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When we arrived, Jack Olson was lying in a pool of blood on Carl Jacobsen’s study floor. The wall behind him, including the white frames around the broken window, was a mess, sprayed with dark red bits and blobs of Jack. He looked surprised at being dead. Carl looked angry at having killed him. Detective Jonasson sent me outside to look around.
There were no flowerbeds back here, and the grass was so dry from the summer heat that it crackled underfoot. Hoppers leaped around me as I sweated in the shade from a shagbark hickory. No footprints. No glass on the outside. The whole scene looked like a classic B&E, except it was broad daylight, five-thirty in the afternoon.
I took off my hat and wiped my forehead. Through the broken window, I could hear Carl spluttering, “He broke in. He came after me. I think he was after my guns.”
“Well, he got a taste of one,” Jonasson commented. “What alerted you to the fact he was in the house?”
“I heard breaking glass. I came running in here to see what had happened.”
“With a .357 in your hand?”
“I was cleaning it.”
I sighed. The study faced the back, looking out towards the creek to the south and lilac bushes to the right. No houses. Mrs. Lina Torstein lived next door on the left, but she hadn’t been able to tell the difference between a lawnmower and a dog in years. Still, I’d check. Later. I went back inside.
Bob Wagner had closed Jack’s eyes, so now he just looked dead. Carl was still angry.
“He came after me. I’ve got the right to defend myself, in my own home, with my own gun.” Bob’s eyes led me to the baseball bat that was near Jack’s right hand. It was a pretty poor weapon to bring against a man with as many guns as Carl had. “I didn’t mean to kill him. I aimed for his knees, but it’s this damned .357. It kicks. Came up high, and ended up in his chest.”
Jonasson nodded. “Uh-huh. I need you to come downtown -”
“For shooting an intruder? I’ve got my rights!”
Randy Walworth’s hearse stopped outside.
“Yes, you do. But I need a formal statement.”
“Not without my lawyer.”
“Fine. Want to call him here or there?”
Carl looked at Bob and me. “What about these two?”
“It’s a crime scene. There’s work to be done.” I could see Randy inside the door, listening with that coyote look he gets when he’s hosing up gossip. “Carl, you called us and let us in. Technically, we can do what needs to be done to secure the scene. But, if you want, I’ll get a warrant. I can call Judge Dunn -”
“Okay. So, do we have your permission to go ahead?”
“I’ll come down after they’re done.”
Bob and I helped Randy load Olson’s body into the hearse. Then we went back to work, while Carl stood by the door, his hands crammed in his pockets. You should have seen his face when I bagged the .357.
When we were all done, Jonasson asked Carl, “Ready?”
“No. I’ll come down in the morning. I give you my word.”
Jonasson nodded and we left.
Carl showed up at nine a.m. with his attorney, Ulf Vegard, the lawyer you call in Laskin if you have no money, have a dicey case, and/or are dangerously cheap. Carl would be the latter. When I suggested that I could help interview Carl, Jonasson said I irritated Vegard and sent me over to Laskin Office Supply, which Carl owns, to irritate them instead.
The store was still closed. I could see Alice Arneson, the manager, standing inside, talking to her brother, Peter, who also worked there. There was a third employee, Robin Tannes, but I couldn’t see her. I went around to the back and banged on the door. Peter let me in.
“That fresh coffee I smell?” I asked.
“You betcha. Help yourself.”
“Thanks.” Both of them looked at me expectantly, and I tried to return the favor. “Good coffee.”
Finally Alice spoke up. “Grant, what the hell happened?”
“Carl shot Jack. That’s all.”
“But why? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’ve got no idea why Jack might have threatened Carl?”
“Oh, heavens no. Why would he do that? Jack was one of our best customers.” I raised my eyebrows. “I mean, a good customer. He paid on time.”
“I didn’t know Jack had a business. I thought he worked at the local lumber yard.”
“Who said anything about a business?”
“A good customer? One of your best?”
“He bought a lot of envelopes,” Peter said. Alice frowned at him. “Lot of paper.”
“What’s a lot?”
“Couple of thousand a month.”
That was a lot. Peter looked eager, Alice looked at the floor. “You got a record of this?” I asked.
