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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 4

It took half an hour or more in the motor home to get over to Henry and Cindy’s house, which was a small place in an older subdivision. While they were on the way, Kirsten used her cell phone to call the Record-Herald and announce that she and Mike probably wouldn’t be in for the rest of the week, without explaining why. That reminded Mark to use his own cell phone and give the same news to the people at Marlin Computer.

Mike was still driving the motor home, of course; Mark and Jackie had never been to Henry’s before. “Not a bad looking little place,” Mark commented from the right front seat as Mike pulled the big rig to a stop at the curb in front of the house.

“No, they got a pretty good deal on it,” Mike explained as he shut down the engine. “They figure they’re going to be moving again, but this will do for the few years they plan to be here. I suppose we’d better go face the music.”

“You mean, meet the kids?”

“No, find out what hair Cindy has up her butt today, although it’s probably over the kids. Her car is here, so she must not have gone to work.”

The four of them were just getting out of the motor home when the front door of the house opened, and Henry came out. He took after his father a lot, tall and lanky, not bad looking, although he wasn’t the freak about participating in amateur athletics his father had been, especially in his younger days. A couple of young girls were right on his heels, and there was little doubt who they were. “Wow,” Henry said. “When did you get that thing?”

“It’s Gil and Carrie’s,” Mike explained. “We just borrowed it. We figured we’d need the room.”

“Yeah, probably not a bad idea at that,” Henry agreed. “Good to see you again, Uncle Mark, Aunt Jackie. You can probably figure out who these two are.”

“Maybe,” Mark grinned. The last time he’d seen the girls they’d been much younger, maybe around six, give or take. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge for them in that time.

He looked at the taller one, now fourteen, he knew. Rebecca Gravengood was shorter than he and Jackie, although not much, with a solid, athletic-appearing build and noticeably developed breasts, although not large ones. Her skin was darker than that of anyone else present, trending more toward chocolate than toward tan; her hair was dark and curly, relatively short. Though nothing had ever been said that he’d heard about, it seemed obvious that her father must have been black, although possibly on the light-skinned side. She was rather plain-looking in the face, but seemed to make up for it with an obvious energy. “How are you doing, Rebecca?”

“I’m OK,” she said. “It’s good to see you again, Uncle Mark. I’m just glad you and Aunt Jackie can help us out.”

“Well, even though we don’t know each other very well, you’re still family, so that counts for something,” Mark replied, a little relieved that the girl seemed to have her act fairly well together, given the circumstances. “I’m afraid this is going to be new to us, but we ought to be able to get used to each other.”

He turned to the other girl, who was considerably shorter, even taking the two-year age difference into account. She was thin, with the small mounds of early-developing breasts just beginning to push bumps into her T-shirt. Her skin was almost pasty white, with long blonde hair dangling down her back. Barely aware that he was thinking about it, he surmised that she was not going to end up very tall, but that she might be a real knockout when she got a few years on her. She seemed very solemn and with nothing having been said, he could tell that her mother’s death had hit her harder than her older sister. “Good to see you again, Brianna,” he said to the smaller girl.

“Hi,” she said quietly. “Uncle Mark, I’m sorry we have to do this to you.”

“I’m sorry it had to happen,” he replied. “But we’ll try to work things out for you. Will that be all right?”

“I guess,” she replied unenthusiastically.

“Why don’t we go inside?” Henry suggested. “It’s not time for the lady from the social services agency to be here yet, but we’ve got some coffee on. Have you had breakfast?”

“We ate, but a decent cup of coffee would be greatly appreciated,” his father said. “You would not believe that mud they tried to call coffee at the place we stopped.”

“Either it must have been pretty bad, or it must have been something trendy like Starbucks,” Henry shrugged. He dropped his voice and said to Mark, “We gotta talk, but not right now.”

“Figured as much,” Mark whispered back. “Everything going all right?”

“Pretty much, but only pretty much. I’ll tell you later.”

They went inside to find Cindy bustling around in the living room. She was a brunette, considerably shorter than Henry, but not as short as Kirsten. It had been a while since Mark and Jackie had seen her, and it looked like she’d put on a few pounds since the last time – and at that, she’d been heavier then than she had been in high school. “You’re earlier than we expected,” she charged as soon as she saw the four from Spearfish Lake. “The woman from the social services agency isn’t supposed to be here till ten.”

“We figured we’d better get here a little early so we could meet the kids and shake off the trip a little,” Kirsten replied defensively. It was clear that Cindy was on the prod this morning, not that she wasn’t any other time. She continued on, trying to be rational about it “So how did it go with the kids?”

“It would have been nice if we’d had a little warning about it,” Cindy replied snippily.

