When Detective Webster Coninck arrives at the murder scene outside Tups Tavern, he quickly identifies the body: Tom Johanssen. Former classmate, full of charisma, and a man with enough enemies to line up interviews into next week. Webb finds himself off the case because of his personal history with Johanssen, but Webb believes his local knowledge holds the key to solving the case. But only if he can face his own painful history. Chosen as one of the best stories of 2011.
“Local Knowledge,” by Edgar-award nominee Kristine Kathryn Rusch will be free on this site for one week only. The story’s also available for $3.99 on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and in other bookstores.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The call came in at 11:54 a.m., December 15, 1995. Body found at Tups Tavern, 35 East 35th street. Webb thought the call routine until he arrived.
Tups, frequented by sailors and longshoremen, was on the lakefront. Superior glistened, never freezing over, never covered with snow. But not pretty either, not in this part of town. In this part of town, the massive lake was dark and dirty, not sky blue like it was everywhere else.
Drug deals went down nearby and the local hookers worked dockside. Knifings were common. But this victim hadn’t been knifed.
He’d been shot.
Patrols had followed procedure. Two squads, parked at an angle on the broken concrete parking lot, colored the tavern’s gray walls red, blue, red, blue. Barflies stood near the open gunmetal doors, drinks in hand, coats draped over their shoulders to protect them against the cold.
They watched Webb as if he were one of them.
Which, in a way, he was.
He slipped between the dented bumpers, thankful he still fit in small places. Fifty crunches, one-armed push-ups, a half-hour run around the football field, all required before he allowed himself to hug a bar stool and drink until his tongue was numb. He always said the exercise let his body perform his job, and the booze kept his mind from dwelling on it.
But he wondered sometimes, especially when he saw himself reflected in those shabby tattered people whose drinks were more important to them than the life drained on the concrete.
He didn’t acknowledge them. Instead, he stopped beside the squads and memorized the scene.
Body belonged to a tall middle-aged man, lambswool coat—too rich for this part of town—exit wound a bloody mess in his back. Shoes shiny Italian leather, almost no scuff marks on the soles, dirt caking the right toe and the left heel. Right hand outstretched, slightly sun-wrinkled, white, with a gold ring, large ruby in the center. Salt-and-pepper hair, neatly trimmed, no strands out of place. Face pressed against the ice- and sand-covered concrete, features not visible from above.
Daylight was thin under a thick layer of clouds. Coroner would have to work in artificial light. Webb slipped on a pair of surgical gloves, crouched, and touched the back of the outstretched wrist.
Still warm. Webb glanced up, saw bloodstained holes in the pile of ice-covered snow plowed to the edge of parking lot.
“Anyone know him?” he asked, as he crouched lower, and peered at the man’s face. Then he realized he didn’t need to ask.
He knew the man. Tom Johanssen, returning home, after thirty-three years.
Tom Johanssen. The first time Webb had seen him, they’d been in high school. Webb was the gangly new kid from Louisiana—a whole country and half a culture away from Northern Wisconsin. Tom was all black hair and smiles, broad shoulders, chiseled features, and smarter than anyone else. Only he didn’t flaunt it, just like he didn’t flaunt the girls. Boys liked him too, wanted to be in his shadow, and that was the first time, maybe the only time, Webb had ever experienced—had ever fallen under the spell of—true charisma.
Then Tom shattered it all, the entire brilliant future, the golden dreams, by getting Jenna Hastings pregnant. Two days after graduation, they married, and Webb saw Tom only occasionally: buying groceries at the Red Owl; or riding home from work in the big yellow electric company truck. Webb went to college and Tom stayed behind, and it wasn’t until five years later that Tom surfaced again, playing lead in a local country band.
Webb had gone to see the band just after he graduated from Mankato State and just before he entered the police academy. Tom stood center stage, black hair curling over his forehead, guitar slung across his shoulder. Girls crowded him as if he were Elvis, and Jenna was nowhere to be seen. Webb had watched mesmerized, and had wondered then if Tom was divorced.
But the divorce came after the scandal, leaving Jenna with four boys and Tom with another mistake on his record. He joined the service, and went to Germany. Married again, became successful, and sent his folks piles of money. Year after year, he promised to come home, the prodigal son, now back in favor.
He never did come home. Not for his grandmother’s funeral or his grandfather’s. His sister’s wedding or his son’s.
He never came home.
“I’m taking you off the case.” Bernard was hunched over his desk, beefy arms covering two separate piles of papers. He was staring at the file in front of him as if his next words were written on it.
Webb leaned against the door, arms crossed. Despite the stuffy heat of Bernard’s office, Webb still felt a chill, as if the cold from the death scene had got deep into his bones. “I can be objective.”
“Like hell.” Bernard caught a thin strand of hair and twirled it over his bald spot. “You went to high school with him. Florence—”
“I went to high school with him, Ethan went to high school with him, and Mike Conner is Jenna’s brother-in-law. Stanton’s kid married Tom’s kids’ half sister—and Pete flew Tom out of town in sixty-two. Everybody in this town is connected to Tom somehow. You lived next door to him for six years.” Webb’s hands, hidden beneath his arms, were clenched into fists. He didn’t know why he was fighting for this one so hard.
“I know,” Bernard said. “That’s why I want to give this one to Darcy.”
“Darcy?” Webb tilted his head back so his crown hit the wood. Bernard was watching him, tiny blue eyes lost in his florid face.
Webb had trouble arguing this one. He’d fought for Darcy Danvers. No one had wanted to hire a woman cop, let alone a woman cop from out of town. She’d come in with more ribbons than anyone, more experience with real crime. She was athletic and tough, smartest woman he’d ever met—hell, smartest anyone he’d ever met—and a real street fighter.