“He pays – paid cash,” Alice said.
“Still…” I looked over at the computer. “Don’t you ask everybody their address? And it’s logged in?”
“Yeah.” I waited. The phone rang. “Get that, Peter!” I continued to wait. “You want a print out? Now?”
“It would be helpful.”
Alice set her jaw and got to work. I had another cup of coffee. Peter hung up the phone and asked me what I thought of the Twins this year. As we discussed the situation, Alice handed me a printout. Three thousand envelopes, a case of copy paper, and three boxes of labels in the last month. “How’s that?”
I was stunned, actually. Alice always lets you know that whatever you want is a lot of trouble, and then usually she doesn’t do it. So I figured I’d push it: “You got these going back for a year?”
“That would take some time.”
“End of the day?”
“I suppose so.”
“Thanks. I’ll take this with me. By the way, where’s Robin?”
“She’s out today,” Peter said.
“Family reunion at Lake Okoboji,” Alice added. “I gave her a couple of days off for it.”
Well, aren’t you being sweet all the way around, I thought. But I didn’t say it.
I figured Jack would be the major topic of discussion down at the hardware store, so I was a little surprised when Joe Hegdahl looked at me belligerently and wheezed, “What’s this crap about Carl being arrested?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Well, he shouldn’t be,” Joe persisted. “Someone breaks in your house, you got a right to shoot him.”
“That’s right,” Tom Fjerstad agreed. “Of course, I don’t think Jack was robbing him –”
“Of course he wasn’t,” Joe said testily. “I’ve known Jack Olson since he was a kid. Wasn’t no robber. But it’s simple. If someone comes into your house without your permission –”
“Castle doctrine,” Dean Sanborn chimed in.
“Not quite,” I protested. “You can’t shoot your in-laws just because they show up and walk in without your permission.” Everyone laughed. “The law says you have to be resisting a felony on yourself or your house.” They all looked puzzled. “There has to be a threat. A credible threat.” And that was the question: how does a baseball bat stack up against a house full of guns as a credible threat? I didn’t mention it, but it stuck with me. “Anyway, Carl’s a free man. We’re still investigating.” There was a long pause. “So. What about Jack?”
They all stared at me.
“Shame,” Tom said, shaking his head. “I’m going to miss him.”
Dean started to say something, but Joe gave him a warning glance that could have been spotted by a sun-struck bat.
“We’re all going to miss him,” Joe said. “He was a good man. A hard worker. Real popular. I know he’ll be missed all over town. What in the hell was Carl thinking?”
Everyone shook their head and rocked back and forth a bit. The silence stretched out until I finally said, “Well, if anyone figures it out, give me a call.”
Not that anyone would. In a small town, very little that actually matters gets reported. Nobody wants to go on the record. And they talk about people in big cities not wanting to get involved.
Down at the post office, Paul Swenson wasn’t answering questions about Jack’s mailing habits. “Sorry. Can’t help you.”
“Even in a murder investigation?”
“Is that what you’re calling it?” Paul Swenson said. “I heard he broke in.”
“Okay. Criminal investigation.”
Paul’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve got regulations. You get a warrant, that’s different. You got a warrant?”
Like a warrant would help. “Not yet. Thanks, Paul.” I didn’t take it personally. He’s been ticked at me ever since I busted him for DUI.
Carl’s truck was still sitting outside the police station, so I went over to Walworth’s Funeral Home. Randy was sitting out on the front porch, probably to get away from the smell of flowers. “Officer Tripp!” he cried out as I walked up. “Come for a pre-need package?”
“Not yet. I was wondering about autopsy results.”
“Oh, that. Come on in. Coffee?”
“No, thanks.” I followed Randy into the little office in the back that was his private sanctuary. “Was it the .357?”
“It was a .357. I dug it out myself. Have to do ballistic tests to make sure it’s from the gun Carl was holding, but… I’d say it’s a slam dunk.”
“When was he shot?”
“What do you mean, when was he shot? He’d barely stopped breathing before you guys got there.”
“Are you sure?”
“All right, it was a hot day,” Randy conceded. “Could have been as much as an hour or two.”
“Okay. Anything odd?”
