Preview of The Heirloom Murders: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #2
Written by Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books

Chapter 1

     “THE GUY TRIED USING a pistol?” Roelke McKenna asked, as he opened his locker door. It was almost eight in the morning. He was coming on-shift; Skeet Deardorff was going off. Roelke always arrived at the Eagle police station early enough to catch up on news.
     “Yeah. Oh, man.” Skeet was laughing so hard he could hardly speak. The phone rang, and he waited until Marie answered it before gasping in a lower voice, “He couldn’t loosen the lug nut with a wrench, so he figured a shot or two would - ”
     Marie’s hand sliced the air so fiercely that Skeet stopped talking. She swiveled her chair to face the officers. Roelke’s nerves snapped to full alert.
     In the sudden silence she said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, I’ve got some static on the line. Can you repeat what you just said?” Then she pressed the speaker-phone button.
     A woman’s voice: “ - said, I’m about to kill myself.”
     Jesus. Roelke snatched a daily report form and pen from a nearby desk and scrawled, WHERE? Before he could even thrust it at Marie she was asking, “Where are you, ma’am?”
     “I’ll tell you in a moment,” the caller said.
     Skeet fumbled for his duty belt. Roelke grabbed a radio.
     “Please, ma’am, let’s talk about this,” Marie said. “I might be able to help. Can you tell me your name?”
     “My name is Bonnie. But - ”
     “I’m Marie. Can you tell me a little about whatever is bothering you?”
     “I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Bonnie said. “Really. But there’s nothing to discuss.”
     Roelke reached for the car keys. The hook was empty. Where were the damn keys?
     “I’m only calling because I want the police to get here first.” Bonnie sounded young-ish. Twenty-five, maybe? Thirty? “I’m in a public place. I don’t want kids to find me.”
     Roelke rifled the counter below the key hook. Papers sank to the floor with a languid rocking motion. Skeet snapped his fingers, then held up the keys. Roelke snatched them.
     “I’m driving a Cadillac Cimarron,” Bonnie said. “You’ll find my wallet on top of the left front tire. I removed my credit cards, but left my ID. My keys will be in the right pocket of my jacket.”
     Roelke felt the seconds ticking by with frenzied impatience. He stared at Marie, willing her to find a way to stop this. Marie spread her hands in a helpless gesture, but said, “Please Bonnie, just tell me where you are.”
     “I have a plastic garbage bag with me. I’ll be as tidy as possible.”
     Roelke closed his eyes. He could feel Skeet quivering in the doorway beside him.
     “Bonnie, please give us the chance to help you.” Marie was clutching a pen so hard that her knuckles were white. “If you just wait until one of our officers can get there - ”
     “Please tell the officer that I’m sorry.” An audible breath in, out. “I’ll be three hundred paces up the White Oak Trail - ”
     Roelke and Skeet bolted outside. Roelke slid behind the wheel of the squad car and was almost out of the parking lot before Skeet got his door closed.
     The White Oak Trail was a short loop in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Twelve minutes tops, Roelke thought. “Call it in,” he told Skeet. Marie would do it if she could, but there was still a chance that Marie would be able to keep Bonnie on the phone. To keep Bonnie talking. To keep Bonnie alive.
     Skeet radioed for backup: Waukesha County, Department of Natural Resources, Eagle Fire and Rescue. Roelke switched on the flashers. He shot through a stop sign, then veered around a pickup that was too slow to yield.
     “Hit the siren!” Skeet urged, as they left the village behind. He sat with feet and arms braced.
     “No.” Roelke’s hands tightened on the wheel as they flew around a curve on Highway 59. “Maybe she’s having second thoughts. If she hears us coming, she might pull the trigger.”
     “She didn’t sound like she might have second thoughts.”
     “There’s always a chance. Hold on.” Roelke braked hard and turned onto a side road. The small parking area that marked the White Oak Trail was ahead on the right. Gravel flew as he swerved into the lot.
     A white Cimarron sat in the shade of a huge old oak tree. No one was in sight. “Tell the EMTs to stage around the bend,” Roelke said, as he pulled in beside the car. Maybe there was still time. Maybe - maybe - maybe.
     He jumped from the squad - leaving the door open, still worried about noise - and hit the trail at a run. Twenty steps...ninety-seven...one hundred thirty-two...
     At one hundred and eighty-six he rounded a bend and stopped abruptly. “God damn it.”
     The body lay on the trail beside an old stump and a clump of ferns. Sunlight sifting through the canopy dappled the garbage bag that partly shrouded the woman’s head and shoulders. Jean-clad legs, feet in yellow high-heeled leather sandals with thin straps, extended from the bag. The woman’s left hand was visible too, resting against the earth, palm-down. Her wedding band glittered with tiny diamonds.
     The top of the garbage bag was not intact. Shreds of brown plastic and gray matter splattered the dirt and leaves nearby.
     Roelke crouched on the right side of the body and carefully pulled aside what was left of the bag. He instinctively reached to check her pulse, but there was nothing left beneath her jaw to touch. In almost any circumstance he would begin CPR, but in this case... “God damn it!” he exploded again. A 9 mm Smith and Wesson had fallen from Bonnie’s hand and lay near her throat.
     Skeet emerged from the trees and skidded to a halt. He stared for a long moment, then leaned over, hands on knees, panting. Roelke didn’t know if the other man was struggling with heat or exertion or nausea.
     Roelke was struggling with searing rage. “I could have helped you!”


