T.K. O’Neill’s hardboiled Jackpine Savages will be available in ebook in May of 2013 and in trade paperback in June. Enjoy Chapter 2 and Carter Brown’s introduction to the private investigator field, northwoods-style:
You really had to hand it to the architect of the jail, I guess. Or whoever it was that designed the cells with just enough room for my toes to hit the floor while hanging from the overhead beam. A welcome discovery, since my attitude about dying had changed the moment my feet left the safety of the cot.
Feeling even more depressed and self-loathing than before my failed attempt at suicide—and now with a sore neck—I slipped out of the thick knot. I took the orange jail suit off the beam and sullenly pulled it back on.
I realized I was going to have to stay and fight this thing. Slog through the dreary court proceedings and the unrelenting fear. Stand up to the bully cops and the automaton officers of the court. Something wouldn’t let me give up. Even though resignation seemed the path of least resistance, I had to struggle.
Maybe I had the true private eye spirit.
I lay back down on the cot, stared up at the damaged ceiling. Now they would at least have to move me to another cell. A different view, anyway. The weight of being held in captivity like a dangerous animal was sitting on my chest like a Volkswagen. And although the Creek County Jail certainly wasn’t as bad as Riker’s Island or San Quentin or even the state pen down in Stillwater, it still had a ways to go to make the Top Ten Minnesota Destinations list.
The order of the day became Get out of here.
I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed my eyes. In spite of my pressing need for freedom, thoughts of my ex-wife came to the forefront of my troubled mind. That being my second ex-wife, Jan, the sexy blond who’d left me for a slick lawyer with a Mercedes, a big house and a sizable bank account. Jan liked clichés. And fortunately, she still liked me. For some reason, she had stayed in touch since the split. Something I’d fought against at first. But lately, I had begun to look forward to her calls and the occasional meetings for gin and tonic at the Boat Club.
Sometimes I entertained the illusion she’d kept in contact out of guilt for the way she’d dumped me. Although it was more likely she did it to piss off her new husband Rick, who seemed to be having little success in controlling his wife. Welcome to the club.
Occasionally, if I was feeling particularly good that day, I convinced myself there was a chance of getting Jan back in the sack again. So far it hadn’t happened. Maybe my subconscious was trying to tell me something. Maybe thinking of Jan was a sign. Maybe it was Jan who could help me beat this thing. Or maybe it was my long-suppressed libido forcing its way to the surface in order to keep me sane.
I fell back on the metal cot and stared at the hole in the ceiling, got lost in a reverie of past sexual escapades with Jan. Getting lost in reverie is a good thing when you’re in jail. I flashed back to a time on Brighton Beach in the middle of warm August afternoon. We were just starting to get it on, pulling some clothes off, when we caught sight of this old guy about a quarter-mile down the beach. He was standing there in plaid Bermuda shorts and a white strap undershirt, enjoying our performance through binoculars. He continued staring through the glasses even after it was clear we were aware of his presence.
The peeping Tom had ruined the mood way back then and was having the same effect on me this time around. My dream bubble evaporated, leaving behind only the starkness of a prison cell. I heard a mumbling at the cell door and glanced over to see Deputy Monty Marshall standing there looking overweight and overbearing, as usual.
“Ya got some visitors, loser, should you choose to see them,” Monty said, thumbs hooked under his belt. “Although looking like you do, ya might be doing them a favor by not seeing them.”
“Been taking a Carnegie course or something, Monty?”
His puzzled look turned quickly rigid.
“What’s that supposed to mean, dickface?”
“Nothing Monty, I just thought you were finally warming to me. Who’s here to see me?”
“Your dipshit lawyer with the asshole breath and some hot-looking older chick.”
“A blond in expensive clothes?”
“Sounds like this one.”
“Great. And as long as you’re here, you can verify that my ceiling is falling in and I need some new digs.” I pointed a finger up at the hole.
Monty gave me one of those cocky what’re-ya-tryin’-ta-pull looks that unqualified authority figures are noted for. Then he looked up at the hole in the ceiling and frowned like an adolescent school kid.
