There had been brief stretches of warmer weather, but for the most part the cabin had been marooned in a sea of snow and ice until late April, when the thaw began. Private planes had long since ceased waggling their wings as they flew over, there being no smoke rising from the chimney or other sign of occupation. It was not until May that a canoe was pulled ashore and a camp made and the visitors, presuming on the genial communism of the far north, went to the woodpile behind the cabin for firewood. A powerful odor nearly drove them back, but then a dread curiosity conquered and the bodies were discovered.
Philip and Roger Knight were about to leave Duluth where Phil had been on a case that was far less interesting than he had expected when Roger heard on the radio of the scene at the cabin. The story was garbled. There were two bodies in the cabin; each had died from gunshot and then had fallen forward, their heads only inches apart.
“Cabin fever,” Phil said. He had some intimation of how trying an otherwise genial person could be from living with Roger in their place in Rye, New York.
“You think it was an argument?”
“I can see it, Roger. They disagree, tempers mount, threats are made, both fire almost at the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are playing cards scattered about.”
“One was a man, the other a woman.”
“A suicide pact,” Phil said. The stay in Duluth had dulled his edge and he seemed to think all things were cut and dried. “No guns were found.”
“And both were shot?”
“There was another body too.”
Thus far it seemed an almost algebraic problem. Two bodies found in a remote north woods cabin, both shot, the door locked with a dead bolt lock. The dog had starved to death, its fate perhaps softened by the intense cold that must have penetrated the cabin. Hypothermia would have eased it from this world.
“If the door was locked, Roger, something more than man’s best friend was involved. How could he have left?” “The dog? Oh, there was a flap in the door.”
The scene of the crime, if that is what it was, was on their way home—if they took a detour north for several hundred miles. Roger did not chide his brother for his curiosity, though it did seem a bit of a busman’s holiday for a private detective. Phil had given up his Manhattan office when he grew weary of being mugged and now worked out of the virtual space of a Web page that Roger had set up for him. He could also be reached more conventionally through the 800 number he advertised in the Yellow Pages of several major cities across the nation. Only the intrinsic interest of a case, or an unusually large compensation, could entice him to work. The trip to Duluth did not qualify in the latter sense and Phil’s judgment that it did in the former sense had been disproved. Perhaps it was this that whetted his desire to have a look at the cabin in the woods where two people had lost their lives to violence, perhaps mutually administered, though the weapons had yet to be found.
As soon as Sheriff Omar was sure they were not journalists, he was surprisingly forthcoming, but then it must get lonesome for him in this remote town.
“What we usually get is hunting accidents. Or some old duffer strains his heart and dies in a duck blind. Never had a murder before, let alone two.”
The couple had been married, although not to one another. Their intention to erase past commitments and marry had been vetoed by Veronica Fielding, the wife of the dead man. The Fieldings were local, but the other victim, Susan Wambach, had been visiting from Minneapolis when fate, in the form of Art Fielding, struck. He was a shy outdoors type, new in her experience, possessed of a natural gallantry that had won her heart, which was already wandering from the bland and blasé existence she lived with her husband, Andre, in Edina. The proprietor of Andre’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Susan’s husband had not yet come north to claim the body of his late wife.
“Said they were as good as split up anyway,” the sheriff said.
“I guess if she’s kept this long, she can keep a few more days.”
“Still no sign of the weapons?”
Omar shook his head. “I been over that whole lot myself, from the woods to the shore and from fence to fence. The only thing I found was a shoe.”
He waited for their reaction but the Knight brothers recognized a storyteller when they met one. They let Sheriff Omar establish his own pace. It turned out that he had an explanation.
“I rule out suicide.”
“On what basis?”
“They wanted to live together, not die together.”
“And that leaves murder?”
“Veronica Fielding found out about her husband and the lady from the big city and she was on the warpath. She threatened to kill him if he tried to leave her.”
“She was heard to say that?”
“More than once. And she said the same thing to friends.” “Well, she had motive,” Phil conceded.
“But how did she do it?”
“That’s the problem.”
When her husband and Susan Wambach had disappeared, Virginia took it better than anyone expected. She cried a lot and she wanted the sheriff to arrange for her runaway husband to be arrested, but she had no idea where he had gone, and anyway, what was the charge supposed to be?
“And all along he was lying out in that cabin dead?”
“We got our first blizzard the day before they disappeared and when winter comes up here it means it. I’m told they could have been dead for months, but they would have been stiff as logs in that unheated cabin. It was the thaw that . . .” His voice trailed away.
