The Fish Hatchery Murders by John A. Miller, Jr. by John A. Miller, Jr. - Read Online

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Summary

Eighteen and now legally adults, Mary Ann Markham and best friend, Jennifer Martin, offer to help a high school friend find out who murdered her boyfriend at a nearby trout nursery. However, instead of quickly identifying the killer the girls are hounded by additional bodies that may or may not be victims of the same murderer. A surprise addition to their team from a local homeless shelter adds her expertise, and Mary Ann’s adoptive parents, Art and Marsha Parker, get dragged into the investigation as usual. The girls get trapped in an abandoned warehouse, nearly get run over by a train, and are imprisoned in a walk-in refrigerator before finally stumbling on the solution, which almost results in their names being added to the growing list of corpses.

Published: John A. Miller, Jr. on
ISBN: 1370416881
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town.

Prologue

Chrissake, Derek, can’t you watch where the hell you’re going?

Hey, man, it’s darker than shit. I can’t help it I tripped. I can’t see nuthin’.

Well, be careful. You’re making more noise than a herd of elephants. All we need is for one of the guys who works here to hear us and we’ll be in deep crap.

Yeah, well, if anything happens, this was all your idea.

Right, and I forced you to come with us by holding a gun to your head.

Will you two guys keep your goddamn mouths shut? I don’t think there’s anybody here at night, but they can probably hear you two all the way down in Bridgewater.

Okay, okay, we’ll keep it down, the one called Derek said, this time more softly.

That’s better. Now let’s see, the pond with the really big fish should be over here somewhere.

Hell, you could use your flashlight, you know.

What, and have everybody in Fish and Game on our asses?

You just said there’s nobody here at night.

I said I don’t think there is, but I don’t want to take any chances. You know your old man would have a shit fit if we got caught.

Okay, so how are we going to explain the size of the fish when we take them to the taxidermist?

Simple. We caught them in Bitters Creek about a mile upstream from where it empties into the Mercer River in one of those deep holes where there are supposed to be some big trout hiding. As long as we all tell the same story about where and how we caught them we’ll be okay. After all, there are three of us and no other witnesses so they’ll have to believe us. Besides, everybody knows we like to fish and have gone there in the past.

What if they count these big fish and notice a couple are missing?

Don’t be stupid. Who the hell counts fish? I mean, they’re always swimming around so how could you keep track?

It’s not a very big pond. I would think you could count them if you were careful.

So? If you’re scared, you can go grab a fish out of one of the other ponds. There must be thousands of the damned things in there. Of course, they’re all kind of run of the mill. No real big ones.

No, we came to get trophy fish and we’re going to get them.

Okay, but don’t fall into the pond. These things aren’t sharks, but they could probably bite your hand or something.

Silence except for the rustling of clothing followed by a faint, but sharp, report; then a loud splash followed by several seconds of softer splashing.

Hey, what was that noise? It sounded like a shot.

I don’t know, but I think Derek just fell into the pond. Derek, we have a net. You don’t have to catch the damned fish with your hands.

Silence; then a nervous voice asking, Derek, are you okay?

Another voice saying, Switch on your light. I think something’s wrong.

A beam of light stabbed at the surface of the pond. A human body floated face down in the water.

Holy shit, he looks dead.

He can’t be dead. He’s probably just screwing around. I’ll go get him.

Another splash as one of the boys on the bank dove in. He surfaced next to the floating body.

This water’s friggin’ cold. I don’t think he’s breathing, but I’ll have to tow him to the bank. Shit, I’m treading water here. I didn’t realize this pond was so deep.

Okay. I’ll help you pull him out. Maybe he swallowed too much water when he fell in. They taught us about artificial respiration in health class.

The swimming boy nudged the floating body to the bank where his accomplice helped him drag it from the water.

He doesn’t have a pulse.

How do you know? You ain’t exactly a doctor.

I know how to take a pulse and I tell you he ain’t got one.

Well, try that artificial respiration anyway. Maybe he just swallowed too much water.

Hey, you’re supposed to put your mouth over his to blow air into his lungs. I ain’t kissing no boy, friend or not.

Okay, then let’s roll him over and maybe the water will run out of his lungs.