“She doesn’t know this town,” he said, trying not to wince. That had been Bernard’s argument against hiring her, the city’s argument against keeping her, and the basis of Webb’s defense of her five years back.
“She knows it good enough,” Bernard said. “She’ll follow through where the rest of us won’t.”
“I’d follow through,” Webb said.
“Even on Flo?”
Webb closed his eyes, his sister’s face rising before him, not as it was now, but as it had been that night long ago, puffy, tear-streaked, miserable.
“Even on Flo,” he said.
But he didn’t get a chance. Bernard took him off the case anyway. Webb staggered out of the office, short of breath and dizzy. Too many emotional shocks. First Johanssen, dead, then losing the case. It should have been his. It had to be his, to make up for thirty-three years.
Darcy was standing at her desk, a file of ancient clippings open in her hands. At forty, she was teenager-skinny, her arms long corded muscle, her breasts nearly flat against a trim torso. Her brown hair was cut short, above her ears, and the lines on her face were only visible up close. From a distance, she looked like a fifteen-year-old boy.
“I want to help you,” he said.
“No dice.” Her voice was cigarette-gravel. Two packs a day, filterless. Cigarettes for her, booze for him. Somehow they made it through the long, cold winters. “Bernard took you off this case.”
“You’ll need a local guide.”
“I can find one.”
“Maybe,” he said. “You don’t know what Johanssen did.”
She closed the file. “Dumped his wife and four kids for a sixteen-year-old groupie who claimed she was nineteen. Took her to Germany, married her without getting a divorce. Second marriage still might not be legal.”
“Surface stuff.” He took the file from her, glanced down.
It was from another case, a knifing at the same bar, in sixty-two. He tossed the file on the desk.
“There’s always knifings at Tups,” he said.
“When Tom Johanssen’s band was playing?”
“Nobody plays at Tups. Tom Johanssen’s band was drinking. Johanssen and Cindy Waters were already on an airplane for Minneapolis.”
“How’d you know?”
“Local knowledge,” he said. “Still think you don’t need me?”
Darcy studied him. Her left eye was gray, her right eye green, a fact that had always intrigued him.
“So,” she said slowly. “Where were you when Johanssen got shot?”
“Got a TOD yet?”
“About ten-thirty, give or take. Coroner’s not in yet.”
Webb shrugged. “In my car. Listening to the scanner and thinking about lunch.”
“In this town, detectives don’t have to partner.”
She frowned at him. He once told her she was the only partner he wanted. “Can anyone give you an alibi?”
“Does anyone need to?”
The room had gone silent around them. Maybe he’d raised his voice. He didn’t know.
“It might help,” she said, picking up the file he’d tossed. “Word has it Johanssen screwed your sister.”
“Got that wrong,” Webb said. “He didn’t just screw my sister. He destroyed her.”
Webb’s sister Florence wasn’t pretty. She’d never been pretty, not even as a little girl, but she’d been close. The wrong kind of close. Her features, taken separately, were perfect: oval eyes, long narrow nose with just a hint of an upturn, high cheekbones, and bow-shaped lips. Put together, they looked like she’d been colored by a child with a crayon too fat for the child’s hand.
But what made it worse was that she wanted to be pretty. More than she wanted anything else.
She almost achieved it with Johanssen. She’d been twenty-one then, trim, with hair so black it shone blue in the sunlight. Her smiles had come from her heart and she walked with a lightness she would never have again.
Webb used to think she had finally grown into her body until he stumbled on Johanssen, shoeless and shirtless in Flo’s bedroom on the middle of a Thursday afternoon. Flo had been in the bathroom. Webb could hear the water running.
Johanssen had grinned, hair tousled, cheeks still flushed, the sheets smelling of sex. Your sister’s one hell of a woman, he’d said.
Webb had squeezed his fists tight, held them against his sides, not sure he wanted to fight in his parents’ home. You’ve got one hell of a woman at your place.
Not for much longer, Johanssen’d said as he slipped on his shirt.
That what you’re telling Flo?
It’d better be true, Webb had said, or I’ll be coming after you.
I’m sure you will. Then Johanssen had grabbed his shoes, and slipped out the window, as if he’d done it a thousand times before. And he probably had.
The conversation had echoed in Webb’s mind for years afterwards. The beauty of it was that Johanssen had never lied. He’d never promised that he’d take Flo with him when he left. At least not to Webb. And probably not to Flo.
But Johanssen’s strange honesty couldn’t excuse what he finally did do. He’d chosen Flo because she was needy, and she’d fallen for him so deep that she’d never love anyone again. That would have been enough for Webb, enough to keep Webb searching for Johanssen all those years, but there was more.
Johanssen’d chosen Flo because of her college money. She’d won two science prizes her last year of high school, the only girl in the state to do so at that time, and she’d gotten three grand in awards. That, plus a thousand inheritance from a dead aunt, and savings from four years of full-time work while living at home, brought Flo’s savings account to well over $5,000.
In 1962, with that much money, a man could buy a house.
Or go a long way toward disappearing forever.
On the afternoon he left, Johanssen slept with Flo for the last time. Then he’d convinced her to go to the bank, take out all her money and give it to him. He’d buy plane tickets with it, he said, start a new life far away from here, with a new wife. He just never said who that new wife would be. And while Johanssen’s band was getting drunk at Tups Tavern, Flo had sat in her parents’ living room, in her very best dress, looking as pretty as she would ever get, waiting for a knock that never came.
She’d refused to press charges, said it was her fault, and didn’t change her mind no matter how much her family pushed. She kept her job, never tried college, never moved out of the house, and never fell in love again. And whatever chance she had at pretty died that night, along with her heart.
Sometimes Webb thought it was all his fault. He should have beaten up Johanssen in Flo’s bedroom and chased the bastard out of her life.
But he hadn’t. And that was something thirty years of police work could never change.
