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M.D. Lake's
A Peggy O'Neill Mystery
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Chapter One
(Read or print)

When the phone rang, I was on the porch pretending to read and Gary was outside in the hammock pretending to doze. It was Sunday afternoon and quiet except for the powerboats on the lake and the whine of the mosquitoes trying to get to me through the screen. Gary let the phone ring several times before reaching down to pick it up out of the grass.
He listened, spoke a few words, then pressed the off button and rested the phone on his belly, staring up at the cloudless sky. After a minute, he rolled out of the hammock and came inside, bringing with him the invigorating smell of mosquito repellent.
I was reading Oscar Wilde's essay "The Decay of Lying," a passionate and funny defense of art over nature. I'm very fond of Oscar Wilde. " 'Art,' " I quoted, in an effort to lighten the dark mood that had settled over us that afternoon, " 'is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.' "
"So's that," Gary grumbled, gesturing out at the expensive gasoline-powered engines noisily churning up the lake behind him.
"There's nothing spirited or gallant about that," I said. "That's just people with too much money and too few inner resources. You need inner resources to appreciate art. You know that as well as I do."
He shrugged, since it was something he didn't want to know he knew as well as 1. "Does the name Evan Turner mean anything to you?" he asked.
"Evan ... sounds vaguely familiar." "Dulcie Tyler Farr's grandson."
"Oh, sure." Dulcie Tyler Farr was one of the richest women in the state, if not the richest. I'd met her while trying to solve a murder the previous Christmas and she'd taken a liking to me. I liked her too. "What about him?"
"His body was found a couple of hours ago, washed ashore on Lake Superior. They think he must have fallen from one of the cliffs. That was Kermit on the phone. He wants me to go over there and get the story. You want to come along?"
Kermit was the owner of the North Country Reader, a weekly newspaper that served a large area of northern Minnesota. Gary was thinking of buying it, and he'd taken a month's leave of absence from his job on one of the newspapers in Minneapolis to see if he'd like living in a small town and running the paper.
I would have preferred to stay on the porch of the cabin Gary was renting and read Oscar Wilde than follow him around as he gathered the details of a tragic story. But it was the last of the three days I was spending with him at Loon Lake and it would have been unfriendly to let him go off alone, so I said okay, striving for enthusiasm. Lake Superior is about an hour's drive from Loon Lake. Longer if we hit a deer.
Gary's in his late thirties, a few years older than 1, with dark, deep-set eyes, a somber face, and a sudden beautiful smile. He'd spent a number of years in Latin America before coming to Minnesota, where I met him. He's written two books about what Western civilization has done to Latin America's indigenous peoples and their cultures, the first of which made the New York Times bestseller list. He's been unhappy in the big city as long as I've known him, and dreams of finding a simpler, more natural way of life somewhere else-a somewhere else that always appears just out of reach, like a mirage. It's my belief that he's too complex to live a simple life, but he won't listen to me.
My heart sank when he told me he was considering buying the newspaper at Loon Lake, because I knew that might be a realistic compromise for him between the complex and the simple-at least for a time. I also feared that if he did buy the paper, it would end our relationship: Loon Lake is a long way from Minneapolis, in more than one sense.
We didn't talk about it as Gary drove the two-lane highway that wound through the forest to Lake Superior. We'd talked about it enough already that weekend. Instead, I asked him what Evan Turner had been doing on Lake Superior.
"Teaching in the summer program the University runs at the conference center there," he answered. "Didn't I meet him at Mrs. Farr's Valentine's Day party?"
"Yeah, and you also met his wife and daughter."
"That's right." After a few moments, he added, "The daughter's name's Annette, isn't it? A nice kid."
I didn't say anything to that. I recalled that Gary had spent most of the evening with her. He likes kids and would like some of his own. That's another interest we don't share.
After a few more minutes of silence, he asked me what I knew about Evan Turner.
I 'Nothing," I said. "Until we met him at the party, I'd always thought Dulcie had disowned her entire family. He seemed a little boring to me, but his wife was pleasant enough, although I only spoke with her for a couple of minutes."
We came to the lake and turned north. Ahead of us was the Split Rock lighthouse, which stands on a cliff that cuts into the lake like a shovel blade. The U's conference center is a couple of miles north of it.
