Eve Fisher

Connor blew into Laskin like an ancient prophet, in a chariot of fire: a ’72 Chevy Nova billowing black smoke. He managed to scramble out of the car right before it burst into flames. I saw the whole thing – I was at the Quikstop getting a pop – and I called it in and then rushed over.
“You okay?” I asked. He nodded. “You got any idea what set it burning?” He shook his head. I tried again. “Maybe it was overheated?” He shrugged. “What’s your name?”
He looked at me for the first time: he had blond hair, large clear blue eyes, and his head was slightly oversized. He looked like a puzzled five year old. “Connor. Connor Ashe.”
“Where’d you come from?”
He shrugged. Now we don’t get a lot of drifters in Laskin – we’re not on any highway, and it’s a small town – but when we do we usually try to get them to move on. And I’d already thought of all the things I could write him up for: reckless endangerment, public nuisance, hazardous driving. But somehow I found myself taking him over to Mellette’s Lounge and buying him a cup of coffee. Paul Wilson joined us, and ended up giving him a ride down to Job Service, where Marjorie Swenson took over and got him hired at Inveig Construction. And out there someone got him a trailer rental at the Koz-E Campground. Something about Connor made everybody want to help him.
He ended up staying over a year, which was longer than I would have expected. He changed jobs a couple of times, and he hung out a lot at the Norseman’s Bar, but he spent just as much time at the library, or down at Mellette’s, playing euchre with the old guys. He became part of the community. And then one day he blew out of town, with no warning, and everyone figured that was that. Everybody missed him, but no one was surprised. Not until his body was found a year later under a stack of recycled Christmas trees down by the creek. Someone had caved his head in.
The day after his body was found, I came in from patrol and found the station hopping.
“Grant!” Detective Jonasson barked at me. “You got a minute, run over to the meat packing plant. Chuck’s got some paperwork on that Connor guy for me.”
“He also worked at Inveig’s Construction for a while. Want me to stop by there, too?”
“No.” He looked up at me. “You go down to the Norseman’s Bar.” It wasn’t a question.
“He spent a lot of time down there, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know about a lot. He came in and had a red beer after work. Friendly, but…” ‘Elusive’ was the word that came to mind. “Mostly he talked with the old timers.”
“No girls?”
I could see Connor sitting at a table with a young blonde girl whose blue eyes almost matched his. “Susan Nelson.”
Jonasson nodded. “Paula mentioned her. Said she’d be real upset.” Paula’s Jonasson’s wife. I had no idea how she knew Susan, but here in Laskin almost everyone’s connected one way or another. “You know her?”
“Just to speak to.”
“Okay. Get on to Veblen’s.”
Chuck Veblen was waiting for me outside his office. “I knew as soon as I heard about his body being found that someone would be out here.” I followed him inside. “I had Pat dig out all the paperwork.” He handed me a stack of old time sheets and a W-2 carbon. “He was a good worker, no problems that I remember. Everyone liked him. I wasn’t happy when he took off – when I thought he took off. But I wasn’t surprised. Boy was a freeze dried hippie.”
“Not hardly. He didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss, didn’t like dirty jokes. Worst he ever did was have a beer or two at the Norseman’s on the weekend.” Veblen shook his head at the waste.
“We were all a bit crude for him, weren’t we?”
“Yeah. But he wasn’t obnoxious about it. I can’t think of anyone who’d want to kill him.”
“Neither can I. Anybody he hung out with around here?”
Chuck shook his head. “Nah. Not that I remember.” He chuckled. “You might ask Matt Stark.”
“Matt!” Matt’s real name was Martha Stark. In her sixties, she looked, acted, and talked about as feminine as an old boot.
“He hung out with her more than anybody, I think. They used to go hunting together.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Nope. Ask her.”
“Thanks. I might have to,” I said, without any eagerness at all.
I took the papers back to the office, clocked out, and went home. Barry was sitting on my back steps, smoking a cigarette.
“Hi, Grant.”
“Barry. Put the cigarette out and I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
“I’d rather have a beer,” Barry said, but he scrunched the butt out with his foot.
