Preview of Tradition of Deceit: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #5
Written by Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books
Chapter 1: 1982
Chloe Ellefson was not having a good time.
"So," Roelke said, sliding into his seat at the banquet table. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
Chloe smiled brightly. "I am!"
Roelke raised his eyebrows.
Drat the man. With sincerity Chloe added, "After hearing so much about your band, it's fun to actually hear you play. You guys are great." She patted his thigh.
"You better keep Chloe around, McKenna," Rick Almirez said to Roelke. "You'll never find another woman who actually appreciates the band." He put his arm around the young woman sitting beside him. "After Jody sat through an entire practice session, I knew I'd found the one for me."
Jody's smile was half indulgent, half adoring. She was a small woman, with honey-colored hair swirled stylishly behind her head. She looked maybe twenty-five, which made Chloe, who was fast approaching her thirty-third birthday, feel a wee bit ancient. But Jody and Rick were clearly good together.
Chloe had only met Rick a few times, but she liked him a lot. He and Roelke had been best friends since their police academy days. Roelke had left Milwaukee, but he kept in touch with old buddies at practice sessions. The Blue Tones was an all-cop band.
"Keeping Chloe around is the plan," Roelke said. He looked happy, but he was also wired. Chloe could feel his knee bouncing like a piston. So, was this good-wired? Or was something making him tense? Since Chloe was completely out of her element, she had no idea. She was only here because two MPD officers had asked The Blue Tones to play alternate sets with an accordion player at their wedding reception. "Want to come with?" Roelke had asked, with an Either way is fine with me shrug that was, she knew, completely bogus.
The wedding ceremony had been traditional enough - glowing bride, nervous groom. With Roelke in the pew beside her, Chloe had been quite at ease. But once everyone adjourned to the private party room at a popular Milwaukee bar, and he switched from guest to entertainer, she'd felt adrift. This was largely an urban crowd. Chatter was studded with casual crime talk. Cigarette smoke hazed the air. Until now, Chloe and Roelke had spent most of their couple-time either alone or with her family. The man on stage during the band's first set had seemed a stranger.
Rick gave Chloe a devilish grin. "Did Roelke ever tell you about the time he put a guy's driver's license down on the hood of a car and it blew into a storm drain?"
"It wasn't my fault that a semi blasted by," Roelke protested. "Jody, did Rick ever tell you about the first time he drew his gun on duty? It flew out of his hand, did a triple flip, and landed in the street."
Dobry and Tina Banik, the third couple at their table, rejoined the group as Roelke spoke. "The PD frowns on throwing guns around," Dobry said, holding the chair for his wife. Dobry had sandy hair and a round, freckled face that was, probably to his professional dismay, remarkably boyish.
Chloe sipped her wine, watching the men trade barbs in practiced style. This is good for Roelke, she thought. He was completely committed to the small, rural village PD he worked for now, but he also felt a bit isolated. He'd spent six years on with the Milwaukee PD, and had shared history with Rick and Dobry. Now, Chloe thought, I am enjoying myself.
"Remember the time in training when Rick got surprised during a traffic stop? Oh, man." Roelke hooted with laughter.
"I didn't make sure the trunk was securely closed," Rick confessed. "An instructor jumped out and scared the crap out of me." He laughed too. "You better believe I check now, every single time."
"He's got quite the obsessive routine for approaching cars now," Roelke began. "You should see how - "
"Excuse us!" Two young women presented themselves. The blonde wore a clingy red dress with plunging neckline, and stiletto heels that made Chloe's feet ache in solidarity. "We need to identify a cop who doesn't work in Milwaukee." She waved a piece of paper. "For the scavenger hunt."
Roelke produced his badge. "I'm with the Eagle PD, out in Waukesha County."
"Ooh, thank you!" the brunette squealed. Her clingy dress with plunging neckline was black, as were her equally torturous heels. When Roelke spelled his name she leaned over to write on the table, displaying enough cleavage to hide a broadsword. "What an unusual name! How do you say it?"
"It's pronounced Rell-kee," Chloe said helpfully. "And I'm Clo-ee."
The young women made a big, big point of ignoring her. "It's good to meet you, Officer Roelke McKenna," the brunette said.
As the pair sashayed to the next table, Jody rolled her eyes. "Badge bunnies."
"Now, now," Rick said.
The accordion player launched into a cheerful rendition of Beer Barrel Polka, and Chloe raised her voice to be heard. "So, guys. When are you going to play the Chicken Dance? And the Hokey-Pokey?"
