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Three Murders and One Woman

Mystery in a Tiny Town


A Jessica Thorpe Novel



By William Wresch

Copyright 2018 William Wresch

Smashwords Edition




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Chapter 1

All the Early Warnings I Missed


The first well went dry in September. We had started up the Nature’s Flavor’s bottling plant in early August. We had just reached full capacity. All the tests the engineers had done indicated there would be little impact on the water table. Yes, there might be a drop of a few feet, especially close to the plant, but that would only impact the home-made sand point wells within a mile of our wells. The engineers were certain.

So having a well go dry so fast was a surprise. And confusing. See, the well was nowhere near our plant. It was east of Amberg, almost to the Menominee River. It had to be fifteen miles from our plant. We were also unsure when it had actually gone dry. The well was at an old hunting cabin only used weekends. They had been up Labor Day weekend and everything was fine. When they came up three weeks later, they had no water. Their first thought was the pump had gone bad, but when Wausaukee Plumbing came up to check, they couldn’t pump water with their equipment either. The well was dry.

By now it was the last week in September. The plumbers took a couple days to call the town chair – Vern Stevens – and tell him, and he took a couple days to call me. I was scheduled to fly to Switzerland in four days. Did I have time to think about some well that had gone dry so far from the plant? No. Should I have taken the time? Yes.

What was I doing? I was packing and I was studying. The man in my life was Doctor Matteo Schweig, president of Nature’s Flavors of Bern, Switzerland. We had a very long distance romance, but we were about to shorten the distance. He had arranged for me to be in Bern for the month of October to study the maintenance of plastic extrusion machines. Would I actually maintain such machines after training? No. The course was just an excuse to get me to Bern. The rationale was that, as HR director for the local plant, if I understood the maintenance process, I would be better equipped to hire the right people for the plant. It was a stretch, but since he was CEO, it was a stretch he could get away with. I would actually go to the classes all day, but every night, well, that was our time.

While I was really going to Bern to be with my lover, I didn’t want to look stupid in the class, so I was spending much of my day reading maintenance manuals, and watching the men on our line turn plastic pellets into water bottles. I learned two things quickly – the machines moved fast, and molten plastic is hot. You needed to keep your focus if you were anywhere near these machines.

Meanwhile, my focus was being interrupted by two people – Janos and Hannah. Janos Klein was plant manager. My boss, and more. My office was across from his, and several times a day he would call me into his office. Each time I came to him, I was to come around his desk and stand by his chair. As he spoke to me, he would put one hand on my backside and he would keep it there. Elias Gruber had said he liked to touch women, and for them to know he could touch them whenever he wanted. Janos seemed to have the same attitude. He was reasserting his control over me. And I let him. Every time. Why? I have no idea. He never threatened to fire me. He never forced me in any way. But somehow he had a hold on me. He was big – a serious athlete – but he never took me against my will. I seemed to have no will. I was days away from going to the man I loved, but still, if he called across the hall, I came.

I did not live with him. I had my own trailer. But if he told me to come to dinner, I did. He and the other two Swiss shared a fishing lodge on a lake. If I came to dinner, I would first go up to his room and change into a cocktail dress. I kept several there. Some had tight skirts, some loose, but all were short and shiny, showing half my breasts and half my thighs. Each dress was an invitation, and I wore it to dinner, sitting across from him as he looked at me. After dinner I would go up to his room, undress, and wait in his bed. Like I said, he had a hold on me.

The other distraction was Hannah. She was nineteen, a Swiss girl brought along to be both maid and administrative assistant. Mostly she was a maid. When there had been more Swiss in the lodge she had just cooked breakfast, and a caterer had brought dinner. But once they were down to three people, she was assigned to cook dinner as well. She did okay – pork and potatoes, some pasta and various sauces. But she was alone in the lodge all day, and she was going crazy. She spent her nights in bed with the other Swiss engineer – Theo – but her days were empty.

Her solution was to latch on to me. Janos had the habit of taking me down to breakfast while I was still in my nightgown. It was his way of showing off. Yes, he had done me again. There may have been a time when men were discrete, but I guess that was before Trump. Hannah would also be down there in her nightgown. The men would have showered, shaved, and dressed for corporate success. Most of those mornings the men would go off to the plant, and Janos would tell me to stay with Hannah. I needed to be at the office too, but I could see Hannah needed company, so I would stay, help her clean up the breakfast dishes, and then we would go up to her room.

She craved pillow talk, so we climbed into her bed, and she told me whatever was on her mind. She had shared a bed with a sister growing up, and she had shared a bed with three roommates in a tiny apartment when she moved to Bern, so somehow she had just gotten in the habit of talking in bed. What did she want to talk about those last days in September? Me.

“Please come back from Bern.” She was whispering to me. Our faces were maybe six inches apart. We each had a hand on the other.

“Of course I will come back. This is my home.”

“There is a rumor Doctor Schweig will offer you a job in the corporate offices.”

“He already did last month, and I turned him down.”

“I am sure he will try again. I don’t want to lose you. I love Theo, but I need a woman to talk with too. I am so alone here.”

“I will be back. Trust me.”

