ll kill us for sure!”
“Shh! No, Missy, they’re not like that. Our neighbors mostly help with the vote. They watch to keep things safe, provide extra help for the sheriff and prevent riots. They won’t hurt you. They believe all people should be treated well.”
“That’s not how they act down home.”
“Fine, Missy. Well, we’re trying to avoid them at any rate. Wait here.” Sasha gathered her skirts and pushed her way through the willow, wincing as she felt the branches grab and rustle. She imagined spiders sticking to her shawl and shivered. She was too loud, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. A few moments later Sasha took in a deep breath and melted back toward the heavy-set woman and her skinny, sickly little boy. “We have to move quickly, Missy. Come! The stream—over here…You have to move. Leave everything, everything but the—”
Sasha could hear the baying of the coon hounds in the distance. Missy Slaw let fat tears of fright and exhaustion, glistening when the moonbeams filtered through clouds, roll across her cheeks. “Miz Edwards, Miz Edwards, I jus’ don’ know…I jus’ can’t.”
“For your son, here, you will. You must. Come.”
The boy sniffled and sneezed.
“Shh! Quiet!” But already the dogs were close. No way would they make it to Mascen Stream now. “Oh my Lord, remember me, your servant,” Sasha began to pray. “I am surrounded by my enemies—”
“Let me not be ashamed, let not my enemies triumph over me,” Missy Slaw added before the shots rang and thunder roared.
“Who’s out there! Halt! I’m warning—”
“Get down!” Sasha whispered desperately. “I’ll try to draw them off. Everything will be all right, you’ll see.” With her heart beating so hard she could feel it in her throat, she raised herself above the tall blades of prairie grass and called out, “Stop right there! I’m Mrs. Nor—”
An accompanied whine and explosion echoed through the sky. Sasha reeled as if she’d been punched in the chest by some unseen force: once, twice. She couldn’t catch her breath. Norman…Norman will come.
Judy Wingate awoke with a start. Shaking her head, she realized she had been dreaming. Foggy images rolled through her mind of pioneer women doing…something. Hmm, teaching that Wisconsin history unit to her elementary school students, combined with her pregnancy, made for the most colorful nocturnal dramas. She eased the covers back, groaning with the discomfort of a full bladder. An internal kick made her grimace and rub her huge belly.
“Ugh! Two forty-five in the morning. I can’t believe I gotta get up again.” She set her feet on the floorboards, trying to rise delicately so as not to rouse her husband, Hart.
Judy headed downstairs with her eyes half-closed, holding onto the rail with both hands. The stealthy pet housecat, Pancho Villa, stopped her up short. “Pancho—outta the way—coming through,” Judy muttered as she danced around him. “We have got to get that second floor bathroom done.”
Yawning, Judy blinked and hoped she could fall asleep again easily. She could not afford to be groggy in front of her fifth grade students, who were already squirrelly this close to the end of the school year. She rubbed her arms and went to run a glass of water from the tap while she looked out the window. Something did not feel right. She frowned and rubbed at the kicks from Hart’s little soccer player, practicing on her ribs. She went through the mud room to the outside door and breathed deeply while she watched the waning moon near the horizon. The sky looked hazy to the south. Judy squinted, clutching her glass, her mind roiling with the turmoil of the evening. Hart and his partner, Bryce’s, latest invention for InventivAg, their parent company in St. Louis, Missouri, had been attacked for no reason—and by one of their own team members!—at what was supposed to have been a nice celebratory dinner right here at the house. Judy shook with fury, just thinking about it.
She poked at the baby’s foot again. If that John Harding thought he was such a good agricultural engineer, he should figure out an easier way to grow a baby. Why, the man had gone ballistic at the most innocent of questions from Hart’s elderly partner-and-mentor’s wife, Ardyth.
Judy looked toward the place in the darkened dining room where the florid-faced Harding had sat, pounding his fist in response to Ardyth’s innocent question about when they could see the batteries for sale.
