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INCIDENT AT THE BOARDING HOUSE
“Brawl at Banning’s”
LIEUTENANT RICHARD AGAR – Canoe Cop
“Thanks for the lift, Nikki,” I say as I hop into the patrol car. “You wouldn’t believe what kind of a day I’m having.”
“Try me,” Nikki Sheridan replies. She flashes that slightly crooked, knowing smile that I’ve become so familiar with. Nikki and I have been pals since grade school, and we’ve seen each other through a lot of rough patches. There isn’t a person more deserving to be Deputy Chief of the Phantom Lake Police Department than her, and she’s worked hard to get where she is. She turns the wheel of the Chevy Bel Air smoothly as we ease out of the parking lot at Canoe Cops HQ.
“Things have been pretty crazy down at the PD, too,” she says, “with the Chief taking his pre-season vacation and all. Your boss is away, too, right?”
“Yeah, just like yours—sneaking in some R&R before the wave of tourists really hits. Grabbing a quick vacation before High Season is pretty normal for Canoe Cops.”
“Just like for regular cops,” Nikki agrees. “So, what’s the lowdown? How come you’re needing a ride in the middle of the night, when you should be home catching forty winks—or maybe talking into that reel-to-reel of yours. You still keeping that audio diary?”
I feel my face redden; sometimes, Nikki knows me too well. “It’s not a diary,” I remind her. “It’s a journal. I’m keeping notes in case maybe I want to turn ’em into a book or something later.”
“A book about the Canoe Cops,” she says skeptically.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” I say. “It might as well be me.”
That sly grin crops up again. “Whatever floats your boat, Rich.”
“You want to give me a hard time, Nikki, or hear about my day?” I try not to sound angry, but she sure knows how to get under my skin when she wants to.
“Sorry, Lieutenant Agar,” she says, mostly serious. “Lay it on me.”
I settle into the passenger seat as she heads through town toward my place on the northwest side.
“So it starts with that truck crashing into Phantom Lake last night,” I say. “I get the call and do a recovery dive to rescue some do-dads from the wreck for this Egyptian guy.”
“Dr. Hawas? He was down at the department, making a lot of noise, earlier. Funny little gent.”
“Yeah, that’s him. Anyway, Julie Browning and I bring up his trinkets…”
“Julie, eh? How’s it going with her?”
“Not as good as I’d like. I can never seem to get off on the right foot; I’ll tell you more about it later. Anyway, after that, Gustav Gustavson comes into the office with some crazy story about a weird girl he picked up on the lakeshore. He was supposedly bringing her to HQ, but he got dizzy and—Poof!—she was gone. Real ‘vanishing hitchhiker’ stuff. Almost like that tale Officer Kelton spun earlier this year.”
“Too much sun again?”
“Yeah, I think so. But, hallucination or no, more paperwork for my incident reports. So after that, things stay pretty calm for a while … until I take Julie down to the Attic Malt Shop for an early dinner.”
“Oh, so it’s not going too bad with her, after all.”
“Well, maybe, but our little ‘date’ gets derailed when Hawas shows up, tailed by this movie guy named Corman, and the two of them almost get into a fight with Burl Shaw…”
Nikki slaps her palm on the steering wheel. “Bullies like Shaw really steam my shirt. He’s always picking on newcomers to Phantom Lake—”
“And anybody he doesn’t like,” I put in.
“—Plus anybody who doesn’t conform to his own personal ‘standards,’” Nikki adds. “And anybody he figures he can get away with pushing around. One day, that man is going to go too far, and somebody’s gonna push back.”
“Yeah. Someday,” I say. “Anyway, I break up the fight before it can start, but that pretty much kills the mood.”
She frowns. “Poor boy. Always with the tough breaks. I’m telling you, Rich, if you wanna make time with Julie, you gotta…”
Just then, her police radio squawks.
“Hang on, I need take this,” she says, picking up the receiver. “Sheridan here; come in.”
“Yeah, hey, Chief,” says the dispatcher’s voice on the other end. “We’ve gotten a report of some kind of incident down at Banning’s Boarding House.”
“Okay,” Nikki replies. “I’ll swing by after I drop Rich at home.”
“Um, Chief,” says the voice, “I think it might be a little more urgent than that. Seems like somebody’s hurt pretty bad. I’ve called for an ambulance, but…”
“Ten-four. I’m on my way,” she replies, and hangs up the receiver. “Sorry, Rich. I hope you don’t mind tagging along on this call.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “It’ll probably take me a while to wind down and hit the sack anyway.”
She flips on the siren and the cherry-top lights, does a quick three-point-turn, and heads east for Banning’s. “So… You were saying…?”
“I thought you were going to give me dating tips,” I note with a grin.
“Maybe later,” she says. “When things settle down. Keep going with your story.”
“After my date bombs out,” I continue, “I get called back into HQ ’cause these two truck drivers—the same lamebrains who sunk Hawas’ stuff—are soaked to the skin and scared out of their wits. And they claim that they were knocked off the pier by—get this!—a living mummy!”
Nikki purses her lips. “You know… One of them, the fat one, claimed in his police statement that a mummy made them drive off the causeway. Of course, at that point, the thin guy was having none of it. Guess it must take skinny longer to get loaded than his buddy—probably doesn’t believe in drinking before eight A.M.” And now she’s smiling again and shaking her head ruefully.
