When I first crash-landed in Michigan, I took a long look around my nana’s farm. It had been more than a decade since I’d been there and, well, I didn’t have anything else to do. So, I looked around. A lot.
In the front, along West Shore Road, on the west side of our driveway, there were around five acres of neatly arranged, recently planted cherry trees. In February, they were craggy stick figures popping out of the snow. The bottom part of the trunk had been painted white up to about three feet. That must have improved health or production or flavor. I’ve never asked which or even what that white stuff is. In fact, the orchard was never much of a concern to me.
Along the other side of our driveway was another orchard, this one mature, taking up about ten or twelve acres. My grandmother leased both out to her neighbor to the east, Jasper Kaine. He had his own twenty acres of cherry trees, so it wasn’t much bother to take care of Nana Cole’s and he paid her half his profit on the acreage. It was a good deal for both of them.
Her house—clapboard, two-stories with a big old stone porch—sat behind the orchard. There were a couple of out-buildings; one a workshop and the other a red pole barn for the cars and farm equipment—most of which she didn’t use anymore.
Then there were a couple of acres down a sloping hill where Nana planted vegetables every year: cabbage for slaw, squash, lots of squash, carrots, garlic and some onions. I knew all this because much of what she fed me came with comments about last summer’s crop: carrots were good, acorn squash dry and stringy.
Beyond the vegetable garden were four rows of raspberry bushes she’d strung up years ago—these I remembered from childhood visits. They just needed to be picked in late July. There was an overgrown chicken coup; she’d kept chickens for a decade or so but found them to be annoying, nasty animals who were much more appealing wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic.
At the very back of the property, down a rolling hill where she’d once grown rows and rows of corn, were ten or fifteen acres of trees and a small, kidney-shaped pond. She was good with a rifle and, in season, would go out into those woods to shoot a deer or a wild turkey. She’d dress the deer out there in the woods since she couldn’t carry it. When she’d finished, she’d pile the meat into a child’s wagon and pull it back to the house.
That was the part of the property that scared me most when I arrived. The woods. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen that start out with a city person visiting the country and ending up with that same guileless city person chopped to bits in some hillbilly’s prize-winning chili. Those movies made a big impression on me, and were responsible for a number of frights in those first few weeks.
I’d lived in Los Angeles my whole life, so I kept locking doors. Nana Cole had a fit until she broke me of the habit. “You’re safe. Nothing happens out here,” she’d tell me. Truth be told, even though I’d spent my life locking doors I don’t think anyone had ever actually come by and checked to see if I had. And, I knew perfectly well that any seasoned thief could get past a locked door in a flash. Still, the day I found the dead body, I was tempted to start locking doors again no matter what Nana Cole said.
Getting out of the truck, I walked around back to the kitchen door, but before I went in I whistled for Reilly. He was Nana’s six-year-old yellow Lab-mix and the one battle with her I’d won definitively. When I arrived, when it was frigidly cold—well, more frigidly cold than it was in April—Reilly was living in a grimy doghouse out by the vegetable garden. I brought him inside as soon as I saw it—actually, I brought him to a groomer near the mall in Bellflower and got him a bath and nail grind—and from then on he slept inside with me.
“People have stopped having children and now they treat animals like their own kids. It’s not right. It’s not how things were. A dog is a dog not a child.” Those are the CliffsNotes. I probably listened to a couple hours of commentary about how dogs were treated when she was young—the right way—and how they were treated now—the wrong way.
She still put him out when I wasn’t there, but when I came back he’d come when I called—as he did that day—and jump on me a couple times even though I told him no. I wasn’t what anyone would call a dog person so discipline was little more than a concept, but he was a good dog, well-behaved. Most of the time.
When we walked into the kitchen, Nana Cole was sitting there with her friend, my boss, Bev. My nana was somewhere near seventy—one side or the other, I didn’t know which—white-haired, rheumy-eyed, with skin as wrinkled as a used sheet of wax paper. Bev was younger, though by how much I couldn’t tell. She had steely hair and a nose like a knife. I got out Reilly’s bowl and filled it with water.
“D’you go to the bakery?” Nana Cole asked.
“Dead bodies will do that to you.” Though, it was probably the half a Valium I took. Or the whole one I took on the way home. “I’ll go later.”
“I wanted the bread for lunch.”
I put the water down and let Reilly splash it around in what passed for taking a drink. Hopefully, some of it got in his mouth.
“Too bad there’s nothing in the pantry,” I said.
The pantry was the size of a bedroom in L.A. (or a whole New York City apartment from I hear) and was full of dry goods and canned vegetables from last year’s garden. Not to mention, there were at least two loaves of bread that I was personally aware of in the freezer in the basement. Nana Cole was just partial to the sourdough at Beanie’s Bakery.
“He was such a sweet child,” she said to Bev. “I don’t know what happened.”