I thought about how Turner must have died, falling off a cliff like that, and remembered the first time I'd come up to the area and gone hiking, while I was still a student at the U. I'd been surprised by the nakedness of the cliffs, and how straight they fall into the lake. And when I'd hiked in the woods and come out suddenly onto one of the cliffs, I'd been just as surprised at how few guardrails there were. If you were considering suicide, say, you wouldn't even have to climb a fence to get to the edge in a lot of places.
We arrived at the conference center, drove through the open gate, and parked next to a state trooper's car in the lot behind the lodge. The center is built on land donated to the University by the heirs of one of the wealthy lumber barons. It's used for conferences during the school year, but in the summer people come from all over the country to study there.
A gangly young-old man with an Adam's apple and scarecrow hair came to meet us. He introduced himself as Dan McIntyre, a freelance photographer who'd heard about Turner's death from a state trooper friend and had called Kermit.
"I got some good quotes," he said enthusiastically as he followed us to the lodge, "and pictures of them loading the body into the boat-in a body bag, of course. You couldn't print pictures of the body itself in a family newspaper like the Reader. It was a real mess."
He pointed down at a row of cabins that lined the lake. "That's his on the end. The faculty live in the cabins, the students live in the dorm over there." He gestured to a big log building half hidden by trees.
A state trooper was lounging next to the lodge's entrance. Gary introduced himself as a reporter for the North Country Reader.
"It appears Turner fell off one of them cliffs up there," the trooper said. "He must've been up there taking pictures, on account of the body was found with a camera wrapped around the neck by the strap. Tourists, high school kids, and other idiots arc always stepping off the trails to see how close to the edge of the cliffs they can get. There's nothing we can do to stop 'em, short of put up high fences, which would kind of spoil the wilderness, wouldn't it?"
"What makes you think he fell off the cliff?" Gary asked.
The trooper turned a regulation smile on and off smartly. "It's too soon to come to any official conclusions, of course, but according to witnesses, the deceased was in the habit of hiking around up there, taking pictures. That's one thing. Another is that there's no way to get to where his body was found except by boat or by falling, and since he didn't own a boat and there's no evidence he went off and rented one, we think it's likely he fell."
A common, garden-variety tourist failing off a cliff on Lake Superior wouldn't be big news, but Evan Turner wasn't an ordinary tourist. His grandmother was wellknown for her philanthropy and her eccentricities, which meant that soon reporters from the larger newspapers would be arriving. We'd got there first, although that didn't mean a great deal, since the Reader's a weekly.
I followed Gary around and listened as he interviewed some of Turner's colleagues, all of whom expressed shock and sorrow at the loss of a valued scholar, teacher, and colleague. When he'd got enough of that, we walked down to the cabins.
We heard music coming from behind them and, curious, went around to see what it was. A woman was sitting on a slab of dark granite on the shore, playing a small harp and singing quietly in a lovely soprano voice. It was a dramatic scene, with the lake lapping at her bare feet and the lighthouse on the cliff in the distance behind her.
We listened a few minutes and then, when she stopped, Gary identified himself and asked her who she was. She told him her name was Fiona McClure and she was the wife of one of the Music School professors. He asked her if she'd known Evan Turner.
She brushed hair away from her face with a long-fingered hand. "Oh, yes. Evan and I go back a long way."
"Could you tell me something about him," Gary asked, "that would give our readers a sense of the man?"
"Perhaps," she replied. She thought a moment, her large, remarkably blue eyes seeming to stare at something far away. "He was a lousy lover, a lousy husband, and a lousy father. His death is no great loss to anybody." She brought her eyes back to Gary. "Will that do?"
Gary, the hard-bitten reporter with a thousand deadlines under his belt, managed to say, "Thank you for your time."
"You didn't write it down," she pointed out.
"No," he said, "I didn't. 'Me Reader's a family newspaper.,,
She smiled gently. "Well, we wouldn't want to upset families, would we?" She turned back to her harp and resumed playing, something lovely in a minor key. When we were out of earshot, Gary turned to me. "You know who she is, don't you?"
"Somebody I wouldn't want to stand on the edge of a cliff with," I replied, "if I thought she didn't like me."
"She's a folk musician. Used to be pretty well-known locally-in Minneapolis, I mean. She does recitals and plays at renaissance festivals, and may even have a CD or two still in print. There was a story on her a year or so ago in the Tribune," he went on. "She was quite notorious in the seventies."
