Murder Passes the Buck: A Gertie Johnson Backwoods Adventure

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9780738708720: Murder Passes the Buck: A Gertie Johnson Backwoods Adventure

Gertie Johnson may be outspoken, distrustful of banks, and a quick draw with the pepper spray, but she hasn't lost her marbles. Her son Blaze, the sheriff in a backwoods community of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is petitioning to become her legal guardian, but Gertie, a sassy sixty-six-year-old widow with a taste for detective work, has got bigger fish to fry: solving the murder of Chester Lampi who was shot dead in his deer blind. Blaze--who's more interested in retiring than investigating--rules Chester's death as a hunting accident. So, Gertie takes on the case with help from her friends, man-hungry Cora Mae and pin-curled Kitty. Interrogating neighbors, spying, impersonating the FBI...the stubborn, spunky grandmother won't give up the chase even when the killer takes aim at her.

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About the Author:

Deb Baker (Wisconsin) grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Sled Dog Association, where she actively races sled dogs. Her short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Passages North and Room of One's Own. Her debut novel, Murder Passes the Buck, won Best of Show in the Authorlink 2003 New Author Awards Competition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

It's times like these I wish I'd learned to drive. Up until Barney passed on, I didn't need to. He took me wherever I wanted to go. Now I'm at the mercy of slugs, and I don't mean the bullet kind.

Little Donny is nineteen years old, and he really appreciates the backwoods. He came to the Michigan Upper Peninsula, the U.P., as we call it, from his home in Milwaukee the day before yesterday for the opening of deer-hunting season, which is today, November fifteenth. At the first gray streak of daylight you could hear rifles going off all over the woods, and that's when Chester got it right between the eyes.

"I suppose I missed the whole thing," I called out the window when we pulled up outside of Chester's blind.

My son, Blaze, leaned against his rust-bucket yellow pickup with SHERIFF printed on the side, filling out paperwork. No one else was around. Either we'd beat the ambulance or it had already transported its patient.

"Just finishing up," he muttered, still writing in his notebook, not noticing my disappointment. "Chester's body is at the morgue in Escabana by now. How did you find out about it?"

"Heard it on the scanner."

Last year when Barney died, I cold-packed my dreams in a canning jar and placed them high on a dusty shelf in my pantry. A week after I buried him I turned sixty-six and Cora Mae bought me a police scanner for my birthday. It sat in my closet until three days ago when I mentioned to someone that I'm a recent widow and Cora Mae let me have it. "Gertie Johnson, I know you loved Barney, but it's time to start living again. Let's go over to your house and listen to that scanner I gave you. Maybe something will pop up."

Something had popped up, and that something had popped Chester.

I jumped down from the cab and the box of buckshot fell to the ground.

"That thing better not be loaded," Blaze said, after heaving himself off the truck and glancing at the shotgun on the floor. "You know it's against the law to transport a loaded weapon in a vehicle. We've been through this before."

"Of course it's not loaded," I lied, picking up the box of buckshot and stuffing it under the seat.

Little Donny crawled out of the driver's seat, and I couldn't help noticing a glob of mustard stuck on his chin. And I couldn't help noticing that Blaze couldn't button the bottom of his sheriff's uniform shirt anymore.

I sighed, thinking of Chester's family and how they'd feel when they heard the bad news, and for a few minutes Little Donny's sloppiness and Blaze's escalating weight gain didn't seem important at all.

"What happened here?" I asked.

"Nothing much to it," Blaze said, shaking his head. "Stray bullet whomped into the blind and caught poor unlucky Chester right between the eyes. We have at least one shooting accident every hunting season."

The air was clean and crisp, and Blaze's breath steamed around his head while he talked. I could smell cheap cologne hanging in the air. Blaze always wore too much.

"Remember last year," he continued, "that guy in Trenary was shot in the stomach sleeping in bed. Remember that, Little Donny?"

"Yeah, I remember."

"So you're writing this off as an accident?" I stammered, in disbelief.

Blaze looked surprised that I would even suggest anything else. "It was an accident and don't go saying anything different."

Ever since Blaze turned forty-four all he thinks about is retirement, even though he still has a few years left if he wants a full pension. He's already retired in his mind and that's the scary thing. He doesn't care anymore and is just putting in his time. Maybe he needs me to watch out for him, make him walk the straight and narrow. Maybe I have to be tough with him.

"What if someone murdered Chester and you're letting a killer get away with it?" I pulled off my Blue Blocker sunglasses so he could see my glare. "I bet that's what happened, and you're too lazy to follow through with a proper investigation."

"Ma, quit. I really hate to disappoint you, but nobody ever gets murdered in Stonely. You've been watching too many soap operas again."

"I've never watched a soap opera in my life. But I have some inchoate ideas about this."