I’ve heard it said that if you start thinking about someone you haven’t seen for a while, chances are they are somewhere close by. I’m not sure if that’s true but I do know it was good to see Jan sitting in the visiting area next to the disheveled, corduroy countenance of Sam Frederickson. Even his craggy, wide-eyed face looked good to me.
Jan peered at me with a mixture of concern and uncertainty like maybe she was wondering if I actually killed the woman. I was seeing a lot of that lately—a removed and surveying look as folks passed their judgment on me.
Jan stood and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Frederickson was filled with his usual doggy confidence. He’d been busy.
We had a nice little talk.
Sam had learned that the man who’d reportedly seen a blue SUV bouncing off of Rose’s Focus on the night of her death had recently been busted for possession of methamphetamine and thus been deemed invalid and unreliable as a witness by the Creek County Attorney. Along with that, a couple of the regulars at the Savannah Club were insisting they’d seen me at the bar on the night of the crash. I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth but I didn’t care. I got warm and fuzzy after hearing that Jan had discovered my predicament from the TV news and immediately called Sam Frederickson with an offer to bankroll a “more thorough” investigation.
We were chatting away like three drunks at a high school reunion when Sheriff John Daugherty pressed his former All-Conference linebacker’s body into our space. Many years removed from his glory days, he’d developed a case of dresser disease—chest falling into his drawers. His round, puffy face wore the lost and angry look of a man who’d outlived his usefulness but was trying to pretend differently. Who knew how much brain damage he’d suffered playing football?
“It looks like you’re free to go, Brown.” Daugherty frowned until his bushy gray eyebrows joined together as one. “You got lucky this time, hotshot,” he said, squaring his wide shoulders, “but don’t go too far away. We’re still considering other charges, and as far as I’m concerned you are still the most likely suspect. You can be sure we are doing our best to prove me right.”
“I’m not so sure County Attorney Burnside agrees with you, Sheriff,” Frederickson said, followed by a garlic-heavy belch.
“We still got the letter, smart guy, and the lab is going to be sending us more info on the paint match any day now. And I’m thinking either one of those things might be enough to light a fire under Burnside’s butt.”
“That letter’s a fake, Daugherty,” I said. “And you know it. Or at least you should. Why don’t you go after Billy Talbot? He’s the one who’s lying. I never offered to kill Rose—he’s obviously pulling something. You think he couldn’t find some local hangdown to run her off the road? A case of beer and a gram of crank still buys a lot around here, you know what I’m saying?”
The sheriff’s blotchy face got even redder. He snapped his head back, shot me an icy smirk and walked away, a .44 Magnum bouncing in a black leather holster on his large hip. His creased tan trousers were shiny at the butt.
Sam had already taken care of the paperwork.
Sign my name a few times and I was free to go.
At least for a while, said an unwanted voice in my head.
Sam and Jan and I went outside. Fresh air on my face was life affirming. Cold, but it didn’t seem bad because I was free. The leaves were gone from the trees and rattling around on the asphalt. It was nearly dark at five o’clock in the afternoon. Exhaust swirled and dived behind a black Cadillac Escalade idling in the far corner of the parking lot alongside two sheriff’s department SUVs. It was too dark to make out the face of the driver in the Caddy.
I gave Sam a hug and thanked him for all his good work. He aw-shucksed it and said to call him in the morning, got into his dirty green Honda and drove off.
I rode back to Duluth with Jan in her silver Audi, a birthday present from Rick the Prick. It was an awkward sixty minutes. I tried to convey my appreciation for her help. The more I tried the less she respected me. Or so it seemed. You had to be hard with Jan. In every way. If there was going to be any kindness shared, she had to initiate it. Otherwise she lost the element of control, I guess. At least that’s what our ineffective marriage counselor had told us, some years back.
Pulling alongside my apartment, I was hoping she’d come in for a condolence fuck. I wasn’t that lucky. But I was lucky to still have a place to sleep. Sam had talked to my landlords, and since I had yet to be convicted of anything, they didn’t terminate my lease.