But Judy couldn’t figure out why Ardyth had cared that much about the battery. She hadn’t fussed about any of their other projects over the past four years. Worse, Hart and Bryce’s boss, Tim Crawford, had waffled, stating that perhaps there might be a design flaw, after all.
She closed her eyes and put the cool glass against her forehead.
Not sleepy yet, Judy wandered around the moonlit kitchen. The drying towel was still a little damp under her fingers. The moaning cadence of a fire engine grew louder. The haze outside wove a blanket around the moon. . That fire truck was coming their way. She waddled as fast as she could back up the stairs.
“Hart. Hart, wake up.” Judy shook his shoulder.
Hart turned his face on his pillow.
“Hart. Wake up! I hear fire engines.”
That got his attention. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, turned to the luminous face of the bedside clock, and moaned.
“Yeah, Judy. Fire engines.”
Judy leaned over the bed, hand on his warm shoulder. “Hart.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. The fire,” he swallowed the last of his sentence in a huge yawn, “department’ll take carevit. Go back—”
“There’s smoke. You can see it in the air. The fire must be a big one. Close by.”
She watched while Hart rubbed his face. “Okay.” He pushed himself upright, twisting his neck back and forth. “I’m getting up.” The phone gave a sputtery jingle and he made a grab, dropping the instrument before answering. “Yes?”
Judy sat down next to him, worried now. She rubbed again at her stomach. The baby must be doing summersaults, although how he or she managed to turn in such a tight space was a mystery.
“Barry, hi,” Hart said.
Barry? Judy mouthed “Chief of Police?” at her husband in the dim light. She pouted when he frowned and turned away.
“At the office?”
Please, God, oh please, oh, please, keep everyone safe. Judy reached for some clothes, stopping when Hart touched her forearm, shaking his head, still listening to the other end.
“I’m going over there right now—my prototype’s—I know, Barry, but I have to get there.” Hart pushed the off button and tossed the phone on the bed. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked as he rushed to pull on his own clothes.
“That was Barry Hutchinson, wasn’t it? The office is on fire. I’m coming, too.”
Judy swallowed her panic as she heard him grunt through the shirt he rammed over his head. “Oh, no, you’re not,” he said. “Look, you and Pancho stay here. Guard the house, okay? I can’t be worrying about you right now.”
She clutched her maternity jeans to her chest, feeling her heart jump with tension. “But I want to be with you!”
“I know, sweetheart,” Hart stopped and rubbed her shoulders, breathing hard. “I’ll be as quick as I can. Barry already called Bryce. I suspect Ardyth will be here soon. You can keep each other company.” He headed for the door, clawing a hand through his tousled brown curls. “Just go to work like usual if I’m not back.” Then he was gone.
Hart’s solar powered battery designs were all he’d talked about for the past two years. It was the most important project he and his engineering partner had for their fledgling satellite firm. What he would do if they were lost? Oh, Lord, you can’t let anything happen to him. Not now. Not so close to the baby. Please, protect Hart and Bryce and all the firefighters out there.
Judy squared her shoulders. If Ardyth was on her way she had better be ready.
After dressing and going downstairs to put the kettle on, she sat at the chrome kitchen table to wait.
The screen door crashed open as Ardyth, wrapped in an orange floral satin quilted housecoat, rushed in, flapping her pink and gray plaid scuffs.
“Oh, my dear one, how dreadful! Are you all right? You’re not in labor, or anything, are you?”
“Ardyth. Come in,” Judy said. “We’re fine. I’m worried about the men. I feel so useless. What did Bryce tell you?”
Newly-wed Ardyth Edwards, at seventy-eight, had the spunk of Judy’s fifth-grade pupils. She heaved a sigh and plunked herself down on one of the red padded chrome kitchen chairs. “Just that their workshop, their very life was in flames. How could that happen?”
