“Holy smokes!” Gunther ejaculated. “I mean, ach du lieber. Mein Gott!”
McCormick knelt beside the professor, keeping track of her pulse. “You think we can move her?” he asked Hardcastle.
“I don't think we have a choice.”
“Are you sure her neck isn't . . . I mean, her head looks kinda . . . I mean, her hair . . .”
Hardcastle, who'd bent for a close look at the injury to the professor, straightened up suddenly. “Shut up,” he muttered, then bent to lift up the woman's body and carry her into the room.
By now, George and Dorothy had joined Gunther and Hans in the hallway, asking questions in anxious voices. The two truckers were conspicuously absent.
“Shut the damn door! Wait!” The judge yelled at the small crowd in the hallway, “Can somebody boil some water and get some bandages?”
Hans shouted back, “Ja, see to it I will,” and trotted back down the stairs.
“Do . . . do you need any help,” offered Dorothy in a quavering voice. George looked at her in approval and wrapped his arm around her.
McCormick looked behind him at the judge bending over the body on the bed. Hardcastle looked back and shook his head vigorously.
“Nope, thanks, we got it under control. You folks might help by starting some coffee, though, and,” Mark thought quickly, “see if Hans has any kind of medicine, maybe a first aid kit somewhere, that might help.” Quickly, he closed the door and joined the other man by the bed. “Is she dead?” he asked in a low tone.
“No. But she's a he.” Hardcastle waved a hand at the professor's hair. “That's a wig.”
Mark looked at the unconscious person on the bed. “Well . . .” He paused and thought. “That's what she meant – I mean, he meant. When he said everybody had a secret.”
“Well, whatever's going on, this was no accident.” The judge carefully peeled the front of the wig back to better expose the injury, holding a towel to the wound to try to control the bleeding. “You notice there's no blood anywhere except that little puddle where she – he – was lying?”
“So, somebody attacked her – him?” McCormick looked around for killers lurking in the shadows. “Who? And why?”
A light knock was heard on the door. “Here I have the medical kit,” came Hans' voice.
Hardcastle and McCormick looked at each other.
“We gotta have help with him,” said the judge. “Somebody's gotta know and I'm not sure we can keep it from the rest of the group, either. One of 'em attacked this guy and we better figure out which one fast.”
“Okay. I'll go round up everybody else and get them all together downstairs. You stay here,” Mark aimed a thumb at the professor, “and keep watch over him with Hans for a few minutes. Then I'll check back with you and we can compare notes.”
The judge strode over to the door, grabbed the knob, then turned back to McCormick. “You watch yourself, okay? We don't know who did this –“ he aimed a thumb at the professor.
Mark looked at him grimly. “You watch yourself. It could have been Hans.” He made way for the innkeeper to come through with the first aid kit, then headed for the stairway.
Hardcastle led the way to the bedside and checked the professor's pulse and lifted an eyelid. “Guess I better clue you in,” he said slowly, one eye on Hans opening the white metal box and removing bandages. “Professor Hawthorne's . . . ah, not exactly female.”
Hans straightened up suddenly. “Are you kidding? I mean, is it serious you are with me?” he added awkwardly.
“Look here. Isn't it about time you cut the German act?” The judge reached for a roll of bandages. “You're not all that good at it, ya know.”
“Damn,” sighed Hans. “This isn't exactly the way I pictured running this place. No power, one of our customers hurt, and our cover's blown almost from the start.” He handed over a tube of antibiotic ointment. “There's some aspirin here if she – he wakes up. Nothing much else for the pain, though, I'm afraid.”
Hardcastle shook his head. “I'm not sure we ought to be giving folks painkillers when they might be concussed. Her breathing's okay. Blast it! I'm still going to call her a “her” since that's what she wants.”
“Okay by me,” muttered Hans.
“So,” the judge applied the antibiotic to the wound, then placed a gauze pad over it, “you gonna spill the beans about you and Gunther? Is he really even your brother?”
