Degree of Guilt

Degree of Guilt

by Barbara Harken


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After a year of teaching rotten students and dealing with an even more rotten boyfriend in Chicago, Maggie Witkowski wants to enjoy her inheritance-her grandparents' lakeside cabin in northern Wisconsin, the idyllic summer retreat of her childhood. As she begins cleaning the neglected cabin, Maggie has no idea that the past is about to catch up with the present in a way she never could have imagined.

With most of the cabin's heirlooms sold by her mother, Maggie is left with nothing but her memories and a multitude of problems. Worse, the townsfolk who doted on Maggie as a child have branded her grandfather a murderer.

And then there is the ghost who suddenly makes his appearance known. Dead since 1963, Larry Denison is helplessly attached to the Witkowski cabin. A rascal during his life, he must now perform a good deed before he can gain entrance to a happy eternity. Unfortunately, Maggie, whom he sees as the pain in his side, is his only way out-and up.

In this intriguing mystery, a woman defending her grandfather's name must brave insults, pranks, and assaults on her life to find the truth and ensure justice-with the help of a ghost with his own agenda.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475999501
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/13/2013
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.59(d)

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iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Barbara Harken
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4759-9950-1


MAGGIE WITKOWSKI'S THINKING WAS PRETTY basic. Any day nobody pissed her off was a good day. That's why those birds were driving her nuts. She was in idyllic northern Wisconsin, for crying out loud, not some tacky pet shop on the South Side. She pressed her feet against the gravel, stretched her long legs—they hadn't called her Maypole Maggie for nothing when she was a kid—and listened to the fresh outbreak of twittering from the trees surrounding the cabin.

"They oughta outlaw chirping before ten o'clock."

The gravel felt like old friends, but those birds—they might as well have been her high school students on the first day back from vacation.

She grabbed her ankles. No good talking to birds. Focus on the goal, woman. She would run. For the first time in too many years, she had returned to Hornsboro, Wisconsin, and Wall Lake, the summer home that had defined her youth. Before she was old enough to throw snits as a teenager, before she had grown into a woman who dealt with the same kind of snits from streams of teenagers in her classroom these past four years, she was a child who went to Wisconsin every summer to stay for eight glorious weeks with her grandparents. Three months ago, after months of living in hell from a debilitating stroke, her grandmother, Jean Witkowski, had died and left Maggie the family place. The papers had been signed and mailed back to Jean's lawyer with feelings bittersweet. She was an heiress. She was a grandchild orphan.

The roots of her past clung to her. She would offer up a ritual of physical exercise, her sweat as a blessing and good-bye, followed by several days of moving in, the cleaning and rounding up of all the childhood heirlooms that had been stored while renters had vacationed there.

She grimaced. Lord, she hated running. A little yoga, maybe a tape or two—she had brought enough of those to whip herself back into fitness.

But running. Running meant no turning off the tape or breaking for a Snickers. Running meant bugs, icky things that swarmed around her like first-graders on sugar.

While she wiped her hands on her shorts, she gave herself a short slap for her carping, felt the roll of her shoulders, the circling of her neck. This is for you, Grandma Jean. You too, Grandpa Lou. Drawing in a breath, she took in the sharp, sweet smells, tasted the freshness and promise, so different from the sting of diesel in her neighborhood in Chicago. Just as she filled her lungs, a new rash of bird noise broke out.

She picked up an acorn and hurled it at the nearest tree—let those twittering fools think about that—and after one more deep breath, lifted her torso higher, set her hands on her thighs. As the wetness of the morning lapped around her ankles, and the sun struggled to break through the timber, she dug in her heels, grunted, and took off—ten paces, then twenty. On went the count as she jogged up the lane toward the road.

Midway up the lane, the past tugged at her. She turned around and looked back. There was something about this very spot, the slight turn toward the cabin, the beginning of the leveling as the lane stretched toward what for the child Maggie had become a promise, the perfect marriage of fun and safety, the tranquility, the unconditioned love of a summer with her grandparents. The best of her childhood was all around her, this primal world of green ferns, gnarled brush, the dappling of sunlight through the forest growth. Her past.

Folding her arms while she ran in place, she paid homage to the two most loving people in her childhood, the grandparents who had her heart long before they won the hearts of the citizens of the community, that tightknit group of mostly Norwegians who at first had listened to the name Witkowski and raised their eyebrows.

"Love you to the moon and back!" Her voice tumbled forward, gathering momentum, until the words—her childhood morning greeting to her grandfather—spilled through the trees to the left and the cabin to the right. The thought touched her like a comforter keeping out the cold Wisconsin night.

Maggie turned back to face the road and took off with a quick hiking pace as the grade of the lane turned steeper, each crack of a stick under foot, each crunch of gravel a sound of ownership. At the top of the lane, she turned east, feet to blacktop on County Road HH. Swept by a light breeze, the early June morning wrapped itself in the smell of sun and wildflowers. While Maggie ran along the shoulder, she let the past run with her, warming her as much as the sun in its muscle memory.

