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Blow Up on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #3
Blow Up on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #3
Blow Up on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #3
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Blow Up on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #3

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Photojournalist Britt Johansson has returned to Spirit Lake, Minnesota, to heal from stress and anxiety after covering an explosion in a Nigerian marketplace, her recent assignment for the LA Times. But when a bomb at the nearby college kills one student and badly injures a young woman who means a lot to the Spirit Lake community, Britt is tested to find out if she can overcome her nightmares, find the killer and save more lives…including her own.

Release dateSep 1, 2017
Blow Up on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #3
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Linda Townsdin

Linda Townsdin writes the Spirit Lake Mystery series inspired by her childhood in northern Minnesota. Focused on Murder (2014), Close Up on Murder (2015), and Blow Up on Murder (2017) have been called “complex murder mysteries with bone-chilling thrills and a little bit of romance.” Townsdin worked for years in communications for nonprofit and corporate organizations, most recently as writer/editor for a national criminal justice consortium. Townsdin’s work included editorial and marketing assistance in projects involving cybercrime, tribal justice and other public safety issues. In addition to mysteries, her short stories have been published in several anthologies. A member of Sisters in Crime, She Writes, Mystery Must Advertise and Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA), she co-chaired the 2017 Capitol Crimes Anthology. Townsdin lives in California.

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    Blow Up on Murder - Linda Townsdin


    To Amanda and Joseph

    Blow Up on Murder

    A Spirit Lake Mystery

    Linda Townsdin


    The Nigerian marketplace explodes and the air is filled with grey ash that contains and muffles all sound. Wheels screech, carts lurch from side to side, jugs and baskets crash against each other, but I don’t hear them or the sandals slapping on hard dirt. I see the open mouths of screaming children and wide-eyed mothers swallowed by the cloud of smoke. And me, I am the camera clicking.

    Chapter 1

    Spirit Lake, Minnesota was where I recharged after completing my photo assignments for the LA Times. Reentry into the normal world was always hard, but Nigeria haunted me in my waking hours and in my sleep—witnessing so much human misery had taken a toll.

    A few days ago, I’d arrived at my cabin, then dropped by my brother Little’s café to greet my dog and say a quick hello to Little and his partner Lars, while I waited for Ben to pick me up. Shortly after, the two of us were in his green forest service truck, driving to the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area between the U.S. and Canadian border. For the next three days we camped without seeing another human.

    Photographing a bear swiping berries with paws as big as my head and Canada geese skimming across a lake against a fiery backdrop of autumn color was a balm to my battered spirit, but didn’t erase from my mind the last images I’d seen in Nigeria.

    I turned my camera on the man I loved. Ben let me take photos of him fishing, building a fire with practiced hands, sipping his coffee in the morning mist, throwing his head back and laughing full out—until he gently moved the camera, and said, Look at me.

    I stared into eyes like the speckled bottom of a creek shot with sunlight, relaxed fully into his calm strength, humor and love, and felt fortunate to be alive.

    Day four, we drove to Branson, thirty miles north of Spirit Lake and pulled into Ben’s driveway. I was struck again by the contrast between his handsome cedar home, sheltered by forest with the wide expanse of Lake Branson yards from his back deck, and my old log cabin on Spirit Lake.

    We dumped the gear and my camera bag inside his front door and I threw my arms around his neck, not ready to let go. The camping trip was the first time we’d been together in three months. I waved an arm at the pile by the door. Let’s leave the stuff for now and head to Little’s for some real food.

    He tugged at the hair hanging down my back and pulled out a leaf. His eyes crinkled. Good idea, but I need to shower. His head tilted toward the loft.

    I tossed my jacket to the floor and pulled him toward the stairs. Me, too.

    My phone rang before we hit the third stair. Cynthia’s raspy voice was unusually high-pitched. Britt, I’m glad you’re back. Explosion at Branson State U. I need you there right now.

    No! The word escaped before I could grab it back. I wasn’t ready.

    Ben said, What happened?

    I held up my hand. His phone rang and he reached for it. Cynthia was still talking. She’d interpreted my hesitation a different way. I know, it’s horrible. How soon can you be here? She assumed I’d want to be all over this.

    The Minneapolis StarTribune editor was once described to me as a tough old bird, and now her matter-of-fact tone diverted my attention from the tight band squeezing my chest. Twelve years on the job overrode my hesitation. I’m ten minutes away. I grabbed my camera bag and headed out the door.

    Ben was right behind me, talking into his phone. He ended the call and jumped in his truck as he called out, Wilcox says the BCA is on the way. Lots of injured students, they don’t have a count yet. One dead so far.

    I followed him to the highway in my SUV. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would be joined by Homeland Security and the FBI in short order.

    When we arrived, police vehicles blocked the road into campus. We parked and ran through the quad toward the blasted building, taking in the carnage. My vision blurred and sweat broke out on my forehead. My knees shook. I was back in the market in Nigeria. A young girl walked toward me...

    I sagged against a pillar in front of the library, fighting the white rush of panic crushing me. I couldn’t photograph another explosion—the mangled bodies, mothers’ hands thrown up in the air begging to have their loved ones back.