Hans shrugged morosely. “Suppose I'd better at this point. No, we're not German.”
Hardcastle snorted. “There's a surprise.”
The man formerly calling himself Hans extended a hand to the judge. “I'm Jeff Voorstad, and my brother's Duane. Our grandad was Dutch and we grew up outside of Racine.”
“So,” the judge continuing to monitor the professor's breathing and checked the bleeding under the gauze pad again, “what's the deal here?”
“Can you see people stopping at a German inn run by Jeff and Duane?” The burly blond man pushed the first aid kit aside and propped his elbow heavily on the dresser. “Much less two guys named Voorstad. They'd expect to see cute little windmills and big wheels of cheese and wooden shoes on the walls.” He shook his head. “No. We bought this place from the original owners and it already had the German reputation and décor. And I love German food, always have. So we decided to 'become' German, to fit the place.” He looked at the judge morosely, eyebrows raised. “Didn't do so well, did we?”
Hardcastle sighed. “Not real well, no.” He thought for a moment, then said carefully, “You ever think about maybe being honest with folks? Tell 'em you bought the place but keep up the old standards? Maybe even not even mention whether or not you're German yourselves.”
Jeff leaned his head on his palm and closed his eyes briefly, then took a breath and said, “Yeah, that was one option. But we put everything we had into this place. It was a dream of ours since we were little kids – to get away from the farm and run our own B&B, or restaurant, or inn. When we saw the ad for this place, we knew it was perfect for us. The owner's name was Gunther, so Duane took that name and we just hoped we could pull it off. We couldn't take the risk of being honest, you see?”
“Listen,” the judge put a hand on Jeff's shoulder and shook him gently. “The food's great, you two are likable fellas, you got a prime location here. Why not just go with what you have and make a success of that, instead of having to pretend all the time? Just think about it, is all I'm saying. Otherwise, people are gonna be wondering what the two of you are up to and not coming back. Or they'll try to have a conversation with you in German and then you'll really be in the schnitzel.”
Dorothy huddled next to the fire, while George fed small chips of bark into the flames, scowling.
“You seen Hank or Jimmy or Gunther?” McCormick had made a brief detour to get dressed. He looked around the large open room, peered into the dining area.
“Gunther's making some coffee and Jimmy's helping him.” Dorothy shivered lightly and edged nearer to the fire. “He said Hank was 'sleeping it off' upstairs.”
George came over and put his arm around her. “Let me get you a blanket, sweetheart,” he cajoled. “That robe's not very thick.”
“No, I'll be fine,” she murmured. “The coffee will help. But thank you.” She looked up at him with love and squeezed his hand. Then she whispered to him briefly, slanting a look at Mark.
George muttered back, then stood and looked at McCormick. “Can I talk to you for little, man to man?”
Mark shrugged. “Sure. Here?” He looked around. “We seem to be private enough right now.”
George rubbed his face with his hand, then tilted his head back and took a deep breath. “We need help, and I thought I heard that guy with you – Hardcastle? Did he say he's a judge and you're a law student?”
“Yes,” said Mark cautiously.
“Then I don't know if you'll want to help us, but we have to get out of here, and you look like our best bet.” George looked back at Dorothy, who nodded hopefully. “You see,” he said, taking another deep breath, “we're in love. And we're married, not just engaged.”
Mark nodded helpfully, making a 'go on' gesture.
“And we're first cousins.” George looked at his feet, then back at McCormick. “Which is illegal in Nevada. You see,” he began talking a little faster, “I got a job in California and we established residency there, so we could be married. But then Dot had to come back here to close out her bank account and school pension fund and I didn't want her coming by herself, so here we are. It was only supposed to take one day, but now we're stuck and if anyone finds out – your friend's a judge and he'd have to turn us in, wouldn't he? As an officer of the court?”