“No. Nothing CSI. Nothing X-files. Nothing fun.” He sighed deeply. “How I wish I’d get called to an alien autopsy just once. Or Bigfoot. Then I could write my memoirs and retire.”
“Where would you go, Randy?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Amsterdam. Barcelona. London. La Rochelle. Where would you go, Grant?”
“To each his own.”
“It’s the call of the great outdoors.”
“Oh. In that case, you want to go fishing Saturday?”
My cell phone rang. “Sounds good. Yeah?”
It was Bob Wagner. “Grant. I’m out at Olson’s. Can you come out here?”
“On my way.”
Jack Olson had lived by himself in a house he’d painted red, white and blue after the Minnesota Twins. It sat on the other side of Baird Creek, down about four blocks from Carl’s, which was the four blocks that separated upscale (Carl’s) from retail (Jack’s). The house looked a bit ratty, but not as bad as some bachelors’ places I’ve seen. The same was true on the inside.
“Back in the second bedroom. Looks like he used it as an office,” Bob said.
That was a wreck. There were papers spilling out all over the desk, a huge box (from Laskin Office Supply) overflowing with paper, and a couple of others. I picked my way around and started looking. And there it was, everything that had been hinted about: envelopes, stationery, stamps, labels, and bogus documents like you wouldn’t believe. Everything from “Official Insurance Policies” to plastic “Official Diplomatic ID” cards for the “Free Republic of America”.
“Amazing what people will pay good money for in these hard times, isn’t it?” I commented.
But Bob looked sick. Bob had been a anti-government conspiracy-theory strict-constitutionalist tax-avoidance sympathizer until he got hired as a police officer and had to deal with people like himself on a regular basis. Found out they were a complete pain in the ass. A couple of years back, Frank Bischof – a former drinking buddy of Bob’s – had pled not guilty to a third DUI on the grounds that there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution about traffic laws, hence the same were unconstitutional, not to mention the fact that he, Bischof, was a sovereign citizen and as such held a diplomatic identification card that gave him diplomatic immunity. Period. The bogus paperwork quickly piled up like confetti, both before and after he was sent to prison. Eventually Judge Dunn put an end to that. Both Jack and Carl had verbally supported Bischof, publicly and in court. Me, I’d wondered who’d paid the filing fees on all that bogus paper. I’d assumed it was Carl, who had the money and had been the unofficial leader of the Laskin “freemen” for a very long time. But now I wondered…
“He was ripping off people left and right,” Bob said.
“Yep.” I looked around. “You didn’t know anything about it?”
“God, no. If I had, I’d have… I’d have…”
“Yep. Wouldn’t have helped. Was he always this messy?”
“Jack. He always leave things looking like a tornado went through?”
Bob’s eyes swiveled around. “I don’t know. The last time I was out here, it was fairly neat. Course that was a while back. We kind of quit talking last year…”
I nodded. “Just for the hell of it, let’s check some of this stuff for fingerprints.”
“Be real easy to move crap into a dead man’s house.”
And wouldn’t you know it, there wasn’t a fingerprint to be found. Nor any mailing lists. When I called Jonasson and told him, he said, after a minute’s silence, “I’ll send Harry over in the van. How big a mess?”
“Big enough. I’d say we need about a dozen boxes. There’s also a computer.”
“Okay. We can put them in that cubby hole by Jean.”
She’ll love that, I thought. “Yes, sir.”
As I expected, Jean was not happy, but there was nothing she could do about it. Actually, they weren’t in her way, but she was always complaining about the lack of windows in the basement dispatch center and this just gave her more ammunition. Glen went to work on cracking Jack’s computer. Bob and I went upstairs to write our reports. I was in the middle of mine when Jonasson came up behind me and asked,
“Didn’t you use to date Robin?”
“Robin Tannes. Works for Carl. Rumor has it she’s going to marry him.”
I kept my smile to myself. Jonasson almost always lunched with his wife, Paula, who would be one of my top five sources for Laskin gossip. “No, I didn’t. That was Barry.”
“Close enough. I hear she used to date Jack Olson, too.”
“Jealousy makes a good motive. She’s out of town.”
“I know. But when she gets back, interview her.”
But she stayed gone.