“I hope so.” She put a hand on the back of my head and kissed me for a long time. “We are sisters, right?”

“Yes. We are sisters.” I kissed her, much longer than usual, and then we both laid our heads down and rested. I understood her loneliness. At home with two tiny babies, I had been alone in that trailer for years. It is hard. So I stayed with her almost until noon, knowing I had work to do in the office.

When I finally got to the office, I found a stack of forms on my desk – overtime approvals. I took them to Theo.

“Are you planning overtime?” I asked.

“No. Actually it was Janos’ idea – and a good one. You will be gone for a whole month. We need your signature to approve overtime. So, it makes sense for you to sign blank forms for all employees. We may never use them, but if we need to have someone work a few extra hours, we don’t have to hunt you down in Bern. Okay?”

“Sure.” It made sense to me. I went back to my office and signed an overtime form for every employee – all twenty two. At the time, it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

And that’s how I closed out the last days of September. Afternoons in the office doing last minute work. Evenings dressed up like a gift package, nights with Janos, mornings with Hannah. I took Vern Stevens’ call about the dry well, made notes, and left them on the top of my desk as something I would deal with the minute I got back from Bern. I guess I had the right intentions, but all excuses aside, I needed to deal with that problem, and I put it off.


Chapter 2

Bern


I flew business class to Bern. Green Bay, Chicago, Frankfurt, Bern. Three transfers, one seven hour flight, I was dead tired. Then there was immigration, customs, luggage, all of which took time and energy. I had tried to clean myself up a bit in the Frankfurt airport, but I knew I looked shopworn. I had worn the black satin dress Elias had given me on my first flight, heels, pearls, and a smile. I hoped it was enough. Finally through immigration I saw Matteo. Mid-forties, good hair, square face and square body, he looked like the rock you built a civilization on. And he was waiting for me. I studied his face as I took the final steps toward him, mentally crossing my fingers. It had been six weeks. Did he still want me?

I kissed him and whispered in his ear, “Please tell me you still love me.”

“I love you more than ever.” I had my arms around his neck and I refused to let go for a very long time. Eventually we dealt with the luggage and found his car. He didn’t say anything, but he did give my three large suitcases a look.

“Ball gowns take up room.” I said. He smiled and carried two cases as if they weighed nothing. I rolled the third to his car. I could see it was daylight, but I had no idea of the time. In a perfect world it would be night so we could go straight to bed. No such luck. But I kept him occupied as he drove home. He might have to keep his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, but I could put my hands anywhere I could reach with a seat belt on.

He got us home in one piece, and we carried my bags up to his bedroom. There I decided I needed a shower, and he needed to help with my zipper. It’s an old ploy, but it works one hundred per cent of the time. I had my arms around his neck, and my lips kissing his cheek while he unzipped my dress. By the time he was down near my hips, I knew I wouldn’t be showering alone. We left a trail of clothes behind us as we headed for the shower. That led to his bed and a very nice Welcome Jessica party for two.

He let me nap after that, one very tired, but very happy lady.

I woke when the maid sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed the hair out of my face. “”Ist zex.” Ulrike was about the same age as Hannah, but she was much heavier. While Hannah had been losing weight, Ulrike had gone from a size fourteen to a sixteen, or eighteen. Poor girl. She was at the age for dating and flirting. It appeared she was mostly eating. The other difference with Hannah is Ulrike spoke no English. She had just said something about sex. Why? She was pointing at the clock. It was six. Oh, I get it. Sex was six in German. Nice language – they have sex twice a day.

I rolled out of bed. Ulrike had laid out my clothes for me. I put on some underwear and then sat down at the wife’s dressing table to work on my hair and makeup. Ulrike sat next to me like that was part of her job. And she did suggest a little more blush, and she helped with my hair. Is that part of maid training in Switzerland? She then helped me with my dress. I was pleased to see she had pulled out the ball gown I had worn the night Matteo had seduced me. Good choice. She then put the pearls around my neck and gave me a big hug. I was ready for my man.

What did my man have waiting for me? He must have heard me come to the top of the stairs, because he stood at the bottom, looking up at me, and waiting. The look said everything. At the bottom of the stairs I grabbed his neck, he grabbed my ass, and we stayed locked together for a long time.

What did we do that evening? We sat together in front of the fireplace while Ulrike got dinner ready, we ate by candlelight, then we danced, then we went to bed. But that description leaves out what really mattered – his arm around my shoulders when we sat together, his smile across the dinner table, his hand at the small of my back when we danced. I can’t tell you how happy I was.

I had arranged my travel so I arrived on a Saturday. I wanted a Sunday with him. How did we spend it? We walked through his orchard and his vineyard. We held hands. We sat under a tree and drank some of his wine. It hadn’t improved, but we sat close and I loved every drop. What is October in Bern like? It was still fairly warm. I wore one of my cotton dresses and put a sweater over it. That was enough. What stands out is the colors. The trees were turning, but there were multiple species, so there were multiple colors. And since Bern is surrounded by rolling hills, there were color displays in every direction. We walked, and I looked at the colors. We sat, and I looked at the colors. We drank wine, and I looked at the colors. He kissed me, and well, I looked at him.