"Inchoate ideas?"

"It's my word for the day."

Last week I decided it was time for some self-improvement. I'm expanding my vocabulary by learning one new word every day and I have to use it in normal conversation so it sticks with me. I've found it's best to try out my new word first thing in the morning or else I forget to use it.

"Who found Chester?" I wanted to know.

"Floy . . ." Blaze hesitated and shook his head. "Oh, no. I'm not telling you right now. You'll just go over and bother the poor man. He's upset enough as it is."

"Well, stop by on your way home later and let me know what's happening."

Blaze lives in a mobile home on the east forty. Barney and I– well, just me now–own three forties, meaning I own one hundred and twenty acres. The properties in Tamarack Township are sectioned in blocks of forty acres so when someone asks how much land you own, you say two forties, or five forties, or whatever.

The terrain in the Upper Peninsula is as rugged and as difficult to categorize as the people who settled here–miles and miles of swampy lowlands, then miles of even country with every type of pine tree you can imagine, and when you think you have it all figured out, the elevation soars and you find yourself high on a wind-blown ridge overlooking one of the Great Lakes, watching waves slam against enormous rocks.

Most of us own a lot of land and we're proud of it, even though it comes cheap. It's all we have.

Blaze lives on the east forty with his wife, Mary. His two girls are off at college. My youngest daughter, Star, lives in a log cabin on the west forty. Her kids are grown and gone and her no-good husband left her for a blonde bimbo, so she's there alone. But her kids visit often.

Heather is Little Donny's mother. She, her husband, Big Donny, and Little Donny, my favorite grandson and current chauffeur, live in Milwaukee.

I like the fact that two of my kids stayed in Stonely and decided to live on the family property. I like the fact that they have to drive right past my house coming and going. Sometimes it's stressful having family right on top of me, but in the final analysis, it's worth it.

"Let's go hunting later, Blaze," Little Donny said.

"Stop calling me Blaze," Blaze said, glaring at me while prying open the door of his rust-bucket truck. "I legally changed my name to Brian. I keep telling everyone in town over and over, and no one can seem to get it straight."

"Brian?" Little Donny was confused, which isn't anything new for him.

"You weren't born a Brian and you don't look like a Brian," I huffed. "Who's going to call you that? It's not your real name."

"Your Granny, here," Blaze said to Little Donny, ignoring me except for an accusing finger pointed in my direction, "named me after a horse."

Which was true.

I wanted to look around the crime scene, but Blaze wouldn't let me. He waited in his dump truck–as in what-a-dump truck– until we pulled out ahead of him. At my direction, Little Donny turned right on Highway M35. I knew Blaze would turn left and head toward town, and I didn't want him following us all the way back.

He had a family to inform of their loss. I had a crime scene to investigate.

"Nice and slow," I cautioned Little Donny. I wore a blaze orange hunting jacket, since those crazy hunters will shoot at anything moving. I had my hair pulled up under an orange hunting cap with the earflaps folded up. Two trucks passed us going the opposite way, the drivers also wearing hunter's orange. I waved and they waved back.

As soon as Blaze turned left, I slapped Little Donny's knee. "Turn around and head back to Chester's."

"Blaze is going to be hot, and anyway, I want to go hunting," Little Donny crabbed.

I gave him a stern look, and he swung around at the first crossroad.

Chester's hunting blind stood on the edge of a small clearing, butting up against a grove of tamarack trees. It wasn't wrapped in yellow tape to mark it as a crime scene, confirming my suspicions that Blaze wouldn't even do a cursory investigation.

I carefully opened the blind door with the sleeve of my jacket so I wouldn't leave prints, in spite of my belief that this was one case where it wouldn't matter. I suspected there weren't any prints to find. This was a long-distance murder.

Granted, I had no evidence that Chester's death actually was a murder, but every time a stray bullet from a high-powered rifle took a life, I thought about whether it was an accident or not. In the Michigan U.P., it would be the perfect crime.

Opening the door, I wondered who or what Chester might have seen before he died.

The shack was built on a movable platform so it could be towed around on the back of a tractor. We all did that. One reason is that it's nice and easy to move next season if we find a better hunting spot, and another reason is so the federal government can't slap a tax on us for building a permanent structure. They try to get you coming and going.

Inside, I could feel the leftover warmth of the propane heater as I looked around.

Chester's blind was pretty ordinary, built for comfort, warmth, and an unobstructed shot when Big Buck strolled out into the clearing. It had an insulated wood frame and windows on each side, the same as a house. Metal fasteners on the sides of the windows could be turned, and the window would silently swing out. The floor was covered with worn brown shag carpet. A can of WD40 was in the corner along with a cooler full of beer, a can of peanuts, and a pair of binoculars.