Jan sent me away with a brushing kiss on my lips and a little pout on hers. Said she’d call me in the morning and not to worry about the money she’d spent because Rick was filthy rich.
I watched her taillights fade and went inside, settled into the couch and pondered my next move. Obviously, I was someone’s patsy. Billy Talbot was more than likely filling the role of Someone. It sure looked like Talbot and his pal Dick Sacowski had conspired to kill Rose and frame me for the crime. A classic sucker’s gambit and I was the classic sucker.
But what was the entirety of the motive? Isn’t it always money, power, sex or vengeance? Or maybe in the odd case, love? Didn’t seem like power was in the mix this time. I couldn’t grasp what Talbot had to gain other than getting rid of his problem wife. Maybe that was enough. It would definitely save him a large stack of Benjamins.
I went to the fridge and found one remaining beer. There’s no place like home. I asked myself what Mike Hammer would do in this situation. More than likely maim or kill someone. Name wasn’t Hammer for nothing. But that wasn’t going to work for me—for obvious reasons.
I elected to ponder the situation further and fell asleep sitting on the couch. Sometime later, I jerked awake when my snoring reached the intensity of a chainsaw about to cut my nose off. My neck snapped backwards and my lower back went into spasms.
I hobbled to the bed and collapsed on it, hoping to escape to unconsciousness before my mind figured out I was trying to trick it.
It knew me too well.
I spent the night tossing and turning and getting up to drain the lizard. My mind was flying with images of wrecked cars, dead Roses, jail cells, big ugly cops, hanging victims and naked, blond ex-wives wearing expensive jewelry. I tried to hold onto that last picture, but as soon as I focused, the channel changed and there was a stainless-steel toilet staring at me like the eye of a giant Cyclops.
I gave up the battle with consciousness around five a.m., took a shower and dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, a black fleece pullover on top. I went to the tiny kitchen and filled the coffee maker. It was still dark outside and the indoor/outdoor thermometer on the window showed twenty-seven degrees. Late November and the livin’ was sleazy. Ten hours of daylight and most of the time the sky was gray. North winds were usually biting.
But anything was better than jail.
The Forester was in the Creek County impound lot so I had to take a DTA bus to my office. Fortunately, I had paid up the lease for a year.
A private eye needs an office.
I drank tea and stared out the window until it got light over Lake Superior. There weren’t many gulls around this time of year. Traffic was sparse now that tourist season was over. Christmas lights and decorations hung expectantly from the storefronts and the streetlights. I wasn’t feeling much joy. In its place was a vise squeezing my temples and an icy wind blowing in my gut.
Around nine o’clock I started rounding up the boys.
I found Tommy Basilio at his shop (Hi-tech Tommy’s). He gave me a phone number for Dan Burton and told me that Tormoen was hiding out at a farm in Poplar, a small town just outside of Superior, Wisconsin. Superior or Souptown as many around here refer to it, is linked with Duluth by the Blatnik Interstate Bridge in the middle of town and the Richard Bong Memorial Bridge on the west side. Traversing St. Louis Bay, these bridges are the only direct land routes between the two port cities.
I reached Burton. He had a phone number for Jeff Tormoen at what Dan referred to as “Maggie’s Farm.” Jeff was there when I rang. He chewed me out for getting him into this mess. I reminded him it was I who’d faced a murder rap, and all they could possibly pin on him was impersonating a state official. I assured him it was only a misdemeanor but really had no idea. Chances were good he could do serious time but I figured what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
Then I did what I did best—apply guilt. A skill you sometimes learn in a marriage. I insisted that my old plan, and by association his participation in said plan, had played a part in Rose’s death; albeit a small one, but enough that he—we—owed Rose something. We owed her at least an effort to find her killer. I called upon his sense of humanity.
He laughed at that one but came around anyway. Said he’d do whatever I needed.