Then the next half mile hit. June still wrapped itself in the smell of sun and wildflowers, but Maggie was not so fortunate. Sweat and celebration started their battle, and she remembered just why she hated to jog. By the curve that turned south, sweat won. Another half mile and Maggie sat on the side of the road, thighs wrapped in red spandex, gasping like a fish in the last throes of life. She had reached the turnaround point, the old Willson barn, long deserted and left to fall apart on its own time schedule.

She and her cousin used to sneak out and smoke cigarettes behind it when she was twelve. That is, until Grandpa found out. That deep voice. Those huge hams of arms crossed against a barrel chest. Cigarettes were history. She smiled at the memory.

The barn meant she could turn around. Arms folded over her head, she looked at the building across from her once more and chuckled. Then she took a whiff. Lord. She smelled like old pee, and she was only half-done. Her mind issued a command.

Off your duff and on your feet, woman. Go. Maggie obeyed and took off.

Familiar markers along the road mocked her. Curve ahead. Great. Not only did she have to run, she had to be able to navigate. Look out for deer. That's all she needed, a run-in with Bambi. Who needed large game? With her luck, she'd trip over a lost badger looking for water. Her throat rasped to a road that didn't care, "Don't bring up water. This was your idea."

Then sweet Jesus, there it was, the battered mailbox her grandfather had long ago painted orange. It looked tie-dyed now, mostly rust and gray with a couple of patches of orange that had earned survivor status. Never had one woman been so happy to see something so blatantly ugly. She lumbered up to that piece of junk and leaned against it.

Her black hair was a mass of spirals twisted by sweat and humidity, her eyebrows two black swaths over ice-blue eyes that threatened to roll inward. Even the cleft in her square jaw begged, Mercy. Armpits awash with the truth of her state, she unwrapped herself from the mailbox, leaned over, and grabbed at her T-shirt, now spotted with pockets of sweat. Maggie Witkowski—runner with a mission—had come full circle back to grumbling, punctuating her angst with, What's with sweat, anyway? People act like it's the Holy Grail. She allowed herself a good belly scratch and then exhaled a last huge puff of air and hobbled down the lane toward the house, the aspen, oak, and birch of northwestern Wisconsin lining the path as she drew closer.

Nothing wrong with taking a moment. The place was simply too beautiful to pass up a look, and just maybe her body would forgive her if she stopped for a few seconds of thankfulness. Oblivious to the gravel and sticks beneath her, she eased down and scanned the scene, knees up, arms folded over them. Silence graced the scene she surveyed. There was the tree where she had buried her grandfather's silver-dollar collection when she was nine—held it for ransom so that he would take her to town for homemade chocolate-covered peanuts at Winnie's. He threatened to kidnap her comic book collection if she didn't start digging pronto, that and wash her hands, he had said with a wink. Ten minutes later, fingernails only moderately grubby from raking through the ground cover, they were on their way.

She'd plant perennials around that tree base, bleeding hearts, she decided, that is, once she recovered. Maggie had her breath back, but her legs and butt tightened up. Memories—sweet as they were—could not compete with muscles. She heaved herself up and cursed her strained hamstrings.

Get to the porch, woman. Get there and it'll all be over. For another second, she slipped into memory as her mind's eye saw the prize. The glider waiting for her. Lou Witkowski had built it by himself, working the wood in the boathouse, hung the glider with pride. "No sense having a place to relax without a glider. A porch and a glider, that's heaven."

She'd melt into the softness of its cushions and begin her recovery. She loved that glider. As a child, she'd lie in it for hours, feeling the presence of forest and lake all around her. A mental blow slapped her. This morning, she had stretched out before her run on the porch—the bare porch. The glider was gone.

Why hadn't she noticed? She dismissed the problem even as her mind filled with the absence. It was probably stored with the other things. In that moment, gone was the hardness of the road under her feet, the wetness of the sweat on her face and under her arms. She felt the joy coil in her arms, the anticipation of restoring the place to its rightful glory.

She looked at her watch. A full hour had passed since she'd started this insanity. All she had to do was survive a slow jog down the lane toward the dock where she could dangle her feet, or—what the hell—jump full bore into the lake. Bad idea. Too much work. The lake was past the cabin. She tossed aside any hope of cool and staggered the last fifty feet, climbed the wood stairs, and lay on the front porch, sweat and all.

I need a beer. She didn't know whether she'd drink it or wear it, but a Miller Lite seemed like the perfect reward for what she'd just endured. One was right inside the front door, nestled in a cooler she had iced down before she left.

Somewhere out on the lake, a fisherman was putting toward bass heaven, the motor on his boat a purr. A light wind, just the barest wafting, reached her on the porch and glided across the back of her neck. All right, she'd live. Even without a beer. Lord, she needed a nap. She could lie here all morning—maybe forever. She'd die here, face flat on the wooden steps. Chipmunks and squirrels would use her petrified body as a bridge to the house.

Last night, fresh from Chicago, she had seemed so organized, boxes of supplies stacked on the trestle table immediately inside, clothes hung in the back room, juice, beer, and yogurt on ice. Any teacher worth her chalk well knew the rite of moving from school year to summer, the tasks that shut down the adrenaline and promised the unknotting of stress.