A few grunts and groans as the two boys turned their inert accomplice face down. The flashlight lay on the grass beside them providing weak but adequate illumination for their task.

What’s this dark shit on his back?

I don’t know. Let me shine the light on it.

Is that blood?

It can’t be. How the hell would he get blood on his shirt?

I don’t know, but if it ain’t blood it must be red paint or ketchup.

The boy picked up a limp wrist and held it for a few seconds. No pulse. Holy shit, I think he’s dead.

Do you think one of those big trout bit him?

"I don’t think so. Maybe on his finger or something but not in the middle of his back. Maybe that noise we heard was a gunshot."

How could anybody shoot in the dark and hit something? Besides, it wasn’t loud enough to be a shot unless it was pretty damned far away. Anyway, what do we do now?

Does anybody know the three of us came out here together?

No. Derek said he was grounded so he sneaked out of his house.

Then let’s get the hell out of here. We can’t do anything for him if he’s dead, and if nobody knows he was with us, we can just leave him here and let them find him in the morning.

That’s a pretty rotten way to treat a friend.

Yeah, but it’s a hell of a lot less trouble this way. I mean, do you want to spend the rest of your life answering questions to the cops about why Derek’s dead with some kind of hole in his back. Maybe he drowned but somehow I don’t think so. Besides, your old man would kick the crap out of both of us if he found out we were out here at night.

And I can do without that. I’m high on his shit list so as it is.

So what’s our story?

We took your car and went for a ride over toward Bearford, but only say that if somebody asks. Don’t volunteer nothin’. Oh, and we ain’t seen Derek since yesterday afternoon in school. If he’s grounded he wouldn’t be out with us anyway.

Look, he’s here, but we ain’t here, and we ain’t been here for a couple of months. Besides, nobody but us knows we wanted those trophy fish.

I guess we’ll have to catch our own.

Fat chance. Those wild ones are smarter than we are. I thought it would be easy just to come here with a net and get a couple. If Derek hadn’t been such a klutz…

I don’t think you can get a hole in your back just by being a klutz.

Come on, let’s get out of here before somebody comes. I’ll drop you at your place—your folks should be in bed by now so they won’t see that you’re all wet, and you’ll be able to get to your room before they notice. Just remember to keep your mouth shut.

Yeah, and I’m friggin’ freezing to death in these wet clothes. Let’s go.

Day 1

Monday

Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed. School days are seldom a joy, especially when it’s foggy and drizzling. It’s a long walk down our lane to where the school bus picks me up on the main road, but usually I don’t mind because all that walking helps keep me healthy. However, this kind of weather I can do without. Of course, I suppose it could have been snowing and slippery, but maybe then there’d be a chance school would be canceled.

For those of you who’ve followed these chronicles in the past you may be a bit confused about why I’m talking about going to wait for the school bus. That’s because I’m not Art Parker but his loving adopted daughter, Mary Ann Markham. Usually Dad narrates these tales of murder and mayhem with yours truly throwing in only a few stray chapters or occasional comments, but this time I decided to take the load off his aging bones. Okay, he keeps telling me that forty-two isn’t old, not even middle-aged, but he’s not as agile and alert as he used to be.

Murder and mayhem? Okay, I didn’t know that at this point in the story, but I was soon to find out. After all, Jennifer’s uncle is a deputy sheriff, recently promoted to sergeant, and he’s kind enough to keep us posted about any unexpected killings in our area without our having to await the news reports.

I’m first on the bus because I’m at the very end of the run so I was already uncomfortably seated—Hey, those seats leave a lot to be desired—and reading over a history report I was planning to submit, when Grace Ambrosian got on and immediately plopped down beside me. I was surprised because Grace usually doesn’t sit with me. She’s well aware that my regular seatmate is my best friend, Jennifer Martin. However, I decided to be polite and not push her off the seat onto the aisle floor.

It’s awful, Grace said and then began crying.

What’s so awful?

Derek’s dead.

Derek who?

Derek Parsloe.

Derek Parsloe? I had to think for a moment. Oh yeah, he’s a junior. I’m a senior, and I don’t know too many from the junior class. Because I live way out in the country I don't usually socialize with the kids from school except, of course, Jen. What happened?