She passed that off as a joke, but I had the feeling she half meant it. Well, more than half.
I sat down and asked, “Who’s Sammy Hart?”
“That who you found?” Bev asked.
Nana Cole said, “The Harts go back a ways, they owned an Italian restaurant in the village for a long while.”
“Who’d they sell that to?” Bev wondered.
“Couple out of Chicago.” Nana Cole shook her head as though no one in Chicago could run a business. “Only lasted a year or two. None of the locals would go there.”
“Sammy’s mother was a Beckett, wasn’t she?” Bev asked.
Nana Cole nodded.
Even I knew who the Becketts were. They still had their name on a lot of things around Masons Bay: a farm, a construction company, a funeral parlor. I imagined Sammy would be getting a family and friends discount on his final purchase.
“That’s right,” Nana Cole said. “He was Colleen’s boy. Odd, never married.”
“Yup, that’s the one.”
There was an uncomfortable silence—or at least it was uncomfortable for me. We listened to the kitchen clock tick. Something wasn’t being said, something obvious. These were code words. Never married. Odd. Sammy Hart was gay. Well that figures, I thought, the first gay person I meet in Michigan is a corpse.
Reilly was done lapping up water and hovered around my knees. I told him to lie down and he went and lay in the big squishy bed I’d gotten him. I don’t think he was minding me, though, I think we just happened to agree that he should lie down.
“They want me to come in tomorrow and make a statement,” I said. “And I’m supposed to bring the note with me.”
“What note?” Nana Cole asked.
“That’s why I was at the Sheck’s. There was a note.”
Bev continued for me, “Someone tacked it to the door, oh, last night or this morning. Said there were some old cars out at the Sheck’s didn’t belong.”
“There weren’t though,” I pointed out.
“So, it was a prank.”
“Well, no, I don’t think so,” I said. “I think maybe someone wanted us to find the body.”
“Oh you watch too much TV,” Nana said.
“I would if you’d get cable.”
“Then you’d do nothing but sit around like a couch potato.”
Which wasn’t far from what I’d been doing on my days off even without movie channels and MTV. And The Real World., God I missed The Real World. Without cable, I did have a DVD player on my iBook and there was a Hometown Video on the way to Bellflower. I’d already become very familiar with their stock. Very, very middle-of-the-road, FYI.
“It doesn’t make sense that someone would kill Sammy Hart, go to the trouble of hiding him at the Sheck’s, and then tell us where he was,” Bev said, then sipped her coffee.
“They might have killed him there,” I said.
Had they? I wondered. Was there a way to figure it out?
“Why kill him out there, though?” Bev asked.
I shrugged. “So you wouldn’t have to carry him? It did seem like a long way to carry someone.”
“It’s got to be a coincidence. Someone actually thought there were cars out there,” Bev said. “I mean, why not send the note to the police? Why get us involved?”
I shrugged again. “I don’t know. But I bet there’s a reason.”
Nana Cole stood up. “Well, I’d better find something for lunch. You staying, Bev?”
“No, I should go out and talk to the Shecks. If I know Lou Sheck, he’s going to try and find a way to blame this on The Conservancy.”
She stood up to leave.
“I’ve got some bagels,” Nana Cole said. “I can make you a sandwich on a bagel. You sure you don’t want one to go?”
“No thanks.” She gave my grandmother a little hug and was out the door. Nana Cole started unloading sandwich fixings from the refrigerator.
“I know you won’t go to church with me, but there’s a pancake supper tomorrow. I want you to go. My friends don’t believe you exist.”
“Your friends know I exist.” I’d met enough of them just going into Masons Bay with her.
“Well, you like pancakes, don’t you?”
“Are you trying to turn pancakes into a gateway drug to Jesus?”
“That’s not funny.”
“It wasn’t a joke.”
She stopped what she was doing. For a moment, she was quiet enough that I knew I’d stepped in it. Again. I stepped in it a lot.
“The dinner’s at seven. Make sure you’re ready by six-thirty. And you can make your own damn sandwich.”
With that she left the kitchen.
The Less Than Spectacular Times of Henry Milch begins a new mystery series called the Wyandot County Mysteries. Set in a mythical county in northern lower Michigan, the series begins in the spring of 2003.
Things have not been going well for Henry Milch. After a Saturday night clubbing in his beloved West Hollywood, he took one pill too many and ended up banished to live on a farm with his ultra-conservative grandmother. It was that or rehab. While working a part-time job for the local land conservancy he stumbles across a dead body in the snow—as if things couldn’t get worse. But then things take a turn for the better, there’s a reward for information leading the man’s killer. All Henry has to do is find the murderer, claim the reward and he can go back to his real life in L.A.
More about award-winning author, Marshall Thornton:
Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery twice, once for each series. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite Uncle, The Ghost Slept Over, and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.
Sign-up for Marshall’s newsletter here!