Generators chugged and the tables were candle-lit. The truck-driving cousins seemed to be enjoying their meal at one table. Hank, at least, was loud in his praise of the food and the inn's resourcefulness.
The engaged couple were quieter, gazing at each other over the candles in seeming content, but with an air of tension, nonetheless.
At the third table, Professor Hawthorne patted her iron-gray bun, then reached for her wine glass again. “We're exploring the dependence of opioids on psychatric patients, specifically those with depression or anxiety disorder.” She raised her voice slightly just as the generator cut out. “I specialize in cocaine.”
Hardcastle grunted, then lifted another forkful of sauerbraten to his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, then asked, “Isn't that kinda . . . draining? I mean, sure, it's interesting and all, but doesn't it sorta get to you after a while? All the patients and their problems?”
“Yes, I admit that it does.” The professor set down her glass and frowned just a bit. “It can be extremely wearing and even depressing, but it's also fascinating and very rewarding.”
Mark stood, saying, “Maybe I can lend a hand with the generators.” He tossed his napkin onto the table and headed toward the kitchen, turning back to add, “And maybe I can get 'em to hustle with dessert.”
As he pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen, Mark heard Hans say, “The rotten thing. We should've gotten new ones.” He looked up suddenly, saw Mark and nudged his brother.
“Can I help,” McCormick peered down at the now-silent generator. “I know something about motors.”
“Ja, please.” Gunther smiled at him and waved a hand at the generator. “The verslungeter machine has quit on us and it is the one we have for the freezer.”
Mark squatted down and unplugged the generator from the freezer, then screwed off the cap and looked inside to check the fuel level. “Great sauerbraten,” he murmured. “I'm just glad you have gas stoves. Hey,” he looked up at the brothers, you ever think about getting propane refrigerators, too?”
Hans nodded. “We have this place only owned for two years. But you are right. With the snow here, propane everything is the smart way. And it is pleased I am to know you like the food. Tomorrow is wienerschnitzel.”
“So,” McCormick was now searching the tool kit spread open on the floor, “you've only been here for a couple of years, huh? You come straight from Germany?” He selected a socket wrench and began to remove the spark plugs from the generator.
“Ah, we have a few years spent in America before coming here,” said Hans nervously glancing at his brother.
Gunther took up the tale. “Ja, we in Wisconsin lived for a while. But always it was a dream to a restaurant run and when we saw this inn for sale in a magazine, immediately we knew it was for us.”
Mark blew gently on the first spark plug and nodded. “I know what it's like to have a dream. You have to work for it, but you know it's worth it in the end. And here's your problem. If you have a thin file, I think I can get this guy running again.”
A sigh of relief was heard from both men, then Hans clapped his hands together. “So now I will get the strudel ready. And tomorrow I make the Schwarzwälder kirschtorte!”
Hardcastle and Professor Hawthorne had moved back in front of the fire with cups of coffee, the professor in a wing chair and the judge next to her on the plush sofa.
“Do you work with law enforcement at all?” Hardcastle sipped at his coffee, then set the cup on the end table between the sofa and chair. “I've heard that some confiscated drugs make their way to research institutions and it sure makes sense for both sides.”
“Hah!” barked Hank, walking toward the hearth with only a slight stagger. “Drugs, huh? You folks know much about that kinda stuff?” He plopped down into the wing chair opposite the professor and stared at her owlishly. “I know a thing or two about drugs, I can tell ya. But I won't.” He suddenly stopped talking and took another swig from his beer glass. Then he peeped up at Hardcastle and giggled. “Never seen as much snow as this, y'know?”
Jimmy walked over to stand behind Hank's chair, looking anxious. “C'mon, Hank. It's getting late and you know we have to get going early tomorrow.”
Hank took another slug of beer, then tilted his head backward to look at his cousin. “With all that snow? We're stuck here, Jimmy boy. No way to make our deadline, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.”
“I was meaning to ask you what kinda hay you're hauling,” said Hardcastle blandly.
“Whaddaya mean, what kinda hay?” responded Hank belligerently. “It's hay, that's all!”