One missed moment, one bad call, had ruined his sister’s life.
Flo still lived in their parents’ house. It was a three-bedroom starter home, built post-war, and had a little over 1,000 square feet counting the basement. Their parents had been dead ten years and Flo had yet to buy her own furniture. She still slept in the same room that she’d had all her life.
Webb walked in without knocking. He shut off the television, like he always did, and crossed the empty living room into the kitchen. His sister sat at the wobbly metal table, slapping cards on the faded yellow surface, a cup of cold coffee at her side.
“You’ve heard,” he said.
“Every asshole in town’s called me,” she said, without looking up. “Thinking I’d be pleased.”
“I don’t know yet.” Her hands were shaking. He didn’t know if that was from the caffeine, the news, or both. He always suspected that she’d harbored a hope about Tom Johanssen, a hope that Johanssen would come back for her, that he’d made a mistake.
Webb went to the counter, grabbed the pot off her Mr. Coffee, and poured the remaining coffee into the sink. Then he tossed out the grounds. The garbage below the sink was overflowing. He’d have to take it out before he left.
He made a new pot of coffee, grabbed a chocolate from the basket on the sideboard, and took his normal seat at the table. Behind him, the Mr. Coffee wheezed. It was at least fifteen years old.
Flo set her cards down and studied her hands. They were so thin that he could see the bones. Her skin was a sallow yellow—she never got any sun—and he doubted that she ate more than enough to keep herself alive.
“What was he doing here?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How long had he been here?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Don’t know or won’t say, Webster?” Her voice cracked as she spoke, taking some of the force from it. The force, but not the pain.
“Don’t know.” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. He’d been so worried about her that he hadn’t learned the basic facts. A mistake he had never made before. Maybe Bernard had been right.
Maybe Webb didn’t belong on the case.
“You always know.” She got up, poured the coffee out of her cup, and then stuck her cup between the dripping coffee and the pot.
“They don’t want me on this case.” His voice was low.
She spilled, cursed, and ripped off a paper towel. Then she paused, leaning over the sink. “Because of me?”
He debated not telling her, but that wasn’t fair. Then she’d think he was lying about what he knew.
“Yeah,” he said, staring at her cards. Frayed edges, chocolate stains on the back. She played solitaire a lot. “Because of you.”
She didn’t move. “It shouldn’t make a difference, should it, Webster? Thirty-three years ago? That shouldn’t affect now, should it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, pushing away from his mother’s kitchen table. “You tell me.”
Options. Choices. The facts Webb knew about Tom Johanssen ended about 1970. He’d left a half second before the scandal broke, joined the army, flew Cindy Waters to West Germany, and married her there. After he got out of the military, he’d moved to some wide-open western state, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, or Utah, and worked for some computer firm. There were rumors of continued scandalous behavior, from affairs to drug abuse to corporate raiding. He made a fortune. Enough for two houses of his own. He paid off his parents’ and his grandparents’ mortgages, had two more children, flew his older children to Montana-Idaho-Wyoming-Utah once every few years for skiing and the obligatory parental visit.
And not once did he return.
That was where Webb’s investigation had to start. At Johanssen’s decision to return to the land of his sins. Never mind that Webb was off the case. Darcy’d still be digging up graves by the time he had answers to the more pressing question.
The secret wasn’t in who Johanssen had hurt. Webb suspected that the list probably extended well beyond Midwesterners. The secret lay in what had made him change enough to come home.
If Webb found that, he’d find the killer.
He knew that much as well as he knew his own sister’s name.
He had to work fast. Once Bernard caught him, he was out of time, probably with a suspension, badge and gun turned in for good measure. So he laid the attack like a well-planned military maneuver. People first, machines second.
Johanssen’s parents still lived on the corner of Maple and Pine in a red-and-white clapboard house that had seemed bigger when Webb was a kid. He had only been to the house a few times, the most memorable a class picnic at the end of his junior year. The house had seemed wrong, even then. Johanssen was too glamorous, too intelligent to come from a house that had no books on the walls, and which had yellow and brown slipcovers all over the furniture. His parents, Gladys and Phil, were so firmly working class that Webb had trouble associating them with their son. As the picnic wore on that bright sunny afternoon, it soon became clear that Johanssen had done the planning, the cooking, and the cleaning to make it all happen. Webb had felt a stab of pity. His own parents would have helped even if they didn’t believe in a project, but it was obvious that Johanssen’s wouldn’t.
Webb grabbed his badge before he got out of the car. He didn’t like rooting this deep into his own past. He didn’t like the memories and the way they made him feel, as if he were smaller than he really was. In life Johanssen had made him feel that way; he seemed to do the same in death.
The sidewalk leading to the front door was cracked and broken. The concrete steps showed the signs of harsh winter. A fake grass welcome mat that dated from the sixties sat soggily near the stoop. Webb was careful not to step on it as he knocked.
The yellow curtain covering the window nearest the door moved slightly. Then voices echoed, and finally the door opened. The hunched old man staring through the screen was barely recognizable as Phil Johanssen.
“Mr. Johanssen,” Webb said, holding up his badge. “I’m Detective Webster Coninck. I’ve come to talk to you about your son.”
“No need to be formal, Webb,” Phil Johanssen said, as he pushed open the screen. “I remember you just fine. Sorry to hear about your folks. Gladys always sent a card.”
“I know,” Webb said. “Flo and I appreciated it.”
Flo had gasped each time she saw the word “Johanssen” on the envelope. She had hoped that the cards had come from Tom.
Webb slipped inside. The house smelled of mothballs, lineament, and fried foods. Phil Johanssen still wore his slippers. His blue pants hung on him, and his red-and-black plaid shirt dated from the late seventies.