Three o’clock in the afternoon at the Hideaway Lounge in Superior is usually pretty slow. Always a comedian, Torm had chosen the location. We were drinking beer in a dark wooden booth in the dimness of the backroom. Except for Dan, who sipped a Diet Coke.
I did some pleading. Pleading for help. Pleading with these guys to help me prove who the real killer was. I hoped for more success than O.J Simpson had found.
Tommy Basilio’s cousin Tony, a Duluth cop, had told Tommy that the authorities were still unsure of the identities of the phony State Fraud and Financial Bureau agents who’d visited Rose prior to her death. At this point, there were no warrants or identified “persons of interest.” This was proof that I hadn’t ratted on anybody. Reason enough for the boys to return the favor with their loyalty and assistance, the way I saw it.
They didn’t argue that but balked when I said I wanted the team back together for another run at Taconite Bay. An all-out blitz for information or innuendo or anything we could find. The boys were understandably nervous about going back to the scene of the crime. I tried to convince them of the viability of this approach, pointing out that Dan Burton resembled a thousand other guys in the area and thus would be hard to pin down. On the other hand, Tormoen had wavy blond hair to go with his good looks and booming baritone voice—characteristics that made him hard to forget. But the only ones to see him in the Taconite Bay area had been Rose and Billy Talbot, and it was highly unlikely he’d encounter either of them.
“We have to go back up the shore and work the area for information,” I announced solemnly after the third beer. “There has got to be somebody who saw something or knows something about what really went down that night. I mean, if you guys believe I didn’t kill Rose.”
“No, ah… I’m cool with that,” Tommy said.
Dan nodded and raised his Diet Coke in acknowledgement.
Tormoen put his hand in front of his mouth and raised his eyebrows disapprovingly. “I’m not that sure about you,” he said, pausing. Then he burst into a laugh and punched me in the shoulder.
“You realize I have a business to run, don’t you, Carter?” Basilio whined.
“Yeah, Tommy, I know,” I said. “And I also know that the cops have already spoken to you. You told them you installed a video system in Billy Talbot’s house with his knowledge and permission. And that you were merely doing a job, much like the dudes who stuffed the ovens at Auschwitz.”
“I never said anything about Auschwitz.”
“Yeah, Tommy, I know,” I said, “just trying to lighten things up.”
“You have a knack for lightness, Brownie,” Tormoen said.
“I hear that,” I said.
“Why don’t we all go out to the farm, boys?” Tormoen said, his eyes unnaturally bright. “We can light a fire in the garage stove and plan and scheme to our hearts’ content. My boy Pike grew some dynamite shit this year and he loves to get you high and talk about it.”
“Instead of that, why don’t we grab a case of beer and head to my office?” I said.
“You got any of that weed with you, Jeff?” Burton said. “This diet pop is just not cutting it.”
I went with Tommy in his shop van. Dan and Jeff rode in Dan’s truck. It was nearly five o’clock and close to dark as we rolled across the peak of the Blatnik Bridge. The industrial blight to the west was a blur against the darkening sky. To the east, little yellow lights dimpled along Minnesota Point as it spread itself like a giant finger across the black water. Below us, huge grain elevators loomed like floating space stations, their lights dancing on the satiny bay. Things looked better at night than in the daytime this time of year. The gray that seeped into your head like a fungus was replaced by inky blackness and artificial light. No shades of gray. I liked it that way. Maybe because I couldn’t shake the feeling I was still in jail. Locked up in the Gray Rock Hotel of my mind.
There were plenty of empty parking spaces in front of my office; we didn’t have to use the handicapped slot. Tormoen lifted a case of Leinenkugel’s out of the truck bed and followed me to the stairs. Dan Burton looked happier now with his illegal smile on. Tommy Basilio just looked pained, although he was the only one of us who didn’t seem pale in the frosty light.
We didn’t get much done.
Burton and Tormoen were stoned. After a couple of beers Tommy ordered a pizza. I was just glad to have the company. The sleepless nights had scrambled my brain and made my body sore. But the electricity running through me spoke of the necessity for haste. People in the North Country were beginning to hole up and hunker down. How much time did I have before memories faded and interest in the case died out?
