Gil Maier drives into the north central Iowa town of Monrovia. He’s been hired by Ole Torvaldsson, general manager of the local farmer-owned cooperative Northern Star Farmers Cooperative, to the newly-created position of assistant manager. Gil had been a superintendent at a cooperative out in western Nebraska and jumped at the chance to return to the part of the country where he grew up. He arrives at the office on Railroad Street and notices Ole carefully storing a laptop in an office wall safe.
Gil meets key members of the staff at Northern Star’s home elevator
including General Manager Ole Torvaldsson; Weighmaster Kay Nichols; Office
Manager Dottie Wilson; Superintendent Sollie Finkel; Merchandiser Howie Carr;
Johnny Littlefeather, outside laborer; and Calvin Fogerson, an electronics jack
of all trades if a little excentric. He also hears the story of Marcus Grover,
a local high school football legend from Monrovia’s only black family, who
allegedly committed suicide by jumping off the elevator roof five years earlier
after Board Member Eddie Lofgren, an unpleasant and bigoted area farmer, forbade
his daughter Michelle from seeing Marcus.
Ole and Gil go
to Loretta’s Café downtown for lunch with Board Chairman Bob Alsup and Board
Member Eddie Lofgren. Eddie is a rough-spoken man who hints to Gil that maybe
they could make some money speculating with coop funds, which would violate
coop rules. Later, Gil helps his uncle Arthur with some planting on Arthur’s
farm; the uncle explains he was suspicious of business dealings at Northern
Star so stuck with his own coop instead of joining a new one. Another day, Gil
visits Tom Hasselmeier, editor of the local weekly newspaper, and looks up old
clips on the death of Marcus Grover.
Gil gets a phone call from Russell Engle, a former Army buddy who now is a detective with the Chicago Police Department. Russ is convinced that Marcus Grover’s suicide note, which had been photographed and supplied by Monrovia police to the newspaper, is a forgery due to handwriting analysis. Later that night, Gil spots suspicious movement on top of the grain elevator and climbs up an outside ladder. There he finds Sollie Finkel taking bin measurements manually. Sollie is convinced that someone is stealing grain from the elevator and shows Gil a set of notebooks documenting grain disappearances vs. a high shrink percentage. Gil asks for a copy.
(Parts 12-14) Strange goings on at the Northern Star cooperative. Gil discovers a plan to steal power from the local electric utility to run a planned new bulkweigher, developed by Calvin Fogerson with at least tacit approval of Ole Torvaldsson, and persuades Ole to back off. Then he discovers a scheme used by Dottie Wilson to be alerted to visits from the state grain inspector. Later, Gil and some coop board members go fishing in Lake Okoboji and motor by board member Eddie Lofgren’s lake house and startle his wife, Helen, who flees inside.
Gil and his companions see evidence that Eddie Lofgren physically abuses his wife, Helen. Later they visit Carl Kershaw, former Monrovia High School principal at the time of Marcus Grover’s death and heard the tale of how Marcus and Eddie Lofgren’s daughter, Michelle, were growing sweet on each other at the high school prior to Marcus’ alleged suicide. Michelle disappeared afterwards apparently never to return to Monrovia. Gil and Sollie, in the meantime, hatched a plan to watch the Monrovia elevator for evidence someone was stealing grain. Watching from Sollie’s house while the superintendent was away, Gil spots a semi-truck pulling up out of the range of the elevator’s monitors and two men apparently stealing soybeans.
General Manager Ole Torvaldsson fires Gil, accusing him of snooping around and scaring farmer-customers. At that point, it was discovered that Sollie Finkel had disappeared into one of the facility’s concrete storage tanks with the sweep auger running. Gil discovers that Sollie’s lockout/tagout device had been removed from the auger controls with a metal cutter and his lifeline atop the tank had been cut. Ambulance, fire department, and police first responders are called. Sollie’s lifeless body is recovered from the tank, and Gil suspects murder. Even though he officially is barred from the elevator’s premises, he finds some evidence the grain temperature monitoring system may have been tampered with and no evidence of out-of-condition corn.