He was murdered.

Murdered? This was news to me. Jen’s uncle, J.J. McClure, was slipping. When did this happen?

Sometime Saturday night, Grace said between sniffles.

That’s pretty bad. Okay, so J.J. probably hadn’t had a chance to notify us. How did you find out?

His girlfriend, Julie Patel, posted it on her Facebook page. She’s really broken up.

I know Julie Patel a bit because she’s a senior and in a couple of my classes. I knew nothing about her love life, however. Although I have a Facebook page I seldom use it—don’t know enough people to Friend nor do I want everybody knowing the last time I went to the bathroom or the details of that visit. I only remembered Derek Parsloe vaguely. My recollection was that he was a bit of a dork.

I can imagine that Julie’s upset, I said. I’d be, too, if I had a boyfriend and he was murdered. By this time the bus had picked up several more students including Jen, who had found a seat directly in front of us.

What’s this all about? Jen asked. I was rather surprised she didn’t give Grace the evil eye for sitting in her seat, but then I knew Jen was probably going to get the evil eye from Runilda Marcos who usually sat where she was now sitting. That didn’t really matter too much because Runilda is only a sophomore, and they have little say about much of anything.

Derek Parsloe was murdered sometime Saturday night.

Oh, I sort of know him, or I guess I should say, ‘knew him.’ What happened?

By now Grace had pretty much stopped sniffling, which was a definite improvement. She mumbles at the best of times, and trying to talk while crying made her nearly impossible to understand.

They found his body at the fish hatchery lying next to the pond where they keep the trophy trout.

How do they know it was murder? Jen said. Maybe he had a heart attack or something.

Julie posted that she went out there after his father called her and told her about it. They hadn’t taken him away yet, and she said he was lying face down with a bloody mark on his back. She thinks it was a bullet wound but they wouldn’t say.

A bullet wound, I mused. Hm. It’s funny nobody heard the shot. No, I take that back. I remember my grandfather taking me there a couple of times when I was a kid, and unless there’s been a lot of building in that area it’s up in the hills and pretty lonely. I looked at Jen. Can you find out more about this from your uncle?

I’ll try. Of course, he’ll probably tell us to butt out because it’s none of our business.

Hey, how many times have we saved his ass by discovering the murderer?

None probably, or at least that’s what he’ll say.

Yeah, well… Okay, but you have to give us credit for trying.

He does say we’re very trying at times.

Old joke; not funny.

You may be wondering about all this talk about murders and us helping to solve them. Well, Mercer County may not be the murder capital of the world, but we do seem to have more than our share of the damned things. For various reasons we—that includes me, Jen, and Daddy Art—seem to have been involved with many of them. No, we don’t commit them although I have a list of potential victims, but they seem to surround us like biting flies on a hot summer day. It’s true that several have occurred in other locales, but Mercer County is our home base. It’s made us personae non gratae with most of the members of the sheriff’s department. In fact, Sheriff William Robert Carswell, or as I like to call him, Billy Bob Asshole, would love to hang us all in a highly visible place as a warning to other amateur sleuths.

Anyway, to get back to us and Grace I asked, Is Julie sure it was murder? Maybe he fell on something sharp and it punctured his heart.

She said there wasn’t anything sharp nearby, or at least she didn’t see anything. Still, I guess there could have been something. They let her kneel down and touch him when she said she was his girlfriend, but they wouldn’t tell her what happened.

Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they still don’t.

Yeah, I guess that could be.

Jen, can you come to my place tonight? Jen and I have an agreement with the school that either one of us can be dropped off or picked up at the other’s house. We can call your uncle and get the details.

Sure. I can call my mom when we get to your house and let her know I’ll be staying over.

Okay. Thanks, Grace, for telling us about this.

I know you guys like murders, so…

Yeah, we do like murders as long as we’re not the victims.

** ** **

So this is what we do? First you call your uncle and milk him for details.

At that moment Dad walked into the kitchen where Jen and I were sitting at the big table scarfing up freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies our wonderful cook, Mrs. Rachel Peabody, had just put in front of us. We already had helped ourselves to large glasses of milk.