Mrs. Torstein, while blind as a bat, wasn’t entirely deaf.
“I was sitting out back, under the cottonwood, trying to get a breath of air. Dreadfully hot, dreadfully. And then I heard glass breaking. So I leaped up and went towards my back door, but then I heard shouting, and I knew it wasn’t anyone at my place. No, it was two men, shouting at each other. Now I don’t know Jack Olson. But I do know Carl, because I’ve heard him shout many a time. And he and that other fellow, whoever he was, they were shouting and swearing and turning the air blue. And then I heard a shot, and I went inside, into my bedroom, and locked the door.”
Ward Powell charged Carl with manslaughter one, manslaughter two, and reckless discharge of a firearm, and offered a plea bargain. Carl said nope, the charges were fine with him, and that he wanted a jury trial because he wanted to make it clear what people’s rights were in this country. I figured he had his closing speech already written.
Jonasson talked to Bill Rolfson, our Postmaster, and finally got through to someone from the Postal Inspection Service, who confirmed that there was indeed an on-going investigation of mail fraud concerning sovereign citizens, but what they’d discovered was none of our business since (1) it was a federal crime and (2) it wasn’t in Laskin. That meant Sioux Falls, which made sense. They also demanded whatever we took from Olson’s house, and a set of prints. Jonasson had me send Jack’s prints and ignored the rest.
Jack Olson’s funeral was held, and not that many attended. He had no family: his parents and brother had died years ago, in a freak automobile accident. And, as word got out about the mail fraud investigation, the general attitude around town began to shift from, “Carl had the right to shoot Jack, but we know Jack wasn’t doing anything wrong” to:
Joe Hegdahl: “Look, I liked Jack, but God knows he had a mouth on him the size of Minneapolis. It was bound to get him in trouble sooner or later.”
Alice Arneson: “I always knew there was something wrong with him. And he didn’t pay his bills on time, either.”
Brent Nordstrom down at the newspaper: “Jack thought he was the next Glenn Beck, but he always struck me as an idiot. Now it looks like he was nothing but a mail-order Bernie Madoff. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Vi at the Norseman’s: “He was just full of himself. He talked big, but all he had was that little shack. Acted like he was king of the world.”
It was amazing how many people didn’t like Jack now that he was dead. But I remembered him as being real popular. I could see him, sitting down at the end of the bar, red beer in hand, joking, laughing, talking with just about everybody that came in. And it wasn’t my imagination, it had been real. I’d liked him. Everyone had liked him. What happened?
“What’s got you looking like a dog with a hangover?” It was Matt Stark.
“I was just thinking. You ever just sit here and think?”
“All the time. Did a lot more of it before they banned indoor smoking.” Matt stuck a pretzel stick in her mouth and sucked on it like it was a cigarette. After fifty, sixty years, she’ll never quit smoking, drinking, or any other of her bad habits. “Draft, three olives, Vi. So what’s got your brain working?”
“Jack Olson. When did he become the least popular man in town?”
“When Carl shot him. Thanks, Vi.” She took a slurp of beer. “Most people think you got to take sides. ‘Cause if Carl made a mistake, then Jack’s dead for nothing, and that just pisses everybody off. And if Carl’s wrong, that messes with being able to defend yourself. So Jack must’ve done something, because otherwise Carl wouldn’t have shot him, so Jack’s a son of a bitch, and all’s well with the world.”
“So the hell with Jack.”
Matt shrugged. “Jack’s dead, and Carl’s alive.”
“What do you think really happened?”
“I don’t know. I figure the whole break-in thing’s a bunch of crap. All sorts of possibilities… My bet is envy and jealousy.”
“Maybe. But not everything’s about sex. Especially after a certain age.” She drained her beer. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
The first time I saw Robin Tannes, she was walking in the park, Barry in tow. She dated him for a whole two weeks before she moved on. That was before he went to college, got into drugs, and burned out his brain. Anyway, I can still remember her, walking under the trees, the sun shining through her gauzy sundress and streaming blonde hair. A classic Norwegian beauty, with skin like rosy satin and wide blue eyes.