Inside, Barry sat down at the kitchen table. “I heard about Connor.” I nodded, and put the kettle on. “I liked him.” Barry liked almost everybody. “He was really nice.”
“That’s true. He was,” I agreed.
“I mean, he was really nice to me. Back when he worked construction for Neil.”
That, of course, was why Jonasson had warned me off that. Inveig’s Construction had belonged to Neil Inveig, who had been murdered a short time ago. A young man name of Todd Johnson had been convicted of killing him, but there had been a rumor going around town that I did it, either because of Barry or an old girlfriend. Now I knew that the rumor was still active.
I turned around and spooned instant coffee into cups. “You got any idea why he quit working there, Barry?”
“He said the hours were too long. Plus he didn’t like Neil.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t like the way Neil talked.” I handed Barry his coffee, and he poured half the sugar bowl in it. He took deep slurps, saying, “He said Neil was cruel. I told him he was wrong, but he didn’t listen. He said that was the worst thing ever. He said something about a haircut. I don’t know what he meant.” He looked up at me over his cup. “They had a fight, him and Neil. Neil said he was a good… good… goody two-shoes. He was glad to get rid of him. But I missed him.”
A thread of an idea teased at the back of my mind. “Drugs?” I wondered, more to myself than to Barry.
Barry’s eyes panicked. “I don’t do that no more.”
“I know. I was wondering if Connor…” I stopped myself. No matter what I asked, if it entailed drugs, Barry wouldn’t remember.
That weekend was awful or touching, depending on how you looked at it. Jonasson was in a foul mood, but I expected that. He’s a good detective, at least good enough for Laskin, but this was an old, cold case by now, and he didn’t like it. On TV, when they investigate a cold case, there’s all sorts of forensic evidence, and witnesses who remember every detail from twenty-five years ago come crawling out of the woodwork. In real life, most people can’t remember what happened last week, much less a year ago. Although everybody remembered Connor. I heard all kinds of tributes myself, so I could only guess what Jonasson was hearing.
Joe Hegdahl over Saturday breakfast at Mellette’s:
“He was a fine boy, you betcha. He used to come in the Norseman’s every night about five, maybe five-thirty, have a beer and we’d talk. He was a good talker, told good stories. Clean ones, not like most you hear nowadays. He had a great one, about a bobcat in a suitcase, always cracked me up. You see, there were these two kids, out hunting one day and they found an old suitcase lying in the woods, just lying there, and they –” Joe shook his head. I think he’d forgotten the rest of it. “Yeah, Jokes. We had a running joke about my nose, how I had nose like Andrew Carnegie, and Connor, he’d call me a retired philanthropist. ‘How’s the retired philanthropist?’ that’s what he’d say, every day. Just a joke, you know. Retired philan –” and I swear he broke down and bawled like a baby.
Vi, at the Norseman’s, Saturday night, sighed and said, “I still can’t believe he’s dead. Connor was so… alive. He just lit up the place. And his eyes: they were so blue, and so large and innocent: just like a child’s. He was nothing but a big boy, really. He never would wear a hat or gloves, no matter how cold it was. I told him over and over again…” Someone called for a tap, and she walked off, wiping her eyes.
“Oh, they had such a crush on each other,” my mother said Sunday afternoon as we sat on her deck. She was talking about Connor and Susan Nelson. “I remember when she brought him to church – and don’t you think it’s about time you started coming?” I gave Mom the look. “Well, it broke her heart when he left town. For a while she could hardly sing at all.” Susan was a soprano in the church choir. “I just wept for her, and I prayed for her. And now we know what happened… If whoever it was hadn’t killed him, I know they would have gotten married. Oh, I can just see it now. It would have been so beautiful. They were so well matched. And sweet… Like a couple of kids.” I winced. “Puppy love,” Mom said, sighing.
I was uneasy after talking to Mom. I remembered seeing Connor and Susan down at Mellette’s, holding hands and giggling(!), and I remember thinking at the time that normal couples in their twenties weren’t as sweet and innocent as they appeared to be; and feeling ashamed of myself for my coarse suspicions. Now, feeling ashamed of myself again, I needed to talk to someone coarser than I was. And that’s why I finally went to see Matt Stark.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said when I knocked at her door.