In the evening we went back to the hotel where we had first danced. I wore my ball gown. He wore a smile. We ate, we drank wine, we danced. You sometimes wonder if you can ever equal that first night. We did. I was much more relaxed, and frankly, much more in love. We talked about this and that, we held hands, we smiled a lot. When he took me home, we loved a lot.

Monday was my first day of training. I wore blue jeans, tennis shoes, and an older shirt. Matteo drove me in but he said Ulrike would come to get me when class ended at four – I would want to get home and change before dinner. There were several classrooms on the second floor of his office building. I found mine, picked up a huge binder from a pile by the door, and found a chair. I was first to arrive.

How do I describe the next eight hours? The company has plants all around the world, so it conducts training in the local language. Nice in theory, but this class was filled with me and seven guys from Australia. They seemed to understand each other. I didn’t have a clue. The trainer was a nice middle aged guy who could have been a college professor. Very patient, but limited in his English. He used power Point slides, so we could read the main points, but if anyone asked a question there was the double accent problem – Australian and German. A few times I was able to translate between the accents, but often I was just as lost as everyone else.

Did that mean the class was a waste? Not at all. That day, and most of the rest of the week was about safety. Molten plastic is hot – really hot. Be careful. The extrusion screw builds up lots of pressure. Things can burst. Be careful. Essentially he wasn’t letting us anywhere near one of these machines until we understood the dangers and had adopted safe techniques. As I am hearing this, I am thinking back to my job as HR director. Training was one of my jobs. Had I ever done safety training? No. Ouch. Not so good, Jessica. I took lots of notes and tried to think through how I would turn this information into simple training back home.

Class ended at four. The Australian guys all wanted to invite me out for a beer. Funny how their English was now very clear when they were trying to get me to come along with them. I declined. Ulrike was waiting for me down the street, and we went straight home.

Back home, Ulrike led me upstairs, pointed to my shower, and then turned the bed covers down. “Zex,” she said, meaning after my shower I could rest until six. Sounded like a good idea to me. I took my shower, slipped on a night gown and got into bed. Jet lag was working on me big time. I dropped off to sleep pretty fast. A little while later, I felt Ulrike sit on my bed and pull the hair from my face. Time to get up. Except when I opened my eyes, she wasn’t sitting on my bed, she was lying next to me under the covers.

“Hannah is friend.” She said. Okay, they were the same age and worked for the same people. But why is she in my bed?

“Please. Alone.” She reached out and took my hand. Now what? Hannah had told her I would spend time with her? How could Ulrike be so alone? Hannah was struck in a tiny town. Ulrike was in Bern and had access to a car. She could go out. No, with her weight maybe she couldn’t. Where does that leave me? It’s not like we are going to be best friends. I am only here for a month, and I am twenty years older. For the moment, I decided to do nothing. I just held her hand. If that’s what she needed, that much I could do.

We laid like that for a while, then Ulrike pointed to the clock. Zex. She said “thank you,” gave me a quick kiss, and slid out of bed. Apparently she had been studying some English. I wish I could say the same about me and German.

Ulrike got me dressed. I would be wearing the golden gown and four inch heels – and my pearls. When I was ready, she gave me another big hug. I thanked her and went down to the parlor to wait for Matteo. I assumed we would be staying in tonight.

Matteo got home a little after seven. We sat in front of the fire place and talked, and then we had dinner and talked, and then we danced and talked. We talked about his business and about his machines. Already in the first day I had learned a great deal, and I proud to show off. This course was a great excuse to get me to Bern, but I saw it would also bring us closer together. I would have a much better understanding of his work as an engineer. I liked that. I think Matteo did too. I got more hugs and plenty of smiles. I don’t think I have ever been so close to a man.

How did the rest of the week go? We learned the names of all the parts to the extrusion machines, got more information on safety, saw the standard maintenance schedule for the machines, and actually took a couple parts out. The Aussies kept asking me out, the instructor kept repeating phrases we didn’t understand, and I kept getting prouder of my mechanical skills.

Ulrike now joined me in bed each day after we came home, holding my hand and talking quietly in a combination of English and German. Something was bothering her, and I wasn’t sure it was just her weight. One day she lay her head against my chest and quietly cried. I stroked her hair and let her cry. Each day at zex she thanked me, kissed me, and then helped me get dressed.

Matteo took me out one night for dancing, but most nights we ate at home. And I didn’t mind. I loved his house, I loved him, I loved sitting in front of the fire with his arm around me. I told him about class, showing off what I had learned – teacher’s pet. I was rewarded with bonus points when we got to bed. I think I was getting an A in the bedroom. I know he certainly was.

For the weekend, he had a surprise for me. We drove up into the Alps. He had rented a room at a small inn on a small lake. I am not sure I can describe how beautiful it was, but let me try a couple key points. The lake was a mirror. It was so sheltered there was almost no wind, so if you looked at it you saw a reflection of the mountainsides, now all covered in fall foliage. Take the best fall colors you have ever seen, and then double them as they are reflected off the lake. That was the view we had as we walked, and it was the view we had from our room – which was the other special feature. It had glass doors that opened out onto a small balcony where we could sit, drink wine, hold hands, and look at the view. I have no idea what a room like that costs, but it was worth every Swiss Franc.