Now, ten years later, Robin had been married and divorced (to a Sioux Falls attorney twice her age) and gained some weight, but she was still your classic Norwegian beauty. Except for the remains of bruises that ran down the left side of her face.
“Robin,” I said. “What the hell happened to you?”
“I ran into a door,” she explained. “Come on in.”
“Yes, a door. You can ask my mom. Mom!”
Mrs. Tannes came in from the kitchen. “What?”
“Tell Officer Tripp here about my shiner.”
Mrs. Tannes shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together. “It happened at the lake Friday night. Someone had too many margaritas.”
“Told you. So, what do you want to know?”
“Well, primarily about you and Jack Olson and then you and Carl Jacobsen. How long did you and Jack date?”
“Just for a couple of months.”
“He was no good,” Mrs. Tannes said. “No ambition, no nothing. Working at a hardware store. There’s no money there. And then all that nonsense about conspiracies! I told Robin to dump him. And she did, finally.”
“And now you’re engaged to Carl?”
“Yes,” Robin said.
“He’s a little conspiracy minded himself.”
“There’s a world of difference between the two,” Mrs. Tannes snapped.
The main one being that Carl had the money, and Jack didn’t, but I didn’t say that. “Do you think they might have fought over you?”
“Why should they? I wasn’t going to date Jack again.”
“How long ago did you break up with Jack?”
“Oh, a while back.”
“It was back before Easter,” Mrs. Tannes informed me, “because I was thankful I didn’t have to invite him for Easter dinner.”
According to Mrs. Jonasson, that was a lie, but I didn’t go into it. “When did you get engaged to Carl?”
“Fourth of July.” That was a month ago. More reasonable.
“And when are you getting married?”
“August twenty-second. It’s my birthday.”
“Congratulations.” I looked at her blue eyes and the yellow bruise. “So you have no idea what might have sparked the shooting?”
“Did you know anything about Jack’s business sideline?”
“Of course she didn’t!” Mrs. Tannes cried.
“Do you know anything about Carl’s?”
“Carl’s?” Robin looked wide-eyed. I nodded. “He doesn’t have any, that I know of. I don’t see why you’re asking me all these questions. If Carl said Jack was threatening him, he was. If he said he fired in self-defense, he did.”
“Whatever Carl says goes, eh?”
She flushed, but said, “He’s going to get off.”
I nodded. “Well, thank you for your time, Robin. And congratulations on your upcoming wedding.”
“Thank you. We’re going to be very happy.”
Mom and I have dinner together most Wednesday nights, before she goes to church. That Wednesday night I told her about Robin’s bruises.
“She says she ran into a door.”
“Pfft. That old line. That’s always a sure sign that something else happened.” One of the things I love about Mom, she always believes the worst.
“The question is, who gave it to her. She used to date Jack Olson, and now she’s engaged to Carl Jacobsen.”
“Engaged? To Carl? Alice must be fit to be tied.” I guess my jaw dropped, because Mom added, “Alice Arneson? From the office supply store?”
“I know who she is, Mom.”
“Well, she and Carl have been fooling around for years. I could have told her that was no way to get him to marry her -”
“How do you know they’ve been fooling around?”
Mom gave me her pitying look. “Look across the alley, Grant. That’s Alice’s little bungalow right catty-corner, and I can see who parks in the back thinking that he’ll never be spotted from the street.”
“Mom, you’re a wonder.” She blushed.
Mom went to church, and I went over to Alice’s.
“Grant. What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk to you.”
“Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow? At the store?”
“I thought you might appreciate privacy. I want to talk to you about why Carl’s been over here so often. At night.”
I was watching her face. She didn’t blush, or even look embarrassed, but her eyes shifted, focused somewhere else. And then came back to me.
“Your mother’s been spying.”
“My mother is curious and alert. May I come in?”
“It’s not what you think,” she said as I walked in.
“No, I think it’s exactly what I think,” I replied. “I think it’s not what my mother thinks.” She sat down on a little bench in the hallway. I leaned against the wall across from her. “You, Peter, and Carl? Well, maybe not Carl. He never gets his hands dirty. Anyway, you moved all that crap over to Jack Olson’s. From here, not from Carl’s. He came over here at night, not to make love, but to pick up boxes full of stuffed envelopes, stuffed with diplomatic IDs and international insurance forms and all that crap. He took them away, down to Sioux Falls, where he mailed them and picked up the replies. And then he’d come by, and pay you your share, and pick up the next batch. Isn’t that right?”