I wanted to get going the following day.
Tommy Basilio wore a look of pity as he calmly informed me that Thanksgiving was in two days. I had lost track. I was embarrassed. The others looked at me kindly for a change. I didn’t like it.
“Look you guys,” I said gravely. “I don’t want to ruin your holiday or rain on your parade or piss in your beer, but this is my ass on the line. There was a murder charge hanging over my head, in case you forgot. And they could still come back at me. The only reason you guys aren’t facing charges is because I kept my mouth shut, and I expect something in return.”
“I won’t say anything bad about you, Carter,” Tormoen said from his chair, eyebrows rising, “Pinky swear.” He crooked the little finger of his large right hand.
Dan Burton snickered. Tommy covered his mouth with his hand. I looked at Tormoen’s cherubic face stuck in childlike innocence and sincerity and I started to laugh. The laugh had a life of its own. Took over my belly and then I was shaking with it.
“Much better Mr. Brown,” Tormoen boomed in his rich basso as he stood up and spread his hands benevolently. “We are behind you all the way, honorable private dick, but one must not forget the mirth of the universe. We are—all of us here—caught up in a conundrum of inter-galactic proportions. The only way we can possibly succeed is by embracing the madness and riding the comet like interstellar cowboys.”
“Well said, Jeff,” Tommy said. “But I’m still going to have Thanksgiving with my family.”
“If that is what the universe demands, my son,” Tormoen said. “Or your ol’ lady.”
“Indeed,” I said. “What about Friday? A holiday weekend could be a good time to reach a lot of people. I want to hit the bars up there, hear the whispers and the shouts. Buy a few drinks and bring up Rosie’s demise, see what comes back at us.”
“Here-here, and I’ll drink to that,” Tormoen said tipping a beer bottle to his lips. “Let’s all vow to return on said Friday to begin our crusade for freedom. Freedom for Carter and for the whole world. But the question I feel most taxing—the nagging doubt of which torments me like a droning mosquito—manifests itself as a plaintiff inquiry as to who will be paying for the liquid enticements we must use to ply the tongues of the natives? I’m afraid I find myself in a position of temporary financial embarrassment.”
“All expenses will be taken care of by Carter Brown Investigations,” I said.
“I’ll second that,” Burton said, standing.
We all stood. I felt like a puppet on a string as we clinked bottles (and one aluminum can) together and solemnly pledged to meet at two o’clock on Friday to begin our quest.
My assistants made their way out and emptiness came in to fill their spots. I turned on all the lights and gathered up the small pile of mail waiting for me in my still immaculate reception area, hoping something there would change the dangerous direction of my thoughts.
I sat at the desk and distractedly shuffled through the utility bills and junk mail and weapons catalogs. One distinctly different envelope caught my eye. A small hand-written white envelope addressed to Carter Brown. No return listed. The seven in the address had a line through it like Europeans use.
I got a funny feeling in my chest—a lightness. Then a twinge in my solar plexus. I tore open the envelope and slid out a carefully folded piece of stationery. The paper was heavy bond and the piece was shorter than normal size, as it had been cut neatly across the top, possibly to remove a logo or business name.
It was a brief note. Brief and to the point, handwritten with ink.
If you seek answers about death of Rose Talbot, see Petr at Sky Blue Waters Lodge.
My first thought was that it was a ruse. But the juice buzzing through my chest told me something else. It could’ve been nerves kicking up, the fear and anxiety of a rank amateur out of his league and out of his mind, but what the hell else did I have?
The way the name was spelled—Petr—without the second e, indicated he was either European or there was a spelling error on the note. Maybe Petr was one of those guys who pretend they’re from somewhere exotic and foreign in order to impress people. Kind of like a guy who becomes a private detective to impress people. Maybe Petr and I had something in common other than Rose Talbot. Maybe Petr didn’t even write the note. Maybe I was crazy.
(End of Chapter 2)
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