Fairbanks County Fair, Division 12: Preserves, Jams, Jellies, and Murder

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic


It's the new Sheriff's first dead body and his know-it-all sister-in-law will not shut up about it. What really happened poor Mrs. Cavendish? And if it was murder, who else is in danger?

Submitted: June 04, 2018

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Submitted: June 04, 2018

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The Fairbanks County Free Fair had been going on for longer than there had been a county or even a state. Back when the outline of Fairbanks County had been the Fairbanks Ranch, the fair had started when the ranch hands celebrated the end of the cattle drive by having a roping and riding contest. Then as women became commonplace, they organized baking and canning competitions and the Free Fair was born. But in all those years, this was the first murder.

Sheriff Baker took some convincing, though. He really didn’t want a murder to fall into his lap, it being not even a month into his first term as sheriff. “I fail to see why everyone is so sure this is a murder, and not just an accident. Maybe it was just a bad batch of preserves!”

Mary Beth Bodocker rolled her eyes and tried not to snap at her idiot brother-in-law. She never could figure how he won that election, but Nancy, her sister, had sworn up and down he was as smart a cop as anything on TV. “Wayne Michael, are you deaf? Did you not hear these good ladies explain to you how this works? When you enter any of the canning competitions, you must submit three examples of the entry, labeled 1, 2 and Show. Number 1 is opened and tasted by all judges and scored. Then number 2 is opened and tasted, but only by one person – the Chief Judge – and the Show one is what the folks who come to look at the entries see with the ribbons and such.”

The Sheriff swallowed a grim smile before it dared make it to his face. Nearly twenty years and she still hadn’t gotten over it. He and Mary Beth hadn’t even had more than one real date before he’d laid eyes on her sister, and even though Mary Beth hadn’t had the slightest interest in a second, once she heard about him and Nancy going to watch the submarine races at Yoder Lake over a month later, she had hit the roof. Well, the roof and door and hood of his Camaro. She sure had a temper back then.

“Mary Beth, you apparently need to spell it out for the good deputy,” said Gladys MacLinburg primly, emphasizing that last word just a moment too long to be a slip of the tongue. The Sheriff bristled internally, but years of practice helped him keep his patented slightly vacant look screwed tight to his face. After all, the election had only been two weeks ago and Sheriff Heinzer had been in office for over 30 years, twice as long as Baker had been a town cop over at the county seat. He’d joined Heinzer’s team as deputy just a few years ago when Nancy insisted he needed to be closer to home. It stood to reason that Gladys had always been a vocal supporter of Heinzer; they were cousins through her mother’s side.  On paper, Heinzer had been an effective sheriff, closing cases fast with a high conviction rate, but some folks had always grumbled about his methods, though never too publicly. Now that DNA testing was cheap and fast, rumors were flying that some of his air-tight cases were going to come back to haunt him, especially those from his early years leading the force. Heinzer had reacted with a lavish campaign, out spending Baker 3 to 1. It’s hard to give up that kind of power cold turkey when you’ve been a big fish in such a small pond for so long. But it hadn’t worked out as anyone planned: Nancy Baker’s sudden illness and shockingly quick passing just days before the election had swept her husband into office. Turned out that people were happy to have the sympathy excuse to vote how they had secretly felt for years.

 

“Gladys, shut your mouth and sit down.” Mary Beth’s temper was being tested and she’d had enough of that prissy, holier-than-thou busybody who everyone knew never lifted a finger to help a single soul, but still had an opinion on everything under the sun. And couldn’t help but share it.

The Ladies’ Agricultural Collective Home Auxiliary gasped a collective breath at that; no one had challenged Gladys in years and survived socially to tell the tale. A few giggles were hastily suppressed, but not quick enough to escape the ‘Gladys Glare’ they all feared being on the receiving end of.  “And that Mary Beth stared Gladys right down, you should have seen her! Mark my words, it’s just another sign,” Zondra Silvers later related at Patty’s Beauty Palace, “that the winds of change were blowing through Fairbanks County like a Pine-Sol tornado.” 

