Otto was flying.
September 12. 2019-February 4, 2020
Otto was flying.
September 12. 2019-February 4, 2020
Otto walked into the outer office where Samantha, Polly and Mata were busily counting the take from the last air show of the year. Mata punched in some numbers on the laptop and leaned back, frowning.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Receipts for this show are way down.”
“Do you know why?”
“No, but I’ll find out.”
“Maybe it was a quirk.”
“We’d have to wait until next year to find out. I want to find out now so we can fix it in time.”
“I’m sure you will. Do you have any ideas in mind?”
“Well, I think at least part of the problem is that we’re no longer a rural community. Houses are going in every day, businesses are growing, and people have to choose what they do carefully. We used to be one of the few shows in town, but now people have dozens of choices. That’s why not as many came this past weekend. They were off doing something else.”
“So what do we do?”
“It can’t be more of the same, although I would hate to close the airshow. Maybe we could augment it.”
“I don’t know right now, but I’m going to look into it.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Otto went back into his office. They had a difficult problem, he knew, but he also knew that Mata would find a way to fix things. He started opening his mail.
The third from the last envelope looked different somehow. The envelope was too big for the enclosure and the return address was smudged so he couldn’t read it. The boys at the post office must have been having fun with this one, he thought, and slit the envelope open.
A fine white powder drifted out. He felt dizzy for a moment and then the darkness closed in.
Otto’s vision returned and he found he was in a familiar setting. Yes, it was all there—the clearing in the forest where there was a temple-like building, the table set with all kinds of food and the procession of those who had gone on before them. He heard his father’s words in his head.
“Welcome again, my son. You are being called to receive a message. Your time is not yet.”
One time it is going to be, Otto thought.
“Yes, one time it will. But not now.” Otto had forgotten that his father could “hear” him, just as he could “hear” Hans.
“My message is this: you must move far from where you are or a great harm will over take you. This is all I have to say.”
Otto knew what would happen next. The figures faded and he felt like he was falling through an insubstantial white material. Just as he was about to hit a solid surface, his falling slowed and he was deposited gently in a chair. When his vision returned, he saw that he was back in his office with no ill effects.
That was a weird one, he thought. Why would I want to move away from everything I know.? It doesn’t make sense.
Mata came to the door of his office. “Did you call me?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Hhmph. I thought I heard you calling me.”
“I’d remember if I did that but no, I didn’t.”
“All right. Are you well?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I have, Otto thought, but didn’t say anything.
“All right. I’ll get back to work. Let me know if you come up with any ideas to thrill the masses.”
“Short of setting myself on fire? I will.”
Otto knew that moving away would be extremely difficult, but he also knew it had to be done. His father-spirit had never offered bad advice, and he thought he wouldn’t start with this latest vision.
He stood up and went into the outer office. “I’m going flying to clear my mind,” he said.
“Tell us something we don’t know,” Mata told him. “Have a good flight.”
“I think every flight except for one has been a good flight.”
“I hear you.”
Otto went out down the flight line to the Cub which stood ready, thanks to Luis. He pre-flighted the outside and then got in and ran the interior checklist. Satisfied that all was in order, he called “Clear!” and started the engine. He taxied out to the runway, held until he received clearance and took off into a beautiful day.
“Remember to fasten your seat belt,” Otto told Betty.
“Already have it fastened.”
“Yes, I am. Want to do something about it?”
“Maybe later. Let’s get this trip over with first.”
“Here we go!”
Otto pulled away from the hangar and taxied to the active runway. He called for permission to take off and when that was granted, advanced the throttles on the twin Cessna and started down the runway, lifting off into a clear blue sky.
“How long will this take?” Betty wanted to know.
“Could you be more imprecise?”
“I could, but I won’t. We cruise at about 200 miles per hour, and Middleton Airport is about 400 miles away, so you can do that math.”
“That’s easy. Two hours.”
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Give the lady a muffin for answering correctly!”