Gladys stood in the door to the kitchen. She looked much the same, only faded, as if she had been in the sun too long and it had leached the color from her. Her hair, once the exact shade as Tom’s, was now laced with gray, and the wrinkles on her face had the effect of dulling it.
“Webster,” she said, and her strong alto took him back to his teenage years quicker than anything else ever could. “I was hoping you’d come.”
“Mrs. Johanssen,” he said. “I’m so sorry about Tom.”
She made a small snort and took his hand. Her grip was surprisingly firm. “Come into the kitchen. I haven’t had a boy at my table in too long.”
The kitchen had been remodeled. It had a window over the sink, and oak cabinets that still gave off a faintly new scent. The countertops were a shiny ceramic, and the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher were matching white. The table, covered with a vinyl tablecloth, sat against a bay window opening into the backyard. Plants littered the large sill. On the walls around them, Gladys’s spoon collection alternated with Phil’s pipe collection.
That was the smell Webb missed, the faint odor of pipe smoke clinging to everything.
“He gave smoking up for his health,” Gladys said, following Webb’s gaze. “But he couldn’t give up the pipes.”
She sat down beneath the spoon collection. Phil sat in front of the bay window. Webb sat across from her. The chair was covered with a crocheted cushion that didn’t fit his body.
“Has anyone else spoken to you?” he asked, careful to keep his voice gentle.
“Just the boys who came to tell us the news,” Phil said.
“Like on the TV,” Gladys added. Her hands rested on the vinyl cloth, fingers laced together. Her knuckles were white from the tightness of her grip.
So Darcy hadn’t been there yet. She would arrive soon.
“So,” Webb said, “when did Tom tell you he’d be coming home?”
“Didn’t know until them cops showed up,” Phil said. “You’d think the boy would call if he was coming home after thirty-three years.”
“So you had no idea he was coming?”
“I did.” Gladys had her head down, her hands pressed so tight that they were turning red. “He called two days ago. Said he’d be here tonight. I didn’t say nothing because I thought he wouldn’t come. Like all them other times.”
“Dammit, woman.” Phil shoved his chair back. “You could have said something.”
“Wouldn’ta killed me.” He got up, bowed in an odd, formal way to Webb, then left the room.
Gladys’s lower lip trembled. She brought her head up. Webb was sorry for thinking that they hadn’t cared about Tom’s death. They had been trying to put a good face on it.
“It would have hurt him something awful, Webb. The last time Tom didn’t show, Phil went to bed for a week. Didn’t want to do that to him this time.”
“Have there been other times when Tom said he’d be here and then never shown?”
She nodded, grabbed a tissue from her sleeve and dabbed at her nose. “Every three years like clockwork. He never made it. Not once. And he always felt so bad after that he’d pay to take us out there. But it ain’t the same as coming home.”
“No, Ma’am, it isn’t.”
“I don’t know why he hated it so bad. It was like the town burned him and he couldn’t face it again. I kept telling him that folks’d forgiven him, but he didn’t seem to hear. He was a good boy, Webb. You know that.”
“He made quite an impression on me,” Webb said.
Gladys studied her hands. Her thumbs worked against each other as if she were rubbing pain out of them. “I’m sorry about Florence,” she said, her voice a whisper.
He opened his mouth, closed it, unsure what to say. He almost said that it didn’t matter, but it did matter. Tom had ruined his sister’s life.
“You tell her that money’s still here. I got it in an account for her. Remind her.”
Webb went rigid. The room spun and he realized he hadn’t taken a breath. Gladys looked up, the lines in her face deeper somehow, and he made himself breathe. He couldn’t hide his surprise.
But Gladys didn’t answer. She pushed her chair away from the table, stood, and walked to the sink. She grabbed a glass from the sideboard and filled it with water. Her reflection in the window was wavy and indistinct.
“He was a good boy, my Tom,” she said. “He just forgot sometimes that things have consequences. Like never coming home. His kids would’ve liked him here, you know? At a game maybe or that play Donnie was in. It’d meant a lot.” She took a sip. “Guess it don’t matter now.”
“Who killed him, Mrs. Johanssen?”
“That’s the question isn’t it?” She set her glass down, but she didn’t turn around. “Not sure I want to find out the answer.”
Neither was he. But fear had wrapped itself around his heart, and he had learned long ago to face that fear, to stand it down as if it were a charging dog or rampaging drunk.
He was on this path. Nothing, not even his own fear, would make him leave.
The Johanssens had offered to repay Flo her $5,000, and she had never taken them up on it. They had it in an account in her name, had since 1971.
When Tom sent them the money to pay off their own mortgage.
Webb didn’t want to think about how much money was there, what kind of life Flo could have had if she’d only tried.
He drove away from the Johanssens’ sick and shaking and wishing for a drink.
Instead he turned onto Hill, drove past the high school, past the duplexes owned by John Johanssen, and stopped at a crudely constructed A-frame on what looked like a vacant lot bordering John Johanssen’s property.
Three brothers. Tom, John, and Scott. Scott Johanssen was the youngest, Vietnam vet, five children and no job.
The yard was a mixture of snow and dirt. Toys, half buried in the muck, were colorful reflections in the glare of a powerful porch light. Webb got out of the car, and trudged on the unshoveled path. It was icy and awkward with tramped footprints. Voices echoed from inside the house. Sharp voices, male and female, that cut off abruptly when he knocked.
There was no screen. When the unpainted door eased open, the scents of dirty diapers and dryer lint floated to him on a bed of warm air. A woman stood behind the door, her body thick with the aftermath of a pregnancy, her blouse stained with milk. The toddler in her arms was kicking her in a vain attempt to get down.
“Scott Johanssen, please,” Webb said.
“You a cop?” she asked.
He nodded, reaching for his badge. But she didn’t wait. She stood aside and yelled, “Dad, another one!” as she let Webb inside.