Judy set a cup of strong coffee in front of her friend. Ardyth untied the lime green chiffon scarf she’d placed over her curlers. “Thank you, dear. You are planning to go to school this morning, aren’t you?” Ardyth sipped. “What’s left, a week or two? You’re awfully strong to keep going like that while you’re expecting. I’m sure I wouldn’t have. Well, what can I do? What do you need? Something to eat? Here, let me look…”
Judy settled herself back onto her chair. “Let’s wait breakfast for a while, see if the men come back. I guess I’d better feed Pancho.” She heaved herself up again. “Hart said I should go to work. I have enough sick leave saved to take off, but I still have work to do on the Harriet Tubman program. I’ll go get ready after I finish my tea.”
Judy’s stomach rumbled. The piece of leftover strawberry pie she’d not had room for last night beckoned. No, be good. Stay good. You’re doing fine with your weight, Judy, girl, no reason to ruin it now. Judy watched Ardyth make herself at home in the big farm kitchen.
Ardyth spoke with her back toward Judy. “Imagine! Those men last night, coming all the way to Wisconsin to your workshop only to gripe at the last minute. I asked Mack if he was interested in being the first to show off a brand new invention at Robertsville Harvest Days on Labor Day. Now he may not get to. That John Harding is just plain trouble. Knew that from the start.”
“You didn’t tell Mack about Hart’s solar battery, did you? That’s company information!”
Ardyth folded her arms, making the loose skin above her elbows wiggle. “Of course not.”
Judy took as deep a breath as the baby would let her and willed her blood pressure back toward normal. “Hart said Harding’s job was to make sure everything worked right.” Judy didn’t know why she was defending the hateful company project manager. Except that she had no business hating him. She didn’t even know him. But he had hurt her husband.
While Hart had stumped her body language reading skills when she first met him after her great-aunt was poisoned to death, it didn’t take an expert to read disappointment, and maybe a little shell shock, in the slump of his shoulders and droop of his lips last night.
Ardith set the kettle on and got out mugs. She looked in the refrigerator next, telling Judy, “That battery of ours is going to revolutionize farm machinery operation. Mark my words!”
“Of course. Haven’t we sweated and supported our men while they designed it?”
“Not everyone agrees that green energy is the way to go.” Judy held her breath in preparation for Ardyth’s response.
“Ha! If I was in Tim Crawford’s shoes, I’d be sleeping with a gun under my pillow.”
“Oh, Ardyth.” But Judy wondered if Ardyth had a point. Did everyone at the company have as much loyalty in producing equipment to meet new government standards as her husband and his partner? How about Harding? Could he have wanted to see the new design fail?
Hart’s only comment had been, “Harding couldn’t drop work issues after our afternoon meeting. It doesn’t make sense to me. The man stood right out there in the field and watched the battery power up that old tractor of yours. But, we are a team. We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the company.”
“I see your piece of pie is still in here. Would you like it?” Ardyth asked, holding the plate in front of Judy.
Well, strawberries were a fruit, and fruit was good for you, and the crust was sort of like bread…Judy reached for it. “Of course. I’m glad you kept the strawberry patch going out by the office.”
A little later, while Ardyth set out more leftovers from last night, Judy prepared for work.
She heard the men tramp in while she was in the bathroom, brushing her hair. Their voices sounded deep and excited. Kitchen chairs scraped.
Judy set the brush down and went out to meet them. Ardyth must have started another pot of coffee. “Well?” Judy asked. “What’s happening? Is everything okay?” She wrinkled her nose. “Whew! You smell like smoke.”
Hart answered. “They found something in the wreckage.”
“Oh no! Wreckage? Your office? The barn? You don’t mean—”
“Calm down, Judy,” Bryce said. “It was the barn, not the office. We’re insured.”
“There was a body.” Judy watched Bryce put his hands on his wife’s shoulders. Ardyth turned her face up to meet his faded blue eyes.
They knew something, but what? Judy searched her husband’s grim, exhausted face for answers. “Body? As in dead person? Who—”
“John Harding.” Hart said. “That—”
“Hart. The man’s dead,” Bryce said.