Gil follows the apparent soybean thieves’ semi truck along back roads to a processing plant in Mankato, MN. While hiding among tall grasses near the plant to watch for the truck, he is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. He wakes up laying on the road shoulder and his pickup in a ditch with the spark plugs and a cell phone inside missing. He cleans up at a nearby diner, and eventually reaches the coop to find Ole Torvaldsson and Eddie Lofgren are on the warpath looking for him. He calls the soy processor in Mankato and finds the truck came from Blue Sky Farms near Mason City. By the time he gets back to the elevator, Ole is away meeting with an end user, and Gil reports his findings to Sollie. The next morning, Northern Star employees discover a mysterious hot spot in some stored grain.
Gil is questioned by a Monrovia police detective. From the line of questioning, Gil discovers he is a suspect in Sollie Finkel’s murder, and Ole Torvaldsson has been encouraging that suspicion with the police. The detective advises Gil not to leave town. Meanwhile, Northern Star Chairman Bob Alsup hires Gil temporarily as an equipment mechanic on his farm and encourages the ex-assistant manager to continue pursuing his inquiries around town. Gil still has a key to Sollie Finkel’s house, and goes inside to search it for more clues. He finds a postcard from Michelle Lofgren who had disappeared after Marcus Grover’s death indicating she was in Grayton Beach, a small resort town in the Florida Panhandle. Gil seeks permission to go out of town for a “funeral.” Detective Kellerman gives him three days, and Gil flies to Florida.
Gil finds Michelle Lofgren tending bar at a beachside bar and grill. Michelle tells Gil about the harassment and shunning she and Marcus Grover endured in Monrovia when they were dating. She also tells Gil that Eddie Lofgren could not have killed Marcus. That’s because the night of his death, her father beat her and locked her in a bedroom closet, then spent the rest of the night ranting at her through the closet door. After she heard about Marcus’ death the next day, she left Monrovia forever.
Michelle Lofgren refuses to return with Gil to Monrovia, but she does give him a small piece of wood she calls High John Conqueror Root as a “protection from evil.” Gil returns alone to Monrovia and decides to visit Calvin Fogerson at the trailer park where he lives. Gil recruits Calvin to pick his way into the wall safe in Ole’s office to find out what’s on the laptop the general manager keeps there. That night, Calvin brags about how he controls all of the video cameras at the elevator, then gets to work on the safe. On the laptop inside, they find a big file named Blue Sky Farms, the outfit Gil caught stealing soybeans from the elevator. He has it downloaded onto a disk.
At home, Gil examines the Blue Sky Farms files. It was a shell company involving Ole, Eddie Lofgren, and Eddie’s son, Bob, set up to speculate on the futures market in violation of cooperative rules. They had lost a huge sum of money that way, then began stealing grain from the elevator and selling it to cover those losses. Criminal fraud, no doubt, but no apparent connection to the murders at Northern Star. Gil takes the files to Bob Alsup. Bob is appropriately appalled but suggested hiring an outside accounting firm to conduct a third-party investigation, since the computer files Gil had obtained had been gotten illegally and would not hold up in court. That would take a vote of the board of directors, so Bob convenes a meeting at his farm with a bare quorum of members known to dislike Ole. The board goes along with doing an outside investigation and to suspend Ole with pay. Eddie Lofgren arrives with his son.
Eddie and Bob exchange harsh words with members of the Northern Star board of directors, and after several county sheriff’s deputies show up to keep the peace, the two of them leave. Later Gil receives a call from Michelle Lofgren who has decided to come to Iowa after all to help the police with their investigation and exonerate her father. Gil arranges to put Michelle and her boyfriend Charlie Toussaint up at a motel outside of Monrovia. The next morning, Bob Alsup, Curly Petersen, and Gil go to the coop office and deliver the news to Ole Torvaldsson that an outside accounting firm was coming in to go through Northern Star’s finances, and Ole has been suspended as general manager. Bob names Gil acting general manager in Ole’s place. After Bob and Curly leave, Gil confronts the actual murderer of Marcus Grover and Sollie Finkel and explains how he solved the puzzle.
The murderer makes an attempt to escape. The murderer is caught, ironically, with the help of Michelle’s High John Conqueror root. Gil accepts the position of general manager at Northern Star but only after extracting a promise from Bob Alsup that he would be able to run the day-to-day operations of the cooperative without undue interference.