So began the day at University of Missoula Bookstore.
Today was set up day for a very big day for the store tomorrow - an even bigger day for Dean Vincent Maskowski.He had been a friend since childhood of author Ralph Gratton – their families had adjacent cottages at WoodsBay on FlatheadLake. He has also been well acquainted with the Sumner family, having been Trent’s roommate in their undergrad days in Missoula. When Trent went off to Dartmouth to do his advanced degree, Maskowski had gone off to Cornell to vet school. When vet school turned out to be a mistake, he transferred to Dartmouth and became Trent’s roommate once again.Now, to be hosting a Ralph Gratton book launch, published by Flathead . . . Trent’s old firm on the same night they would unveil a plaque in honor of his old buddy was a great big deal for the Dean, which made it a very big deal for Lance Hassler.
“Good morning Dorothy, nice to see you in early. We have to hustle today to get set up for the reading and book signing tomorrow, so I really appreciate your help this morning.”
“Good morning to you Mr. Hassler, I’m happy to help out. I really like Ralph Gratton’s books – I’ve read them all, so it will be great to hear him. I hope to meet him and get him to sign a copy for me.”
“Dorothy, when you say Mr. Hassler I look around expecting to see you talking to my father, so call me Lance will you?”
“Sure thing boss. I mean Lance.”
By then assistant manager Nancy Inman had come in to work, paid her respects to Lance in his office and confirmed she would handle all things in the store today – leaving Lance completely free to work on the event, finishing with, “Oh yes Lance, one other thing, I have fifteen students from Professor Burnside’s English 201 class coming in to set up chairs and displays for the reading tomorrow morning. I’ve promised them a few minutes in the green room with the author tomorrow morning and some free beer tonight, so we’ll have lots of help setting up before we close this evening.”
“Great Nancy, I’ll be really busy all day. Call me if you need me for something really serious, otherwise, can we please set over anything you can’t handle till tomorrow in the afternoon, after the book signing? … I really appreciate your efforts. I think this will be a great event – and hopefully we will get some press coverage to show the readers of Missoula that we are worth it – that shopping here is superior to the experience of thumbing pages at Barnes & Noble or the five independents.”
The day was busy for Lance; calls to caterers, staff – running the shop for the day, placing and taking calls from the local media, setting up a green room for media interviews before the reading and presentations.And fielding calls from the author and the publishers.
Simon, on the road early to Missoula called Roger at 9AM on his cell phone, “Roger, where are you?”
“Morning Simon, we’re making great time – the Deerfoot was hell as usual, but once we got past Okotoks and swung over to the Longview Highway we’ve been cruising – flying low actually.Jackie’s driving, I’m pouring her coffee – and I’m reading query letters that came in this week. We should be in Blairmore just a little after 10 to pick up Roger. I rang him. The old fart says he’ll be ready. Where are you?”
“I’m just about to roll into the border crossing at Coutts.Weather is fine, roads are great and I’m doing fine – but I don’t have anyone driving for me or pouring coffee!”
Roger responded, “We were also talking to the cops again this morning – they are trying to trace those calls to Maddie and Jackie to find out who’s been harassing them.Have you talked to them today?”
“No, we said goodbye to the last detective at 5AM – just when I was supposed to be getting up. I showered, shaved and hit the road. Maddie’s pretty shook up about it. I asked her to stay home from the office today but she’s determined to keep her busy appointment schedule,” Simon replied.
“Gotta go Simon – call coming in. Call me when you get to Missoula so we can go over plans for tomorrow morning,” Roger clipped … as he answered another call, “Hello Dean Maskowski, nice to hear from you.”
Roger droned on with the Dean Maskowski for about twenty minutes going over the script and speaking order for tomorrow morning’s big event.The plaque unveiling will occur before the book signing, and before the meet and greet with the press back in the green room. He wanted to have Simon and Roger join him, at the plaque, for the unveiling and to stay there with him for grip & grin photos.
As Roger hung up, Jackie was turning the car into Blairmore.They discussed stopping for a gas-up and bathroom break before picking up Ralph.
Getting back to the car first, Roger slipped into the driver’s seat intent on driving the next leg of the trip to Whitefish; as Jackie got into the passenger seat she was visibly upset; “Honey, what’s the matter?Are you OK?What happened?”, Roger pleaded as Jackie’s face went pale with each sob.