"How can a harpist be notorious?"
"She once played a recital naked to the waist. Looked sort of like a ship's figurehead, I've been told. The police carted her off to jail, harp and all."
I glanced back at her. "She seems to be sticking to gowns of gauzy material that float lightly in the breeze these days."
Gary stood by our car and stared up at the tree-covered hill leading to the cliffs. "I'd like to go up there and take a look around," he said.
"Of course," I agreed. I didn't mind a pleasant walk in the woods.
The trail climbed gently for a while, then grew steeper as it entered a dense forest of birch, aspens, and maple. The forest floor was covered with spongy moss, fallen trees, and the kinds of flora that are able to grow in low light-I only recognized ferns and poison ivy and a large variety of mushrooms, some of them just as deadly, no doubt, as they were beautiful. It was silent in there too, with only the rustle of birds and small animals busy with their lives. The lake was somewhere to our right, but we couldn't see it.
After about half an hour, blue sky appeared through the trees ahead of us and then the trail opened suddenly into a clearing, with boulders and a few tall pines on hard-packed earth veined with tree roots. The lake lay spread out below us, glittering dully in the afternoon sun like a sheet of rolled lead. The steep granite walls of the cliffs curved away from us on either side, with waves smashing at their bases, and far out, an ore boat moved with infinite slowness toward the horizon.
I'm not afraid of heights, so I followed Gary to the edge and peered over, holding on to the trunk of a pine tree and experiencing the pleasant hollow sensation in the pit of my stomach that I always get when I put myself in situations like that and imagine what it's like to fall. I could feel the hair rising on my arms and the nape of my neck. We had no way of knowing where Turner had been standing when he fell, but it had to have been someplace nearby for his body to have been washed ashore where it had been found.
Gary took pictures for the newspaper, then asked if he could take a couple of me. I posed for him leaning against a tree on the edge of the cliff, smiling. Then he set the timer on his camera and placed it on a tree stump, ran over and stood next to me with his arm around my shoulder, and waited for the camera to do its work. I felt his eyes on me, but I looked into the lens.
After that we walked back down to the conference center, with neither of us saying much. Just as we reached Gary's car, another car pulled up beside ours, and a girl jumped out on the passenger side, a look of expectation on her face. I didn't recognize her, but Gary did.
"Annette Turner," he whispered.
I did recognize the woman who got out on the driver's side: Turner's wife. She smiled and nodded to us without recognition-after all, we'd only met once, in February, in quite a different setting.
"Is Dad staying at the lodge," Annette asked her mother, "or does he have one of the cabins?" Before her mother could answer, she went on excitedly, "Oh. look! There's Fiona! Fiona!" she hollered, and ran to Fiona McClure, who was crossing from the lake to one of the cabins, cradling her harp. McClure stopped and put down the harp quickly as the child jumped into her arms, almost knocking her over. They were almost the same height.
I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them and glanced at Gary-the journalist, the man who was considering leaving the big city and buying a small newspaper on Loon Lake to escape the confusion of modern civilization-to see if he wanted to interview the widow and her daughter too.
"Let's get out of here," he said quietly, as he slid behind the wheel of his car. Chapter One
We didn't talk much on the way back to Loon Lake and we didn't talk about our future at all the rest of that evening. We made love that night and again the next morning, the greedy and pleasureless kind that people make who know this might be the last time, and then I drove back down to Minneapolis.
That night I was back on campus, walking my beat and keeping an eye on the storm that was moving in from the west.
It had been building since midnight and now, as I hurried across the deserted Mall, the thunder and lightning were coming almost simultaneously. I skipped down the steps between the Administration Building and the auditorium and headed across a grassy clearing to the cluster of old buildings that squatted on the bluff above the river. I could choose among them as a place to wait out the storm and I chose the Music School-not only because the late Evan Turner had been a faculty member there, but because the faculty lounge overlooks the river and would give me a fine view of the storm.
I'd almost reached a side door when the sky burst open and the rain came pouring down. I ran the last few yards, used my passkey to slip inside, then pressed the button on my portable radio and told Linehan, the dog watch dispatcher, where I was, and why.
"And haven't I always said Peggy O'Neill knows when to come in out of the rain?" he sang in his fake Irish brogue. "I seem to recall that the Music School lounge is cozy and has a coffee machine." "Yeah," I retorted, "but the coffee's hideous." I know the quality of the coffee in every building on campus.