“A muffin is all I get?”
“What would you like instead?”
“For all this to be over.”
They flew on for about an hour and a half when Betty spoke up. “Do you think they’ll ever find whoever killed poor Mr. Gruber?”
“The sheriff said they hadn’t found any leads, so it doesn’t sound good.”
“That’s too bad.”
Neither one of them had anything to say until they neared the airport. “Look!” Otto called, pointing to the ground. “The sheriff’s here!”
“That’s good,” Betty answered.”
“He said he would be.”
Otto guided the Cessna to a landing and taxied to the FBO office. This reminds me of our operation about twenty years ago, he thought. My, how we have grown.
Otto shut the engines off and Tobias started walking toward them. He raised his hand and called, “Welcome to our airport, folks! I’m glad to see you!”
“Same here! Otto returned. When they got close enough, they all shook hands.
“Let’s get going. The jury convenes in fifteen minutes.”
“Is there enough time?” Betty asked.
“Should be. If not, I have my lights and siren.”
“You can use them for us?”
“I can use them for anything I want. That’s just one advantage of being a sheriff.”
They laughed, and the trip to the courthouse went quickly.
“All ashore that’s going ashore!” called Tobias.
They got out and started walking toward the courthouse. “Say, Tobias,” said Otto. “What’s going to go on when we get inside?”
“I’ll take you to a room and they’ll call you back separately. Just tell the D.A. what you told me. I’m sure it will be fine.”
They came to a small room which contained a small table, around which were four chairs.
“Have a seat. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When he had left, Betty asked, “What do you think he’s doing?”
“Probably talking to the D.A., getting things straight.”
“Of course. I should have known.”
“Think we’ll be able to go home this afternoon?”
“Don’t see why not. Tobias said this wouldn’t take long.”
Tobias came back and sat down. Uh oh, thought Otto. Something’s happened. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“There’s been a change with the deposition. You won’t have to testify. The D.A. said he can use the transcript from our interviews.”
“I guess that’s good?”
“For you it is, except you had to come all the way down her to find out you didn’t have to.”
“That’s OK, Tobias. I love to fly and we got to see you again.”
“That’s mighty understanding of you. Want a ride to the airport?”
“Certainly. You’ll have driven us around so much you’ll have to change your markings to those of a taxi.”
Tobias laughed. “You know, I could pick up a little cash that way. One side police cruiser and the other a taxi.”
He drove them to the airport and walked with them to the Cessna. “I hope I’ll see you again. It isn’t every day that we have murders here. It’s normally a peaceable place.”
“I’m sure it is. If you’re up our way, stop in and see us.”
“I will. Safe flight.” He went back to his cruiser and stood there as Otto and Betty climbed in the Cessna and took off. Otto looked back to see Tobias waving.
What a nice guy, Otto thought. It was too bad it took a murder for us to meet. But that’s good.
“Look!” Betty called as they rounded a curve. “There it is!”
The museum looked exactly the same as it did when they were there earlier.
“So far, so good,” Otto noted. “No bloody bodies on the front lawn. Of course, we haven’t gone inside.”
“Otto don’t make fun of me. I know what I sensed.”
Betty parked the car and they went up to the front door. “Look!” said Otto. “The door’s open.”
“That’s bad,” Betty answered. “A German would never do that.”
“You’re right, but there’s probably a good explanation.”
“I’m afraid to think of the explanation we’ll find. You go first.”
“Why don’t I go in and you wait here to tell you there’s nothing wrong.”
“I think there is something,, but, yes, you go ahead.!
Otto went into the museum and came back in short order. “You were right!” he shouted. The museum’s been robbed and Gruber is dead! Don’t come in!”
Betty burst into tears. “I told you something was wrong! That poor old man. He didn’t deserve to die, I’m sure.”
“I’ll go call the sheriff,” Otto said.
“OK, but hurry back. We don’t know who’s around.”
“Back as soon as I can,” Otto said, and kissed her on the cheek.