What’s this ‘milking for details’ stuff? Dad asked, staring at our glasses of milk as he did so. From the tone of his voice you’d have thought he was accusing us of something nefarious.

Er, we want to get Uncle J.J.’s input on something that happened, Jen said, a bit nervously I thought for something I considered a perfectly innocent undertaking.

Oh? What happened?

I took the bull by the horns. Derek Parsloe was murdered.

And who’s Derek Parsloe? I don’t recall any teenage heartthrob by that name.

He isn’t a teenage heartthrob, or I guess I should say ‘wasn’t.’ Still, maybe he was to Julie.

Dad can manage to look so confused at times. Sometimes I think it’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. After a few moments during which various baffled looks contorted his face he said, This is a local boy, isn’t it?

Yes, he was in our high school: a junior.

Oh, an inferior form of life. So when was this murder?

Saturday night at the fish hatchery.

That’s a strange place for a murder.

No worse than a playhouse stage or an abandoned railroad tunnel or my bedroom floor. In the past we’ve dealt with murders at these as well as other interesting locations.

I guess you’re right. Don’t tell me. He was attacked by a giant man-eating fish.

No, don’t be silly. I’m sure Julie Patel—she was his girlfriend—isn’t laughing.

You’re right. It’s not exactly a nice thing for anybody to be murdered, but we’ve dealt with so many of the damned things I guess I’m getting a bit jaded. What do you know about it so far?

Just his name and that he was found by a visitor to the hatchery yesterday morning lying next to the pond where they keep the giant trout. Yes, they were giant fish, but I don’t think there’s a fish living that’s learned how to fire a gun.

So he was shot.

Derek’s mom and dad went out there first—I guess the deputy who responded recognized him and called them right away. Then his dad called Julie who went out there and posted what she knew on her Facebook page. She said it looked like a bullet wound in his back, but they wouldn’t give her any details.

No, they usually won’t until a pathologist has had a look. Looks like our good friend, Paul Simmons, will be busy. Doc Simmons is our county coroner and probably has us high on his list of people he’d like to bump off.

So should I get on the phone to Uncle J.J. and try to find out what he knows? Jen said after having stuffed a whole cookie into her mouth.

I wiped away spattered cookie from the tabletop with my hand and said, Of course, but try swallowing first.

Oh, sorry. Jen took a gulp of milk and then got up and headed for the door into the staff hallway. The phone is on a table in the main hallway, which can be reached from the staff hallway either via a doorway into the dining room and then into the main hallway or from a doorway into the rear part of the main hallway across from the elevator. The phone is wireless, but we usually keep it in the cradle so it stays charged.

If you’re beginning to wonder about the topography of our house, let me explain that we live in a huge Victorian-style mansion owned by my grandfather, Charles Drummond. Grandfather made his money in the auto parts business and then sold out a number of years ago leaving him with humongous amounts of the green stuff. I’ve lived with him all my eighteen-plus years, and for most of those years he was my sole guardian after my real parents, his daughter and son-in-law, were killed in a car wreck when I was four. Grandfather was driving and was crippled in the crash. He’s never forgiven himself although from what I’ve heard it really wasn’t his fault. Anyway, he hired Arthur Parker, an ex-journalist and now Dad to me, about four years ago to be my live-in writing coach. I had already published a novel for teens, and Grandfather felt I needed somebody to provide continuity after my previous writing coach left without notice. About a year or so later we spent the month of June in the Atlantic seashore town of Shipwreck, where Dad, then still plain Art, met Marsha Brown, M.D., an emergency room specialist. Since then they’ve married, adopted me—this proves they’re both of weak mind—and we all live together in this crooked little house, except we don’t have a crooked little cat or mouse and the house certainly isn’t little. We need a live-in staff of four just to keep the place running. Dad is still technically my writing coach, and I really am working, albeit slowly, on my third novel, but Grandfather also has Dad working as property manager for our estate of many acres, which is mostly hills, woods, and refurbished lake. Marsha—now Mom—opened a clinic with Grandfather’s financial assistance in Bearford, the nearest town, small and about twelve miles away, where along with a couple of other doctors and nurses she handles patients on a walk-in basis.