I don’t blame her. It takes all types in Phantom Lake. Especially during High Summer Season, which this almost is.
“Guess they’re coming out early this year,” she says, like she’s reading my thoughts.
“Anyway,” I continue, “I get Tor Torson to drop those two at the PD to sleep it off, while I finish up the paperwork. But when I come out of HQ, there’s about a dozen cats sitting all over my car.”
“Cats? Like housecats?”
“Yeah,” I say, “all of them black as midnight with shiny golden eyes.”
“I know. So I chase them all off—humanely, of course—but then my car won’t start.”
“And that’s when you called good-old-reliable Nikki, who’s been bailing you out since kindergarten.” She laughs, a bright, musical sound.
And I can’t figure out for the life of me why she’s had so little luck in finding someone to settle down with. Any guy in Phantom Lake, heck, the whole state of Wisconsin, would be lucky to have her.
Maybe she works too much. Maybe we both do.
“Well,” I say, “I knew you were working the late shift today so… Nikki, look out!”
She slams on the breaks and the squad car screeches to a halt. The Chevy’s tires kick up a cloud of dust from the dry-packed road on the outskirts of town.
The dust swirls up around the car, and for a long moment, neither of us can see anything.
Finally, Nikki speaks. “Jeeze Louise! Was that what I think it was?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “but it sure looked like it.”
“Bull feathers!” she exclaims, not believing her own eyes.
’Cause what it looked like was a mummy, maybe six-and-a-half- or seven-feet-tall—wrapped head to toe in bandages—loping across the road, right in front of our car. One second it wasn’t there, and the next it just appeared out of the darkness in the light from the Bel Air’s headlamps.
Nikki must be one heck of a driver, because I don’t know how she avoided hitting it.
Quick as a flash, she’s out of the squad with her service revolver drawn. “Stay there,” she orders, motioning me to stay put and peering every-which-way into the settling dust.
“Like fun,” I reply, following her out. Of course, I’m not packing heat—no Canoe Cops carry guns—and I feel a little naked without my trusty paddle, but only a serious yellow-belly would leave his best pal to face whatever-that-was alone.
I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed or relieved when neither of us spots anything.
“Must have gone into the woods,” she says. The forest runs pretty thick on this side of town. “No sense trying to follow it in the middle of the night. Probably just a prank, anyway—or a publicity stunt.”
“You never can tell with movie people in town,” I note. “Maybe they think it’s early Halloween, or something.”
“You got that right. Okay, hero, back into the squad,” she says, and her tone tells me that, this time, I shouldn’t argue with her. So I hop aboard.
She goes to the back of the squad car and grabs something out of the trunk before climbing back in the driver’s side.
“Take this,” she commands, tossing the scattergun to me. “You’re riding shotgun—for real.”
“I thought you said that thing was just a publicity stunt,” I counter.
“It probably is. But I’m not taking any chances. Let’s get to Banning’s before anything else weird happens.”
Banning’s Boarding House isn’t far, but neither of us say much the rest of the way.
There’s no sign of an ambulance when we pull up, but it seems like every tenant in the place must be out on the front porch. I spot a couple of people I know in the crowd, including Maggie Drummond—the waitress who served me and Julie dinner earlier—and Mr. Hawas. Maggie and the others I recognize live here, and I guess the little Egyptian must be staying at Banning’s for his visit, too.
Mom and Pop Banning are standing in front of the whole crowd. The oldsters look nervous, like the sky is falling.
“Nothing like this has ever happened here before,” Ma Banning says before Nikki and I can even close the squad car’s doors. (I leave the scattergun on the passenger-side seat; Nikki’s pistol is back in its holster; no need to worry the locals.)
“We run a very respectable place,” Pa Banning adds. “Everyone in town knows we do.”
“What exactly is the problem, Mr. and Mrs. Banning?” Nikki asks.
“It’s… It’s just…” Ma Banning stammers.
“You better come out back and see for yourselves,” says Pa Banning. “It’s like a tornado hit.”
Nikki frowns and then turns to me. “Grab the shotgun, will you, Rich?”
I nod and fetch it from the seat, then follow her and the Bannings out back.
When we round the corner, the first thing that catches my attention is a huge hole in the rear wall of the first floor.
Nikki and I move forward cautiously. Inside the hole is one of the tenants’ rooms—and it’s a complete shambles: everything overturned, bed smashed, not a piece of furniture left intact. Mr. Banning is right; it looks like a tornado hit—but only in that one little spot.
“Whose room is this?” Nikki asks.
That’s when I notice the blood. The walls are practically painted with it. I swallow hard, trying not to gag. As a Canoe Cop, I’ve seen my share of drownings, but not a lot of people get torn limb from limb on the lake. The sight is pretty hard to stomach.
Pa Banning looks nauseous, too, as he answers. “Burl Shaw’s. Ain’t never seen anything like it.”
Ma Banning clutches her hands over her heart. “We run a very respectable place,” she mutters. She looks like she might burst into tears—or pass out—at any second.
“You think that’s Burl’s blood?” I ask Nikki.
She nods, her mouth apparently too dry to answer at first.
Finally, she manages. “Yeah. That’s Burl all over.”
I swallow hard. “What do you figure happened?”
Nikki takes a deep breath. “Looks like somebody finally pushed back.”
NEXT: Breakfast Sunny-Side Down
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