"Well, at least the roof doesn't leak," he said glumly. In the heaviest storms, the campus police station's roof does, and it would be leaking tonight. It's an old wooden building that should have been torn down thirty years ago. "Watch out for ghosts," he added, possibly alluding to the death of Evan Turner.
I pushed back the hood on my raincoat and began walking down the hall, whose thick walls, muffling the noise of the storm, were lined with some kind of marble that has what looks like a tree root pattern in it, reenforcing the sense that you're underground--and maybe also reflecting the belief that music comes from deep within the unconscious, who knows? I paused occasionally to peer into the cluttered practice rooms with their music stands and pianos and organs. I imagined I could hear the faint echoes of talented kids practicing their instruments. I'm going to be a concert pianist in my next life, even if it means having to learn Fer Elise all over again.
Suddenly three dark shapes emerged from the stairs ahead of me, coming down from the second floor. They were each carrying something bulky. The figure in front glanced my way, saw me, and hesitated. The figure behind him, unable to see over his burden, bumped into him Keystone Kop-style, and then one of them shouted, "Run!" and all three turned and disappeared down the stairs to the basement. Not what you'd call normal behavior on the part of people with clear consciences on encountering a cop in the middle of the night.
"Police! Stop!" I called, wasting breath. As I ran down the stairs, I told Linehan I'd interrupted a burglary in progress and was chasing the suspects. With any luck, Lawrence Fitzpatrick, who had the squad car that night, would be somewhere in the vicinity. We only have the one car, since the University is in another of its perennial budget crunches and needs what money it has to purchase a new men's basketball coach.
By the time I reached the basement, the last suspect was just disappearing through the door at the end of the hall.
When I got to it, I shoved it open, ran out into the darkness and rain, plunged down the steps to the sidewalk-and tripped over something on the bottom step.
I landed on my hands and knees, scrambled up whispering horrible curses, retrieved my flashlight, and shone it around. I couldn't see the suspects, or hear them above the earsplitting noises of the storm, which could only mean they'd gone around the side of the building. I went after them, splashing down the path that runs between the Music School and the chain-link fence on the bluff above the river, the rain pouring off my raincoat hood into my face. I almost tripped again over something else the suspects had dropped, but managed to jump over it in time.
My flashlight beam caught dark figures at the fence ahead of me. When I got to them, two had already dropped to the ground on the other side and the third had just reached the top. One of the boxlike things they'd been carrying was lying in the mud at the base of the fence. I dropped my flashlight, jumped onto the box, reached up, and grabbed a foot just before it swung over the fence. He tried to kick himself free, but I hung on, straining to pull him down.
" Don't just stand there, you stupid fuckers--do something!" he screamed at his accomplices on the other side.
I glanced over to see what they might be able to do. One of them, a tall, heavy-set male wearing a muscle shirt pasted to his body that made it clear he lifted weights seriously, hesitated a moment, then stooped down and picked something up off the ground-a branch the wind had torn from a tree. He pointed it at my face through the fence and lunged with it, its raw sharp end coming at my eyes.
A lot of things happened then: lightning exploded in the sky above us, throwing the scene into harsh relief, and a woman's voice shouted, "No!" The crack of thunder felt like an earthquake, and one of the figures on the other side of the fence lunged at Muscle Boy. I felt a sharp pain as the end of the branch tore my neck. I let go of the foot I was holding and fell off the box into the mud.
As I scrambled up, I drew my pistol and turned to the fence in time to see the suspect I'd had hold of land on all fours on the ground on the other side. I had time to note the long jagged tear on the inside of his skinny right arm, which he must have caught on the fence, before he sprang up and clutched it to his side. I caught a quick glimpse of close-set eyes, a bony face, and a skimpy light-brown mustache and goatee as he glanced over his shoulder at me.
"Don't move!" I shouted, pointing my pistol at him.
He turned his back on me and walked to the shrubbery on the edge of the river bluff, said something that sounded like, "C'mon," to the others, then disappeared into the bushes. Muscle Boy let go of the stick and ran after him.
I turned to the remaining suspect, the one who'd saved me from serious harm. It was a woman. Although her face was streaked with mud, I could see her wide mouth and large eyes, and jewelry glittering on her face. A dark colored T-shirt clung to her breasts.