“He called . . . again. That ba . . . stard called me on my cell while I was in the john. He said he is going to kill you and Simon, then come after me and Maddie – then he hung up,” Jackie spit it out and then pushed the door open as she puked on the pavement.
As Roger came around the car to console Jackie, his phone rang.It was Simon.
“Roger, un-fucking believable.Maddie just called, the stalker called her again, threatening to kill you and me, and then go after Jackie and Maddie. I’m calling the police.This shit has to stop.”
“Jackie just got a call too – she’s really shook up.We are in Blairmore. We just stopped for gas before going over to Ralph’s house.”
They talked for a while longer, resolving that the best plan was to have the girls call the detectives because they had actually received the calls – they had the first hand recollection of the details which were very fresh in their minds. Simon would call Maddie with the plan and Jackie would ring the police right now, which she did.
Meanwhile, Roger phoned Ralph Gratton, “Hey Ralph, are you all set?We’re here in Blairmore – just stopped for gas and to make a few calls.We’ll be over to your house in about twenty minutes. Is that OK with you?”
Lance Hassler had scarcely a minute between calls to look at his in-basket.Most of it was routine mail – invoices from publishing houses, trade publications and inter-office mail from around the University.Sticking out of the pile was a courier envelope – FedEx, shipped from Whitefish and addressed to him personally. The shipper shown on the waybill was hard to make out. It looked like V. Lundgren from Whitefish. It felt bulky, something odd shaped inside of it. He opened it carefully and before he knew it, the cargo fell with a thud to his desk.It was a knife. A dirty old knife – Bowie Knife sized – but no showpiece, it was rusty – the wooden handle had deteriorated.He jumped back and stood up in horror as he saw the tip and parts of the blade were encrusted with what looked like blood and blonde hair.
He rang campus security but only got voice mail. He called directly to Chief Mark Muir who was an old friend and explained what had happened.Patrol cars were rolling.
Lance’s next call was to Simon Whitestone’s cell phone, “Hi Lance, how is it going?Are we all set for the launch tomorrow morning?”
The ensuing conversation was comprised mostly of Lance being frantic and Simon trying to calm him before it ended with, “Lance, just relax. The police will be there any minute. They will collect the knife and the courier envelope and they will take your statement. You have nothing to worry about, right?Plans for tonight are all sorted out and confirmed.Roger is picking up Ralph right now and then driving to the signings along the way. They are on time. I spoke with Dean Maskowski a few minutes ago – he tells me he’s gone over the script by phone with Roger, so we are all set.I think – once the police are finished, you should take a little walk – get some fresh air to calm yourself down.I’m half-way between Great Falls and Helena, so I should be in the Flathead office by noon. I’ll call you then.”
Roger, with Jackie calmed, pulled up to Ralph’s house. Amazing, after all his success as a writer he still lived in this ratty cottage style bungalow in Blairmore - quaint, slow moving, one traffic light town.
"With Roger and his travel tote-bag, computer case and suitcase ensconced in the back seat next to his bags Ralph blurted out, “Roger, can’t we put some of this gear in the trunk so I can breathe back here?”
“Ralph, we can put it all in the trunk if you like – but then we’d have to put all those cases of books out at the side of the road!”, Roger volleyed back as the car crawled onto the highway for the trip to Whitefish.
The trip was uneventful – Roger drove fast, driven in part by Jackie’s angst, frustrated they couldn’t talk about it with Ralph in the back seat – and he was tired, so conversation was not important.Roger offered Ralph a copy of the script for the evening’s event and otherwise focused his attention on the road and dialing up voice mails.
The day’s itinerary was bang on – they got to Whitefish by 3PM, then over to Bad Rock Books in ColumbiaFalls for a rather well attended signing for mid afternoon on a weekday.Then they sprinted to Kalispell for a book signing at Borders, followed by a short trip to Polson to meetwith local media at the Polson Golf Club at 6PM for drinks.
Having sold and given away two cases of books so far, there was now room in the trunk for a couple of small luggage pieces. Ralph was happy to now have some breathing room.
Next stop - Missoula for the night so they could do the formal-official launch from there the next morning. It would be a spectacular affair - at the Bookstore at the U of M together with the university’s unveiling a plaque in honor of Trent Sumner. It was a very big deal, this launch of Bushwacked in Flathead Country, with a book signing to follow.