Mary Beth took a deep breath like Doc Cooper had coached her so many times lately, counted to three, and began again while Gladys sat in stony silence, wrestling with her mammoth handbag that had yet to produce the fresh Kleenex that she desperately needed to avoid giving that uppity Mary Beth the satisfaction of seeing how bad that stung.

 

“Mikey, it’s actually pretty simple when you understand how this works. The first jar is tasted by many; the second, only two at most. “

She cut the sheriff off before he could say that he had that part down. “See, the thing is, they all have to be from the same batch. All three. So if it were an accident, and the batch had just gone bad, all the judges would be on the floor with poor Mrs. Cavendish.”

Sheriff Wayne Michael Baker, Mikey to only his family, chewed that over mentally for a moment. Mary Beth was right – there was no way he could see this happening by chance.

“OK, you’ve made your point and got my attention. Let’s let the Coroner tell us the rest of the story. Ladies, let’s move along and give Mrs. Cavendish some dignity.” He couldn’t shepherd the Ladies Collective out quickly enough for his comfort. It didn’t help that he kept picturing his Nancy there instead. Had the cancer not sideswiped her out of nowhere last month, she would have been the one in that painfully contorted sprawl on the over polished linoleum.

Archie Cooper was quick to be on the scene, as expected. Sheriff Baker knew he’d be on the grounds somewhere, since he had a couple of yearling Belgians in the halter class show later today.  “Mikey, I think you need to see this.” They’d known each other since grade school, staying friends even when distant medical schools meant years out of daily contact. It’d been easy to pick up where they left off when Coop came back to open an office, and even took on the county coroner position as a favor. Coop had been winding down his practice in favor of being a full time horse trainer, which they’d both agreed was a stupid retirement plan, but had put everything on hold to treat Nancy. And when his best efforts had proved futile, he’d been a pallbearer.

Coop walked Baker back to the body, now covered by a tablecloth pulled from under the “Bounty of Fairbanks” display. ”Well, it’s just a preliminary, you understand, won’t know anything for sure until I can do a proper autopsy and the tox reports come back, but based on how quickly the ladies say this happened, and this –“ he gently lifted her head and wiped off the rouged and pancaked cheek to show ruddy red skin.

“Now take a whiff, up close.” Baker leaned forward and sniffed. Below the flowery perfume and apricot from the preserves still on her lips, he caught a faint whiff of almonds with a bitter edge. He and Coop both knew what that meant but neither one wanted to say it out loud, half out of disbelief and half from certainty the walls would have ears.

“I’ll transport her to the morgue and get to work.”

“Thanks, Coop. I don’t have to say that this needs to be thorough, so don’t rush.”

“I read ya. Won’t have time tonight, I’m afraid. But she’s first on my list tomorrow, you understand?”

Coop knew the routine, and Baker knew Coop’s code for how long he could stall. The Coroner couldn’t delay this more than 24 hours, which gave the Sheriff the rest of today and most of tomorrow before the town would be abuzz with talk of how poor Mrs. Cavendish had been poisoned with cyanide.

 

The Sheriff went out the side door, neatly circumventing the Ladies’ Auxiliary. No sense getting caught up in that flock of hens before he even had a cover story to work with. He nearly managed to reach the security of his beat up cruiser before a familiar sharp tongue caught him up short.

“So, Mikey, just how did poor Mrs. Cavendish get a heapin’ spoonful of cyanide in her?” Mary Beth was leaning on the fender, idly picking at the where the ‘C’ in Fairbanks County lettering was pealing.

“Goddammit Mary Beth, keep your voice down! We don’t need any one of those biddies talking down at Patty’s.  And how did you know that anyway? Coop doesn’t even have tests back yet.”

“Calm down, now. I made sure the ladies all set out to lunch before you were even done with Coop. You’re right, we don’t need anyone talking any more about this than can be helped. But you forget I was right there when it happened and I’ve read far too many Agatha Christies to not know what the smell of bitter almonds means when someone falls down dead, for gosh sake’s.”

