Be sure to check out yesterday’s interview with Crime Fictionista, Nike Chillemi!
Long Island, NY
Late December, 1946
Katrina Lenart nodded toward a break in the leafless maples and snow-covered pines lining Hill Street then pointed with her black cable knit glove. A fat blue jay sat on the tip of a pine branch and quirked his head at her, almost mocking. The sun, more the color of wheat than yellow, floated in the pale, cloudless, winter sky, surrendering little heat.
“It might seem like we’re almost there to you, but we still have to climb that hill.” It wasn’t high, but steep, as if a pitiless hand had gouged earth from its side. She turned her head back and squinted against the glare off the snow, adjusting her black velvet earmuffs, stitched into a floret on one side, all the rage since the war.
“Said just like a female.” Willie Brogna grinned, pulling the toboggan behind him, his rubber boots stomping deep impressions in the fresh fallen snow. Pivoting, he gave her a wide smile. “I know you’re just being nice, helping me try out my favorite Christmas present. With my sister on her honeymoon and all, I don’t have anyone to be my guinea pig.” He resumed his climb, out-pacing her, and chuckled under his breath.
Determined to put her best friend’s teenage brother in his place, Katrina lengthened her strides and arrived at the top of the incline breathing hard. “People often comment on how nice I am… and courteous. Willing to help those in need.” She tossed off a teasing smile.
The tall, lanky teen snorted then tugged on his hand-knit gloves, securing them, and flexed his fingers.
Shading her eyes with a glove, she gazed south, unable to see the village of Sanctuary Point or the Great South Bay through the trees. Though she knew icy wind whipped them both. The weather forecast said a storm was headed their way. Directly below, the ground dropped away into an empty lot. Beyond that, Hill Street and the tiny Bauer cottage.
“Are you ready? I’ll steer and you take the rumble seat.” Willie knelt and positioned the toboggan for the first run down the steep hill. “Don’t forget to hang on tight, I’m gonna let ‘er rip, if that won’t bruise the dignity of Memorial’s most promising nurse.”
Katrina gave him a playful smack on the arm. “How you do go on. Just watch out for that huge bump down there.”
“Aw, that’s not even a blip on the radar.”
She hunkered down behind him and clasped her arms around his waist. The toboggan sped down the hill, her hair airborne behind her. Icy snow crystals flew into her face. They hit the bump and went aloft. “Willieee,” she shrieked.
They landed so hard her teeth clattered.
When they came to a stop, Willie jumped off. “While we were in the air, I saw something near Mrs. Bauer’s cottage. Does she have a pet? A cat, maybe? It looked like a hurt animal… something bloody.”
He trotted across the street. “It’s not in the yard. It’s away from the house. Closer and to the side of the road.” He hastened down Hill Street, slipping and sliding, to the edge of the Bauer property.
Katrina hurried down the sloping street after him, her arms stretched out for balance. If this were his idea of a practical joke, she’d let him have it.
Willie bent over the object. Rising, he twisted toward her. “Well, it’s not an animal. It’s a piece of soiled cloth.”
Rushing to his side, she tried to catch her breath. “That’s blood on a kitchen towel. Not a lot, but sufficient to warrant concern.” Please, Lord, let everything be all right in the Bauer house.
“Do you suppose Mrs. Bauer cut herself out here? But why would she come all the way out here with a kitchen towel?”
“We’d better check on her.” Katrina raced back up the hill after Willie along the length of the lot, as fast as she could. She slipped but regained her footing on the Bauer’s icy walk. When she reached the stoop, she panted in short painful gasps.
Willie hurdled the two steps and came to a stop on the miniscule porch. The front door stood ajar.
Uneasiness halted her winded, ungraceful gait. She forced herself to follow until she stood before the door and called out, “Mrs. Bauer, hello.”
Willie nudged the door and shouted. “Mrs. Bauer, are you in there?”
She peered between the door and its frame into dimness. “Mrs. Bauer… Noel, it’s Katrina, your neighbor.”
“This is getting us nowhere.” Willie gave the door a shove.
The living room was chilly and silent — something definitely not right. Mrs. Bauer wouldn’t leave the door open on such a cold day, not even a crack. Katrina eased in. “Hello, anyone home?” She stepped around the couch and froze.
Noel Bauer lay on her living room floor, in front of a decorated Christmas tree. Blood pooled beneath her head.
“Oh, my Lord.” Katrina rushed to the woman and knelt, applying two fingers to her neck. “Willie, she has no pulse.”
“I mean, I know you’re a nurse, but are you sure?”
“She’s dead.” Katrina’s voice shook in her throat. “She’s not breathing and her body temperature isn’t warm.”
“The telephone lines come up here, so I’ll bet she has a phone. We’d better call the police. This is awful.” His eyes darted around the room. “There… in the kitchen.”
Katrina took a deep breath and calmed herself. How strange and brutal life could be. Yesterday, gay and carefree, she stood as maid-of-honor in Willie’s sister’s wedding. Today she’d found Noel Bauer’s corpse.