“John Harding? Who argued right here at dinner tonight?” Judy swallowed the squeak in her voice. Hart’s direct contact at the home office of InventivAg had invented a whole new meaning to the word “pest” last night. She’d nearly spilled the gravy on him just to shut him up when he had lost control of himself earlier that evening at what was supposed to be a pleasant meal for company representatives. He’d vehemently argued that Hart and Bryce’s invention could not possibly work in mass production, even after he watched the battery power up Bryce’s old tractor perfectly fine. All her efforts to impress Hart’s boss had been wasted.
“I know why he was there,” Hart said.
“The police are going to question all of us,” Bryce said. “You can’t go speculating, Hart.”
“He came back here, last night,” Judy said. “After you two left, Bryce. To apologize.”
She watched Bryce’s knuckles turn white as he squeezed his wife’s shoulders. Judy poured her husband a cup of coffee and went to stand with him at the window where the golden rays of sunlight arrowed across the fence on the other side of their driveway.
That rude man had sat right at her dining room table last night. Now, he was dead. Judy ought to feel something other than relief. She rubbed her baby belly. But could Harding, even dead, prevent the production of Hart’s battery?
Hart decided there was no sense in worrying about something he had no control over. He said good-bye to Bryce, who hustled Ardyth away before she started cooking more food. He’d continue with his usual routine until…what? He got fired? Proved to be a terrible designer? What if his battery did have flaws? Stop it, Hart. In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. My designs have been for God’s purpose.
Encouraging Judy to get ready for work by telling her he would fix breakfast, he opened the refrigerator and plucked out the bowl of brown eggs Judy bought from a neighbor and set to work. While he heated the griddle, Hart could hear the shower running where Judy sang in a slightly off-key contralto. “This is the day, this is the day…”
He grinned as the toast popped up.
Judy appeared in the doorway. “I’m still starving! I only had fruit so far.”
Hart had anticipated his wife’s hunger. Judy plopped down on a kitchen chair. “Madam. And miss.” Hart placed the warmed plate in front of her with a flourish. Judy giggled.
They held hands and prayed before Judy stuck her fork into his concoction of scrambled eggs and mushrooms sprinkled with fresh parsley from the window box. She should have taken some maternity leave from school. Hart watched her tuck away. But he knew she would go stir-crazy if forced to stay home. Selfishness aside, he would love to have her stay home to take care of the baby, but he respected her gift of teaching too much to ask her to do that.
And now, if something happened with the mess Harding caused by getting himself killed, Hart’s job might be in jeopardy. Not to mention his career and reputation, if Harding’s accusations kept his battery from production. They might have to count on Judy’s job for income, at least until he got back on his feet. But what would he do if he couldn’t be an engineer? The shame would be more than he could bear. They might have to move. And Judy…she loved this place. The farm had been settled by her pioneering ancestors. She wanted their child to know her heritage.
“Hart, about last night…”
He expected Judy might want to talk. He didn’t know what to tell her. But her next statement surprised him.
“A couple of the men, um, I can’t recall their names. I heard them say Hugo. Something about Hugo’s people were going to die last night when they were driving away.”
“You must have heard wrong.”
“Well, I heard the name.”
“You probably heard someone talking about Hugo International. You know about them, Judy,” Hart replied. “They make four of the components we use in our engines. And they sell their own line of specialty equipment—backhoes and that kind of thing. But I don’t see how a company’s people could die. The company, maybe. They’re not doing so well.”
Judy had another question. “I was pretty mad at Harding last night, especially for what he said when he came back after supper.”
Pancho Villa crawled out from under the telephone stand and hissed.
“Pancho, buddy, what’s up? Judy already filled your bowl,” Hart said, stalling. “So, he made some comments about my battery.”
“And called the baby a project.”
“He didn’t mean anything. Like he said, we’ve all been under a lot of stress.”
“You tested your battery in front of him and it worked fine. Why was he against it?”