“OK then, help me go over the things Mrs. Cavendish did right before she died. Why was she even there? Didn’t she retire?”

Mary Beth looked away, and as if he’d been sucker punched in the gut, the Sheriff instantly knew what Mrs. Cavendish had been doing. When Nancy had gone into the hospital without warning, she had kindly agreed to come out of retirement and take back over the Chief Judge spot that Nancy had worked so hard to inherit. They were both silent for a moment, until Mary Beth suddenly straightened and snapped at Mike, “Whose entry was she tasting, anyway?”

“The deputies secured both the jar she had, and the jars from the same batch. You saw they were apricot preserves, right? We’ll get tests back tomorrow, but I figure we’ll find poison in jar 2 only and the other will be fine.”

“Yes, that makes sense, but that’s not what I mean. Whose name is on the entry?”

“Somebody I don’t recognize, the guys are tracking it down.” Baker flipped through his notebook and came up with a name. “Here we go, it’s ‘Dee Dee Johnson’, ring any bells?”

Mary Beth hesitated only a second before saying “No, Mikey, I’ve no idea. There’s no Johnsons left around here these days. Hey, I’ve got to run, you mind? I’m just still a little shaken up and need to go see what needs doing in there. “

“Sure, Mary Beth. I understand. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Baker climbed into his cruiser and watched Mary Beth stalk back into the building. He needed time to think, which meant a drive was in order. He pulled out of the fairgrounds parking lot and turned toward his regular backroad route. The car might as well have had autopilot, as Baker hardly noticed he was at Yoder Lake 20 minutes later, parked in his regular spot at the closed boat ramp.

He needed to sort through what he knew, and fill in the gaps with what he thought. He pulled out the official rules handbook he’d grabbed from the registration desk but he couldn’t read past his wife’s name in the listing of judges. He hadn’t been willing to say anything to Mary Beth but he had realized early on that Nancy had probably been the target. After all, she had gone downhill so fast that Mrs. Cavendish’s substitution had been literally last minute as Chief Judge. Or was that figuratively? Nancy would have known, and corrected him.

He checked his notes and, as he’d thought, the poisoned entry had come in just a day before Mary Beth’s seizure. So who would want to hurt Mary Beth? The cop part of his brain had already been automatically making lists of possible suspects. Obviously, he was at the top of the list, like any husband. There were petty enemies he knew of but no one he could seriously consider capable of murder.

Maybe he was looking at this all wrong. He went back to the rules again, and finally found what he was looking for in the details of how preserves were judged.

Judging: The Chief Judge will sample each entry (Jar 2) to confirm the results of the Judging Panel’s scoring of Jar 1. In the event of a deadlock, the Grand Marshall will sample both Jar 1 and Jar 2 and cast the deciding vote.

The Grand Marshall was always the Sheriff. They’d been gunning for him, all along.

He lost it for a couple of minutes.  He hadn’t cried since the funeral and it took him a while to get control of himself. But then his cop brain spoke to him with its logical voice: the Chief Judge would have tasted it first – there’s no way anyone could poison the Grand Marshall without the help of the Chief Judge.

He was right back where he started. Either Nancy was the target or… he couldn’t complete the thought. Could she really have wanted him dead? Sure, their marriage hadn’t been perfect, but they’d really been working on it, and things had been good. But she had been mighty pissed about him running for office. She’d even asked him to bow out and he had refused. Come to think of it, she hadn’t been so much pissed as hurt. At the time, he had just written it off to her not wanting to face those bitches in the Auxiliary when he lost. He’d been the underdog the whole race, no chance of a win, until Nancy’s seizure had jumped him in the polls.

But he still wasn’t leading the race until she actually died. His win had been a surprise to everyone, and Nancy had had no way to know he would win.

His cop brain downshifted and spun through the scenes from the fair. Mrs. Cavendish, on the floor, the sticky spoon next to her. The preserves jar on its side, on the table. The smell of apricots and almonds.