###

     Within half an hour Roelke had carefully photographed the scene, tucked the handgun and shell casing into evidence bags, and established a perimeter. The medical examiner, a pudgy man with dispassionate eyes, arrived and did his own assessment of the body and its surroundings. Then he and Roelke watched two EMTs secure the body in a Stokes Basket for transport to the parking lot. Bonnie had positioned the gun under her chin, damaging the airways and eliminating any chance of keeping the physical body resuscitated long enough to harvest organs for donation.
     Marge Bandacek, a Waukesha County deputy, sidled closer. “You want me to call in our evidence team?”
     Roelke shook his head. “No need.”
     “We’ve got better equipment - ”
     “No need,” Roelke repeated. As first on the scene, he’d taken command. He’d examined the area carefully, collected everything there was to collect, documented everything there was to document.
     Marge opened her mouth, as if about to argue. Roelke fixed her with a stare. Although he’d bundled his anger deep inside, it hadn’t diminished. This was state forest land, but the DNR responders weren’t second-guessing him. He was in no mood to take any crap from Marge Bandacek.
     Marge hitched up her belt as the EMTs began their march back to the ambulance. “If you say so.”
     Roelke waited until the parade had disappeared, and took one last look around. The police tape looked obscene in this peaceful place of greens and browns. He pounded one fist against his leg, and turned away.
     Back at the parking lot, Skeet was handling the scene log. “Have you searched the car?” Roelke asked.
     “Not yet,” Skeet said. “Traffic control, including a couple of reporters.”
     “Piranhas,” Roelke muttered. He didn’t hate the press. He did hate reporters who thought it was OK to, in this case, broadcast a shot of Bonnie’s car before the cops had a chance to reach the family. “I’ll ask Bandacek to handle them”
     After siccing Marge on the press, Roelke searched the Caddy. “Simon and Bonnie Sabatola,” he read from the vehicle registration. The form listed a Town of Eagle address.
     What he did not find was Bonnie Sabatola’s wallet. “That’s odd.”
     “What?” Skeet asked.
     “She said she’d leave her wallet on top of the left front tire. It isn’t there. It’s not in the car either.”
     Skeet leaned against the oak tree, folding his arms. “The woman was about to blow her brains out. I don’t suppose she was thinking clearly.”
     “Clearly enough that she didn’t want anyone but us to find her.” Roelke turned away and scanned the gravel near the car. Nothing. He moved out in widening circles, moving the tall grass bordering the lot with his foot. Still nothing. Finally he spotted an unnatural patch of brown along the trail, almost invisible against the leaf litter. “Got it.”
     “Hers?” Skeet called. He hadn’t bothered to move from the shade.
     Roelke flipped the wallet open. The coin pocket and bill slot were empty. Three of the four little credit card-sized sleeves were empty, too. The fourth held a Wisconsin driver’s license. Roelke stared at Bonnie Sabatola’s picture. Her face was thin and elegant; her chestnut hair obviously styled with care. Her expression seemed to hold something more than the blind stare he usually found in drivers’ license pictures. Birth date, July 21, 1954. She had killed herself one week after her twenty-eighth birthday.
     Bonnie Sabatola had been the same age he was.
     Why did you do this? he asked her silently. What made you lose all hope?
     The ME waddled from the woods. “That her license?”
     “Yeah.” Roelke handed it over.
     The other man scrutinized it for a moment, then handed it back. “No doubt on the ID. Approximate time of death is consistent with the call she made to your office. I’ll go through the motions, but the cause of death was obviously a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
     The DNR ranger on the scene stopped a Chevy that had slowed to turn into the lot, and spoke through the window to the driver. Skeet straightened, dusting off his trousers.
     “Listen, do you mind if I catch a ride back to the station? I can still make class on time. You’ll handle this, right?”
     Handle it: the death notification, the paperwork. “I’ll handle it,” Roelke said. “But something isn’t right.”
     “The wallet? Listen, she just tossed it on her way down the trail. It doesn’t mean anything.” Skeet waved a hand in a vague gesture of dismissal.
     “The steps are off, too.”
     Skeet sighed. “What?” He had ginger hair, and a pale complexion that betrayed his impatience.
     “The steps,” Roelke repeated. “She said she’d be three hundred paces up the trail. I found her at one hundred and eighty-six.”
     “So what? You were running. No way her strides were as long as yours. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Skeet headed toward the ME’s sedan. “Hey Sid! Give me a ride?”
     Roelke watched them go. Skeet was a family man who still found time to take college classes in Waukesha. That might well put him on top when the next full-time, permanent job opened up. The police department in Eagle, Wisconsin, was tiny. Roelke was committed to the department, and to the village he had come to care so much about. But opportunities for advancement were few and far between.
     Then he stared back at the driver’s license in his hand, at Bonnie Sabatola’s enigmatic face, and his ambitions and worries disappeared. He looked again at the Cimarron, the clearing, the trailhead. Bonnie must have stood right there, by the little shed that housed the toilets, where a pay phone had been installed on the exterior wall. She’d already walked away from her car, and was halfway to the trailhead. So why had she told Marie that she’d leave her wallet on the tire?

 

The Heirloom Murders: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery © 2011 by Kathleen Ernst.