“He has—had the company’s best interest at heart.”
“How long have you put up with him, anyway?” Judy asked.
“He wasn’t always like this.” Pancho banged the cat door in the mud room that led outside. Funny, Pancho seemed to take offense lately any time Harding’s name was mentioned. “For the past six months, he’s acted like a different person. Crawford made him get a physical and everything, but Harding swears—swore he was stressed, nothing else.”
“The company’s doing well, though, isn’t it? They aren’t going to announce lay-offs, are they? Why would your boss put off the debut of a new product?”
“InventivAg is holding steady. I suppose they worry the product might tank.”
“Your battery could never tank!”
Hart took a deep breath and went to hug his wife. She needed to watch the clock if she planned to get to work on time. So did he. “We’ll be okay, don’t worry.”
Judy leaned against him, the bulk of their baby resting between them. “Sorry. I’m just too charged by everything: the end of the school year, this program we’re doing next week, your job, the baby—”
“Shh.” Hart wrapped his arms around her and wished they could stay home. “I can’t delay time, but I can tell you to stop worrying. My job is safe. Bryce and I can go out on our own, even if InventivAg stops contracting with us. I will always take care of you.” He pulled back to soothe her stomach. “And this little girl.”
Judy responded to his continued teasing, which started the day they found out for sure they were expecting. “Boy.”
“You, however,” he tapped her nose and held her firmly away, “should have taken some maternity leave. And we’ll see soon enough whether we have a Horace or a Hortense.”
“No way! Hildegard or nothing. And we’re fine. One more week of classes to go.” She put a hand on her back. “Could you hand me my bag?”
“Now Little Harriet’s keeping you from bending over?”
“Little, nothing! And, um…Henry’s keeping me from reaching the floor. So, your mom’s still planning to come next week, right?”
“Yeah. She’s excited by the program you were gabbing about.”
“Which reminds me! Imagine—Harriet Tubman come to life. There’s the only Harriet for you. The kids will have a good time and not even realize they’re learning something. This program will be a good finish to the year. You know we’ve been talking about U.S. history, expanding on the fourth grade Wisconsin curriculum.”
“The program brochure says she plays the character like she’s in her own time, so the kids have to interact with her and explain things in a way she would understand. You’re coming, right?”
“I plan to.”
“There! I think I’ve got—oh, wait, I need some more of those pencils, you know, the ones I give—”
“Yeah, right here.” Hart handed over the new package he had picked up for her the other day. He liked the way she looked in her flowered jumper, her soft brown hair flowing around her shoulders and her luminous gray eyes shining.
She accepted them while staring at him, a line between her brows. “Hart, what’s going to happen today?”
He kept his tone light. “Bryce, Tim and I will meet with the sheriff’s people. Maybe with some of the home office staff who are coming up.” He grimaced, despite his attempt to tamp his emotions. “Damage control.”
“Oh, Hart, what can we do?”
“We can’t do anything yet. Hang in there until we hear the official report. You better get going. Try not to worry too much, and have a good day.”
“Thanks!” Judy stuck the pencils in her bag and kissed him.
He walked her out of the door to the garage. “See you this afternoon,” he said, and bussed her freckled nose, hand lingering on their child. He watched until she waved and backed her green compact out for the drive into Robertsville.What on earth would happen if he and Bryce had wasted the past three years on a project the company might scrap? His battery wasn’t the only thing InventivAg had on the drawing board, but considerable time and expense had gone into the design. He did not know how much longer his partner and mentor, Bryce, would go on working. Ardyth nagged her husband of four years to get good and retired already so they could travel before they got too old. May he and Judy feel the same way when they got within sniffing distance of eighty.
After cleaning up the kitchen he packed his case and drove the quarter-mile to the office. Bryce had already arrived. But whose car was parked behind his?
“Good morning again, father-to-be,” his white-haired colleague greeted him.
“And to you, sir,” Hart replied. “Who’s here?”