He stepped into a kitchen filled with old dishes and an overflowing diaper pail. In the center of the room, a weather-scarred picnic table stood, covered with crumbs and an overturned child’s juice glass.
“Through there,” she said, waving a hand at the A-shaped doorway.
He followed the trail of baby clothes and toys until he reached shag carpeting that might have been brown and might have been orange. This room smelled no better than the other. The furniture was old and brown, the upholstery torn. A TV was crammed against the unfinished wall, a red “mute” across Dan Rather’s face.
Scott Johanssen was crammed into a Barcalounger that sagged under his weight. The footrest tilted, obviously broken. Scott was balding but still baby-faced, his round features a fatter, younger version of Phil’s.
“Webster Coninck. Why the hell they got you on the case?”
“Dad,” the woman said from the doorway.
Scott shrugged, and slapped the remote on a cup-strewn metal table. “Fair question when you remember that Webster here vowed undying hate on my brother thirty-some years ago.”
“I came to offer condolences, Scott.”
“Yeah, and monkeys’ll fly out of my ass.”
“Dad,” the woman said. “The children….”
“It’s my house, Cheri,” Scott said. “You don’t like how I talk, you and them kids can go back to that asshole husband of yours.”
“I’m sorry,” she said to Webb, and then disappeared into the kitchen.
Scott peered up at him. “Condolences my ass,” he said. “You want to know if I killed him.”
“Should have, for all the times he left Mom and Dad hanging. And them kids. They worship him, you know, and he didn’t even have the time of day for ’em. Not even when he flew ’em to Utah. He’d let that slut of his take ’em places, and then he’d show up maybe for supper, maybe for one day of skiing, and that’s all they’d talk about. Me and John, we were always there for ’em, but we were never enough. I was a fat bum, and John was too slick. Their dad was perfect because he was mostly a figment of their imaginations. That’s what Tom was good at. Making up lies about himself that other people’d believe.”
“What kind of lies?” Webb asked, figuring he’d let Scott talk if that was what Scott wanted.
Scott snorted, slid one finger forward and shut off the TV. A whine that Webb hadn’t been consciously aware of disappeared. “Lies? You mean like that corporate job that made so damn much money? I called him at work lotsa times, always got him direct. Then I lost the number, called information, and got the receptionist. She said she’d never heard of him. I got—” he grinned “—well, lessay I can be a mean s.o.b. when I wanna, and she put me through to personnel. Said they had a Tom Johanssen in their records. He’d been there and left years ago. That was in 1979, and when I’d ask him about it, Tom’d just laugh and say, ‘Scott, there’s business and then there’s business.’ As if I didn’t know that. Every grunt ever lived knows that. Just didn’t want to hear my brother saying it, you know?”
Webb wasn’t sure he did know. He shifted. His feet had left a fresh snow-mud trail on the flattened carpet. “You ever see him on those trips back here?”
Scott narrowed his eyes. “How’d you know about them?”
Webb shrugged. “Amazing what you hear when you’re listening.”
Scott pushed back on the arms of the chair. The back of the Barcalounger hit the wall.
“I was still drinking,” he said. “So it had to be ’88, ’89, down to Tups. I had just come from Ma’s and she was in a fine fix because she thought Tom was coming home. But he never showed. He was good at that too. So I wander into Tups and take my usual spot when who do I see through that stupid glass bead curtain Tup used to have but my brother in one of his fancy suits, talking to some fat asshole I’ve never seen before or since.”
“What happened?” Webb asked.
“I was drinking.” Scott picked up the remote, tapped its end against the metal, making a sound like a brush on a snare drum. “So I wasn’t thinking, you know? I shouted his name and stumbled back there and by then him and his buddies are gone.”
“You sure it was Tom?”
“I was drinking,” Scott said. “I wasn’t drunk. Besides, he sent me cash money to apologize for being a jerk and asked me not to tell Ma. Told Dad, though. Big mistake. He tried to find Tom, and when he couldn’t, he spent near a year in Tups, hoping he’d come back. He never did. Then Tom flew ’em all out on one of them Utah ski trips, and when Dad come home, he didn’t want to talk about it any more.”
“You know what Tom was doing here?”
“Nope, and I’m sure Dad don’t neither. Like I said, Tom was good at making you think one thing when he was doing another.”
Webb knew that. He knew that very well. “So what do you think happened to Tom?”
“I think somebody finally got tired of all the lies and used a bullet to shut him up.”
“Any idea who that somebody was?”
“Nope.” Scott stopped tapping the remote, and pushed a button. The TV flicked on, so loud that Webb jumped. “I’m sure you’re not hurting for suspects though.”
The winter darkness that Webb hated had settled by the time he left. The sky was black—no stars, only clouds—and the streetlights made the snow seem white. Black and white with no gray. Not even the world had room for nuance any more.
John Johanssen lived out near Jenna Hastings Johanssen Conner. John’s house was a 3,500-square-foot mock Tudor. It stood on a hill with a view of the river valley, the rolling land, the copper water tracing its way to Taconite County. John owned fifteen acres here, and half the town besides. His rents were sky-high and his reputation nasty. But his buildings were never empty, and if Tom hadn’t become such a legend, John would have gotten credit for being the rich Johanssen brother.
John’s wide, winding driveway had a square snow blower-built wall on each side. The snow was still picture-perfect, icy pure and fresh fallen white. The garage door was down. Webb parked on the far side, careful to leave room for a second car to park beside him. He got out, slammed his car door, and the sound echoed in the winter air. He followed the snow-blown trail to the immaculately shoveled front porch.
He grabbed the carved brass knocker with his bare right hand. The shock of cold ran through his skin and up his arm. He banged once, then waited, scouting for a doorbell.