McCormick frowned and shook his head. “I don't think so. I'm still in law school and I didn't even know first cousins can't marry in Nevada. But unless you're actively committing a crime, I think everything's okay.” He shot a look at Dorothy and then back at George. “Neither one of you conked the professor, I hope.”
A pair of heads were shaken.
“So why trust me with this?” Mark perched on the arm of the overstuffed couch and regarded the twosome with just a modicum of skepticism.
“We had to trust somebody and Dot thought you looked . . . nice.” George shuffled a little, then shrugged. “Anyway, we just found out that Gunther's got a couple of snowmobiles in a shed out back. We were thinking maybe we could take off tomorrow morning if it stops snowing. And if no one stops us.”
Dorothy spoke up. “And, of course, we'd send a doctor in for Professor Hawthorne.”
“No, no, no.” McCormick was firm, definite. “I really don't think there's a need for that kind of desperation . . . unless,” he peered at them from under his eyebrows, “there's something more that you're not telling me.”
Dorothy sent a pleading glance at George, who once again girded up his figurative loins and, wincing slightly, said, “We eloped. Dot's parents weren't exactly thrilled with the idea of us getting hitched, so we set up everything without telling them. And one reason she really came back was to try to explain to them – to get their approval once we were already married.” He went to his wife, and placed a tender hand on her shoulder. “It didn't work. They were . . . a little angry.”
“And I'm afraid they're going to the police to try to get us stopped.” Dot was nearly in tears. “We were so close to the border with California, too, where we're safe.”
Mark pinched the bridge of his nose. “Actually, I really doubt the cops would be interested in tracking you two down, especially since you're married legally –“ he looked at George, who nodded vehemently – “and you haven't broken any laws in Nevada. But, I'll tell you what. You can trust Hardcastle just as much as you can trust me, and he was a judge for a long time and knows everything about the law everywhere. I'll ask him about it and if he says you've got nothing to worry about, you can take that to the bank, okay?”
Dorothy looked at George, who looked back. After a long pause, “Okay,” they said in unison.
“But don't tell anyone else, will you?” Dorothy cherished her husband's hand against her cheek. “I worry so much.”
McCormick started to swear he'd never snitch on the two hardened criminals when Gunther pushed through the door from the kitchen and approached with a tray of coffee in mugs and slices of stollen on plates. Jimmy followed him, carrying another tray with sugar and milk in small jugs and a bowl of Christmas cookies.
“Thank you,” said Mark in heartfelt tones. He looked around. “Hank still sleeping it off?”
Jimmy passed the cookies around and grinned in an abashed fashion. “He gets a little rambunctious at times. It was kinda stressful, driving through that snow and I guess he just relaxed a tad too much.”
“But,” asked Gunther plaintively, “we are to do what? There is an attack on a guest and we have no idea who it is that does such a thing. Surely, none of you . . .?”
As a group, they all looked up the stairs in the direction of the absent Hank.
“Oh, come on now.” Jimmy set down his coffee and placed his hands on his hips. “Hank's a bit rough at times, but he wouldn't hit a lady. And he didn't have any reason to, either. You can't seriously think . . .”
“Well, if he didn't, who did then?” George put his arm around Dorothy protectively.
A silence fell, broken only by the sound of a log collapsing in the fireplace.
“I'll take some coffee up to Hardcastle and check on Hank,” Mark said finally.
“Check on me,” came a woozy voice from the stairs. Hank stumbled into view, rubbing his eyes. “What's going on? Jimmy, is the truck okay? I mean, the stuff --”
Jimmy interrupted his cousin and started toward the stairs. “Everything's fine, Hank. You go on back to bed, okay? We'll have to get an early start in the morning and you need your sleep.”
Hank waved him off and continued down the stairs. “Naw. I can't sleep any more. I'm too worried about the truck.”
George planted himself in front of Dorothy and folded his arms. “You ought to be worried about Professor Hawthorne,” he said sternly.