“Jonasson doesn’t ever come near me,” she assured me. I understood. Her place was tiny, dark, and smelled of dogs and stale cigarettes. “Coffee?”
“Sure,” I said. I sat down and her dog, a long-haired mutt, put its head firmly in my lap and looked up at me with Barry’s eyes. “Hey, Whisper,” I said, stroking its head. “I hear you and Connor used to go hunting together.”
“We went hiking together. Connor didn’t like killing things, and neither do I. Not animals, at any rate.” She set a cup in front of me, sat down, and lit a cigarette. “He was a damn funny kid. I liked him. Hell, you couldn’t help liking him. But…” She shook her head. “He was the kind of guy that causes a hell of a lot of trouble, never even knows it.”
“What kind of trouble?”
She gave me a half-grin. “Connor or his type?”
“Connor. I’m not interested in his type.”
“You should be. You’re a lot alike. You got more sense, but that’s all.” I took a sip of coffee: it was the real stuff. “You want his papers?”
I choked on the coffee. “Papers? What papers?”
“His writing, his books, that kind of stuff.”
I sat up straight. “How did you get that?”
Matt shrugged. “It was my trailer he was renting. When he disappeared, I went and cleaned it out. It’s all stashed in the spare bedroom.” She got up. “Come on, you can look through it, take what you want.”
The spare bedroom was about twice the size of a closet. Connor’s clothes were in a black plastic bag, and there were perhaps two dozen books stacked beside it. I picked up the top one, a black sketchbook.
“He left all this behind?” I asked, leafing quickly through the sketchbook. It was full of writing. “Why didn’t you tell someone?”
“Tell what? Connor always said he was just passing through.”
“And the fact that he didn’t take this stuff with him didn’t arouse any suspicions?” I stuck the sketchbook under my arm and started flipping through the pages of the books. There was writing and doodles in the margins and flyleafs.
No.” Matt stubbed her cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray. “He was the type that leaves everything behind. Walks away clean. Or so he thinks.”
“Then why’d you keep all this?” I waved my arm around.
“Well, I thought maybe some day he’d come back.”
Before I could stop myself, I asked, “To see you?”
“No, to see his kid.”
“What kid? Susan Nelson? She’s never been pregnant.”
Matt made a rude sound. “She’s never been anything as far as I can tell. No, Maria Jensen. She worked at the meat packing plant. She was also one of Neil Inveig’s girls until Connor rescued her.” I looked up from ‘The Collected Stories of Ring Lardner’, my mouth open. “Got her away from Neil, got her off drugs, cleaned her up, knocked her up. Or so she said.” Matt lit another cigarette. “I asked Connor if he was sure the baby was his, not Neil’s, and he said yes. As if he’d know. He considered himself committed. He told Susan, which was stupid –” I remembered seeing Susan, her head bent over a back table in the Norseman’s Bar, crying her eyes out as Vi comforted her. I’d thought at the time she was crying because Connor had left town… “Typical Connor. Do the honorable thing.”
“Get a drug addict pregnant?”
Ex drug addict. And I’m sure she seduced him. Maria couldn’t believe a man liked her unless he slept with her. Her mom was just like her, ended up with five kids by three different guys. She had Simon and Willie by that truck driver, Sally and Pat by Carl, and Maria by one of the Mexican guys that worked at the plant.”
My mind was working furiously. Maria. Neil. Drugs. They had a fight. “How long after all of this did Connor disappear?”
“Couple of weeks after he found out Maria was pregnant. He usually came and played euchre with us at Mellette’s on Saturday mornings. He didn’t show up. I went by the trailer later on, and he wasn’t there. I went by Maria’s, wasn’t there, either. I figured he panicked and ran, and that surprised me. I thought he had more guts. But you can’t ever tell. I never thought of anyone killing him.”
“Where’s Maria now?”
“Over in Flandreau. Got herself a trailer on the south side of town.”
I picked up the books Connor had written in. “I’m going to take these with me.”
“I already said you could.” Matt walked me to the door, and Whisper danced around my legs. “By the way, she had a girl.”