“It would have been nice if we had some, too,” Kirsten replied, the fur rising on her back a little bit, wondering once again just what in hell had persuaded her son to take up with this walking pain in the ass. “But we weren’t given a choice, either. These things happen, and we just have to deal with them as they come. How did it go with the girls?”

“We made it through the night,” Cindy replied, clearly not enthusiastic about it. “Are you going to be taking them today?”

“Probably,” Mark replied, trying to pour a little oil on clearly troubled waters. “We won’t know what the deal is until we can talk to the social worker.”

“The girls did pretty good, considering,” Henry replied, trying to head off an obvious confrontation. “I wound up having to sit up with them a little late, but they finally got to sleep.”

“Thanks, Henry,” Mark nodded. “I’m sure they must have needed a sympathetic ear to listen to them, and I’m glad you were able to provide it.”

Things were off on the wrong foot already. “Let me get some coffee,” Henry offered, hoping that Cindy wouldn’t take Mark’s simple statement as a zinger.

In a couple minutes, everybody was settled down in the living room, the adults with coffee; Rebecca had a can of pop in her hand, while Brianna had a glass of milk. “I suppose there’s not a lot we can do but wait for Mrs. Bloch to show up,” Henry offered into the awkward silence.

“I suppose not,” Mark said. “But maybe we’d better take the opportunity to get to know each other a little better. I just don’t know where to start. Girls, I’ve never been a father, so this is a little different for me.”

“We’ve never had a father before, either,” Rebecca offered. “So it’s a little strange for us, too.”

“Then I guess we’re going to just have to learn how to make it work together,” Mark smiled. “I can’t recall if you girls were ever out at our house. It’s a big place out in the country, and Mr. and Mrs. McMahon here are our closest neighbors. One of their daughters and her husband, who is Jackie’s half-brother, don’t live very far away. You’ll probably get to know them fairly well, too.”

“Are there any kids living nearby?” Rebecca wanted to know. “We’ve always lived in apartments where there are a lot of people living close to us.”

“Well, Tiffany and Josh, that’s Mr. and Mrs. McMahon’s daughter and her husband, have a couple little kids, but there’s nobody near your age living close by.”

“It’ll be different for you,” Kirsten put in. “We have three children, all of them older than you, but they never seemed to lack for friends. It’s just going to be a little different, that’s all.”

“I suppose that means we’re not going to be walking to school,” Rebecca commented.

“No, you’ll probably be riding the bus at least part of the time,” Kirsten replied. “Our kids often rode to school with us. They sometimes came down to our office to hang around after school, but sometimes they rode the bus home.”

“What’s the school like?” the older girl asked.

“I think it’s all right,” Kirsten said. “At least our kids seemed to like it and did all right there for the most part. So, do you kids like school?”

“It’s all right,” Rebecca said with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

Kirsten had noticed that Brianna had stayed out of the conversation; whether from shyness or shock was hard to say. “How about you, Brianna?” she asked. “Do you like school?”

“Like Becca said, it’s all right,” the younger girl sighed. “It just seems pretty dumb at times.”

“Bree would rather have her nose in some book rather than listen to the teacher,” Rebecca snickered.

“You like to read, then, Brianna?” Kirsten smiled. “You sound like my youngest daughter, Susan. There was a time when she was about your age that the only place she didn’t take a book was to the shower. What do you like to read?”

“Oh, stuff,” the girl replied quietly. “I was reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon last night when a policeman and Mrs. Bloch came for us, and now I don’t know if I want to finish it.”

“That’s some serious reading for a twelve year old,” Kirsten said out loud. “I’ve never read it, but I think Susan did about that age. If I remember correctly, it’s about a plane that crashes in Shangri-La.”

“That’s it,” Brianna replied. “It seemed like a pretty good story. I like good stories. Becca would rather be outside tossing a basketball around.”

“So, I’d rather be outside enjoying myself than inside with a book,” Rebecca snorted. “Do they have a girls’ basketball team where we’re going?”

“They sure do,” Kirsten smiled. “They’re very good, in fact. They’ve won the state championship several times in the last few years.”

“Do you think there’s any chance I can get on the team?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Kirsten replied. “Tiffany and Susan never wanted to be on any teams, but Henry here played basketball and ran track.”

“I haven’t kept up with it very much since I’ve been out of high school,” Henry put in. “But they have a terrific coach, and from what I understand, if you have any talent at all, they’ll find room for you on the team. Becca, do you play any other sports?”

“I’m on the eighth grade softball team,” the girl replied. “We’ve had a pretty good season so far.”