Bryce wrinkled his nose. “Crawford, with Maura Fergusson.
“Wow, Boss got the company spokesperson up here quick, didn’t he? How bad does it look?”
“So-so. We’ll find out. How’s Judy holding up?”
“She’s worried. We all are. But she’s doing pretty well considering all the commotion. I can’t imagine having my insides kicked around by a baby. I’m glad Mom’s coming down tomorrow.”
“There’s a reason the good Lord did not bless men with that particular gift.”
“Do we need to talk to the boss and Maura ahead of time?”
“No,” Bryce stared at a fax.
Hart read over his partner’s shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Fax. I wonder why this was delayed two days. Look, Jacobs from assembly has this question.”
“Assembly?” Hart studied the pages. “So Crawford already talked about setting up production? And this is the final design. See? I told him about the new steel.” He looked at his partner. “Why did Crawford waste so much time on Harding’s complaints if he thought we were ready?”
Bryce put a hand to his chin while he stared at the fax machine. “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask him. But I assume everything’s going to be on hold during the investigation.”
“I wonder what Harding was up to, coming back here.”
“Hopefully we’ll be able to figure that out. Hart, I’m not going to bring this up, but in case anyone says anything, Ardyth drove back out this way last night.”
Hart’s mouth went dry. “Why?”
“She says she forgot her pan and wanted to make another pie. When she saw your lights were out, she thought she’d see if we still had one here in this kitchen.”
“Well. That sounds like Ardyth. I don’t think we need say anything, either. Are we still expecting the sheriff to come at nine?”
“I assume so. There was no message indicating otherwise, after we talked last night. Er, this morning. Ardyth insisted on coming to make coffee.”
Hart snorted. “That will put Judy’s nose out of joint, having to miss the interrogation.”
“It won’t be all that bad, now.”
“I meant, Ardyth interrogating the sheriff.”
Hart’s partner smiled. “What’s this I hear about Ellen coming?”
“Yes, she’s coming down tomorrow for a couple of days to help plan the baby’s room. And you know how she likes history, so she wanted to see Judy’s program at school.”
“How’s she doing, living with your brother in the big house, since your dad passed? It’s been what, two years?”
“That’s right. Mom’s getting along pretty well. Jim and Margie take good care of her. Or is it the other way around?”
Bryce laughed. “Well, I’m sure she and Ardyth will kick up some adventure. Best thing ever, those girls getting on like they do.”
“Made our wedding nearly as fun as yours.”
“We’d better get ready for the meeting,” Bryce said.
* * * *
Hart watched Ardyth bustle about the office kitchen, gathering napkins and mugs to set on a tray. She poured carafes of coffee and arranged a plateful of vanilla nut cookies that smelled like she had baked that morning. Knowing her, she probably had. Her only plaid today was her royal blue and red tennies, on which she trotted back and forth between the kitchen and the conference room. “When my grandson Bryan comes to visit after school is out,” Ardyth said, “Bryce and I plan to take him to visit the Dells, and the capitol. He’s even got a friend.”
“That sounds nice, Ardyth,” Hart said. He saw her sneak a glance out the dining room window that faced the smoking ruins of the barn. Though she had never lived here, she and Bryce and Judy’s uncle had spent a lot of time together chumming around both places as kids. It must hurt to see the end of a great piece of family history.
“What’s that?” Ardyth blinked. “Sorry. I was just…thinking.”
Hart patted her shoulder. “That’s all right. This is all a shock.”
At five minutes to nine, Hart’s boss and the company spokesperson sauntered into the house. Hart had his mouth open, ready to ask about the assembly situation when the doorbell rang.
Bryce ushered in two sheriff’s deputies. Their uniforms were crisp, their black shoes shiny. The perpetually smiling one’s nametag read “Phil Hansen.” Phil’s partner stepped around him, after peering in the direction of the office equipment on the way into the room, and giving the windows a once-over. He held out a hand to everyone, giving a precise jerk once up and once down.