She hurried to the phone, dialed the village operator, and asked to be connected to the police station. After relaying the information to young Officer Classen, whose mother worked with her at the hospital, she sank onto a chair at the table and held her head in her hands. There was something peculiar about the position of Noel Bauer’s body Katrina couldn’t put her finger on, as if she were reaching for something.
Cries of an infant came from the bedroom down the hallway.
Standing by the Christmas tree, Katrina rocked the baby wrapped in a pink blanket. She took a small green and white glass ornament from the top of the tree and dangled it before the tiny face. “Look how pretty. Your mommy made such a lovely tree for you.” Her eyes misted, and her gaze slid to the lifeless form on the floor. The house reflected the woman’s efforts to turn a meager cottage into a comfortable home with touches of handcrafted style and elegance. On the wall above an aging sofa, a needlepoint wall hanging in a simple frame depicted two swans floating on a lily pond that could well have hung in a fine gallery.
“Detective Daltry’s here.” Willie turned from the window and hurried to open the door.
Ian Daltry entered with rookie-officer Robert Classen at his heels. The detective removed his brown fedora freeing a riot of salt and pepper hair. He nodded toward Katrina. “Miss Lenart, you phoned the station?”
“Yes, Willie and I found Mrs. Bauer.” She glanced at the teen, who stood by the front window, a stricken look on his face, and her heart went out to the boy. Her gaze shifted to the detective and then down to the body. “She’s gone.”
Detective Daltry placed his hat on the coffee table and bent over the still form. The blood on the floor, dark and thick, gave off a metallic smell. Straightening, he looked at Katrina, his lips in a tight line. “You’re right. She’s dead. I’d guess a couple of hours.”
Katrina took a halting step toward the body, but the detective put up a staying hand to stop her. She cleared her throat. “Severe trauma to the head. She couldn’t survive a wound like that.”
He nodded. “That’s my take on it. I’ll phone the medical examiner.”
Willie pointed. “Phone’s in the kitchen.”
Katrina took a quick step forward. “Is it murder?”
The detective pivoted, and the intensity of his eyes pierced her soul. “I really can’t say, Miss. It’s very early in the investigation.” He turned on his heel, crossed the living room, and disappeared.
Katrina followed stiff legged part way across the room. She felt cold, and it wasn’t just because the door had been open. She wanted to do something, but didn’t know what. It wasn’t illness that had killed Noel Bauer, and it wasn’t accidental death. What else could it be but murder? She shuddered. How awful for Mrs. Bauer and this poor dear baby.
Officer Classen stepped forward and blocked her path. “You can’t go into the kitchen.”
She stopped in her tracks, stroked the infant’s soft hair, and held her closer. “I had no idea Mrs. Bauer had a new baby. She closed the house in early spring last year and was gone over six months. She’s been back only about three.” Since then, she’d been reclusive, but why?
The baby grabbed for the ornament and cooed.
Katrina lifted the glass bulb away from the tiny hand and returned it to the tree. “Oh no, you don’t. You’re a quick little lady, aren’t you? Yes you are.” She made an exaggerated smiling face and shook her head. “Such an energetic little thing, you are.”
The baby started fussing.
“And now your mood has changed. Are you cold, sweetheart?” Katrina pulled the blanket tight around the infant, rubbed her tiny hands, and blew warm breath on them.
“I’d like to throw a log on the fire for the baby, but can’t touch anything until we complete our investigation.” The young officer shifted from foot to foot.
“I understand. Still, can’t you make an exception for the baby?”
“No, if we disturb things we might be destroying the fingerprints of the killer.”
“I see. I think she’s cranky more than cold, though it is chilly in here.”
Detective Daltry emerged from the kitchen and advanced toward her. He touched the pink blanket. “A girl.” A tremor ran through his fingers, and he dropped his hand to his side.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Katrina stroked the infant’s face. When she glanced up, she thought she saw pain flicker in the detective’s eyes, and then it was gone.
“Her mother was lovely. By all accounts a cultured lady. Such a shame.” Officer Classen stood over the body with a camera. “Detective, do you want me to start taking photographs?”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, begin with the body and work out to the periphery of the room. Don’t spare the film.”
The child gurgled, squirmed, and kicked her legs against the coverlet wrapped tight around her.” Aren’t you a feisty one?” Katrina kissed the baby’s little fist. “You’re going to be fine. Somehow, I’ll make sure. I promise.”
The detective rocked back on his heels and raked his hand through his hair, mangling it. He cast a quick glance at the hearth. “With the fire nearly out and the door opening and closing, perhaps the child shouldn’t be here. I can phone my neighbor. She watches my daughter when I’m working. I’m sure she’d look after the little one until we figure out what to do with her.”
The baby made a face and fidgeted, her knees pumping.
“No. That’s not necessary.” Katrina held the baby tighter, her need to protect this infant growing by the second. “I live down the street, and I’m a maternity nurse. If you consent, I’ll take her home. I’m sure my mother will agree to mind her while I’m working at the hospital.”