For two days we took walks, ordered room service, sat on the balcony, and bounced around a huge bed. I held his hand, I hugged him, I lay on top of him, I pulled him on top of me, I kept his arm around my shoulders. I wanted to touch him and have him touch me, and that just went on and on. I didn’t want to press him, but my constant thought was, can we come here again? And again? I loved every moment there.

Monday it was back to class, and this week the instructor divided us into two teams of four and gave us two machines to pull apart. Our job was not just to put them back together, but to find any worn parts that should be replaced. He would not tell us how many defective parts were on each machine, but we were to replace only what was needed. We lost points if we missed a part that should go, or pulled a part that didn’t need to go. Cool challenge. Essentially he was having us inspect, but also measure wear, and calculate tolerances. There might be two millimeters of wear on a part. Was that okay?

The team of four Aussies was done early every day and took off for beers around three. My guys wanted to race with their buddies (and go drink with them), but I took it step by step and measured everything, and then compared what I found to recommended tolerances. In short, I was slow and boring. My three Aussies put up with me until about three thirty, and then they were off to drink. I stayed until four.

Here’s where I say I won first prize on Friday. That’s certainly what I expected. And we did win, but it turned out to be pretty undramatic. We missed one part that needed replacement and replaced none unnecessarily. The other team missed two parts and replaced two unnecessarily. Given all the parts we had gone through, the difference was not that much. Oh well. At least we won.

After work Ulrike picked me up, then it was home, shower, and into bed with my new bedmate. She held my hand, tried some English, and seemed more prone to crying each day. I stroked her hair, wrapped an arm around her and held her tight, and let her cry. What was going on? Each day at zex, she thanked me, kissed me, and got me ready for Matteo.

Evenings with him fell into a pattern – a pattern I liked. We would sit by the fireplace and talk (with his arm around my shoulders), we would eat in the dining room by candlelight, we would dance, and then we would go to bed and make love. If that is not a perfect evening, I don’t know what is.

That weekend we went hiking in the Alps. Ulrike packed a lunch and gave us a thick blanket. I knew what I wanted with that. We climbed up one trail or another, stopped at a meadow around lunch time, ate a sandwich, and then laid out on the blanket. I immediately took my favorite position, my head between his shoulder and chest, and I watched the Alps rise and fall as Matteo breathed. The colors were amazing, as was his arm on my back. The combination was so wonderful I found myself kissing and crying. Why am I crying? I have no idea. I held him, he held me, I cried and told him how much I loved him. He let me hold him like that for a very long time. The man has patience, even for a woman who can’t explain why she is crying.

Class the third week was similar to the second in that we were in teams again, only this time we were to build a machine from scratch. Each team got a pile of boxes, just as we would if a new machine arrived at the plant. Our job was to build it. Once again, my team was slower. I read the assembly manual. We followed it exactly. The other team finished at three each day and went off for a beer. Our guys decided to have some fun, so they added half a dozen machine parts they had found somewhere. Come Friday, both machines ran, but theirs had extra parts, which confused them and confused the instructor. They got marked down half a grade, while my guys laughed.

After work it was Ulrike time. She was in my bed and holding me tighter and crying more. She was trying more English. “Not fat last year.” In fact she had brought a picture of her to bed. She was slightly overweight in the picture, but she was right – she was not fat. So why was she fat now? If I spoke German or she spoke better English, this might have been the time to talk about healthy eating. But I wondered if that was what this was all about. What I got from her was “I bad” and some serious crying against my chest. Zex came and we stayed in bed. She cried, I stroked her hair. I held her tight. Finally she felt ready to get up. She thanked me, kissed me, then kissed me again. I just felt more confused – and concerned.

My evenings were marvelous. I wondered about hers. Towards the end of the week, when the torrent of tears just kept getting worse, I decided to talk to Matteo. I waited until after dinner. He led me towards the part of the entryway where we usually danced, but I pulled him back to the parlor and pushed the button for the fireplace.

“I would like to talk.” We sat down, and I pulled his arm around my shoulders as usual. “Last year I was raped. I was scared, and hurt, and half crazy for a while. I did lots of goofy things in the weeks after. One thing I did was change how I ate. I went for days and ate nothing – just the sight of food made me sick. And then I would go for days when I could not stop eating.” I paused there, not sure if I wanted Matteo to say something or not.

“I am telling you this because of Ulrike. Last year she was normal weight, this year she is fat. This year she cries. I don’t speak German, and I don’t have the skills to explore what is going on with her. I think she should be talking to someone who has skills.” I left it there.

“I will make some calls tomorrow.” We had nothing to say after that. We sat and stared at the fire.

The third weekend was our last weekend. Where did we spend it? Back at the inn on the lake. When he pulled into the parking lot, I started with a string of “Thank yous” that went on as we checked in, as we walked to the room, as we put our bags down, and as I pulled him onto the bed. We didn’t get around to room service until late that night. Did I pick the right man or what?