    Ben talked over his shoulder, unaware I wasn’t right behind him. I’m heading over to the sheriff’s people. He was next to me in an instant. What’s wrong?

    My breath came in short bursts. Flashback.

    He touched my elbow, grounding me. You don’t need to do this. It’s too soon. Cynthia can get someone else. He dug in his pack for water, twisted off the cap and handed it to me.

    I drank half the bottle and took in the scene. A ragged hole the size of a boulder gaped from the left side of the brick building. An iron handrail hung lopsidedly from broken concrete steps. Rubble spread out in an arc from the blast. Hurt and panicked people, smoke, debris. Another senseless act. The familiar angry knot formed just under my breastbone. I pushed away from the pillar. I’m good.

    Sheriff Wilcox waved Ben over. He hesitated, and I said, Go. He and Wilcox had worked so many cases together they automatically contacted each other whenever something bad happened in the county, although a bomb at the college was the worst to date. Ben threw another worried glance my way and trotted across the quad.

    A few feet from me a pudgy kid yelled into his phone. The communications building just got bombed! He listened, blinked, then with left arm flailing, he said, I don’t know. His voice lowered. Okay, I’m coming.

    I wanted to talk to him but he stalked off, shaggy brown hair flopping over his forehead, backpack bouncing.

    Officers barked orders for everyone to stay back. They’d already secured the entire quad with yellow tape. I didn’t have my StarTribune lanyard, but no one stopped me. I’d have flashed the LA Times ID in my camera bag if necessary. I was on contract for both papers.

    A short distance from me, my StarTrib bureau editor, bony shoulders hunched over a notebook, spoke to a trembling student. Chunks of brick and concrete crunched under my boots as I walked over to her. Cynthia, what the hell?

    Thanks for coming. She ran a hand through her graying hair and pointed. Jason’s over there. Get him moving.

    I headed toward her young reporter, the only other person on the bureau staff. Cynthia hired freelancers for photos and always called on me for the big stories if I was in town. All I had to do was shoot the scene and leave. I’d be out in a few hours.

    Hey, Jason, you okay?

    Dazed, he gestured at the pandemonium. There’s so much. I don’t know what to do first.

    I pointed my camera toward a bearded man kneeling next to a tearful young woman a few yards away, took the photo, and said, See that man over there? He’s probably a professor. Ask him what he saw. Then ask the student. He stumbled toward them, notebook in hand.

    Jason was only a couple of years out of college himself and he wasn’t sure journalism was for him. This scene was likely too real.

    Sheriff Wilcox rattled out orders. He was senior until the BCA and FBI arrived. Sirens wailed as law enforcement from several counties made their presence known.

    Officers were rounding up the crowd. Handlers led bomb dogs into buildings. I honed in on the details. Blood seeping into a fallen maple leaf turned it a wrong shade of red. The breeze picked it up, the leaf quivered and blew away. My hands trembled at first, but my years of experience kicked in. I became the witness, part of the camera mechanism, crouching low to get a close-up of two students on the sidewalk clinging to each other, horror imprinted on their youthful and innocent faces.

    After being here a few minutes, I realized the student whose conversation I’d overheard by the library had sounded angry and confused, not shaken like the other kids. The difference was worth noting. I hadn’t gotten a photo, but I would know him if I saw him again.

    I kept shooting, working my way toward the triage location—paramedics attending to the injured, EMTs whisking away students on gurneys.

    A brown ponytail trailed over the side of a gurney carried by two first responders hurrying toward their vehicle. The camera dropped from my eyes. I knew that ponytail. I’d seen it swishing behind her countless times. I wanted to be mistaken but the slow thud in my temple took away any doubt. A split-second memory tugged at my heart, a memory of a young woman moving so fast she created a dangerous backdraft between Little’s kitchen and dining room, and yet always finding a moment to greet each customer with a bright smile. She was a master at keeping the peace between the staff and my brother’s temperamental second chef. At only eighteen, she was friendly and reliable, and we all loved her.

    I headed toward the gurney at a run. Chloe! The paramedic waved me away. Stay back, she’s losing blood fast. My gaze followed the cuts strafed across her arms and legs, ending at her mangled left foot. I had to steady myself before speaking. Chloe, it’s me, Britt. She didn’t respond. They slid her into the back of the vehicle and the paramedic jumped inside, hooking her up, monitoring vital signs.

    I launched myself in. I’m coming.

    The medic said, You can’t.

    She’s family.

    The EMT driver slammed the back door, jumped behind the wheel and we tore away. Holding on to a strap to keep from sliding, I called Little. Chloe was hurt in an explosion at the college. We’re on the way to the hospital.

    He shrieked, Is she going to be okay?

    My throat caught. She’s unconscious.

    I’m coming. I’ll call her dad.

    Her heart-shaped face was so tiny and pale on the gurney. I hadn’t really lied to the paramedic. She’d been with the guys since they opened the café. Last year, when Lars was hurt and Little wouldn’t leave his side at the hospital, Chloe ran the place. They’d have had to close it without her. I always told her one day she’d be CEO of something big. A lump filled my throat. The rational part of my mind sent a message that what I’d seen couldn’t be put back together.