Jen was gone for about ten minutes during which time Dad got his own supply of cookies and milk and joined me at the table while Mrs. Peabody slaved away over dinner preparations in the background. At one time Dad would chastise Jen and me for scarfing up cookies so close to dinnertime, but he gave up after realizing we still managed to eat enough at the meal to feed the average stable of horses. This is not in any way a criticism of Mrs. Peabody’s cooking, which is superb. I don’t seem to gain weight—good metabolism, I guess—and Jen remains skinny as a picket fence slat, but Dad has become a bit porky over the past few years. Mom, a mere child at thirty-six compared with Dad’s elderly forty-two, has retained her youthful metabolism as well.

It was definitely murder and definitely a bullet in the back, and we are to go away and not bother him and never think about this again, Jen said rapidly as she reentered the kitchen.

Does this mean he’s rejecting our assistance in solving the crime? I asked.

He rather implied that he’d rather have the assistance of a herd of mentally deficient buffalo.

Did he specify whether he meant American bison or African water buffalo?

I didn’t think to ask.

"Perhaps you’d have the courage to ask him," Dad said, looking at me as he did so.

On second thought it’s not really important. I glanced over my shoulder at Mrs. Peabody, certain that I’d heard some sniggering from that direction. However, her face bore merely a pleasant smile. I really do think we need to keep our detection skills honed. When was the last murder around here? Sometime last summer if I remember correctly, and it’s already March.

And you two were almost part of the corpse collection, Dad added.

Okay, so it’s a risky business, but it does have the advantage of seldom being boring.

Oh, I don’t know. You were just complaining of no murders since last summer. That smacks of boredom to me. Besides, too many murders could become boring as well.

I guess you’re right. Jen, your uncle didn’t absolutely forbid us to visit the fish hatchery, did he?

Not in so many words, but I think if we go there we’d better express an interest in the fish. However, I guess they’ve removed the crime scene tape so it’s open to the public again.

And we’re the public, I said, probably with a smirk on my face, but then who bothers carrying a mirror all the time to check such things.

Day 4

Thursday

I had hoped to see Julie Patel in English class on Wednesday. I figured if I could get her alone for a few minutes before or after class I could pump her for what she knew about the killing, getting undistorted information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. I made it a point to be in the classroom several minutes before the scheduled start, but no Julie. It turned out she had taken the day off to attend Derek’s funeral, which I thought was certainly appropriate.

Fortunately, I shared a history class with her Thursdays, and when I arrived early I found her already in her seat.

Hi, Julie, I said. How did things go yesterday?

Okay, I guess. Derek’s family’s pretty broken up, and it was pretty tough for me, too.

Yeah, I guess it would be. I’ve never lost anybody really close—my parents when I was four, but I was too young then to really understand. What happened out at the hatchery?

I don’t know for sure. I had a lot of trouble focusing. All I could see was him lying there dead with that bloody mark on the back of his shirt. I’m pretty sure there was a small hole in his shirt right in the middle of the stain. It looked like those bloodstains you see on cop shows on TV. They let me touch his arm and cheek—his skin was so cold, not like a real person’s—but then they made me stand back. I stood there for a couple of minutes until they made everybody move back pretty far, telling us they didn’t want us messing up the area. I talked with his mom and dad for a while, but I was getting cold so I went back to my car.

Did you see any sort of gun or shell casing or anything like that?

No, but I was pretty upset so instead of looking at his body or even the area around it I watched the fish swimming around in one of the ponds. That really calmed me down. I guess that’s why people have tropical fish tanks in their homes.

Julie looked a bit dazed for a moment, but then she surprised me by saying, I remember you’ve been involved with several murders. Do you think you could find out who killed him?

Well, I’m not a trained professional like the sheriff’s people are. However, I’ll certainly keep my eyes and ears open. Maybe I’ll be able to learn something. Meanwhile, please let me know if you learn anything else or even if somebody acts odd.

Acts odd how?

I wish I knew. That’s what they asked us to watch out for after those murders at the playhouse, but I guess everybody acts a bit odd at times so it was hard to tell that from their normal behavior.

Just then Mr. Grunslow, our history teacher, walked into the room and plopped a pile of books on his desk. I hurried to my own seat hoping not to be criticized for wasting valuable class time.