Otto had to step over Gruber’s body to get to the phone. Another dead German, he thought. I wonder how many I killed during the war. Ah, well, it was either us or them. I’m sorry about them, but I’m also glad to be around.
He reached the sheriff’s office and told the receptionist what had happened.
“Sure, we all knew Gruber. Such a nice old man. I can’t figure out who would want to kill him.”
“Someone did, that’s for sure. Please send someone as soon as possible. We don’t know if the killer is still around.”
“I’ll do that. And thank you for calling.”
Otto went back outside. “They’re sending someone over.”
“Good. Did they say anything about Gruber?”
“The lady I talked to said he was a ‘nice old man.’ I’m sure he was.”
“It’s just so sad. When can they send someone?”
“They’ve already called the sheriff or a deputy. It shouldn’t be long now. This place isn’t that big.”
As if in answer to what he said, they heard the sound of a siren coming from the south. The cruiser sped up the road and turned into the parking lot. A big man in a brown uniform stepped out of his car and walked over.
“I’m Sheriff Warren of the county. You the folks who called in about a murder?”
Otto raised his hand. “I did, sheriff. And thank you for coming so quickly.”
The officer half smiled. “Things aren’t far apart around here. With my siren going I can reach any location in my territory in fifteen minutes.”
“You must have been close just now.”
The lawman nodded. “That I was. Let me go in and then I’ll take a statement from you. And I’m going to have to ask you to stay in town until I tell you that you can leave. That OK with you?”
Otto and Betty nodded. “All right. I’ll be back soon.”
They watched him walk up to the porch and go in.
“Why does he want us to stay in town?” Betty asked.
“In a case like this, everyone is a suspect until they’re cleared.”
“Oh. We’ll have to ask him for a nice place to stay.”
“I doubt they have many nice places around here, but all I need is a bed and a place to eat.”
They sat in some chairs on the porch. Betty started chewing on a nail.
“Hey! I thought you stopped doing that.”
“You’re not around me enough to know I still do when I’m really upset.”
Otto slid his chair over to hers and put his arm around her. “We’re in this together. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
“I certainly hope so.”
The sheriff came back. “It’s a murder, all right. The perp used a .357 magnum. As you saw, it makes a real mess.”
“I saw what a .50 caliber did during the war. Wasn’t much left.”
“That’s for sure. I’m waiting for the coroner. I’ll tell you folks how to get to the only café in town. It’s right down this road about four miles. Wait there for me and I’ll take your statement. That OK?”
“Sure,” said Otto.
“I can also show you where our only motel is. It’s not far from the café. We’re a small town.”
“I ‘m beginning to understand that. Thank you, sheriff.”
“Just doing my duty. I’ll see you soon.”
Otto and Betty got in their car and headed for the café.
“You know,” Otto said, “With all that’s gone on, I forgot about lunch.”
“I’m not sure I can even eat.”
“You might change your mind.”
They drove in silence to the café and went in. A large woman with a name tag that read “Marge” greeted them. “Hello, folks! Pick any seat you like. It ain’t like we’re overcrowded.”
“Thank you,” called Betty. They picked a seat near the door and it was then that Otto noticed there was no one in the place except for them and Marge. She brought them menus, and Otto was excited to notice that cheeseburgers were prominently displayed on the second page.
“Whaddya have to drink?” Marge asked.
“I’ll take a Coke,” Otto told her.
“And I’ll have some milk,” Betty said.
“You ready to order?”
“I am,” Otto said.
“I need a little more time,” Betty ventured.
“Take your time. I’ll get your drinks. And m’am, our milk comes from a dairy not two miles away so you know it’s fresh.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Marge went off and Betty turned to Otto. “What kind of questions will the sheriff ask us?”
Otto thought a second. “When I’ve been around Charley, he asks where the person was at the time of the crime, when they came and went and also tries to find out if there’s any connection to the victim if the victim’s alive, and also any link to the perp. We don’t have much in any of those categories, so it should go fast.”