Even though I considered Chester a neighbor, I didn't know him real well. He kept to himself out on Parker Road, nodding his head when we met, then moving on. Not a chit-chatter. His wife died a few years back, before Barney died. Everyone thought she went plumb loco until the doctors discovered the brain tumor. Then it was too late.

When I left his blind, I knew a little more about him. I knew he drank the cheapest beer he could buy, and that he drank it early in the day. He must have slammed down a few cans before he was slammed down himself by a deadly bullet. I saw several empty cans tossed in a pile on the floor. An open can on a small table had spilled and beer had run in a stream with the blood from his head.

I also learned that a hole in the head makes quite a bloody mess, and that Chester liked smut magazines. Since I never saw one before, I paged through the stack by the window.

"Granny, this isn't a good idea. Come out of there or I'm telling Blaze."

Little Donny's large bulk blocked out the light though the door. I wanted to search for clues between the shack and the creek running through Chester's property, but I'd have to get rid of Whiney first.

"Okay, let's hit it," I said, climbing into the cab.

Floyd Tatrow was hard of hearing, so when I stuck my head in his kitchen door, I called out nice and loud. He didn't answer. The kitchen smelled like freshly fried bacon, and the sink was full of dirty dishes soaking in sudsy water–the water was still warm to my touch.

"Floyd," I hollered. "It's Gertie Johnson. Where are you?"

I checked every room and found them all empty. Floyd kept the place spic-and-span clean even though his wife, Eva, had a stroke a year ago and was in a private nursing home in Escanaba. He still had hopes that she would come home some day, but the rest of us knew she was there for life.

Eva was a little too church-like for my taste. Her favorite phrase was "The Lord will provide." I always thought you had to provide for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you, not even the Lord, but you couldn't reason with Eva.

Years ago when Floyd lost everything but the shirt on his back at the Indian casino, I cooked up a large roast with carrots and onions, mashed ten pounds of homegrown potatoes, and dropped the meal off at their home.

"I told you the Lord would provide," Eva said to Floyd, putting the pans down on the countertop.

"That wasn't the Lord providing," I said, tapping my thumb on my chest. "That was me."

The Tatrow house was decorated in frilly yellow curtains and embroidered religious pictures. Crocheted blankets covered the upholstery and lace doilies were draped on the tables. Eva liked her arts and crafts, before the Lord provided her with a stroke that paralyzed her entire right side.

That private nursing home must be costing Floyd a pretty penny, I thought, eyeing a television set as big as my entire dining room wall. He better learn to cut back on his spending.

I let myself out and stood on the porch, scanning the property. I avoided looking at the truck where Little Donny sat fuming. Big cities squeeze the ability to be patient right out of people. Life becomes too frantic and rushed. It's a sad thing. He needed to spend more time in the woods with me, learning the art of slow and simple.

I strolled over to the sauna and yanked the door open.

There sat Floyd, naked as a blue jay and not half as pretty. He had the largest head I ever saw on a man, and was wearing a Ford baseball cap that was three sizes too small. Men around these parts don't take off their hats unless they absolutely have to.

"Gertie Johnson," Floyd exclaimed. "What are you doing?"

The difference between men and women is this–if you catch a woman butt-naked, she tries to cover the private parts with her hands. A man will sit there just like you found him even if he doesn't have much to be proud of.

Floyd sat like that, not moving.

"Put your drawers on," I said, looking away too late. "I'll wait outside."

Floyd took his sweet time coming out. I sat in the truck with Grumpy until Floyd opened the sauna door and walked toward the truck.

The Finns like their saunas. They usually build them around the back of the house for privacy because they roll in the snow when they're done sweating it out. Afternoon is their favorite time. It takes all morning to fire the sauna up and get it steaming hot. Sometimes a Finn will invite his friends over for a sauna, and if it's mixed company, the men go together then the women go together, and everyone tries to peek when the snow rolling begins. Especially if the moonshine has been going around.

Floyd has six or seven old geezers who share the sauna with him, and I was grateful that they weren't over today. One naked old guy is enough for any woman. I shook my head to clear the image and rolled down the truck window.

"You found Chester this morning," I said. When Blaze let it slip that Floyd found Chester, I was pretty certain he meant Floyd Tatrow. There weren't any other Floyds around Stonely.


I remembered that Floyd couldn't hear well and repeated the question, loudly.

"It was an awful shock," he said.

"What happened?" I shouted.

"What's that?"

I looked over at Little Donny wedged into the driver's seat and our eyes met. Little Donny, who can't stay mad long, grinned at me.

"Is that thing turned on?" I leaned out the window and pointed at Floyd's hearing aid.

Floyd dug the hearing aid out of his ear and made an adjustment. "Sorry," he said, screwing it back in. "Blasted thing was turned off."

"What happened to...

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