He didn’t need it. John’s wife Evvie pulled the door open, and braced the frame with her right hand. She was too-rich thin and wore fresh makeup despite the late hour. “He’s not here, Webster,” she said.
“I wanted to talk to both of you,” Webb said.
Her smile was tired. “You know I can’t do that without John.”
John had never liked it, not from the day they got married. Any independence Evvie showed somehow reflected on him. Evvie couldn’t talk to another man alone. Webb had been on some of the calls as a beat patrolman. John never hit his wife, but the yelling had terrified the neighbors more than once. Webb suspected that was one of the reasons the couple had moved so far out in the country.
Webb didn’t argue. He could talk to them together if he needed to. “Where is he?”
“Funeral home. Someone has to make the arrangements.” She brushed a strand of unnaturally dark hair from her face. “I’ve been trying to call the folks in Utah. The numbers don’t work, except the home number, and Cindy won’t pick up.”
“Someone at the station probably notified her.”
“Hope so. We shouldn’t have to take care of him. He never did his part for this family.” Then she shrugged. “Shouldn’t have said that, should I? Speaking unkindly of the dead.”
“It’s not a sin,” Webb said.
“At least, not in the world of Tom Johanssen.” She sighed. “I’ll have John call. I know he wants to talk. This has him shook.”
“I’m surprised it didn’t happen years ago.” She took her hand off the doorframe. “Thanks for understanding, Webb.”
“Always have,” he said.
She nodded and eased the door closed. It snicked shut, and he stood for a moment, his hand still aching with cold. He’d always liked Evvie. She and John were high school sweethearts, and seemed to have an understanding. But Webb’d always thought John never treated her well enough, despite the house, despite the trips, despite the money. She had no life away from him, and she should have.
At least Webb thought so. But he wasn’t sure if that thought came from his own desire to see Evvie alone and have a real conversation, just once, without the guilt.
He sighed, walked off the steps, and back to his car. When he got inside, the porch light switched off.
The home Jenna Hastings made with her second husband, Steve Conner, was one mile and an entire income district away from John Johanssen’s. Jenna lived in a small three-bedroom ranch in at the base of one of the rolling hills. Her nearest neighbor on the left had a front yard littered with dead appliances and car parts. Her nearest neighbor on the right lost his home in a winter fire fifteen years ago and replaced it with an Airstream because he hadn’t been insured. Jenna had tried to make her home nice, with flower boxes outside the window and a fresh coat of paint every year. But the little house still looked like what it was—a starter home for a family that had never moved on.
Webb used to drive out to Jenna’s a lot when Steve was still on the force. They’d have barbecues and parties for the department, and Webb’d watch her four Johanssen boys take care of her two Conner girls. Handsome children, all, with the same restless intelligence he’d once seen in Jenna’s eyes.
He turned onto the highway leading to the Conner place and was startled to see the road filled with cars. Black-and-whites parked haphazard, their blue and red lights bright splashes against the snow. His mouth was dry, his stomach suddenly queasy. He had purposely had his scanner off, and now he flicked it on, the buzz and crackle of voices uncomfortably loud.
Steve Conner was standing under the outdoor light, coatless, arms wrapped around his torso. He was yelling at one of the patrolmen who stood, head bowed, blocking Steve from the house. Other officers were walking in and out of the open front door. Even from this distance, Webb could see the damp footprints on Jenna’s red-and-black rug.
He got out of his car slowly, like a man in a nightmare. The air, frosty cold, didn’t touch him. His feet squeaked on the snow and some of it fell over the edge of his shoe, and instantly melted on top of his sock. He scanned each squad until he saw what he was looking for, Jenna’s too-white face pressed against the rolled up window, watching as her husband continued to argue with the officer in charge.
All beat officers, no detectives. That made him shaky. He grabbed one of the patrolmen—a woman, actually, Kelly Endicott, who had gone to school with one of Jenna’s kids.
“Who ordered this?” he said.
“Headquarters.” She shook his arm off.
She shrugged. “No one wanted a name attached.”
“What’s the charge?” he asked, hoping that he’d stumbled on something else, that this was a mistake that had gotten out of hand.
“Murder, Webb.” Endicott’s voice was soft. “They found the gun.”
He put a hand to his head. It didn’t make sense. They had to do firing tests and match-ups and hours of lab work, and even then they couldn’t be certain that the gun they had was the one used in the murder. The idea of ballistics, as used on TV detective shows, was as much a fiction as the locked room mystery.
“What’d they find?” he asked.
“Conner’s old service revolver, under one of the cars at Tups. It’d been fired. Conner says the gun was stolen one night when he was at Tups.”
Webb nodded. “He’d reported it in years ago.”
Conner, a gun nut, had made a special petition to keep his weapons. Webb had kidded Conner about losing his revolver. Hated the force so much you’ve gone and lost the one thing to remind you of it.
Webb rubbed his hand over his face. His skin was getting chapped from all the exposure to the frosty air. “How come Jenna and not him?”
“No motive,” Endicott said. “He’d never met Johanssen. She had cause, so they say.”
“She’s had cause for thirty-three years,” Webb said. “Didn’t mean she’d do it now.”
“I don’t like it any more than you do, Webb. Seems to me someone just decided how this would fall, and didn’t do the backup work.” She tugged on her cap. “But what do I know? I’m still considered a rookie.”
She walked away from him, back to Conner and the officer he was yelling at. Webb glanced at Jenna. She had gained weight since high school. She had a matronly fullness, the kind of motherly warmth once drawn in ads for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. When she saw Webb, she shook her head, and held up her hand as if he shouldn’t come near. He shrugged, and she shrugged in return. Then he retraced his steps to the car, got in, and went back to the station to see who’d caused this travesty.