All three groaned. "Never," Roelke said. "We write that into our contract. Playing for the Dollar Dance is as kitschy as we get." Although some of the old neighborhoods were changing, Milwaukee still had a strong Polish-American community, and the Dollar Dance was expected at Polish weddings.
"I believe the word you're looking for is 'traditional'," Chloe suggested. He gave her a Yeah, right look.
Dobry drained his beer. "Come on, boys. We're up in five."
"Rick and Dobry have to work graveyard shift," Roelke told Chloe. "But we can get one more set in." He squeezed her hand and headed for the stage.
Rick kissed Jody before leaning close to Chloe. "Be patient with that guy," he whispered, and winked. "You're good for him."
He was gone before she could find a response. Touched, she watched him saunter away. How very sweet.
Dobry's wife lit a cigarette and surveyed the crowded room. She wore a long-sleeved but slinky dress of her own, and makeup she'd evidently applied with a trowel. Chloe tried to think of something to say to Tina and came up blank.
Jody leaned close. "You doing OK? When I began dating Rick, and hanging out in cop-world..." She made a wry face. "It can be overwhelming."
"A bit," Chloe acknowledged. "Do the badge bunnies make regular appearances?" She generally didn't approve of denigrating any woman based on how she chose to present herself to the world, but...in this case she was OK with it.
"Evidently a lot of women fantasize about dating a cop," Jody said. "I don't think you need to worry about it, though. Roelke adores you."
Chloe was OK with that, too.
"So, what do you do?" Jody asked.
"I'm curator of collections at Old World Wisconsin. It's a big historic site in Waukesha County."
"Maybe Rick and I can visit in the spring," Jody said. "And I know the guys are planning a double-date at Maders." The German restaurant was a Milwaukee landmark. "Oh - and we're having a M*A*S*H Bash on the 28th, when the final episode airs. I hope you and Roelke can come. All the martinis and grape Nehis you can drink."
"Sounds like fun!" Chloe smiled. Maybe she really could make friends within Roelke's circle.
"Tell Roelke he has to come as Klinger."
The mental image of Roelke McKenna wearing vintage drag was so surreal that Chloe almost snorted wine out her nose. "Not likely," she gasped. Jody laughed too.
The Blue Tones blazed through a playlist largely comprised of jazz and blues. Roelke, who played electric bass, looked stoic through Foreigner's Waiting For a Girl Like You and a few other pop ballads grudgingly added at the bride's request. He perked up when they circled back to Bonnie Raitt.
Chloe thought the set was winding down when someone in the back of the room bellowed "Bliss!" Other voices took up the call. "Bliss! Bliss! Bliss!"
Chloe leaned toward Jody. "Pardon me, but what the heck?" Like every other Wisconsinite blasted daily by media accounts of Lawrencia Bembenek's infamous murder trial last year, Chloe had seen photographs of a few cops partying with wild abandon. Cops needed to let off steam, she got that, but - Geez Louise, there were grandparents and little kids here.
Jody cocked her head at a woman wearing black silk trousers and a silver top who was making her way to the stage. "Lucia Bliss. She's a cop."
"That's her name? Seriously?"
Lucia Bliss huddled with the musicians before taking the microphone. The band swung into a Pointer Sisters song. Bliss smiled lazily and began to sing. "As the midnight moon was drifting through the lazy sway of the trees..."
The woman had a good voice, Chloe had to give her that. She wasn't beautiful in a traditional way - big-boned, oval face, plain features, shoulder-length brown hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She didn't prance about, but she exuded a unexpected sultry grace.
Jody leaned closer. "She's a sergeant, actually."
"Really? There can't be many women sergeants in Milwaukee."
"Her dad's the chief of the MPD, so she grew up in a cop family. That couldn't have hurt."
Somebody turned on a disco ball - Chloe hadn't seen one of those for a while - and spots of light twirled over the room. She reached for her wine goblet, then decided she'd had enough. On the dance floor, young people clung to their partners like limpets. The bride and groom looked ready to get down on the floor and go at it, right here, right now.
Chloe glanced back at the stage. Watching the man she'd made love with that morning, she felt disoriented. Roelke's bass was slung low on his hips. He moved to the beat, a lascivious grin on his face.
"I want a man with a slow hand," Bliss crooned. "I want a lover with an easy touch." She glanced over her shoulder. Had she grinned at Roelke? It really looked like she did. He definitely grinned back.
The smoke-filled room crackled with repressed electricity. Chloe squirmed as some of that tension tingled through her. She couldn't tell if she was ill at ease or turned on.
"So," Roelke said later, as they settled into his truck. "Are you glad you came?"
"Sure!" Chloe held her hands toward the heater vent with anticipation. The February night was clear and cold. A few glittering stars reminded Chloe of the disco ball.