“What kind of a shoe?” Roger asked.
Phil and the sheriff looked at him with alarm.
“The shoe you found when you searched the property.” “Funny thing,” the sheriff said, and fell silent. This time Phil rose to the bait.
“It wasn’t one of Art’s shoes.”
“He was wearing two shoes?”
The sheriff nodded. He had put Veronica Fielding under what he called house arrest, meaning that he was counting on her not leaving town while he tried to figure out what had happened to her husband. He assured Phil that if he had the weapon he would arrest her in a minute.
“I don’t care what her neighbors would say.”
“People backing her up?”
“She’s a brand-new widow, an abandoned wife. And rich. Every eligible bachelor for miles around is going to want to console her.”
“Anyone in particular?”
Omar looked wise. “Could be.
Veronica Fielding stood up when Roger managed to get through the door sideways and collapse on the center cushion of the sofa, turning it into an easy chair. Phil explained to her who they were.
“You’re a private detective?” “That’s right.”
“You investigate things?”
Phil said he did.
“I want to hire you. That idiot sheriff doesn’t know his chin from his ear lobe. I want you to find out what happened out at that cabin.”
The cabin had belonged to them both but Art used it more than she did. Cooking in that primitive kitchen was not her idea of time off. “Plus I don’t like to fish.”
“How about hunting?”
“I love it. But I don’t want to have to cook what I shoot.”
“Was the dog a hunting dog?”
“Fetch?” She laughed almost cheerfully. “He was the dumbest dog God ever made. Couldn’t be trained. When you tried, he got everything wrong. That’s why we called him Fetch. If you threw something and told him to fetch it, he’d pick it up and run away and hide it.”
“But he was loyal?”
“Dumb loyal. He could have left the cabin, he could have found his way home .. .”
There was affection in her voice for the dog she had described as dumb. She did not seem a woman who could have killed her husband and his lover, at least not while she was talking of Fetch. But when Phil asked about Susan, a cloud formed on Veronica Fielding’s face.
“A Christian should forgive and forget, now that they’re dead. But I have Old Testament thoughts about the two of them. I thank God for wreaking vengeance for me. My enemies have been laid low. I would be lying if I said I regretted it.”
“Weren’t you surprised to find they had been out there in the cabin all along?”
“They left no trail. They could have gone anywhere.” “If you want me to find who killed them . . .”
“That is merely to clear my name, you understand. So long as the killer runs free there will be people in this town who think I did it.”
She turned to face Roger. “No.”
“You were snowbound when they left town?”
“Yes. Can I prove it? I can prove I called the wrecker on my cellular phone and it was nearly fifteen hours before he could get through to me. Of course I could have been to the cabin first and then run off the road.”
“Do people think that?”
“They will. I am now a very wealthy widow.”
“But that wouldn’t have been your motive.”
She shook her head. “No, but it’s frosting on the cake.”
When Roger suggested they check out the cabin and search the property, Phil was not enthusiastic. The sheriff had already done that; the crime scene had been trekked through by too many people to deliver up anything new. Phil wanted to follow the lead Veronica had given him. A man who had owned the lake shore cabin until he went bankrupt had tried to buy it back, but Art refused. Over time, double the value of the place had been offered and Art’s continued refusal had infuriated the man.
“What’s his name?”
“The sheriff?” ‘
“His brother Emil.”
Of course this intrigued Phil. Roger found it fascinating too, but he was anxious to see the cabin where these strange events had taken place. On the drive out, Phil thought aloud about the way the sheriff had directed their attention to Veronica. “He might have mentioned his brother.”
“Brothers look out for one another.”
At the cabin, Phil went inside but Roger began to wander around the property, from time to time stopping and looking out at the lake or back at the cabin. A half-hour later he was down at the boat dock. Before going onto it, he checked out its construction. The pistols lay beneath the dock where it ran for several feet over the shore.
“Now who do you suppose put those there?” Phil asked. “Whoever it was killed those two, left them in the cabin, locked it, and stashed the pistols out here.”
“It could have been her, Veronica, but it might have been the sheriff’s brother.”
“I heard you the first time. I don’t have an answer. I don’t know why someone would lock two dead bodies in a cabin for that matter.”
“Fetch,” Roger said.
“I think it must have been Fetch. There was no reason for the killer to hide the weapons. Quite the opposite. Two pistols were used and the bodies arranged in such a way that suicide would be suspected. But the guns were supposed to be found beside the bodies.”