** ** **

Jen didn’t go home with me that evening—she had to study for an advanced algebra test, and what I know about advanced algebra you could put into a thimble and then stuff in your foot—but while we rode the school bus I was able to fill her in on the little I had learned from Julie.

So she doesn’t know much more than we already knew, Jen said, looking a bit frustrated.

No. I wish she’d been a bit more observant, but then I guess everybody can’t be as experienced in these matters as we are.

Mary Ann, do you really enjoy dealing with murder?

I don’t know. Do you?

I’m getting so used to it I guess I miss the thrill when people aren’t dropping dead like flies all around me.

Me, too. Does that mean there’s something wrong with us?

Probably not although other people might think so. I suppose this means we’re both destined for careers in law enforcement.

Yeah. We’ll have to watch more police and detective shows to bone up.

Uncle J.J. wonders about us sometimes.

Speaking of him, have you talked to him since Monday afternoon.

No, I’ve been kind of busy with work and then schoolwork and helping my mom clean the house. Jen has been working at my mom’s clinic as a receptionist since last summer—after school and Saturdays during the winter months. Her own mother, Adele, is the accountant there. Usually Jen takes the school bus to Bearford and the clinic after school and then goes home with her mother, but this week she had a couple of afternoons off because the daytime receptionist had asked to work a few extra hours. Jen then planned to fill in for her for a couple of days over spring break.

Yeah, there are advantages to having a housemaid. Look, do you want to go out to the hatchery Sunday?

If it’s not raining.

I’ll check the forecast, and then we can decide tomorrow. You can come to my place for the weekend and go to work from there. Meanwhile, if you can get a chance to call your uncle and try to find out more about the murder, it would be helpful.

I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee anything. He’ll probably tell me to buzz off.

And I’ll try to convince Dad to go with us. Actually, I don’t think I’ll have much trouble in that area. He enjoys this shit as much as we do.

Day 7

Sunday

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and surprisingly warm for the latter part of March. Needless to say Dad was not an obstacle to our excursion although Jen and I would have gone by ourselves if he hadn’t agreed to join us. I have my own car, a bright red Prius given to me by Grandfather when I got my driver’s license nearly a year ago, so transportation is not a problem. Because they’re not terribly well off Jen has to share her mother’s car. She says the insurance premiums are brutal enough without the cost of an additional vehicle. Mom was unable to join us. She was studying for an exam for a course she was taking. I guess doctors can never stop learning about new things in medicine.

We decided to get an early start, hoping the warm weather wouldn’t attract herds of people with their children all yearning for the great outdoors after a rather cold and bleak winter or at least that said herds would decide to sleep in and not pack the place until later in the day. We were wrong. When we arrived at about nine-thirty there were already fifteen cars in the lot—I counted.

I haven’t been here in several years, I said.

Me neither, Jen added.

I’ve never been here, Dad said, so I’m sure it’s been at least four years for you. Did you come often?

No, only a few times. Goodwin would bring along Grandfather’s wheelchair and then push him around the paved walks that border the fish ponds. Goodwin had been our gardener, handyman, and general factotum for many years. Come to think of it, I never did know his first name.

A big sign next to the entrance reads, Mercer Valley Trout Nursery. The road dead-ends at a big blacktop parking lot at least a couple of acres in size that contained the aforementioned fifteen vehicles. Behind and to the right of the lot is a series of fish ponds something on the order of big concrete swimming pools, some of which are side by side with concrete walls separating them. You can walk between others on blacktopped pathways, thus getting a good view of the little and big fish inhabitants. Several ponds contain big fountains that Dad said are used to aerate the water because totally still waters could become oxygen-deprived and suffocate the fish. On the far side of the ponds rises a series of wooded hills although this early in the season, late March, the trees except for a few evergreens hadn’t even begun to think about leafing out. There are no maple sugaring operations in our county, but I know that up to the north at this time of year most of the maple trees are tapped for their sap to boil down into sweet syrup.

We approached the edge of a large pond, its fountain spraying and its water roiling from the movement of an enormous number of foot-long trout. I wonder what they do with all these fish, I said.