Baker tore through his notes again, some ripping from the pad in his hurry. In the list of entries, no Nancy Baker. But he remembered clearly the hours his wife had spent in the kitchen processing the apricots she had picked on her own. He’d just been too busy with the losing effort of his election, too busy to see how sick she already was. It hadn’t even registered at the time that the Chief Judge would never enter her own division. Why had she spent that time, when it was clear in hindsight she was already feeling the effects of the tumor in her brain, making preserves she couldn’t even win a ribbon with?

The spinning wheels in his head ground into place with a sickening lurch and all at once he knew what had happened; he just didn’t know why. His foot slipped twice before it found the gas and he had to fight the cruiser’s fishtail as he roared up the boat ramp and on out of the parking lot headed for his own home.

Mary Beth had beat him there. He found her at the chipper as the last limb of the bitter almond tree that Nancy had babied for the last few years disappeared into its mechanical craw. There was only a small hole in the yard where it had been.

“You’ll never understand, Mikey.” Mary Beth had been busy. Scratches on her arm showed the tree had fought back, but she’d won. There was little doubt that any evidence from inside the house was now ash in the blazing burn barrel.

Baker’s hands didn’t know what else to do, so they found his hips as he stood there, watching the last bits of the tree spit out onto the compost pile. “Help me try, Mary Beth. What was she trying to do? I know she wasn’t trying to kill me. There was just no way she could’ve even guessed I’d be sheriff now. Hell, I didn’t think I would be at that point. What did she have against Heinzer that was worth risking a life sentence to settle?”

 “A life sentence?” she laughed at that. “No life sentence when you’ve already been handed the death penalty, you idiot. She already knew about the tumor, ya know. She knew she wouldn’t spend one day in jail, wouldn’t even last through a trial. She was finally free to make him pay.”

Baker was lost and she knew it. “How did you know so fast? Were you in on it?”

“No, Mikey, no way. I wish I had been, but no – this was Nancy all the way.

I knew as soon as I saw the name on the entry form. I’m a little surprised you missed that.”

“Dee Dee Johnson?” The cop brain whirred and clicked, but didn’t come up with much he hadn’t already processed: Johnson was Mary Beth and Nancy’s maiden name, but Dee Dee? Their mom’s name had been Elizabeth, but he’d never even met her. She’d died in a car wreck caused by their dad’s drunk driving.

“Stands for David Daniel Johnson.”

“Your dad? What does that drunk have to do with this?” Nancy’s dad had died in prison, five years before they had even met. She had refused to talk about him and Baker had learned little, beyond that he had been sent up by Heinzler for manslaughter for the accident and got killed in a fight within weeks of arriving at the state pen.

“He was no drunk. Heinzler framed him, like he did with anyone who knew what he was really about. And he made sure that dad kept his mouth shut by threatening us.”

Baker was stunned. Why hadn’t Nancy ever trusted him?

Mary Beth read his expression. “You’re a cop, Mikey. You’d have tried to dig up the goods on Heinzler and he’d have taken you out too, or worse yet – you’d have stopped her, and she couldn’t risk either.”

Mary Beth stepped to the burn barrel and stirred the coals, making sure the pages she’d pulled from Nancy’s diary were totally gone.  She’d read enough to know the whole story now.

“She’d been planning this ever since dad died and there was no point then in just clearing his name. Learning to make preserves, working her way up in the Ladies’ Auxiliary to Chief Judge, entering those preserves under the fake name, that was all in the plan. The only thing she didn’t plan on was that seizure. After that, it all got away from her. She was in a coma, then she was dead, you were sheriff, and poor Mrs. Cavendish was Chief Judge.”

He was still struggling to process what his cop brain had already told him. “How did you know, if she hadn’t told you?”

“Even if I hadn’t read it for myself, just think for two damn seconds. Why else would she force that damn tree to live? Do you know anyone else who made an almond tree grow and bear in these parts? Especially someone who hated gardening?”

“But that’s a bitter almond tree. It’s ornamental, the nuts aren’t edible.”

“Yeah, imagine that. They’re poisonous when they’re mixed with water. You think there’s much water in apricot preserves?”