“You think a dog hid those pistols under the dock?”
“There are things all around the yard, Phil. I’ll bet Veronica will identify them as from the cabin. Maybe it was Fetch’s way to try and get the attention of his dead master.”
They drove to Ike sheriff’s where Phil intended to ask Omar about his brother. They found a short man with a about chest wearing a camel hair coat pacing the sheriff’s office. This was Andre Wambach, finally arrived from Minneapolis. He looked ready to turn right around and go home as soon as he took care of things.
“Veronica says she’s your client,” the sheriff said petulantly.
“She told me about your brother.”
“I’ve got three brothers.”
“The one who wanted to buy that cabin back.”
“He always liked the place.”
“Enough to get rid of an owner who wouldn’t sell?’ “Now wait a minute.”
“Those are nice shoes,” Roger said, and suddenly had everyone’s attention. Wambach had stopped pacing and looked down at his shoes.
“What size are they?
Andre lifted a brow. “Eight and a half. Why?”
“Do you still have that shoe you found on the property, sheriff?”
“Hey, what is this? Who are these men, sheriff?”
“Just try it on,” Roger said.
“So you can clear yourself.”
“Clear myself of what?”
“Of killing your wife and Art Fielding.”
Andre’s mouth dropped open, he spread his arms, his eyes sought the ceiling and the judge above. He was the picture of guilt. Omar had found the shoe and handed it to Roger. Roger lumbered over to Andre and stood before him, an intimidating presence, though he spoke gently. “This is your shoe, isn’t it?”
Andre headed for a chair and dropped into it. His eyes traveled around the room. “I should have stayed in Minneapolis.”
He shook his head. “No. Before. I came up here to tell her to get a divorce, cut the comedy, get it over with. I was told they were at the cabin, so I went out there?
“Who told you that?”
“I called Mrs. Fielding.”
“You went out to the cabin.”
“I did. We talked and she agreed. He just sat there, silent. I wasn’t even mad at him. It wasn’t his fault she never grew up.”
“How did your shoe end up in the yard?”
“Did it? That damned dog went crazy when I started to leave. Art yelled at him, Susan yelled at him. I yelled at him, but he just kept barking and wouldn’t let me near the door. Finally, I took off my shoe and threw it at him. I got out the door while he went for it, and headed back to Minneapolis. I was chased halfway home by that blizzard but I managed to keep ahead of it.”
Phil shook his head. Sheriff Omar shook his head. “You were there, you had motive, you had opportunity.”
“What are you saying?”
“I think you killed your wife and Art.”
Andre tried to laugh, but found it difficult since the sheriff was obviously serious.
“Sheriff, I wanted to get rid of her, but not that way. She had agreed to get a divorce. I had accomplished what I came for.”
“I have only your word for that.”
“Let me call my lawyer.”
But he was going to have to wait. Roger had the phone. He carefully punched numbers and then waited with closed eyes with the phone pressed to his ears. Then his eyes opened. “Emil?
The sheriff stood and reached for the phone. “Who you calling?”
“I dialed Veronica, sheriff. I got your brother. Just as Andre did.”
The sheriff had the phone now. “Emil? Emil, you get down here right now, you hear?”
What would have happened if Emil had not decided to run for it is difficult to say. Veronica was not at all happy with what her detectives had accomplished. The plans she and Emil had made to spend half the year in the cabin would never be fulfilled, not with Emil indicted, convicted, and imprisoned for the murders of Art Fielding and Susan Wambach. Having directed the supposedly irate husband to the cabin, Emil followed him out and, after Andre drove off, entered the cabin, shot Art and Susan with separate pistols and then arranged the bodies to look like a suicide pact. It was decided not to indict Veronica as an accomplice. She seemed genuinely surprised that it had been Emil and not Andre who had removed the obstacle to future bliss. Emil had neglected to tell her he had gone out to the cabin himself that fateful day.
“I can’t say I’m glad the way this came out,” the sheriff said when they were about to leave.
“I don’t blame you,” Phil said. “If it hadn’t been for Roger….”
But Roger would have none of that. “Let credit go where credit was due.”
“And who is that?”
Roger looked at the sheriff and Phil with astonishment. “Why, Fetch of course. If Fetch hadn’t hid that shoe and those guns …”
“Come on, Roger,” Phil said. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
“Fetch?” the sheriff was saying as they left. “Fetch?”