He introduced himself. “Hilton Rogers.” Hart remembered him from the investigation of Judy’s aunt’s death.
Hart greeted them and showed them into the conference room they had made out of the house’s former dining room.
Deputy Hansen took charge of the meeting. Ardyth hovered in the background.
“Thank you for coming this morning. The first thing we’d like to do is talk about the events leading up to the fire,” Hansen said.
“We were together all day,” Crawford said. “After the morning’s work and demonstration, the team members returned to the motel until we went, all together, to the Wingate home for dinner. Afterward, we settled into our rooms.”
“But then that wicked man went back to Hart and Judy’s house,” Ardyth said.
Hansen’s head snapped up. “What was that?”
Hart winced. “What Ardyth meant, sir, was that Harding drove back to our house later in the evening.”
“Oh? Can you elaborate?”
“He said he was sorry for his behavior,” Hart said.
“And what was that?” Hansen asked.
Ardyth plunked the coffee carafe down. “He was an absolute boor—just a—”
“Ardyth,” Bryce said. “What my wife means is that Harding expressed some opinions about the nature of the work we were doing for the company.”
“Negative opinions?” Rogers asked, pen poised over his notebook.
“I can assure you,” Maura Fergusson said, “that InventivAg employs only the absolute top-notch engineering minds of the country, officers. All our products enjoy international renown. We’re known world-wide for our quality-assured equipment.”
“Harding was the leader of this fine team project,” Crawford said. “Well respected in his field. Everyone is—was—responsible to ensure a successful product.”
Rogers and Hansen each jotted a note. “What time did Mr. Harding return to your house, Mr. Wingate?”
Hart squinted. “Oh, everyone left about when, Ardyth? Eight? So, it was after that.”
“Do any of you have an opinion as to why he returned to the workshop?” Hansen asked.
“No, we don’t, officers,” Crawford said.
“What else can you tell us about the movements of the team members before the fire?”
“As far as I know, we stayed at the motel. If John went out, he must have returned quietly. He insisted on a room to himself, though the rest of us shared.” Crawford said. “The rooms are adjoining. Not very sound-proof.” He frowned. “I put in ear plugs.”
“So you don’t know when Harding left the motel? No? We’ll proceed to what we’ve been able to ascertain about the fire, then,” Hansen said.
“More important,” Fergusson said, “is that we keep this information contained. Officer, you must assure us we have full control over what gets to the press. The damages to InventivAg,” she swept her hand toward Hart, “to our people’s reputations, are of vital concern. We cannot allow company secrets, or detrimental reports of any kind, to be released to the media and perhaps fall into the hands of our competitors.”
Hart folded his arms. What was she trying to say?
Hansen dipped his head to her. “The fact there was a fire is already out,” he said. “The public information act ties our hands somewhat.” He cleared his throat. “Moving on, then. Mr. Wingate, I understand you had combustible material in the barn workshop?”
Hart winced. “Nothing that I didn’t contain properly. And I never left the models out there overnight. The battery and panels are downstairs in this house right now.”
“But you had some material from your work—yours and Mr. Edwards’—out there?”
Hart replied, “Individual components.”
Ardyth took the carafe of coffee around the table. When she got to Hansen, she asked, “Deputy, do you believe our fire has anything to do with the vandalism going on in Robertsville?”
Hart frowned. They had discussed the newspaper reports before dinner, but Hart had forgotten all those problems when bigger ones loomed. Trust Ardyth to reach for connections.
Deputy Rogers flipped a few pages back in his notebook. He scrunched his nose and squinted. “We have no evidence connecting the previously reported events with this one. Chief Hutchinson doesn’t support correlation. Quite often this time of year, graduating kids get nervous or cocky, and the chief can pick up suspects for the incidents he’s investigating. The chief said usually there’s a rash of this kind of thing, but there are no similar reports from anywhere nearby. We’ll certainly keep an eye open.”
“The fire simply doesn’t feel like an accident,” Bryce said. “And nothing was ever stolen, those times you found the doors unlocked.”