During the winter, after five, the station had a different feel, a dark, gloomy feel, as if no hope could return to the world. Most of the desks were empty, but cops milled around, finishing business, leaning on counters, talking on the phone. Webb hated night activity. In this town, night activity was always sad activity: drug arrests, drinking violations, domestic violence disputes. Later, after midnight, the bar fights and the knifings would happen, but now, the station’s business was usually about kids in trouble with nowhere to turn.
The cops couldn’t help them either. The best the kids could hope for was to return to the parents who had neglected them in the first place. The worst was juvie, the petty criminal training ground.
Webb slipped inside. The station smelled of chalk dust and old coffee grounds. The concrete walls muted voices, made them sound as distant and less important than the voices on the police scanner.
Darcy sat behind her desk, hands in her short-cropped hair, a cigarette burning to ashes in a tray below the bright glare of the desk lamp. She was staring at the notes in her phone log, cheeks red with a stain Webb had learned to identify as anger.
“What’s the idea not showing up at your own collar?” he asked.
She didn’t look up. “Wasn’t mine. It was Bernard’s.”
“The gun’s not going to hold up.”
“You’re telling me.” She kicked her chair back. Her eyes were full of red. “Serial numbers were scratched off years ago. Bernard claims the notches in the handle make it Steve’s. His brother confirms it. But the gun’s wiped clean, no prints, and only one shot fired. Johanssen was killed point blank, so the killer has to have powder burns. I’ll betcha Jenna Conner doesn’t.”
“Why her? Why not Steve?”
“Former cop with a brother still on the force?” Darcy snorted. “You tell me, smartass.”
“Shouldn’t have arrested her at all, then.”
“No, they shouldn’t have, but they want it wrapped.” She pulled a file from beneath her log. “Makes this all worthless.”
Webb pulled up a chair. “What is it?”
“Johanssen’s arrest record. Longer than my arm, some drug related, all smuggling. No convictions, not even any overnight stays in jail. Big lawyers, big money.”
“And you think they bought someone here?”
She shook her head. “I think this town’s too wrapped up in its past to know what’s going on in its present.”
Webb nodded. The analysis made sense. Tom Johanssen betrayed his wife, so she murdered him, first chance she got. What did it matter that she had to wait thirty-three years to do so?
The problem was, the same logic applied to Flo.
He swallowed, not liking the options. “You know about the trips, then.”
“Every three years like clockwork,” she said. “Supervising international barges with some ‘special’ loads. A real hands-on kinda guy.”
She shook her head. “At first, I think. Then contraband. Going in and out. The Utah company was a front for chip smuggling. Disbanded last year just before the Feds caught up to it.”
“So you think this was a related hit?”
“I’m sure of it,” she said. “He screwed up, let some investigator get too close. That’s why the Utah office closed. His friends didn’t like it, and they killed him.”
“That’s not evidence, Darce.”
“Evidence.” She waved a hand. “Look at the evidence. The hit’s professional. There’re no prints, no witnesses, no gun ID, and a weapon left at the scene. Someone wanted him, and they knew if they got him here there’d be plenty of other suspects.”
“And a police department unused to these kind of cases.”
Her smile was tired. She picked up the cigarette, flicked the long trail of ash into the tray, and took a drag. “I didn’t say that.”
He smiled back. “But you could have.”
“I could have.”
He sat down in the metal chair beside her desk. The green upholstery had a rip in it that whistled under his weight. “Let me see the file.”
She tossed it at him. “This bothers you?”
“The whole thing bothers me. Tom was a bright guy. Why come here to meet a shipment if he knew his people blamed him for the raid last year?”
Webb frowned, remembering Flo’s face on the last beautiful day of her life. “He had other ways of getting that.”
He opened the file. Many of the sheets inside were old. Arrest records originally done on typewriters and recopied so many times that the dirt dots outnumbered the keystrokes. As usual on the old ones, the photos were missing, removed to put in a mug book or on another, more successful arrest sheet. The fingerprints were dark whorls of unreadable lines.
He flipped. The later arrest records were on a computer printout. Information, but no original arrest sheets. There was reference to an FBI file, and notes from Darcy’s conversation with the head of the FBI’s case. A reference sheet in the very back also had a DEA file number.
“There’s a lot of stuff here, but not a lot of paper,” he said.
She nodded. “They’ve been trying for him for a long time. He knew computers. He could make details disappear.”
Webb closed the file and handed it back to her. Just like Tom. Slippery to the end. Never appearing to be the person he actually was.
Webb pulled his gloves out of his coat—and paused, not liking the hunch that had just grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go. “Who did the autopsy?”
“Cerino. There wasn’t a lot to do since it was an obvious gunshot wound, so she did a prelim to establish time of death. She’ll do the rest tomorrow.”
“DNA, fluids, fingerprints?”
Darcy was frowning at him. “Why? We have a positive ID”
“Mine?” Webb asked.
“Yours, and his brother’s.”
Webb felt oddly lightheaded. Of course. No one wanted to bother his parents. No one ever wanted to bother Tom Johanssen’s parents. And everyone knew that his brother Scott wouldn’t give him the time of day. Even in death.
“Get someone to fingerprint the corpse and check it against the federal database.”
“I doubt he’s in the base. I said he disappeared things—God.” She stamped out the cigarette. “You don’t think he disappeared himself, do you?”
“Why not?” Webb asked. “He did it before. He’s the only one who would have known there would be other suspects here. I don’t care how good a professional hit man is, he doesn’t research those kinds of details.”
“But the ID—you ID’d him.”
“I haven’t seen him since 1962.”
“But his brother,” Darcy started.
Webb held up a finger, then picked up the phone. He listened to the dial tone as he thumbed through Darcy’s battered phone book until he found the number he was looking for. He wedged the phone between his shoulder and ear, and dialed.
“Evvie,” he said when she picked up the phone. “Webb again. Sorry to bother you. Is John there?”