Jimmy interposed himself between the two, warming his hands at the fire. “It's alfalfa hay,” he said quietly. “Going to a cattle ranch near Sacramento.”
The judge pondered that, sipping his coffee. “I thought they raised quite a bit of hay in those parts. Alfalfa, oat, even some barley.”
“Don't know about that,” muttered Jimmy. “Maybe one of the ranchers had a crop failure or something.”
“Nosey people give me a pain,” complained Hank sourly. “Maybe you're right, Jimmy. Maybe the snow'll let up and we can haul outta here in the morning.” He set down his empty glass and rose, with a little trouble, from his chair. “I'm goin' to bed!”
Jimmy shook his head, then followed his cousin up the stairs with a troubled expression just as McCormick wandered out from the kitchen to the renewed sound of the generator.
“Your strudel's coming out in just a sec,” he called after Jimmy.
Jimmy turned and smiled down at him. “Thanks, but I think I better keep an eye on Hank. He gets like this sometimes. Just needs to settle down a bit. 'Night, everybody.”
The judge furrowed his brow as we watched the cousins pass out of sight at the top of the staircase. “Why is it I get the feeling those two are in some kinda trouble?”
“Everyone has at least one secret, Judge.” Professor Hawthorne, her thin, elegant face vaguely troubled, set her cup on the end table. “I'm going to make it an early night, too. It's a long drive up here from Phoenix. And while the strudel sounds good, I do have to watch my waistline, you know.” She stood, nodded to Hardcastle and McCormick and said “Good night.”
“Good night,” echoed the two men, then Hardcastle added, “I'm looking forward to talking to you more in the morning.”
The professor smiled at him, then ascended the stairs to the upper floor.
McCormick looked at Hardcastle with raised eyebrows and a coy smile. The judge glared at him as expected, then McCormick perched on the hearth and looked across at the older man. “Just more strudel for us,” he grinned.
A shrug was the response, then the judge rubbed his nose and frowned. “It seem to you that pretty much everybody here is hiding something or worried about something?”
“What about the lovebirds?” Mark waved a hand at the dining area, where George and Dorothy were now holding hands over the table, talking earnestly but quietly.
“Something wrong there. Dunno what, and maybe it's nothing important. You notice her jump a while ago? And George seems to be spending all his time calming her down. Ah!” Hardcastle saw Hans approaching with plates of strudel, straightened up and made room on the coffee table with a contented smile.
At the table of the engaged couple, George held Dorothy's hand tightly. “Don't give up now,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “We're so close!”
“Oh, George,” her head drooped and she sighed deeply, “it's no use. Something always happens. That man is a judge. Suppose he finds out –?”
George shook his head fiercely. “He won't. He can't. No one knows but us. Your parents won't even get your letter until tomorrow morning, so they can't set the law on our trail. Just hang on until the snow stops and we can get over the state line. Dot,” he let go of her hand to reach out and cup her chin tenderly, “Dot, don't give up on me, on us when we're this close.”
Dorothy gave him a watery smile and nodded. “I'll keep going, for you, George.”
A hoarse scream was abruptly cut off.
Hardcastle woke suddenly from a deep sleep. He turned over and looked at the quilt-wrapped lump in the other single bed. “You hear that?”
The lump didn't move.
“Hey,” hissed the judge urgently. “Wake up!”
“Wha--?” A curly head poked out from under the topmost quilt. “Huh?”
“Did you hear something, kinda like a scream?” The judge was now clambering out of bed and trying to put on his robe.
Mark blinked a few times, then asked in a reasonable tone, “You mean aside from you?”
“Aahh, never mind.” Hardcastle was now warmly clad and reaching for the doorknob. Yanking the door open, he stepped out into the dimly-lit hall, one oil lamp keeping the darkness at bay. He looked up and down the hallway then, seeing nothing uncalled for, strode three steps toward the head of the staircase. There, lying in the partly-open door of room 2 was Professor Hawthorne. She was wearing a sensible, cozy-looking flannel nightgown and bleeding profusely from the side of her head.