“Yeah, what about that?” Ardyth asked. “You ever find the culprit?”
“Ardyth, we’re not here to talk about our doors,” Bryce reproved his wife. Ardyth responded with her usual sniff.
“Going on, then. Unfortunately,” Hanson said, “fire trucks and all the activity in and out of the driveway erased any sign of tire tracks, but our people have photographed the site.”
Rogers went back to his notes. “Found in the debris was the presumed point of origin: shattered glass from what appears to be a lantern.” He looked up at Bryce. “Any idea how that got there?”
Ardyth started to answer. “My husband had nothing to do—”
Bryce cleared his throat. “We kept an old one out there since I was a kid,” he said. “As far as I know, it was never used and we haven’t had any fuel for it in years. I doubt the filaments were even any good.”
Rogers didn’t reply. He consulted the notebook. “Kerosene was considered the inflammatory agent.” He raised his face. “Does the name ‘Hugo International’ mean anything to anyone here?”
“That’s our—” Maura’s declaration stopped at a touch from Crawford. Crawford carried on without hesitation. “Ms. Fergusson was about to tell you that out of many companies by that name, one also markets farm implements and components. What’s that got to do with your investigation, Officer?”
“One of the fire marshals bagged a partially melted lighter casing with a corporate logo like a wheel and chain with that name on it,” Rogers said. He didn’t give anyone a chance to respond. “We also discovered debris that, according to your—” he flipped the notebook back a few pages, “inventory, perhaps would match a drafting table?”
Hart folded his arms. “I had a drafting table out there, yes.”
“And some larger pieces of milling tools, power equipment, welding supplies and oxygen tanks?”
Rogers said. “And then there are the human remains to consider.”
“How did Harding get back inside last night?” Hart asked. “We locked up tight.”
Rogers and Hansen traded looks. “There was a twenty dollar bill wedged in the lock,” Hansen said. “We found remains of it in the small door in the lower level.”
“A twenty!” Ardyth muttered. “Why, no one around here would be so reckless. A dollar, maybe—”
“Ardyth, how about you bring us some more cookies?” Bryce said.
After she left, Fergusson asked, “Are Harding’s death and the fire considered separate incidents?”
Rogers snapped his book shut. “We’re looking into it, ma’am. Right now we can’t say. We’d like to see the basement, please. Mr. Wingate?”
“Of course. This way.” Hart led the group to the kitchen where he unlocked the cellar door and turned on the lights before taking them downstairs. He and Bryce had made the area into a supplementary workshop. “Here we have our safe where we keep designs, back up discs, and the more valuable equipment.” He continued to point out improvements while the others clumped down the wooden steps. “We barred the windows, as you can see. The exit ramp to the yard is enclosed.” He knocked on the doors. “Heavy steel. Combination lock.” He walked to his workbench. “And yesterday afternoon after we were finished in the yard, here’s where I brought the…I set it right here…under this…”
Hart held up the canvas that had covered the battery. “Bryce?”
“I see it. Or, rather, I don’t see it.”
“But, how could…?” Hart looked at Crawford’s impassive face and wished he hadn’t.
“Okay, everybody!” Ardyth said. “Start looking around. Maybe it fell…”
Hart covered his face with his hands and groaned.
“Please, no one touch anything,” Hansen said. “Everyone, outside, now. To the yard.” Rogers was already on his portable radio, calling headquarters.
Once outside, standing in a herd on the front lawn, Ardyth sniffed. “Well, you never know.” The color of her face matched the pink crabapple blossoms of the tree under which she stood.
“Excuse me, Deputy Hansen? While we’re waiting, could you please tell me if you know how Harding died?” Hart asked.
“Initial review by the coroner says wood splinters were found in the wound on the back of the head. Possibly blunt-force trauma, but we’re still waiting for the final report.”
Judy would kill him when she found out Ardyth heard it first.
Ardyth gasped. “Murder?”