“Oh, I hope so. I want to get home as soon as I can.”
“What about our trip?”
“After what’s happened, all I want to do is to go home.”
“Actually, I feel the same way. I just hadn’t said anything about it to you.”
“We’re resolved, then.”
“Yes. Look, here comes the sheriff.”
Sheriff Ramsey walked up to their table and said, “Glad to see you folks here. May I sit down?”
“Of course. We told you we’d be here.”
Ramsey chuckled. “You’d be surprised how many innocent people panic when I ask to meet with them. They take off, which makes them appear guilty. I chase them down and then they’re in trouble for leaving. If they’d met me as we agreed to, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
“Anyone who would do that is just plain stupid.”
“I don’t know what they were. I just know what they did.” He pulled out a notebook and a pen. “You folks want something to eat?”
“We’re just about to order. Will you join us in a meal?”
“Thanks, but I already ate. I will take some coffee, though. Here comes Marge.”
She approached their table. “Hey, Tobias,” she said. “How are things?”
“Well, about the same.”
“That bad, huh?”
“I’ll tell you later. Right now we want to order.”
Marge took their orders and went off. “All right,” Tobias said. “When was the last time you saw Mr. Gruber alive?”
Betty concentrated for a moment and then said, “When we left the museum, it was about 2:30 and we saw him shortly before that.”
Tobias wrote down what she said. “Then where did you go?”
“We went south to a gas station about two hours away.”
“All right, that would be Route 53. What kind of gas station was it?”
“It was no-name.”
Tobias wrote that down. “What did you do there?”
“As you might expect, I filled the car with gas and Betty and I used the restrooms.”
“Did you buy anything besides gas?”
“Yes. I bought a candy bar.”
“Do you have a receipt for either one?”
“No. I paid cash and didn’t ask for one.”
“That’s OK. I can have someone check the register. What happened next?”
“The same time I was filling up the car, Betty was trying to call Mr. Gruber. When she didn’t get an answer, she got really upset and insisted on returning to the museum. When we got there, the door was open and I went in. That’s when I found Mr. Gruber’s body. Then we called you. And that’s all I can tell you.”
Tobias wrote for a while and then said, “Thank you. This tells me all I need to know. I know you didn’t do it—you couldn’t have—but we required by law to convene a grand jury to investigate the case. You’ll have to testify. Can you return in three weeks?”
Otto and Betty looked at each other. “I own my business and Betty’s at home, so, yes, we should be able to come back. At what time should we come?”
“I’ll have to look that up in the office and call you with that information.”
“All right. We should be home in about four hours.”
“In that case, I’ll have my receptionist call you tomorrow.”
Otto and Betty’s food arrived, and they started eating. Tobias drank most of his coffee and stood up. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“I do,” Otto said. “I’m a pilot and of course I’d rather fly down here. Is there an FBO airport close to where we are?”
Tobias nodded. “Middleton Airport is about two miles from here, up Route 12 and the left on Airport Road, so it’s not far.”
“I can pick you up. Just let me know when you’re coming in.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Tobias nodded. “You’re right—I don’t have to, but I want to. Call me then. I have to get back to work. In spite of the circumstances, I enjoyed meeting you folks and look forward to seeing you in three weeks.”
“Sounds good. Nice to meet you, too. Be careful.”
Tobias smiled. “I always am.” He walked out of the café.
Betty and Otto finished eating, and Otto went to the register to pay their bill. Marge saw him coming and waved him off. “The sheriff paid your bill.”
“Well isn’t that nice?”
“Yes. He’s a good man.”
“I’d say so.”
Otto told Betty what the sheriff had done. “That’s nice,” she said.
“That’s what I said. Come on, let’s go home.”
“All right. I’m more than ready.”
“So am I.”
As he backed his car out of the parking spot, Otto thought, these vacations always turn out bad. And I wish I knew why.