Last night, her hamstrings hadn't cried for mercy.

You can gripe later. Wash your face and get to work. Her conscience was totally without sympathy. It was also right. She'd better put her body, aching or not, into this project full force—hands, back, whatever it took to restore this place to its former bliss.

Minutes later, she was standing at the kitchen sink, alternating between drinking water straight from the tap and throwing it on her face when a noise outside grabbed her attention, a crunching punctuated with the squeal of breaks that said old car. Who'd be out here at the crack of eight except another jogger or a North Woods critter, a big one given that much clatter? Maggie took one last drink and turned off the tap. Then wiping her hands on her running shorts, she left the kitchen, stepping up the single step to the great room, opened the screen door, and stepped outside.

A Chevy truck—half-blue, half-rust—had rumbled down the lane and parked right next to the front porch. Handy Guy was inscribed on its door, right above a bumper sticker that bragged I'm from Wisconsin. Bite my cheese. The Realtor had promised a handyman once she moved in. Judging by the condition of the vehicle, Maggie wasn't sure what constituted handy. The car door creaked open, and out stepped a distantly familiar figure, a lumbering man, his large upper body hoisted onto short, bowed legs.

"Yo. Miss Maggie. Knew you'd need me from the get-go." Marvin Federinc looked at Maggie and smiled. That is, he looked at her as much as he could. His left eye focused on her face while his other eye seemed to peer at whatever lay forty-five degrees to the right. The local handyman used to scare the bejesus out of her when she was little and up there visiting Grandma Jean and Grandpa Lou for the summer. Grandpa had called him "Ferdie, the wall-eyed wonder," and told her to never mind him, he was harmless, but every time he showed up flanked by his tool set and that eye, she'd gone running for the boathouse.

What had seemed terrifying at the age of six was now simply mildly distracting. Maggie had no idea how Marv knew she needed him this morning, but then most of this part of Wisconsin had its own psychic hotline when it came to someone's business. No need to call for help. The locals read signs or talked to fish, whatever it took to know the community's business—often before the subject of said business knew it herself.

Knock it off, Witkowski. The guy's here to help. Cut him some slack. She shut down the residual stress of a tough school year. No point in making her a crank punishing the innocent. Sarcasm was a defense mechanism best served to the deserving.

Good thing Maggie listened to herself. Marvin Federinc was not a man to waste time. Two hours after his arrival, he tackled the last of the jobs—cleaning out the fireplace. Maggie sat on the edge of a wicker chair and watched him, or at least his bowed legs, as he stood inside the cabin's stone fireplace and banged away. In between grunts and foreign clanks Maggie wanted to ignore, Marv kept up a conversation. "I figured this old girl would need me. Critters and soot. They love a home."

Maggie shuddered. Soot she could handle. Critters? No way.

"Yep, I knew soon as I drove up we'd be cleaning her out today. No need to haul in all your loot and get everything all sooty." The mumbled her was the ceiling-high, gray rock fireplace now cursed with built-up gunk in its chimney, the only source of heat in the summer home of her childhood. The place had been closed for the last three years. For all Maggie knew, the chimney was something's condo.

"Glad you're opening the place after all this time. Worried about it the whole time it was rented out. At least when it was closed, I could check up on it once in a while.

"Don't get me wrong. Renters is okay. Can't blame your Grandma Jean for what she done back then. But them guys was from Minneapolis," he said, raising his voice to a soprano lilt that bounced off the chimney's stone walls. "You know. Decorators." His voice lowered into a snort. "They was more interested in matching their towels than making sure this thing was cleaned out and working."

Maggie didn't know whether to laugh or climb up and slap him—probably on the shins since his upper half was still hidden as he worked away. Instead, she turned around in her chair to face the outside and looked out the window toward the lake, indulging in memory as she thought of her grandmother. All the tension from the jogging left her, so immersed was she in thought. One year after Lou Witkowski had died, Maggie's grandmother had pulled up stakes and rented the home to yuppies who wanted a "cabin" but couldn't commit enough to buy. That had lasted four summers. Now that Grandma Jean had died, it was Maggie's. In truth, it had been Maggie's for years. She might curse a morning run, but in her heart, she was home.

The swish of the birch and the crunch of the oak leaves beneath her feet. The sweet smells of dirt and lake water. She had carried them like a talisman.

Maggie shifted in her chair again, turning back to the present, and watched Marv, narrowing her eyes. She didn't know which was worse, the guy's soot-soaked John Deere hat or his abuse of grammar. Since she was an English teacher, one who made her living keeping maimed language at arm's length, she had to go with the grammar. But that hat ...

Finally, the last shower of creosote. Finished. "There you go, Ms. Witkowski. Flue's open, and she's slick as morning bass. Good thing, too. Nights get pretty cold up here, even in June." The man bobbed his head. "Course, you know that, beings how you lived up here when you was little, and all.

Excerpted from DEGREE OF GUILT by BARBARA HARKEN. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Harken. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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