It was nearly 9PM when Roger pulled into the Holiday Inn in Missoula.Jackie and Ralph headed to the check-in desk with everyone’s luggage on a cart while Roger got back into the car to head over to the Missoula office.He found Simon working at his desk. He looked like hell. Roger looked like hell. They were both exhausted.They talked about the launch plan, Simon confirmed that 20 cases of books had been delivered over to the U of M bookstore earlier in the day, that Lance Hassler had everything organized, and that Vincent Maskowski was pacified.
“Simon, you should stop right now. Just stop.Let’s have one drink and then head over to the hotel. Have you checked in?”
“No, I came straight here. It won’t be a problem – they always hold my room for me.Here, let me see …. I think I’ve got a bottle of scotch in one of these cabinets.Ah, here it is, a 30-year-old Macallan,” Simon answered as he turned off the light over his computer and logged off.
“So what is this business of a knife being delivered to the bookstore?”, asked Roger – “they were talking about it in ColumbiaFalls and Kalispell . . . I guess news like that is bound to travel fast.”
“I don’t know. I talked to Lance a second time after the police were gone – he seemed settled down. I called Mark Muir’s office and got nowhere – everything I asked was answered with a – ‘sorry, no comment, there is an ongoing investigation’.”
One drink became two, then three. It was 11:15 when Roger’s phone rang, it was Jackie – frantic, she’d received another call. While Roger was soothing her and assuring her he would be at the hotel in 10 minutes – Simon’s phone rang. It was Maddie. She’d just had a call too.
“Maddie, are you alone?”, Simon asked.
“Sandra and Nicole are here – they came over with a couple of bottles of wine and Chinese food because they knew I was freaked-out by these calls and they knew you were gone.”Maddie’s voice fell lower, “Simon, this time the guy said he might change his mind – to kill both you and Roger since you are both in Missoula tonight. How the hell does he know that you are in Missoula? How does he know our every move? I’m getting really scared Simon – I don’t think these are crank calls anymore. I think this guy is serious – I can just hear it in his voice.”
“Maddie, I want you to leave the house. Get your friends to go with you. You should check into a hotel. Go down to the Hyatt. They’ve got the best security system of any hotel in Calgary. I think you should go there, right now. I’m going to call the detectives right now and tell them you got another call and that you are going to a hotel until I get back, OK?”
“OK, you don’t have to ask me twice.”
Roger and Simon made their way to the hotel and said goodnight.Roger consoled Jackie who insisted he hold her all night, but not before she bolted the door and wedged a chair under the knob like some movie scene.
Morning came too quickly, but at least the publishers had a good night’s sleep before their big event.Over breakfast Simon called Maddie. She was safe. No more calls. The police suggested they re-route calls so they can record and possibly trace them from the land line at the office. She was meeting with them this morning.They wanted to make a similar arrangement with Jackie as soon as she gets back to Calgary.
The big event promotion had worked. As Ralph and Jackie arrived – author Gratton in tow – they couldn’t find a place to park anywhere near the bookstore.The store looked packed already and dozens of people were milling around outside – not just the smokers, but folks just trying to get in.Once parked, two blocks away, they made their way into the store just a few minutes before festivities were to begin.
Near the entrance there were four Missoula police cars. Two were marked. The others not, but you could easily tell from the basic white sedan-ness of them, and gear on the dash indicated they were. That seemed odd. Who needed heavy security at a book signing?And why not campus security?
There was a stage area set up near the back of the store – just some short risers actually with a lectern poised at the front.Simon was already there, seated on stage along with Dean Maskowski, some other university types and Lance Hassler.Roger, Jackie and Ralph Gratton joined them.
A few minutes before the start time, Mark Muir strode over to the stage.Simon waved and Mark acknowledged, but he beckoned Lance Hassler. As Lance got to the edge of the stage, Muir said, “Lance, that knife that was sent to you- we’ve identified that it was used in a brutal killing the other night.A young woman, a graduate student here, went missing.We found her body yesterday in a ditch up near Kalispell.She’d been stalked for quite a while – been receiving harassing threatening calls on her cell phone. There was a second body in that ditch as well. We haven’t identified her yet. That knife was the murder weapon for both of them. So far we haven’t caught up with the guy who shipped you the knife.Our information on him is that he is small time – an old retired geologist who does petty crimes, but not a very good murder suspect in my opinion.We have another more likely suspect, a faculty member here at the University.I have several officers here in the room because he is here. We will wait until after your event to take him in for questioning. We really appreciate you contacting us so quickly when you found it. That may very well be the key to solving this murder.”