“You don’t have any proof,” she said.
“Funny thing, there weren’t any mailing lists at Jack’s. But of course, those would have been hard to replace. The paperwork – that’s easy. Cheap to produce, and at fifteen hundred dollars a pop it’s a hell of a markup.” She gritted her teeth. “Did you know there’s an ongoing mail fraud investigation? I’m going to send them your fingerprints and Carl’s.”
“You don’t have any fingerprints –”
“You could wipe them off the boxes, but you couldn’t wipe them off of every envelope or card.”
And Alice, tough, mean Alice, broke down and cried.
“It’s Carl’s business. I just work for him. It was all his idea.”
“Why did you take it all over to Jack’s?”
“Because. Carl told me to.”
“And where does Robin fit in?”
“Oh, Jesus. That little bitch.” She looked up at me, genuinely curious. “What do men see in her? She’s the size of a refrigerator and she’s losing her looks.” I shrugged. “Carl hooked up with her. Made me hire her. Meanwhile, Jack was jealous and pissed off. He threatened to turn Carl in.”
“So he knew about the mail fraud.”
“Of course he knew. Jack was no angel. He used to help with it. But then Carl stole Robin away from him, and that broke them up. Jack threatened Carl, threatened to turn him in over it. And he told Robin that Carl was always over at my place. So one night she came over and found out what was going on.”
“She didn’t know before?”
“Guess not. She was furious: screaming her head off, calling Carl an idiot for risking everything he had for this kind of bullshit…” She stopped, shook her head. “Carl, he’s got a bad temper. He exploded. She tried to get away… I was the one that pulled him off her. I cleaned her up. I calmed her down. I explained things to her. Carl took a walk, round the block or something. Came back, and they made up. Went back to his place, I guess. The next day he called me up, told me she was going out of town for a few days.”
“That the day of the shooting?” She didn’t say anything. “Morning, afternoon or night?” Still silent. “I can check your cell phone records.”
“It was that afternoon. Around four.”
An hour before he called the cops. I could see it all: Carl persuading, arranging, pressuring Robin to lure Jack over to Carl’s, sobbing for help against her abusive fiancé. And Jack came. Came armed with a baseball bat to rescue the little Judas goat, and Carl shot him. Problem solved. Jack was dead, Robin was an accessory – shipped out of town at once – and nobody was going to squeal about anything. And that night, he had all the evidence moved over to the victim’s.
“Come on, Alice. Let’s go downtown.”
Alice made a statement that night, which she tried to back out of later. But by then was too late, especially since Peter confirmed most of it. By then we’d sent fingerprints to the USPIS, and Carl and Alice were arrested for mail fraud. Carl bailed them both out. Robin stood by her man, and they were married by a justice of the peace in Deadwood.
Carl again refused to plea bargain regarding Jack Olson’s death, despite the fact that everyone now knew that Carl was the one who’d done the mailings. Or at least, now they’d heard it: a lot of people continued to believe that Jack Olson was behind it. A lot of people believed that Jack Olson had beaten Robin up, despite the fact that I let everyone know that Carl had done it. But they didn’t, wouldn’t believe that. Nobody wanted to believe that. Especially since Robin kept denying that anyone had hit her at all. It was like Matt said, Jack was dead, Carl was alive, and that was enough. They’d picked sides. Enough that the jury acquitted Carl of everything but reckless discharge of a firearm, a misdemeanor.
Oh, during the trial, Carl gave a magnificent speech on the right of a citizen to defend himself and his property that had people cheering in the seats. I’m waiting to see if he uses the same speech when he’s tried for mail fraud. Without a jury, I don’t think it will work.
Eve Fisher began writing in elementary school, and her mystery stories have appeared regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and other publications. She is part of the mystery writers’ blog, SleuthSayers, at www.sleuthsayers.org. Her work has found favor in China, where a fan is translating her stories for web readers. She lives in a small town in South Dakota with her husband and 5,000 books. Her website is www.evefishermysteries.