“I don’t know if you’d be able to get on the team this late in the season,” Mike offered. “But there are several summer programs that’ll almost certainly be happy to have you join them. I don’t know the details off the top of my head, but I can find out when we get back to Spearfish Lake.”

“Is there a good library up there?” Brianna asked, the first time she’d ever really asked a question.

“Pretty good,” Mike told her. “I don’t know how it compares to the one you have here, but we like to think it’s pretty good.”

“I’m pretty sure Susan won’t mind if you borrowed some of the books she liked at your age,” Kirsten offered. “There are boxes of them up in the attic.”

So far, so good, Mark thought. Neither of them have actually mentioned Shannon yet, or anything much about their reactions to what happened to their mother, but there has to be something there that’s going to surface. It may be a while coming out. It sure would be nice to talk to Henry, though, just to find out what they were like last night, although now obviously wasn’t the time to be asking.

They sat and talked for a while longer, just trying to find out a little more about each other, but it was still pretty awkward. Just about the time everybody ran out of any ideas for something to say, the doorbell sounded. Henry got up to answer it, to discover a middle aged black woman with some pounds on her, with a solidly built white man around the same age standing behind her. From the sound of her voice, Mark assumed it was Mrs. Bloch. “Good morning, Mr. McMahon,” she said to Henry. “I take it from the motor home outside that Mr. and Mrs. Gravengood are here.”

“Yes, they got here about half an hour ago, along with my folks.”

“How are the girls doing?”

“About as well as can be expected,” Henry replied. “It got a little heavy around here for a while last night, but I think we worked our way through the worst of it.”

“Well, good,” the black woman said. “I have Lieutenant Seymour from the police department here with me, and he wants to talk to the girls a little before we get down to what we have to do.”

“Well, come on in,” Henry told them. “I just made some coffee, if you’d like some.”

“I’d love some,” she replied. “It’s been a busy morning so far, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up any.”

“I could stand some,” the plainclothes police officer replied dourly. “It’s got to be better than the stuff we get out of a machine down at the department.”

“Well come on in and sit down,” Henry said. “I’ll go get you some coffee.”

“Before we get started,” Lt. Seymour said, “I know I’ve seen you on Channel Five. You’re a reporter there, right?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Look, I don’t want to get too sticky about this, but I’d really rather I didn’t see on the air what we’re going to talk about.”

“No problem,” Henry said. “This is personal, not business, so it’s totally off the record as far as I’m concerned. I don’t even have to be here if you don’t want me, but I’m guessing the others ought to be.”

“Yeah, probably,” the officer grunted. “This shouldn’t take too long, but right at the moment we don’t have a lot to go on.”

Henry bustled around to get coffee for the visitors, while Lt. Seymour and Mrs. Bloch found seats in the living room; Mrs. Bloch introduced the two girls to the detective. “Girls,” he began, sounding a lot less gruff than he had with Henry, “I don’t know how much you know about what happened to your mother, but there are some questions we don’t have the answers to, like any people from your mother’s work you may have known.”

“We really didn’t know anybody from her job,” Rebecca answered. “She never even talked about the people she knew there very much. I don’t even know what it was she did, for sure.”

“What was it you think she did?”

“I heard Mom say one time she was a customer service representative or something like that,” Rebecca told him. “She said she helped people find the things they wanted.”

“Brianna, do you know any more than that?”

“No,” the girl replied quietly. “What Becca said is about all I know, too.”

“Did she ever talk on the phone about anything to do with what her work was when you could hear?”

“Sometimes,” Rebecca said; it was apparent she was the designated spokesperson for the two girls. “Not real often, and we never had any idea of what was going on. I mean, about all we ever heard her say was either yes or no. Well, once in a while she’d say something like ‘Oh, shit, I’ll call you right back.’ Then she’d go outside to make the call, and we never knew what it was about.”

“Did she work regular hours? I mean, like nine to five every day?”

“No,” Rebecca replied. “At least when we were out of school in the summer she’d be home most mornings, but she usually had to be gone in the afternoons, and sometimes in the evenings.”

“Do you have any idea of where she went when she went to work, or what she was doing?”

“No idea,” Rebecca shook her head.

“What did she do when she had to leave you and go somewhere?”

“There was a lady down the hall, Mrs. Engstrom, who came in to watch us,” Rebecca replied. “Sometimes we’d go over to her apartment. She’s real old, maybe fifty or sixty, but she made really great cookies. In the last year or two, Mom would sometimes just leave us alone if she didn’t think she was going to be very long. When she did that, she never was gone more than a couple hours.”

“Was she always gone in the evenings?”