“Maria. A little girl. Named her Angelita.”
I went back home and started reading Connor’s sketchbook. By seven, I’d had two beers and was wishing the Norseman’s was open. The sketchbook was pretty much one long rant – in extremely small handwriting - on the corruption of modern society, with a lot of cribbing from Thoreau. It was about what you’d expect from an eighteen year old, but coming from a guy in his mid-twenties I thought it was pretty depressing.
The only thing that kept me going was that every once in a while it got specific. Lots of verbal sketches about the meat packing plant – most of them highly defamatory. Sketches of people who worked there. Of folks down at the Norseman’s: Joe Hegdahl’s nose and Carl Schmidt’s wheeze “like an accordion with no keys”. Susan got a lot of poetic crap – “the heart of the white rose waiting for dawn” – but was Susan or Maria the woman who “cried more than anyone I’ve ever seen, more than I ever imagined a woman could cry”?
“She cried until it seemed like I’d drown in her tears, salted and wet and warm like the sea…” And after that, in large letters, “My very life is my disgrace.”
It must have been Maria.
I left the sketchbook and drove to Flandreau. I found Maria’s trailer easily enough: I’d gotten the address from Burt, the Flandreau dispatcher. It was an old battered tan double-wide. Maria opened the door as I got out of the car. She was thinner than I remembered, and her eyes looked bruised.
“Maria, I don’t know if you remember me –”
“Sure I remember you,” she said. She had a deep, raspy voice that reminded me of Matt’s. Her long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was wearing blue jeans and a black Sturgis t-shirt. “You’re Barry’s brother.” She looked up and down row of trailers. “Well, this’ll make the evening news. You might as well come on in, give them plenty to talk about.” Inside, the place was worn and scruffy. “Who told you about me?” Maria asked, roughly. “Folks at the plant? Or that Nelson bitch?”
“Actually, Matt Stark,” I said. “She had Connor’s stuff.”
She nodded. “I should have known.” She waved at the kitchen table. “Sit down. Coffee?”
“Sure. You want to tell me about Connor?”
“No,” she said, chewing on her lower lip as she went over to the stove. “But I guess I’m going to have to. We… We fell in love. I got pregnant. I thought he just ran off. Most men do. I never thought he was dead.” Her hands trembled, pouring the coffee.
I asked, “Why didn’t you stay in Laskin?”
“What for? I couldn’t go back to Neil. And I wasn’t going back to the plant.” She gave the world a tough look and set a cup in front of me. “So I came here. Worked at the casino for a while.”
“What about the baby?”
“With my sister.” I waited a moment, but she didn’t offer any more explanation.
“When was the last time you saw Connor?”
“It was a Thursday. I remember because I was watching ‘Ugly Betty’. Connor said he was going –”
“Where was this?”
“My place. Connor was kind of staying with me, but he never gave up that rat-hole trailer of his. Of Matt’s. I couldn’t stand that place. He said he was going out for a while, but he’d be back later. He kissed me goodbye. And that was the last I saw of him.”
“And he didn’t say where he was going?”
“Connor never said where he was going. He said freedom was as important as trust in a relationship.” She ran a finger around the rim of her cup. “What do you think?”
“Ideally, yeah.”
“Oh, that was Connor. All ideals.” I wasn’t sure if she was wistful or resentful.
“You have any idea where he might have been going?”
“I figured he was going down to the Norseman’s, have a couple of beers.”
“Who do you think killed Connor?” I asked.
“God in heaven, I don’t know.”
“Do you think Neil could have done it?”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “Over me? Hell, no. Neil didn’t give a rat’s ass about me.”
“Maybe over drugs.”
“Connor didn’t do drugs,” Maria said.
“I know that. I was thinking maybe they fought about something Connor found out about Neil’s drug dealing. From you.”
She gave a harsh laugh. “Not hardly. I didn’t know anything.”
“Look, I was just one of Neil’s girls. A piece of ass. Of course he gave me drugs but he didn’t tell me anything, and I didn’t ask. We didn’t have that kind of relationship.” She enunciated the last word very clearly.