Class the fourth week consisted of field trips. They had a small bus that took us to different plants near Bern. The primary idea was for us to study maintenance logs, and talk to people about their experience. Since the only water plant I had ever seen was ours in Amberg, I really appreciated the chance to see these other facilities. What did we learn about maintenance? That some people keep good logs, and some people don’t. We also learned which three parts go first. Both were useful pieces of information.

Back at the house, I told Matteo to start coming home later. I wanted more time with Ulrike. Matteo had arranged for Ulrike to meet with a counselor Monday morning (he seemed to have good connections to get that arranged so fast). Monday afternoon she climbed into bed as usual, but was more tentative. She hesitated before she said anything. Finally she started crying again, and buried her head in my chest. With a voice I could barely hear, she said, “I bad.” Then she cried for a long time with her face still hidden from me. Finally she said “Brother.” At this point her crying was loud and continuous, and frankly scary. I held her tight, stroked her hair, and let her cry. I could not think of anything to say until suddenly I was saying it without thinking: “We are sisters.” I kissed her, and held her, and told her again and again, “We are sisters.”

We never went down to dinner that night. Ulrike slept with me, and Matteo slept on the couch.

Ulrike saw a counselor every day that week and for weeks to come. Every day after work she climbed in to bed with me, and she still cried. I held her and kissed her. I didn’t see any miracle improvements, but now when zex came, she got out of bed and helped me dress. We hugged. We kissed. I told her we were sisters, and finally she told me the same.

Matteo got his bed back Tuesday night. He was tender with me, caressing me much longer, waiting for me to pull him onto me. I kept telling him how much I loved him, and how much I wanted him. By Thursday we were jumping into bed together pretty much as always.

Friday night was our last night. What did we do? We waltzed of course. We went to the hotel we had been to that first night. We ate a good meal, and then we waltzed until the band was done for the night. At that point Matteo stuck a bunch of bills in the band leader’s hands, and we danced for another hour. After each dance I stood in front of Matteo and enjoyed the look on his face. He looked at my eyes, and he looked at my chest, and I was happy he was enjoying both. Near the last dance he whispered, “I have learned a new English word – I adore you.” I jumped into his arms. On the ride home he repeated it and I started crying. What else could I do?

Saturday morning Ulrike had me all packed. She laid out my usual traveling dress – the black satin, helped me with my hair, put the pearls on me, and most importantly -- smiled. We hugged and kissed, and called each other sisters.

Matteo drove me crazy. He looked so good, and treated me so well, I wanted to drag him back into bed, but the flight schedule would not allow it. All the way to the airport I had my hands all over him, and he complained about what I was doing to his driving, but I didn’t care. I wanted him now, planes be damned. Unfortunately, the planes won out. I kissed him as long as any woman has kissed a man, and then left.



Chapter 3

I am Confused


So, what do you do in Amberg after a month in Switzerland? First, you try not to cry. I struggled on the airplane and finally decided I can cry myself to sleep every night from missing him, or I can feel happy for having had a month with him. The situation is the same either way – I’m here, he’s there. So why spend my days crying? I held myself to that approach all the way back to Green Bay, and even as I walked back into my trailer with a month’s worth of mail, most of which had gotten crushed in my mailbox. Be strong, Jessica. Keep your head on straight, Jessica. I rolled my bags in from my SUV, got the first one unpacked, then I laid my head down on my bed and watered my pillow. Thank God for jet lag. I was too tired to cry more than a few minutes before I dropped off to sleep.

Sunday I dealt with my tears by staying busy. I drove down to the Wausaukee IGA and got groceries. I made myself an early lunch. Then since it was Packer season, I did what every other normal Amberger did – I drove to the Amberg Bar to watch the game and drink beer. Who do I find there? Clark. I grab the stool next to him, order a beer, and put my elbows on the bar same as everyone else.

“You missed some good games,” he says.

“I am sure I did.”

“Is he the one?”

“Oh yeah.”

“You moving there?”

“No.”

“That makes it tough.”

“This isn’t a Disney movie. It doesn’t all work out. But even if I just see him one month every year, I will die a happy girl.”

“Glad to hear it.” At that point the Packers kicked off, so all conversation in the bar stopped. The Bear receiver got the ball a couple yards deep in the end zone and tried to run it out. All eleven Packers hit him at the seven.

“Are you old enough to remember when the Bears were good?” I asked.

“Nobody’s that old.” So it went for the next three hours. Nobody paid much attention to the score. It was never close. By the second quarter more people were watching two guys play pool. I ended up drinking two beers and leaving during the fourth quarter. I had mail to sort through and bills to pay, and much as I loved the Packers, watching them play the Bears wasn’t exactly riveting.

Monday morning I was up at the plant by eight. I carried in the big maintenance training manual I had been given, and my notes on safety training. I stepped into my office and found Hannah sitting at my desk.

“Hi.”

“Welcome back.” Hannah immediately stood and came around the desk. “Jonas asked me to sit in for you.”

“Good idea. How did it go?”

“It was pretty quiet actually. I got bored and spent a lot of time playing solitaire on the computer.”

“From time to time, I do that too.” I put my binder on my desk and sat in my chair.

“One of these nights would you come over?” She had lowered her voice. “I would like to talk with you about Ulrike.”