Baker slumped back into himself, nearly limp on the cruiser’s fender.

“What do we do now, Mary Beth?”

“You do what you have to do, Mikey. You can’t hurt Nancy now, so it just doesn’t matter. I feel absolutely heartsick about Mrs. Cavendish, but what’s done is done. We will just have to get through this the best we can, the same way we always do.”

His retort was interrupted when the radio in Baker’s cruiser squawked to life, dispatch letting him know that the coroner needed him pronto at the morgue.

“Mary Beth, why don’t you come with me? I know you were doing the right thing, but..”

“Save your breath, Mikey. I know I destroyed evidence, and I also know you can’t play favorites right now. This is gonna be a big enough mess as it is without my assistance.”

The knot on Baker’s brow unknit itself a few turns when he realized Mary Beth wasn’t going to fight him. He would have sooner shot himself in the left foot than arrest her, but his head was still spinning. Better to keep an eye on her if things get ugly. Well, ok – uglier than they already were, dammit.

Coop was waiting for him at the morgue, which was actually just the rear entry to the hospital’s pathology department. He raised his eyebrows just enough at the sight of Mary Beth for Baker to nod his permission for Coop to speak freely.

“We’ve got a lot to talk about, Mikey.”

“You just don’t know the half of it, Coop. I just figured out where that cyanide came from, and you’re not gonna like it. Maybe not even believe it.”

“Mike, before you say another word – that is to say, before the CORONER hears another word from the SHERIFF that will need to go on some OFFICIAL RECORD – maybe you let me finish”. Baker couldn’t believe Coop had figured it all out already, but he did know that Coop would have done anything for Nancy or for him.

“I ran some preliminary tests on Mrs. Cavendish as soon as I got her here. I remembered that she had some history of heart trouble, and I wanted to be sure no one overreacted,” he said while his eyes ran all over Mary Beth’s scratched forearms and muddy jeans.

“Coop, you can’t be sure that… you can’t be the one to cover –“

“Mikey, there was no cyanide in her system. We smelled it so strongly because she never managed to get that mouthful down. She had a massive heart attack, possibly in conjunction with a stroke, won’t know till the full autopsy, but she died of natural causes, not by poison.”

“You mean Nancy didn’t…” Mary Beth grabbed Coop by both arms, and he winced at her grip. He continued talking in that Now-i-am-the-doctor-so-let’s-all-listen-up tone he slipped into with the bereaved or those who had lost contact with their senses, while prying her hands from his arms and gently but firmly placing her in the nearest chair.

“Mrs. Bodacker, Sheriff Baker, I am simply telling you that Mrs. Cavendish appears to have died of cardiac-related, but wholly natural, causes. Unless the autopsy comes up with poison having magically appeared in her stomach without being swallowed, I just don’t see how this has anything to do with her judging duties, beyond maybe the excitement of it all just being too much.”

Mary Beth looked to Baker with eyes just about to lose against the tears they were holding back. “She didn’t do it, Mike. She didn’t hurt anyone.”

Coop shoved both ears closed with latex-shod fingers, chanting “LA LA LA LA, can’t hear you, can’t hear any official thing, LA LA LA” as he walked back to his office.

“Now, Mary Beth, we both know the truth. Nancy was a smart, creative and stubborn woman. She put together just about the perfect plan to murder someone who, well frankly deserves it. But we got really lucky for once. And that means you get to go home and not to a holding cell, and I get to go on being sheriff for a while, since I would have wound up covering up for you and for her, and in this town, nothing stays secret forever.

“Go on home. It’s over.”

“Well, Sheriff Baker, maybe you are just as smart as the cops on TV after all.” She managed a smile that looked genuine before she turned back to the hallway that would take her to the parking lot.

Mary Beth drove away, one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the jar of apricot preserves she’d taken from the house before Mikey caught up with her. Heinzler would not get away with this, she promised the sky above and anyone up there who might hear her. After all, the Czech festival was only next month, Heinzler was still president of the American-Bohemia Association, and Mary Beth was known to bake a mean apricot kolache, now wasn’t she?


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