“What kind of relationship did you want to have?”
Her eyes dropped to her hands. “I thought I was into him. Until Connor came along. Then I saw I was just into the drugs. Take them away, and Neil was a rotten s.o.b.”
“I agree.”
She let out a great burst of air and said, “Look, Connor… I don’t know who killed him. Or…” She closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them again, they looked like they’d been burned black. What she needed was a good cry, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. At least not with me there. “When he didn’t come back, I asked around. Nobody’d seen him. Nobody knew where he was. I thought he’d run off. I should have known better. Not that it matters now.” She got up, went to the cupboard, and pulled out a bottle of vodka. “You want a drink?”
A knock at the door made us both turn.
“Maria! You in there?”
“Oh, God,” she said, and thrust the bottle back in the cupboard. “It’s Manuel.”
A short sturdy Mexican walked in, a scowl on his face. “Maria, what do you think –” He saw me and stopped: the scowl changed to concern. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?” Maria said. “He’s asking about Connor.”
Manuel nodded. Now he looked jovial. “The investigation begins. This is good. Connor, he was a good man. A very good man. I thought bad thoughts about him for a time, but now I know he never meant to abandon my little cousin here.” I remembered Matt on Maria’s parentage. “I, too, would like to find out who killed him.”
“Do you have any suspicions?” I asked.
“I do not know. Connor, he was the sort of man you never think has enemies. But he made them, just the same. For instance, he was trying to help us.”
“Manuel,” Maria said warningly.
“Why not? Why not tell the truth? He was trying to help us, at the plant. Those who were legal and those who were illegal. I have my green card, I am legal, so I can say this. He wanted to help us all get better wages. Perhaps even benefits. I do not think Mr. Veblen liked that very much.”
“I’m sure he didn’t. Did he ever talk about calling the immigration authorities?”
“Oh, no. If he did that, too many people would get in trouble. Guillermo, for one, and he had a great fondness for Guillermo.”
“Manuel!” Maria cried.
Manuel shook his head at Maria. “Guillermo has gone to L.A. Nothing here matters to him now.” He smiled. “There were rumors that Connor was perhaps too friendly with Guillermo. Guillermo is Maria’s nephew. She felt protective. So she went to have a little talk with Connor. The result, Angelita, who lives with -”
“Manuel!” Maria screamed.
“All right,” Manuel said. “She is embarrassed. But we all wondered… And we were proved wrong. We are all truly sorry that he is dead. I hope you find out who killed him.”
“So do I,” I said, getting up. “I’ve got to get back to Laskin.”
The next day I took all of Connor’s stuff to the station, and told Jonasson about my weekend. When I was done, he stared at the table for a few minutes.
“That’s a hell of a can of worms to open up,” he finally said.
“Somebody killed him.”
“I know that.” He pursed his lips. “Be better if it had been Inveig.” I knew what he meant. The meat packing plant was one of Laskin’s few industries, and Neil was dead. “But he’d never have gotten his hands dirty with murder.” Then, after a long pause, he added, “Illegal immigrants. I guess we’re going to have to look into it.” He picked up the sketchbook. “You start looking for his car.”
“You mean that junker Dan sold him?”
“Uh-huh. Peterson did a title check, and it hasn’t been sold. He called the used car lots, nothing.”
“It could be anywhere,” I pointed out.
“So look anywhere.” He shook his head. “Illegal immigrants. God help us.”
I called all the used car lots back again, and then worked my way through the junkyards. Nothing. By then it was lunchtime, and I went down to the Dairy Queen. I ate my burger and fries, thinking about Lake Howard, and all the other lakes and ponds that riddled our part of the state. There were the endless acres of the Vermillion Hills. There was Dark Hollow. There was… I looked up and saw Susan Nelson, sitting down in the corner booth with a banana split. She’d always been a big healthy country girl, but now she was getting fat.
“Hi, Susan,” I said.
“Hi, Grant.”
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m fine.” Her blue eyes, almost a mirror of Connor’s, were clear as ever. “Everybody’s asking that. Actually, it’s kind of a relief to know the truth.”
“I’m sure it is. I was wondering if I could talk to you some time.”