“Not always,” Rebecca shook her head. “She spent time with us when she could. She almost always made it to my games, for instance. Sometimes she’d bring Mrs. Engstrom with her. She was a good mom, she really was. I’m going to miss her.”

“I’m sure you will,” the officer replied sympathetically. “Do you have any idea if this Mrs. Engstrom had any idea what she was doing or where she was going?”

“I don’t think so,” the older girl replied. “Sometimes she’d say she wondered what Mom was up to. I guess she didn’t know, either.”

Seymour turned to the adults. “I take it none of you have any idea what Ms. Gravengood did for a living, either,” he asked.

“No idea,” Mark replied. “Just remember that I never knew her well. I saw her maybe half a dozen times in my life, and I never really sat down and had a talk with her. My brother and I were pretty distant in his last years, and we didn’t have much to say to each other. I guess I was aware Shannon was living down here, but I’d have been hard put to find her even if I’d needed to. I never had her address. I would have had to go to my mother to ask, and she may not have always been up to date on it.”

“Well, I guess I’ve found out about what I expected to find,” the lieutenant sighed. “I guess the next step is to go and talk with this Mrs. Engstrom. I suppose you’re not going to mind if we go through the apartment to see if there’s anything to find there.”

“Fine with me,” Mark told him. “The thing of it is, we can’t stay down here for a long time. All of us are taking time off work to pick up the girls and their things. We’ve got things like funeral arrangements to make, and we haven’t even thought about those. We figured on going over and getting the apartment cleared out before we head back.”

“Well, give us today to go through it,” the lieutenant replied. “And if you find anything you think might be of interest to us, be sure and let us know. Normally, I’d want the girls to stay in town for a few days in case I needed to talk to them again, but if you have to get back, then you have to. I’ll just need to know where to get in touch with them in case something else comes up I need to ask them.”

“We’ve been where we live for over thirty years and don’t plan on leaving for the next few,” Mark replied, handing him a business card, and one of Jackie’s. “If it’s during the day, Jackie is usually a little easier to catch up with than I am.”

“I appreciate the cooperation,” Seymour replied. “I don’t know how much help it’s going to be, but anything can help at this point. I’ll give you a call when the body can be released. I guess I’ll be on my way.”

“Before you go Lieutenant,” Henry piped up, “I’d like a word with you outside. Mark, maybe you’d better be in on this, too.”

“No problem,” the officer replied.

In a minute or so the three of them were standing on the front lawn. “What is it you wanted to talk about?” the officer asked.

“Look,” Henry said, “I was there yesterday when they pulled Shannon’s car from the water. Now, I’ll admit I’d never heard of her at the time and had no idea she was a shirttail relative of my parents’ best friends, so all this came as a surprise to me. But like I told you inside, this is personal, not business. I have no intention of making air with this, but it would be nice if you could tell me what it is all about.”

“There’s not really much I can tell you except that the death looks suspicious. It may have been natural causes, like she had a heart attack before the car went into the water. The coroner isn’t done with the autopsy yet, or at least wasn’t when I left the office, but it looked to me like she wasn’t breathing when the car went in. That leaves some room for suspicion.”

“I can appreciate that,” Henry said. “And like I said, I’m not looking to report on it, and I’m not looking to compromise an investigation. I’m just trying to help give my more-or-less adopted aunt and uncle something to tell the girls when they ask. Or, maybe, to not tell them when they ask, like what subjects to avoid. Whichever, but they’re bound to ask sooner or later. I don’t need to know right now, but maybe after this settles out sometime we can get together, have a cup of coffee, and you’ll be able to tell me more.”

“Fair enough,” the officer nodded slowly. “I may not be able to tell you more than I know right now, but I know things now I can’t talk about just yet. Give me a little time and I may have a better idea. It may well be the girls know more than they’re willing to talk about, but I don’t know what questions to ask them. They may know more than they’re saying, but it may not mean anything to them yet. It’s hard to say. But at some point, I’ll bring you up to speed.”

“Can’t ask for much more than that,” Henry replied. “You got a card or anything so I’ll know how to get in touch with you?”

“Yeah, sure,” the officer said, reaching into his coat and pulling out a card. “I’ll just leave you with the thought that the girls may not want to know too much more than they do now.”

“We’ll see,” Henry replied. “So far, they’ve taken it about as well as I can imagine they could, but I can tell they’re both still pretty shaken up and not talking about it very much.”

“Rebecca seemed like she was handling it pretty well,” Mark observed. “I’m a little concerned about Brianna, though.”

“They obviously haven’t worked it out of their systems yet,” Henry pointed out. “I will tell you this, though. Last night it was Becca doing the crying and Bree was the one who had her act together.”

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