“No.” She sounded small, hesitant. “He’s at his folks. You can reach him there.”
“I will,” Webb said, “but tell me one thing. When was the last time John saw Tom? Did he go on any of those Utah trips?”
“Heavens, no,” she said. “John’s too proud to let anyone pay his way anywhere. The last time we saw Tom had to be the last time we went West which was in—I don’t know—seventy-nine? eighty?—at least fifteen years ago.”
“Fifteen years,” Webb said. “Thanks.”
He set the receiver down. Darcy was staring at him. “No one’s that devious,” she said.
“You don’t know Tom,” Webb said.
“But his parents could have identified him,” Darcy said.
“He knew they wouldn’t,” Webb said.
Darcy shook her head. “He couldn’t have relied on that.”
“Sure he could,” Webb said. “He knew how it worked around here. He knew the department. He knew we would call John for the ID. John takes care of the family. And the entire town bends over backwards to protect Tom’s parents.”
“But his other brother—”
“Hates his guts. Everyone knows that. You want a reliable identification, you call John.”
Darcy was frowning. “So how did Tom get the gun?”
“It was stolen from Tup’s right? If you look, you’ll probably find that Tom was in town at the same time the gun went missing.”
“You think he’s been planning this that long?”
Webb gave her a bitter smile. “Tom always has a backup plan.”
She shook her head once, as if it were all too much for her. “I’ll get right on it,” she said.
FBI and DEA involvement somehow circumvented the usual state-to-state rigmarole. Darcy had impressed on them the need for immediate action. The fingerprint ID was fast, made even faster because the dead man was from California, a state that fingerprints all its citizens who get driver’s licenses. The body belonged to Anthony McGregor, a computer consultant who had left home three days ago. He had told his wife that he was on a buying trip to the Midwest with a new client, a man with a lot of cash and a lot of connections, a man whom McGregor met through a mutual friend, a friend who had once commented on McGregor’s vague resemblance to the client. McGregor had hoped the trip would provide an upward shift in the family’s fortunes.
Three hours after his death, Anthony McGregor tried to get a direct flight from Minneapolis to Miami. Since he didn’t book in advance, he wasn’t able to fly direct. He had a layover in New York City, a layover that extended from one hour to four because of ice problems at Kennedy. Two FBI agents and two DEA agents met Anthony McGregor when he disembarked at Dade County Airport. Strangely, Anthony McGregor was two inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than noted on his driver’s license. He’d also lost his need for corrective lenses.
“We get him when the FBI’s through with him,” Darcy said. “The murder’s in our jurisdiction.”
Webb rubbed his eyes and took a sip of his cold coffee. He’d been up all night. “You get him, Darce.”
“He’s ours, Webb.”
Webb shook his head. “I’m not going to taint this one. You got a clean case.”
“You don’t taint it,” she said. “You solved it.”
He smiled at her, liking that loyalty, knowing that sometimes this was where friendship hid—in the purposeful forgetting of important details. “I added local knowledge.”
“Crucial local knowledge.”
“Nothing more than some interviews would have provided.”
“But not within the right amount of time. We solved this while he was still in transit—”
Webb held up his hand, stopped her. “Darce, he screwed my sister, remember?”
“Oh,” Darcy sighed. “A jury’d love that.”
“Wouldn’t they though?”
She took out a pack of cigarettes, tamped it, then reached inside. It was empty. She crumpled it and threw it at the wastebasket, missing as usual. “How bad do you want him?”
“Bad enough,” Webb said, “to get out of the way.”
“He sure ruined a lot of lives.”
“He did that,” Webb said. “And some of the lives ruined themselves.”
Thirty years of police work. Thirty years, and he finally caught the man he’d been after all along. Webb stepped outside the station into a pale peach-and-orange dawn. The snow reflected the sun, making the whole city and the lake beyond look rosy.
But he couldn’t claim credit, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He wasn’t sure he’d be a hero in his sister’s eyes.
He sighed, ran his hand through his hair, and felt the stress of the last twenty-four hours in the oily strands. A shower, breakfast at a diner, and then he’d see Flo. He’d have to work on her now. She couldn’t live in silent hope any more. She couldn’t play the victim any longer. If he were prosecuting, he’d call her as a character witness, and he’d make sure to have her talk about the double-cross, the first double-cross on Tom Johanssen’s record.
She’d have to do it with Johanssen sitting across from her, older now, but still handsome, and rich enough to have real smart attorneys at his side. She’d finally have to stop taking responsibility for Tom Johanssen’s actions. She’d have to see him as he was.
Just as Webb had had to do.
He’d felt that little stab of betrayal in the police station, when his hunch rose to the forefront of his mind. He’d identified the body. He’d put himself on the line for Tom Johanssen once again. Believing the hype, believing the image, and almost letting the bastard go.
Webb had lied to Darcy. It wasn’t because of the future court case that he’d stepped aside. That was a good superficial reason, but not the true one.
The true one was that he didn’t want to see the fallout from Tom Johanssen’s latest double-cross. Before the victims had been his wife and kids, and Flo. This time, Johanssen’d set up his whole family, his folks, his brothers, his ex-wife’s new husband, and an entire town. He’d used the animus he’d created thirty-three years ago as a smokescreen to cover his flight to a new life.
At the expense of his ex-wife, his children, and one reasonably successful California computer consultant who had the misfortune to resemble Tom Johanssen enough to fool people who hadn’t seen him in years.
It worked both ways.
Webb got into his car. He felt as if a burden had lifted, as if the dark cloud he’d been living under had finally passed by. He could move on now, maybe even escape the black-and-white winters, find a place with a bit of nuance, a bit of gray.
He turned the car around and headed east, into the light.
Into the warmth.
“Local Knowledge” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November, 2011.
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