"I couldn't tell. If you were enjoying yourself, I mean." He backed out of the parking space.
Chloe tugged her skirt down over her knees. She wasn't used to wearing nylons, and her best dress - a lacey Laura Ashley number that must have amused the young women in their tight minis - was not designed for a Wisconsin winter.
"I loved hearing the band," Chloe said again. "And watching you play. And it was good to meet more of your friends."
Chloe frowned. "What's up with you?"
"You just didn't look like you were having a good time."
It wasn't like Roelke to be argumentative. She shifted on the seat, trying to figure out this unexpected mood. "Well...I felt a little out of my element. It's a very different crowd than I'm used to." Many of the guests at the last wedding she'd attended had worn historic attire. The musicians played waltzes and reels. The guests had received hand-made boutonnieres and information about the Victorian era's "language of flowers." Quite a stretch from the chocolate handcuffs guests had received tonight, prettily gilded with the date: February 4, 1983.
"I've tried really hard to get to know your family and friends," Roelke reminded her.
"I know you have." He'd gone above and beyond on that one, actually, especially in the family arena. "And as I said, I enjoyed meeting your friends. I already liked Rick, and Jody's really nice."
Roelke turned onto the I-94 ramp. "They make a good pair."
"So...the woman who came up on stage and sang is a sergeant?"
"Bliss? Yeah. She was a year ahead of us at the academy, but we all worked the same district. She's sung with us a couple of times before."
"I could tell."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing!" Chloe folded her arms, hoping that was true. The thought of becoming a jealous lady friend was repugnant.
Roelke didn't respond. Chloe lapsed into silence as well, watching lights go by, bummed that the evening was ending on a down note. Roelke had loved playing tonight, but something was bugging him. She knew that some of his buds still chided him for leaving Milwaukee. Maybe Roelke was entertaining some regrets.
She also knew that he'd been reproaching himself for two months about a complicated murder case. Roelke was not a detective, but he'd become involved in the investigation - and failed, in his opinion, to identify the killer. Sometimes Chloe thought he'd put it behind him…and then she'd spot him staring into the distance, jaw muscles tight, and knew he had not.
The drive to Palmyra took over an hour. Roelke pulled into the parking lot behind his walk-up apartment in the village. "I'm going back to my place," Chloe said.
"I thought you were staying over."
"I was," she said, "but this doesn't seem to be a good night for that. Besides, I'm driving to the Twin Cities in the morning, remember? I want to get an early start."
"Chloe, I..." He stared out the windshield. "Never mind. Thanks for coming. Drive safe tomorrow."
"I will. And I'll call you from my friend's place." She leaned over, gave him a quick kiss, and got out of the truck.
I can be a real jerk, Roelke thought an hour later, lying in his lonely bed. Honestly, he didn't blame Chloe for leaving. The last thing Rick had said to him that night was, "We've both found good women. I'm hanging on to Jody. You better hang on to Chloe too, dumbass."
Roelke stared into the darkness, trying to figure out why he'd picked a fight with Chloe. Tonight at the reception he'd been conscious of every off-color joke; every crass comment about some recently-arrested asshole. Such talk had never bothered him before. Hell, he was part of it.
Chloe, however, was not. She'd once told him that they were too different to make a good couple. Other people had hinted at the same thing. Now they were a couple, and doing just fine all in all, thanks very much. But obviously, Roelke thought, the whole idea still bugs me.
Well, he'd apologize, first chance he got. He wished she wasn't going away for the rest of the weekend, visiting some friend.
Some museum friend. From her grad school days.
Roelke punched his pillow, ordered himself to quit stewing, and tried to get some sleep.
When the phone rang Roelke jerked awake and grabbed it. "McKenna here." The clock read 5:10 AM. Maybe Chloe was calling to say good-bye before she hit the road. No, probably not. Her definition of "hitting the road early" was several hours away.
He realized that too many seconds had ticked by. "This is Roelke McKenna."
"R-Roelke? I'm sorry to - I - it's Jody."
Roelke felt every sensory detail sharpen: the smooth plastic against his palm, the illuminated clock's glow, the whisper of Jody's irregular breathing in his ear, the infinitesimal quiver of every hair standing erect from his skin. "What's wrong? Where's Rick?"
"Rick...he...somebody shot him."
Roelke grabbed the pencil on his nightstand. "Where'd they take him? How bad is he hurt?"
Jody's words squeezed out between sobs. "He's dead, Roelke. Rick is dead."
Tradition of Deceit: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery
© 2014 by Kathleen Ernst.