“Of course,” Susan said. “But I don’t know anything. We broke up…” And her bottom lip quivered, just a little.
“I know. But, before that, did he ever talk to you about the meat packing plant?”
“Of course. He hated it. He hated the cruelty of it towards animals. He was a vegetarian, you know. He hated the exploitation of the workers. But he wouldn’t quit. He felt that he had to fully understand what was going on, become one with the workers, work from within -” Her lips tightened away to nothing. “Of course, there was another interest…” She got up, her untouched banana split in her hand. “I’m sorry, but I have to go home and practice.”
She rushed out of there. She still loves him, I thought as I got a pop to go.
I was driving the long way back to the station, around Laskin, when I spotted the Park and Sell lot on the bypass. I’d forgotten about that, and I’d bet so had Peterson. Steve Davison had opened it up a couple of years ago – anything to make money without hardly working – and there were always at least a dozen cars there. Today there were fifteen, none of them Connor’s. So I called Steve.
“I’ve got a license,” he said.
“I know that, Steve. I just want to know if you’ve sold a ’97 Chevy Camaro in the last year.”
“Why?” His voice was nervous, but it always is when he talks to the police.
“I can get a warrant,” I said.
“I’ll have to check my records.”
“Sure. Can I check them with you?”
There was a pause, and then he said, “Sure, no problem.”
“I’ll be right over.”
But I clicked the cell phone shut and went. Steve’s office is in his house, specifically, his garage. He was waiting for me.
“I’ve looked, but I haven’t sold anything like that. I haven’t even seen anything like that.”
“You sure?” I started to look through his records.
“Uh-huh. You can check for yourself. Whose car is it?”
“Was,” I replied. “Connor’s. The guy whose body we found last week.”
“Oh.” Steve’s relief was palpable. Something else to check into when I had the time. “No, I didn’t handle anything like that.”
He was telling the truth. “How many of these park and sell lots are there around?”
“Just mine in town.”
“In the county?”
“Well, there’s one in Howard, and one over in Flandreau. Brookings, and probably Huron.”
“You own any of them?”
“No, this is my only lot. Though it’s a nice money maker. Maybe I should expand.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. You’re barely keeping track of what you’ve got.” Steve grinned, barely, and I smiled back. “Thanks for your help, Steve.”
I went to Howard, but hit pay dirt in Flandreau. The lot owner was Wally Thielbar, and Connor’s car was still on his lot. Well, I said it was a junker.
“I swear, I didn’t know anything was wrong with the deal,” Thielbar said at his office. “She brought it in with the title, made out to her.”
“Dark haired woman, in her twenties.” He pulled out the paperwork. “Maria Jensen.”
The little liar, I thought. Both her and Manuel. But why would Maria kill Connor? Unless Manuel did it. And the whole story about the baby and Connor was a lie. But Matt said she was pregnant, and Matt hadn’t lied to me. Maybe Manuel killed Connor because he knocked Maria up? And Maria was afraid to tell, because…
I looked up at Thielbar. “You think you could identify this woman if you saw her again?”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “When she took off her sunglasses, to sign the papers, I saw her eyes: beautiful blue eyes. Very striking, for a woman with black hair.”
When Susan Nelson opened her door and saw Thielbar standing next to me, first she looked like she was going to faint, then like she was going to run. You could see the options shaking through her. Then she turned around and went inside. I followed her, but she was only picking up her purse.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”
I took her out to my patrol car, and nodded to Peterson, in his patrol car across the street. Thielbar rode with him. I started the car and wondered how she’d gotten the title: but of course, I realized, Connor would have just kept it in the car. I glanced back at Susan. She was staring at me in the rear view mirror, with those damned blue eyes.
“You shouldn’t have taken off the sunglasses,” I said. “It would have been a perfect frame up if you hadn’t.”
She winced. Then she started crying. “He never touched me,” she said. “Never, except to hold my hand. I thought… I thought… And then I found out he’d been with her… That she was pregnant. And he was going to marry her…”
It broke my heart. Until I heard her make the same speech, with the same tears, at the trial. It got her sentence cut a little, to twenty years.