“Okay,” she answered without enthusiasm. I reached for her hand. She pulled it away and filled it with her purse, making it seem like a casual gesture instead of the deliberate snub I knew it to be. She moved quickly to the passenger door of my SUV, opening it before I had the chance to do it for her.
A visit to the museum—Judy Garland had been born Francis Gumm in Grand Rapids; her family later moved to Duluth—had been Kirsten’s idea, an alternative to meeting one of my “cases.” Kirsten didn’t approve of my occasional forays into detective work and said so. She thought they were common, even used that word once. “Common.” I reminded her that I was eleven years a police officer. “How common is that?” Only that was before Teachwell and, in Kirsten’s world view, didn’t count.
Teachwell’s company and insurance carrier had agreed to pay a finder’s fee of fifty cents on the dollar with the stipulation that I keep my mouth shut about the size of the theft—thus avoiding a possible Enron-like meltdown of the company’s stock. After the government took its 36.45 percent, I was left with approximately two million in income-producing mutual funds. Kirsten expected me to act like it. Only I had been unable to cast off the shackles of my blue-collar upbringing. She had used those words, too. “The shackles of your blue-collar upbringing.”
“What do they want you to do?” she asked when we hit Highway 169 going south toward the Cities. I told her. “You’re going to do it, aren’t you? You’re going to find the girl.”
“Sure, if I can. Why not?”
“You don’t need to do this.”
“No. I could turn the car around and go back to the cabin. You and I can spend another week fishing and swimming and lolling in the sun. But I thought it was starting to get a little old toward the end, didn’t you?”
“No. What I mean is, you don’t need to do this. You could get a real job if you’re bored.”
“Doing what? Making more money?”
“There’s nothing wrong with making money.”
“Of course not. Except I already make $170,000 a year just for getting up in the morning. I realize that’s not much if you’re a shortstop for the Texas Rangers. On the other hand, I don’t have coaches yelling at me or fans booing because I hit a single instead of a home run. Anyway, my needs are few and relatively inexpensive. I have more than I’ll ever need.”
“I’m not talking about money.”
“I thought you were.”
“I’m talking about getting a job that you can care about, that has value, that gives you pleasure. Like, like …”
“Like helping people with their problems?”
She didn’t have anything to say to that.
“Kirsten, I was a cop for eleven years. It was the only real job I ever had. I liked it. I liked catching bad guys, I liked being a peacemaker, protecting the peace. But mostly I liked helping people. It got to be a habit with me.”
She didn’t have anything to say to that, either.
During the 200-mile drive up from the Twin Cities Kirsten had been all chit-chat, conversing in depth on a number of topics that meant nothing to her. Same thing at the cabin. Now she sat in stony silence, staring out the passenger window. I didn’t push, yet by the time we hit McGregor, midway between Grand Rapids and the Cities, I was feeling anxious. I figured she wanted to tell me something and was having a difficult time getting to it. I also decided I definitely didn’t want to hear it.
Kirsten agreed to stop for a sandwich, and I pulled off the main drag and parked in the gravel lot of a restaurant called Jack’s. Across the highway from Jack’s was a small office building. A few decades ago Jack’s was called Mark’s and the office building had been a mom-and-pop tavern called The Wheel-Inn. It was there that I had witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. My parents and I were returning from a camping trip not far from where my lake home is now and listening to the event on the radio. As the historic moment approached, my father stopped at the first public place he saw with a TV antenna. We sat in the tavern for over three hours eating hamburgers and drinking root beer while waiting for Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to leave their landing module. I don’t remember much about the historic moment—I was so young. But I remember the root beer and I remember my parents. Dad cried and Mom laughed.
“Are you coming?” Kirsten asked.
I closed my door and locked it with a button on my key chain.
“Are you pregnant?”
Kirsten’s mouth hung open for a moment and I thought I had guessed right. I was actually disappointed when she finally shook her head and said, “No.”
“What is it then?”
“Hey.” I rested my hands on top of her shoulders, leaning in, and giving her my most reassuring smile. “It’s me.”
She stepped back until her shoulders were no longer within reach. My hands fell away.
“Oh right. Like suddenly you’re the Great Communicator.”
I was surprised by the sharpness of her words. “Where did that come from?”
She crossed her arms.
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
“What’s you and not me?”
“Do we have to talk about this now?”