A huge wail came from the tiny mouth.
“Maybe she’s hungry.” Willie took two quick steps. “Let me see if there’s milk in the kitchen.”
The detective shook his head. “Sorry, off limits. You can’t touch or remove anything. We haven’t done a walk-through yet, and they’ll want to brush for fingerprints.”
Katrina placed the baby on her shoulder and rubbed her back in a circular motion. “This child can’t drink bottled milk. I’m sure her mother nursed her, most do. We’ll have to make formula from evaporated milk.” What did men know about babies?
“Won’t you need a baby bottle?” Willie plunked both hands on his hips.
“Yes, or fashion something similar. I need to get this baby home where Momma can help me.” Katrina bounced the fussing infant in her arms and checked the seat of the diaper. “She’s dry and didn’t leave us a present in her pants.”
Detective Daltry moved to Katrina’s side and stroked the baby’s back. “Officer Classen can drive you home.” He turned toward the rookie cop. “Wait up on the photos and take this young woman and the child down the hill. On your way back, stop on the wrong side of the street by the Bower property. Get that cone out of the trunk and mark the spot. I’m calling the troopers station to see if they can get any tire impressions near where we picked up the bloody towel.”
“If Lorne Kincade was finished with trooper training, we’d get that done right quick.” The young officer opened the door and held it for Katrina.
“You bet you would.” Willie tried for a grin, but only one side of his lips lifted. “Thing is, he won’t even start the training until he and my sister get back from their honeymoon.”
Katrina rocked the baby whose face had turned bright pink. “Heavens to Betsy, let’s not rush the newlyweds home in our talk.” She tried for a smile and managed a small one.
The detective pivoted toward the window. “Mr. Brogna… Willie, I’d like you to stay. I have questions for you. Miss Lenart, I’ll question you later.”
The infant emitted a piercing cry.
Katrina hurried toward the door. “Our house is the first one on the right side.”
Katrina wanted to throw Detective Daltry into a snow bank. The nerve of him, barging into their house twice in two days, demanding she bundle the baby up and take him into the cold. How could that man not recall their harrowing, nighttime drive through the storm of the decade? She tossed her hair back over her shoulder, and with great difficulty held her tongue.
Momma apparently had no such reservations. “Detective, what you are doing is very wrong.”
Katrina came up beside her mother, to show a united front. “This is outrageous.” Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest. She hated the tone of her voice, but this baby wasn’t a ping-pong ball to be batted back and forth as the detective moved forward with his murder case.
He ignored her and continued addressing her mother.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He removed his fedora. “Chief Ferguson has already made the necessary phone calls and arrangements have been made. I must take Leslie Janos Bauer with me to the home of his aunt in Bay Shore. The chief would prefer your daughter come along in an official capacity as a nurse. It’s up to her, but I have to take the baby.”
Momma’s face flushed beet-red, a sure sign she’d become enraged. “This is not good for him… this hustle from place to place.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, a child belongs with his family, if at all possible.” The detective took a step toward Katrina. “Now, will you please fetch the baby.” It wasn’t a request.
Katrina made sure she stood tall. “Yes, I’ll get Leslie.” She clenched her fists at her side and jutted her chin. “This is disgraceful. You are using this infant to solve your murder case. Perhaps your own tragic life experience clouds your judgment?”
His mouth fell open and he took a step back.
“If you have it within your heart, give me one minute. I’ll get him ready and get my coat and boots on.” Without giving him a chance to reply, Katrina turned and stormed up the stairs.
Leslie lay sleeping in the baby-doll cradle Poppa had made for her when she was a little girl. Poppa had that kind of talent. He could make anything. In her heart she knew, he’d figured it would be her baby’s bassinet. At least now, it had a real purpose. She ran a finger over the hand carved leaves in the headboard.
“Milachku, time to wake up.” She took the infant into her arms inhaling the smell of baby, sweeter than the most expensive imported perfume.
Leslie yawned and she snuggled her nose in the soft folds of skin between his head and shoulder, kissing his neck. He cooed, so safe in her arms.
She brought him to her heart, holding him, rocking him and spoke softly to her reflection in the mirror above her bureau. “Fat chance I’ll ever walk down the aisle or have a family of my own with the man shortage since the war.” Something deep in the core of her female-self rebelled, a throbbing turbulence, from which deep hunger erupted.
She stroked Leslie’s cheek and made a funny face. The softness of his skin melted her heart.
He smiled at her and kicked.
“I’m so sorry. I promised I’d protect you and I can’t.” She forced a smile and made clucking noises.
He grabbed her hair and yanked.
“Ouch.” She laughed, removing strands of her hair from his little fist.
A tear escaped and ran down the side of her cheek. “I can do this.” She lifted her chin, sucked in a long breath, wrapped Leslie in a heavy quilt, and picked up his tote bag.
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Nike Chillemi ~ Crime Fictionista http://nikechillemi.wordpress.com/