McCormick waved a hand and shook his head to stop him, but George ignored him.
“You could have killed her, and she might die yet, for all I know. Why'd you do it, Hank? What threat was she to you, or was it just drunken meanness?”
Hank came to an abrupt halt at the foot of the stairs. “Huh? The professor? Something happened to her?”
Gunther confronted him belligerently. “Ja, something happened to her. You hit her in the head and damn near killed her.” His German accent faded away until it was only a brief memory. “You drunken lunatic! What the hell were you thinking? Are you nuts?”
Hank staggered over to a wing chair next to the bottom step and dropped into it. “You think I . . . Jimmy, tell 'em! I was asleep. I didn't hit nobody!”
Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder and spoke quietly. “Hank, maybe you ought to go back upstairs and let me handle this. Just get some rest, okay?”
“No, it's not okay! You really think --” he looked at the small group facing him in silence, “you really think I clobbered some old lady? I didn't! I didn't have no reason to!”
“You were drunk,” offered Dorothy. “Maybe you didn't mean to.” She looked at him hopefully.
“No! I didn't! I wasn't that drunk!” Hank scrubbed his face with his hands, then looked around at them again. “Can I have some coffee?” he asked plaintively.
Jimmy turned and headed for the kitchen. “I'll get it. I know the way you like it.”
Hank sat, unmoving, for a moment, then abruptly stood and ambled toward the fireplace. “It wasn't me. It couldn't've been me. Jimmy was the one that was worried that professor knew about the cocaine.”
“What --” began Gunther, but Mark shushed him imperatively.
“Do you think the professor knew about the cocaine?” Mark questioned softly.
“How could she? Nobody's gonna unload the whole truck. That's how Jimmy was so smart. A hundred bales of hay all packed around it. Who's gonna go to all that work?” Hank leaned against the stonework of the fireplace and shook his head despairingly. “I didn't hit no lady.”
Jimmy appeared without sound, bearing a steaming mug. “Here, Hank. Drink this and sit down. You were so drunk you don't know what you did.”
McCormick caught the aroma of coffee mixed with something else, something acrid. “Hold it! What's in there?” He reached for the coffee mug, but Jimmy pulled it out of his reach.
“What? You think there's something in here? That I'd do something to my own cousin?” Jimmy was incredulous. “I wouldn't hurt Hank. He's a real pain sometimes, but he's pretty harmless. Sure, he makes stuff up, like that cocaine story, but there's nothing in here that would hurt him.”
Gunther eyed him suspiciously. “Then you drink it,” he said suddenly.
“What?” Jimmy spun around, all eyes on him now.
Hank struggled to overcome his stupor and help his cousin. “Jimmy didn't hurt nobody neither. He said we didn't need to, that he was too smart for anybody to figure out what we was doing.”
“Shut up,” Jimmy screamed, coffee splashing from the mug. He looked down at it, then threw the contents onto the fire. “You lousy drunk. I'm tired of bailing you out of trouble. And of all your lies about me. You get yourself out of this one, Hank.” He put his hands out in a placating manner and turned to face McCormick, Gunther, George, then Dorothy. “Really, now. You can't believe a word he says, you know.”
Mark spoke up. “Well, lucky for us, we have a witness. Professor Hawthorne didn't die and she'll probably be able to tell us exactly who slugged her.”
“But we know who did it.” Jimmy threw a hand at his cousin, now sitting wretchedly on the hearth. “I'm not saying he's responsible for what he did, but it's sure not the first time he's attacked somebody when he's drunk.”
“He says he didn't.” George drew himself up and faced Jimmy directly. “How do we know which one of you really attacked the professor?”
“I can tell you which one it was.” Professor Hawthorne's voice was weak, but assured, her wig in place and the blood cleaned from it. Carefully supported by Hans/Jeff and Hardcastle, she stepped to the stair railing and peered over. “It was Jimmy who hit me.”