“Sure.” And Hannah left, probably to Theo’s office. I assumed they were still together. I logged into my computer and began dealing with old emails. These days, any absence is punished by an email backlog. I spent the rest of the morning working on my backlog and was still not done.

As I worked on emails, I wondered if Jonas would stop in and start harassing me. I could see he was in his office, but he left me alone. Good. At noon I took a walk through the plant to see if things were going okay (they were), and then I drove to a diner up the road for a bowl of soup. Afternoon, I finally read through the last of my emails, and while I had to respond to several of them, I thought they could wait another day. Right now I wanted to get some training ideas down while they were still fresh in my mind.

As for the dry well note I had left on my desk? I didn’t completely forget it. But it was gone, so I assumed the problem had been resolved. Do I blame that mistake on jetlag or laziness, or both?

Tuesday morning I got an early call from Hannah. Would I stop by the lodge on the way to work? Sure. I got there a little after eight. Theo and Janos had already left for the office, so it was just Hannah and me. She met me at the door, took my hand, and then led me to a love seat in the great room. We sat facing each other, her with her legs pulled up under her, and still holding my hand.

“Ulrike has been texting me. She is very grateful to you.”

“Was she one of your roommates?”

“Yes, flats are very expensive, so girls share. We were together almost a year, then I got this job, and she was hired as a maid for Doctor Schweig.”

“She is very unhappy.”

“She has an older brother - half brother, maybe ten or twelve years older, she went to visit him, he was arguing with his wife, Ulrike tried to help the wife, he hit both of them – many times, and he raped them – both of them.” She said this all so fast, it was like one long run-on sentence with a German accent. Once she had rushed it out, she just sat and looked at me, and then we both started crying. What was I to say? There was nothing I could say. I remembered Ulrike saying “I bad.” What kind of twisted world has the victim think she is bad? I just hugged Hannah. We sat with our arms around each other for a long time.

Finally I started untangling myself so I could leave, and she stopped me.

“Please stay. Talk to me. I have no one.”

“You have Theo.”

“He is hard now. He does not talk to me. He just fucks me.” Okay, so I settled back down. “Tell me about Bern. Was it beautiful?”

“Yes, the trees had turned, and there were different colors on every hillside. It is the most beautiful place I have ever visited.”

“And Doctor Schweig?”

“He took me dancing, and weekends we went up into the mountains.”

“And at night?” She was smiling now.

“He was good at night – every night.” I didn’t want to talk more about our love life, and I needed to get to the office, so I started moving again.

“Jessica, please move back with us. Then I can talk to you every morning.”

“I don’t want to sleep with Jonas again. But I will visit you some mornings.”

“Which mornings?”

“Maybe later this week.” I kissed her, untangled myself, and walked with her back to my car. “Do you want a ride to the plant?”

“No, I have cleaning to do.” And we left it at that. I hugged her again, and drove away. And yes, I cried some more about Ulrike. The poor thing. Ulrike was getting counseling from someone much smarter than me. Someone was helping. For the moment, that was the best that could be done. I dried my eyes before I drove into a tree.

Once at the office, I had another inbox full of emails. Who invented this torment? I hit the delete key over and over and reduced the load to five messages that needed my attention. No more safety PowerPoints for a while.

One message was from Matteo. I read that and blushed. I printed out a copy and put it in my coat pocket. I would read it over and over when I was alone. Denise Wells want me to join her for lunch today, rather than our usual Wednesday outing. That was odd, but I agreed. Three employees were hoping to see me at the end of work today. That was even more odd. I walked through the plant at least once a day, and workers who wanted to talk, did it then. Coming to my office somehow made the visit more official. More formal. What did they want? I told all three to see me at the end of their shift.

Was something going on? I went for a walk in the plant to see. We don’t have a very dirty plant. There is noise from the machines, some heat from the melting plastic resin, and wind from the open loading dock doors, but not much dirt other than some grease and oil from lubricants. I mention that, because I am dressed for office work – a knee length cotton dress, two inch heels, a blazer. The idea is to create a professional image. Dressed like I am, I am a little careful around several of the machines. Does that matter? It does if I want to appear casual as I walk through and talk to people. Some areas I can go to, others I avoid.

This morning, I was hoping if I walked slowly, stood and looked, started a conversation here and there, maybe I would see if anything odd was going on – and head it off. Did I see anything odd? No. Each of the four extrusion machines were pumping out plastic bottles in various sizes. The bottling machines were filling a stream of bottles with local water, and attaching labels. Cases were being assembled and pushed on conveyor belts toward either the truck side or the track side. People were working, they all said “Hi” to me, generally I got smiles. I looked specifically for the three women who wanted to me see. They each nodded or waved, and kept on working. I did a complete circuit of the plant twice, and I saw nothing that seemed out of place.

On the second pass I ran into Theo, the operations manager.

“Looking for something?”

“Three people want to see me at the end of their shift. I was trying to see if there is a problem I should know about.”

“You’ve been gone for a month, Jess. Maybe they have been waiting.” I didn’t like the way he mentioned my absence. It wasn’t like I was on a beach (well, alright, I did have a good time, but I was on official company business – mostly). Hannah was right about him. He seemed harder somehow. “Some of the training I got in Bern was about safety.” (Good girl. Point out the value of the trip.) “Can we talk some time about some possible workshops?”