"Stay where you are," I told her.
She hesitated a moment, her eyes met mine, and then she turned and disappeared into the bushes too.
I wondered if they would have stopped if I'd been a male cop with mean eyes, a broken nose, and a square jaw. I holstered my pistol, told Linehan where they'd gone, then retrieved my flashlight from the mud. I climbed over the fence, my neck throbbing angrily, the raincoat snagging on the top. Uniform shoes that don't dig well into chain-link fences and the equipment on my belt that made it possible for me to enjoy walking around the peaceful University campus in the middle of the night, also put me at a disadvantage in trying to chase suspects wearing only tennis shoes, T-shirts, and jeans. My pistol was useless too, of course, since getting poked in the neck with a sharp stick wasn't serious enough for me to shoot somebody in the back, although the temptation was there.
The ledge on the other side of the fence was about three feet wide, covered in dense shrubbery that concealed the cliff above the river. I approached it cautiously, shining my light on the ground in front of me, then pushed my way through the sodden bushes.
A narrow muddy path angled down to the river on the steep slope. The last of the suspects, the woman, had just reached the riverbank; the other two had already disappeared She turned at the bottom and looked back up at me, her facial jewelry glittering dully in the beam of my flashlight. Then she turned and started running upstream after the others.
I watched her go. I had no intention of following them. By the time I got down there, they would have taken one of any number of routes back up to the old warehouse district beyond the University, where they would vanish into the streets and alleys without a trace. The river was also lined in places with thick shrubbery and trees from which they could have ambushed me, if they'd wanted to.
I called Linehan and told him which direction they'd gone, described them as best I could, added that I was returning to the Music School, and then climbed back over the fence. The boxy thing I'd stood on was an amplifier--a black suitcase like thing with dials and switches. I had no idea how rugged such things were, but I suspected it wouldn't make much difference if I let it sit in the mud and rain awhile longer.
As I rounded the comer, Lawrence came splashing toward me.
"You okay?" he called.
"Never better," I muttered as I sloshed to the front door of the Music School and went in, with him following. He looked me up and down and started to say something. "Don't," I said, holding up a warning hand. I was cold, wet, breathing hard, and mad. I took off my raincoat and let it drop on the floor.
Lawrence peered closely at my neck. "You're bleeding. What happened?" When I told him, he said, "Let me look at it."
"I'll take care of it," I said.
He ignored that too--I was obviously going to have to take a course in assertiveness training or something. He gently pushed my hair away from my neck and peered at the wound, announced that it was a deep gash and that he'd take me to the ER at the University hospital.
I flinched away from him. "It's just a scratch. Do something useful. Find out which faculty member's supposed to come over here in the middle of the night on occasions like this." I turned and marched off to the women's lounge.
"You don't know what was on that stick!" he called after me.
"Probably an obscure South American poison," I snarled. "I'm already starting to feel drowsy-but that could be the conversation."
I washed the wound, which was more than a scratch but not deep enough that I was in any danger of bleeding to death anytime soon, then covered it with toilet paper. I used paper towels to get the worst of the mud off my trousers, hands, and face.
When I got back to the Music School office, Lawrence had located the number of the faculty member to call in case of an emergency and told him the situation. He said he'd be over in half an hour. I decided I'd done enough for a while and took the opportunity to wait in the faculty lounge with a cup of awful coffee while Lawrence and some other cops prowled around the Music School, trying to find out where the burglars had gotten in and looking for signs of any damage they might have done. I stared morosely out the window at the darkness and rain, pretending I didn't hurt.
"For Pete's sake, Peggy!" Jesse Porter, another cop, exclaimed, peering in the lounge door. "You look like a drowned rat."
"Skip the sweet talk," I growled. "It doesn't work with me.'
"Go on back to the station," he went on. "Take the squad car."
"Go away," I said, "I'm on my break." In addition to my throbbing neck, something was giving me a headache. I suspected it was the moon-faced lug standing in the doorway of the lounge, pestering me. Jesse's another good cop, along with Lawrence, but he does tend to mother.
"No signs of a break-in," Lawrence announced, coming back into the lounge in time to interrupt another scintillating conversation. "Must've been students."
"Or faculty," Jesse, an equal-opportunity accuser, said.

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