Otto and Betty pulled out of their driveway, bound for their first stop. They planned to be gone for three weeks, enough to go from one coast to the other, even using backroads. A crowd of friends and family waved from their front yard as they left.
“Ah, feels so good to actually be on our way,” Otto said.
“It does, but I wonder if we’re going to miss anyone.”
“I’m sure we will but think of all the stories we’ll have to tell them when we get back.”
“Oh, you’re right. I’m going to relax and enjoy it.”
“What’s our first stop?”
“We talked about that, but it’s the National Mustard Museum in Middleton.”
“A mustard museum, eh. I wonder what they have in it.”
“Otto, don’t be silly. All kinds of mustard, of course. I can’t believe you asked such a question.”
“Sometimes titles are misleading. You can never be sure.”
They drove on in silence, reveling in the quiet and in just being together alone. It seemed like no time at all that Betty called out, “Look! There’s a sign! Only three miles to the mustard museum! Hooray!”
“Betty, I haven’t seen you so excited since the girls were born.”
“I wasn’t excited: I was too tired to be excited.”
“I remember it differently.”
“No doubt. Right here! Pull in here!”
Otto guided the car into the parking lot, and they got out.
“There aren’t any other cars,” Betty murmured. “I wonder if they’re open.”
“Let’s go see.”
They went on the parking lot to a porch and climbed the stairs. They came upon twin doors and quietly pushed one open, still greeted by silence. “Anyone here?” Otto called.
“Doesn’t seem like it,” Betty said, but let’s look around anyhow.”
They walked by shelves holding hundreds of jars holding an equal number of types of mustard. “Never knew there were so many different kinds!” Betty exclaimed. “Look! Besides the familiar varieties, there are kinds like hot mustard, whole ground, stone ground, honey, and horseradish, and many more. I wish there were someone here to explain them to us.”
“So do I,” Otto said. “You did a good job naming the mustards, but you left out yellow.”
“That’s because we’re familiar with it.”
“I thought it deserved a mention.”
“Well, it’s not your museum, so you don’t have any say.”
“That was harsh.”
“What you said was stupid.”
Just then they heard a shuffling sound coming toward them. They watched as an extremely old man made his way slowly down the aisle they were standing in. “Hello, folks. Welcome to the Mustard Museum,” he croaked in a harsh and cracked voice.
“Thank you,” Betty answered. “We were just saying that we wish someone were here to explain all the different types on display.”
“I would be it,” the old man answered. “Follow me.”
Betty and Otto followed, and Otto whispered in her ear, “No danger of dying from overexertion with this one.”
“Otto! Stop it! He seems like a nice old guy.”
“So do I, but you can never tell.”
“Shhhh.” The man stopped in front of one case. “This is a collection of our rarest and most valuable examples. Here is Maille white wine and black truffles variety. It sells for $100 for a three and a half ounce jar.”
“Whoa! We won’t be seeing that at the neighborhood barbeque!” Otto exclaimed.
The old man smiled sadly. “No, it is used only by the finest French restaurant, and rarely in this country.” He looked at them. “I fear you will never have a chance to taste it.”
“That’s OK,” Otto said. “I have French’s.”
Betty glared at him and mouthed, ‘be quiet.’
The guide smiled at her and said, “Forgive my bad manners. I should have introduced myself at the first. I am Hans Gruber.”
“And I am Otto Kerchner and this is my wife Betty.”
“You are not related to the Kerchners of the Ruhr Valley?”
“I am. And my father was named Hans.”
“Perhaps our ancestors were neighbors in the old country.”
“That’s a possibility.”
Gruber turned back to the mustards. “Here is an example of Düsseldorfer Löwensenf – Extra Scharf. It’s very, very hot, so I do not recommend it to those with a weak heart or strong allergies.”
Otto wondered how much of that was true, but didn’t want to find out.
“So how much does that sell for?”
“It costs about $61.00 per ounce.”
“This is the high end, certainly.”
“Do you have any cheap mustard?”