“Sure, but keep them short. We need to make our numbers.” This is why people hate working in Human Resources. Nothing we do is as important as whatever other people are doing. And God forbid you take production people off the line.

“Will do.” Theo used to smile at me. Now he doesn’t. What happened to the guy who was so excited to be here? At least I got his approval to plan some workshops.

Back in the office, I dealt with the backlog of emails again. One was from Vern Stevens, the Amberg town chairman. Could we talk? I told him I was free this afternoon. I barely had hit the Send key when he was back at me – three o’clock. Retirement must be really boring if you are willing to spend that much time in front of a computer – instantly responding to emails.

By now it was already time to head down to Wausaukee to see Denise. For a couple months she and I and the protest ladies had been lunching Wednesdays at noon. Had they moved to Tuesdays while I was gone? In any case it would be good to see them again.

Except it wasn’t. I pulled into the parking lot of the Wausaukee Diner all smiles until I saw Denise step out of her car and motion me over. We were going to talk in her car? Was there a problem? Apparently yes. Before I could walk over and give her a hug, she was back in her car. I got into the passenger side, still thinking I might at least get a smile. Nope. She was looking as she had the day we had our private lunch in Amberg – jeans jacket, jeans pants, tight pony tail, tight face.

“How is everybody?” I asked. Isn’t that how you start a friendly conversation?

“They are all pretty disappointed in you.”

“Why?” I really was at a loss. What could I have possibly done?

“The water table is dropping like a rock. You could have warned us. We were right all along.”

“What?’

“Oh please, Jess. You work there. You know what they are pumping. They are going to suck this county dry.”

“Denise, I have been out of the country for the last month. I know nothing about this.”

“We know where you have been, Jess. Everyone in town knows. You sleep with the president while he sucks us dry.”

“Jesus, Denise. That’s not fair. I thought we were friends.”

“I thought so too. But you lied to us. You led us to believe everything would be fine.”

“Let me check into this. Let me see what is going on.”

“Do what you want to do, but I thought you should know not to expect a lot of smiles in town. And you probably do not what to join us for lunch anymore. Marsha wants to start picketing your house.”

“If you were really my friends, you would give me a chance. There would be some trust. But I guess I was hoping for too much.” I got out of her car and slammed the door. Growing up, I had never had girlfriends. Girls who are trailer trash don’t. Denise and her group were the first female friends I had ever had. I wonder if she had any idea how badly I was hurt by their accusations. I made it back to my Toyota without crying, but once the door was closed, I just couldn’t help it. What the hell was going on?

I had a couple hours before my meeting with Stevens, so I got out my phone and started to Google. I was tempted to search for – “what the hell is going on?” But I hit “Marinette County” and “water”. That gave me hundreds of hits, most of which were connected to fishing. But I had time, so I scrolled and scrolled, and scrolled. I got a PR piece on the plant and how well it was doing. Did Hannah write it? I got meeting minutes from Amberg Township describing the plumbing upgrade process I had helped put in place. I scrolled until the battery on my phone was nearly dead. Whatever was upsetting people like Denise was not yet in print anywhere. I suppose that was good – the problem couldn’t be too bad, could it?

Finally I gave up searching and drove up to my meeting with Vern Stevens. He too was unhappy with me. In fact, even though he had asked to see me, initially I wasn’t sure he was going to even let me in the door. He just stood and stared at me, then finally turned and walked to his office. I followed. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just sat across from his desk. He sat on his side of his desk and steepled his fingers. I hate that. Obviously he was going to lecture me.

“You conned me, didn’t you?” How does anybody respond to a question like that? I had nothing to say. He was fine with that. He had a list of charges against me, and I was going to hear them all.

“You set up this bullshit plumbing upgrade program, and for ten grand, you transfer the problem from your company to me. I get the phone calls. I get the complaints. You make me the punching bag. When the town board meets next week, we will vote to end our participation in this hoax and advise all residents to bring suit against your company. We have a couple lawyers talking to us about class action.”

“I have been out of the country. Can you at least give me the courtesy of some background? How many calls are you getting? How many wells have gone bad?”

“Everyone knows you have been in Switzerland shacked up with the company president. It helps explain how a bartender becomes a corporate manager. Don’t use that as an excuse, and don’t ever plead ignorance with me.”

“You are being really rude. I was trying to help people.”

“And I am helping you. I am telling you next Thursday the town board will end this nonsense. At that point everything goes public and your game is over. And by the way, don’t send someone over with a few envelopes of cash. Your ex-lover tried that last summer. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. I took an oath to protect this country, and I will do it, in uniform and out. Now get the hell out of my house.”

I’d love to say I had some brilliant response, but I didn’t. I was too mad. I left. The dash of my car caught a few blows from my palms, and I yelled at my windshield, but I had nothing coherent I could say, yell, or scream, other than repeating over and over, what the hell is going on?

I drove back to the office. I knew who could answer my question, but did I want to go into his office and let him fondle my backside? No. And as I looked through his door, I could see he had already left. Meanwhile, I had three women standing outside of mine.