Hassler responded, “Thank you for letting us continue. I really appreciate that. Tell me, do you have any idea who sent that to me, or why they sent it to me?”
“I don’t know why, but we are very close to confirming the who part.I’ll step back now so you can get on with your program.”
At exactly 10AM, Lance Hassler opened the festivities with a few welcome remarks on behalf of the University and the Bookstore, and he then introduced Simon.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of Flathead Printing and Bookbinding Co. – a company founded by MontanaState’s hero, the late Trent Sumner; please help me welcome him to the lectern.”
As the applause died down, Simon took over. He told the story of Flathead’s publishing business and talked about Trent’s history at the University and his family history in the area.
Then, he introduced Ralph Gratton – but not before he gave a strong sales plug for the book, as well as other titles Ralph had written which were published by Flathead.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Dean Maskowski, honored guests – please help me welcome the author of Bushwacked in FlatheadCounty, Mr. Roger Gratton.”
The applause was sustained and enthusiastic.
Ralph began his reading.He wasn’t a very emphatic reader - but that didn’t diminish his ego one bit. He droned on, and on.
It was getting pretty warm in the bookstore; they don’t usually have crowds like this. Suffice to say it was really getting warm. Ralph asked for some water.Nancy Inman brought a pitcher and a glass, placed it on the display table adjacent to the lectern.She poured a glass and handed it to Ralph.
So, Ralph Gratton sipped some water, and launched into reading his third and final passage of the evening, a portion of narrative by the main character Vernell, the villain:
“I was nearly done now. Shots were fired. Bodies were buried. Roger and Jacqueline would speak no more. Next, I would ride down to Missoula to plug Simon while he works late at his desk. Then, the inheritance that is rightly mine will finally come to me. Being the bastard son of Clay Sumner had been no picnic. I’d waited a long time for this.The brothers were all dead now; Trent died in a rodeo accident, Craig took his own life – I staged his murder to look like a suicide and Kevin was going to be hanging, but that never happened because he died in a prison knifing while on death row for killing his father Clay.It was my time . . .at last. . . .
Finally. He was done.
Applause filled the place.Lance Hassler re-took the speaking spot, adjusted the microphone and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have the great pleasure this morning of having a special presentation and presenter.”He motioned to the veiled plaque on the wall with a veiled easel right beside it. “This is the day we are going to be honoring Trent Sumner.To tell you about Mr. Sumner and to do the unveiling, please welcome Dean Vincent Maskowski.”
Dean Maskowski strode to the front of the stage with the carriage of an important man who thought he was more important than he actually was.
He began, “Ladies and gentlemen it is a great honor for me to be here today, representing your university to pay tribute to Trent Sumner’s memory and his accomplishments . . . ”
Jackie was stunned.She knew it the moment Maskowski started to speak.
A few moments later, Simon and Roger, responding to her, learned what she had heard.
Jackie was sure of it – the voice on the phone, the stalker, the harasser, the threats – it was Maskowski. She was certain of it. Not absolutely positive, but really pretty sure.
The event continued – Dean Maskowski recounted his younger days with Trent Sumner, their time together at the University of Montana, and then later at Dartmouth. He alluded to parties, drinking and gambling, but mostly he praised his old friend, praised his founding of Flathead Printing and Bookbinding Co.He then asked Simon and Ralph to join him for the unveiling of the plaque in Trent’s honor.
As Simon and Ralph turned to read the inscription on the plaque, Maskowski pulled a small gun from his suit jacket pocket and was aiming it at the back of Simon’s head when Jackie screamed.
“Look out Simon. He’s got a gun.”
At that moment three burly officers tackled the Dean and wrestled the gun away from him.
Jackie ran to Roger and squeezed him like he was the last man on earth. He took her tight to his chest and held on.Simon joined them in a group hug.
Lance Hessler came over just then, looking incredibly frazzled, “Do you know where Ralph Gratton went?He was supposed to come back to the green room after the reading to meet with media and the students who helped set things up – and then come back to the stage to sign books. We’ve got dozens of people lined up – they’ve bought the books but want his autograph. We can’t find him anywhere.”
Simon’s phone rang.
It was Maddie.She was freaking out, “Simon, I am so glad I got you – I am so scared. Are you OK? I got a call – just now, I think it was the stalker. He said, ‘now that Simon and Roger are dead, I’m coming after you and Jackie’.”
Jackie’s phone starting ringing.
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