Gruber shook his head. “No, although we do have a token jar of French’s. And that only because people ask to see it, why I do not know since they can go to any supermarket and have their eyes filled. Do you have any other questions?”
“I think we don’t, but we’d like to wander around and look at your marvelous collection.”
Gruber bowed and Otto thought, I bet he wanted to click his heels but thought that was a little too German for us.
“Certainly you may look to your heart’s content. I will be taking a nap in my office, but please awaken me if you need me.” He bowed again and went off down the aisle.
“Here’s our change,” Otto whispered. “We can steal some of those overpriced mustards and make out like bandits because that’s what we would be.”
“Otto, you will not do such a thing to a nice old man! How could you even think of that?”
“OK, OK, I was just kidding. I think. Let’s go look as some more mustards and try to find one more expensive than the one Gruber showed us.”
They went on, walking down each aisle and looking closely for a more expensive mustard. After a while, it was clear they wouldn’t find it. “We should have known that what we’re looking for was in the cabinet Gruber showed us,” Otto sighed.
“Maybe so, but I found all the labels were fascinating. I’m glad we came here.”
“I’d bet that we’re the only visitors today.”
“How would you know that?”
“I looked at the guest register when we came in. The only signatures are ours and one from a couple three weeks ago.”
“They’re not exactly breaking the doors to get in.”
“I would say so. You ready to go?”
“Yes, let’s. Should we say good-bye to Herr Gruber?”
“No. I don’t want to wake him up from his nap. He looks like he needs it.”
They got in their car and drove off to the next destination.
Otto came through the door and collapsed in his favorite chair, sighing loudly enough to bring Betty out of the bedroom. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just a hard day.”
“If it were hard I wouldn’t call it ‘nothing.’”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do, and I’m sorry. Can I get you something?”
“I’d like a Coke, please.”
“Coming right up,” said Betty, and she disappeared into the kitchen and returning with a cold bottle of Coke. Otto took it from her and took a big slug.
“Ahhh!” he moaned. “Nothing like a ice-cold Coke!”
“You sound like a commercial.”
“I’d do one for them and wouldn’t charge anything, but I would take about ten cases of Coke if they offered them to me.”
“Dream on, Buster.”
“Did I ever tell you that you’re my favorite wife?”
“There are others?”
“I’ll never tell.”
They both laughed at this, and then Betty said, “I did something nice for you and now I think you should do the same for me.”
“And what would that be?”
“I want to go on the vacation we talked about.”
“Oh! That’s right. We’ve been so busy that I—”
“I know, I know, you haven’t thought about it. Well, think about it!”
“I have a feeling that you have.”
Betty pulled an envelope out of a stack of magazines on a table and handed it to Otto. “These are just some ideas. If you have any others, please let me know about them.”
“I can tell you some things I don’t want to do.”
“And what would those be?”
“Go on a cruise or an archeological dig, undertake any lengthy trip, embark on a steamboat, and take a long train trip.”
“Yes, I remember those. Sounds like a catalogue of disasters.”
“So now you know what I don’t want to do. What would you like to try?”
“That’s why I wrote them down on the piece of paper in the magazines I gave you.”
“Oh.” Otto looked at the sheet of paper, frowning at each one as he went down the page. Then he read something that made him sit back and relax.
“Did you find something?” Betty asked.
“Sure did. This talks about taking backroads to little visited attractions and sites, like a rattlesnake farm in Arizona.”
“Ugh. I wouldn’t be interested in that, but as I recall there are a number of things I’d like to do.”
“Let’s do it, then. I’ll call Mata and have her set it up.”
“No, Otto. I want this to be all our own. Surely you understand.”
“I guess I do.”
“Listen. Ever since we were married, we’ve been surrounded by people. I want to have you all to myself for a change.”
“What a wonderful thing to say. All right, we’ll plan the best backroads trip ever!”
They embraced as Otto thought, I hope this works out well. It would be nice to go some place that’s interesting and serene.