“Hi,” I said. I tried to smile. I needed to control my breathing. I needed to calm down. There was no reason to take my problems out on these ladies. Two of them I had known since grade school. “Do you want to speak with me separately, or should we all talk together?”

“I think we can all talk together.” Lois spoke up, but also looked at the other two ladies to make sure they were in agreement.

“Good.” I said, and the four of us walked into my office. I had a small table in one corner, and the four of us sat around it.”

“Did you have a good trip?” Lois asked. Good, we were going to start out with some informal personal stuff.

“Yes, Switzerland is like here, this time of year. The trees are changing, and every hillside is attractive. What about here? How did the Rangers do?” That was the Wausaukee football team. Two of the women had boys on the team. I knew that, and wanted to show them I knew that.

“They finished second in the conference.” Lois again.

“And Joey? How many receptions did he have?”

“He averaged three per game, and made all conference honorable mention.” See? People can have friendly conversations. You don’t have to shout and be rude.

“That’s great. But tell me, what did you want to see me about?” Notice how smoothly I moved to the topic? We could do this, whatever it was, and still be friends.

“It’s about overtime.” Lois was still doing all the talking, but the other ladies were nodding.

“What about it?” Apparently this was my day to be confused. Our company had strict no-overtime policy. That is why it took special forms, signed by me, to get even one hour overtime. It was just considered bad practice. It wore out the workers, and it ran up compensation costs.

“The men like the extra hours, but we need to get home to make dinner for the family. We wonder if you could make overtime optional for employees, especially the women.”

Oops. Now what? They are working mandatory over time? When did that start? And how dumb do I have to be to not know this? I am the HR director, and I don’t know something that basic? Do I admit that to these ladies? Would they even believe me?

“Lois, I have been gone a month. Could you tell me how much overtime you are working?”

“We work an extra two hours a day, every day. You said you wanted to see us at the end of our shift, so we assumed you meant four thirty, so what is why we are here now. But after this meeting we need to go back into the plant and work until six thirty.”

Every employee is working an extra ten hours per week? What the hell? Bern will go nuts when it sees the pay forms.

“Let me talk to the operations manager to see what issues he is dealing with, and see if we can be a little more flexible with overtime hours. I assume the schedule is pretty well set for this week, but I will see what I can do about next week. Okay?” They were fine with that approach. We all shook hands, and then the women went back into the plant for another two hours of work. I went looking for Theo. What the hell was going on?

He was gone too. Five o’clock. I knew where he and Janos and Hannah were – at the lodge. Did I want to go there? No. Janos would make me stay for dinner, and then… I didn’t want that. I needed a complete break from him. I would deal with Janos and Theo in the morning – in the office – in a professional manner.

What did I do that evening? I called my girls. If anything was going to calm me down, it was hearing their voices. What did we talk about? I was curious to know about the men they had been dating, but I left it for them to bring up that subject. Both did, and both mentioned said man was in the room with them. You know how you can hear a smile over the phone? That’s what I heard. I had happy girls. So I went to bed a happy mother.

Wednesday morning I went back to the office on a mission. I would find out what was going on. I started with Janos. That was a mistake. I went into his office and stood in front of his desk.

“Janos, we need to talk.” He pointed to the place next to his chair. I ignored him. “Why is everyone working mandatory overtime. That is against company policy. Bern will be furious.”

He pointed next to his chair again, but said, “You better hope they are not too angry. You are the one who approved all the overtime. Now get over here.”

“No. I’m not here to get my ass groped. I need to find out what is going on.”

“Stand in your spot and I’ll talk to you. Otherwise, schedule an appointment. I think I have ten minutes free next week.”

I hesitated. Of course that was absolutely the worst thing I could do. I needed to turn and walk away immediately. I needed to make my decision clear. By hesitating, he knew I was thinking of letting him touch me again. I didn’t want to start that behavior all over again, so I turned and left. But I had hesitated, so he knew I had been tempted. Dammit.

Where else could I go for answers? Theo. I walked next door to his office.

“Theo, why are we working overtime?”

“Because you hired maintenance men who don’t know a lug wrench from a socket wrench. We have brand new machines that are down as much as they are up. We lose eight or ten hours each week, so I schedule overtime to compensate. Clear?”

“Does it have to be mandatory? Some of these women need to get home and make dinner.”

“So why did you hire women? They are constantly asking for time off. Either they are sick, or a kid is sick, or the husband is sick. And now they don’t want to work overtime so they can go home and cook. Why don’t they just stay home where they belong?”

“You count sick days. They aren’t out any more than the men. And watch what happens Monday morning when the men have been drinking all Sunday during Packer season. And wait for deer season. Every man will be ‘sick’ at least one day while they go off to hunt. Don’t give me any nonsense about how men are better.” At this point I was leaning over his desk, and he was standing on his side, leaning toward me.

“You are damn lucky you are sleeping with the President or I would fire your ass right this minute.”

“It doesn’t matter who I am sleeping with. You are wrong about those women, and something is going on here. Something is not right, and I am going to find out what it is.” I turned and left.


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