    My brother must have broken speed limits getting to the hospital. I met him in the lobby and described the injuries, not going into details about Chloe’s foot. Doctors worked miracles these days and maybe it appeared worse than it really was.

    We had to wait until her father, Ray, arrived to learn more. The hospital figured out Little and I weren’t family.

    Blue eyes straight out of the fjords of Norway, Little stared at nothing. He leaned forward, rocking slightly. I paced from one end of the waiting room to the other and back so many times I nearly ran into myself. My phone rang, a welcome diversion.

    Cynthia was on the line. I can’t see you.

    I hadn’t even told her where I was going. She listened to my explanation. Her tone softened. I get it but we need you. This is page one.

    Right, I’ll head back now.

    Little said he’d call me as soon as he learned anything.

    I caught a ride to the college with some EMTs who would be on standby at the scene in case there was another blast. The ambulance pulled up to the college, and I hit the ground, camera ready. Cynthia waved from across the quad. She and Jason along with every other news agency had been rounded up and stood in a condoned-off space. I didn’t volunteer to wait with the media and no one stopped me from taking pictures.

    Abandoned signs that read Support our Troops and Bomb ISIS littered the ground, telling me there’d been a pro-war group here. Across from that, Students for Peace placards were strewn around. So two opposing rallies were happening when the blast occurred. Maybe that would be relevant.

    Time slowed for me when I was shooting a disaster. A different part of my brain took over, all senses alert and heightened, moving through static space, feeling no fear, only intent. That part never changed no matter how many times I did this. At least it hadn’t until Nigeria.

    Chapter 2

    Forty-five minutes later a posse of five BCA investigators blew through campus, led by a small dark-haired woman. She ignored the roped-off gaggle of print and television reporters waving microphones and video cameras and shouting for her attention. She crooked her finger at me as I passed by on the way to my car. You. Follow.

    Not fond of people ordering me around and wary of law enforcement asking me to take pictures, I figured there must be a catch, but curiosity won. I loped after her.

    The men assembled behind her at the bombed building. She faced me. My name is Robyn Barry and I’m special agent in charge here. I can’t stand a bunch of microphones in my face and reporters yelling to get my attention when I’m working, but I do want my presence and my investigation documented. Stay close, do your work and keep your mouth closed. At the end of the day, I’ll give your reporter a story.

    Her tone was straight out of a television cop show. I respected the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—it often stepped in to assist local agencies with the violent crime cases, so I kept a straight face, but couldn’t tame the inner snark. Yes, ma’am.

    She pointed to an African-American man with a slight paunch, grey temples and tidy mustache. This is Micah Carpenter. He wants to retire, but I’m trying to dissuade him. A younger agent who resembled a pencil stood next to Micah. She gestured at him and said, Cory Tremont.

    A young man in black-rimmed glasses stood slightly behind the others, opening and closing his eyes. Jim’s my tech guy. He’s blinking because he’s only comfortable staring at computer screens. Her hand swept in a circle. Say hello boys. Carpenter lifted his chin, Pencil offered a scornful half-smile. Jim blinked.

    I remembered my manners. Britt Johansson. Nice to meet you.

    Barry talked as she moved closer to the site. The two bending over the blast site are ours. They’ll head back to the lab in St. Paul when they’ve finished collecting evidence.

    She shooed them out of the way and I focused my camera on her and her team in front of the exploded corner of the building. She gestured and talked fast to her investigators, as if she’d already forgotten I was there.

    We followed her to a gathering of law enforcement in the center of the quad. The sheriff had rounded up his deputies. I counted twelve. The FBI would send its own people. They’d all want a piece of this.

    Barry introduced herself and her entourage to Sheriff Wilcox. He jerked a thumb at me. You don’t belong here.

    Barry stopped him with a look. She’s with me.

    Wilcox yanked the brim of his cowboy hat. You do not know what you’re in for.

    The wily sheriff and I had had our differences in the past, and he was not the type to want news people around his investigation. I expected to be sent away and wouldn’t fight it, if that’s what happened. Wilcox saved my life a couple of times. Of course, I’d helped his reputation by ferreting out the killers. He was mad at the world because he’d transferred to the Northland assuming the slow pace would be just right to ease him into retirement, but bad things kept happening.

    Barry’s head tilted up at Ben towering over her at six-foot-two. Her appraisal took in his wide shoulders, close-cropped black hair and hawk nose.

    She asked the sheriff, Who’s this?

    Wilcox said, Meet Ben Winter, head investigator for the forest service. He consults with the Sheriff’s Office.

    Ben said, I’ve worked with Ed Matheson at the BCA.

    She frowned. Matheson’s on another case. I’m in charge of this investigation.

    Ben flicked a look at me, no doubt curious about how I’d gotten attached to Barry.

    She gathered Wilcox, the police chief, Ben and her people into a circle and spoke in low tones. No one was to leave the campus. She wanted everyone interviewed. A crowd of students, professors and staff people had been detained in one of the auditoriums used for large general education classes.

    Me she ignored other than to signal when she wanted me to follow. That suited me. I’d have balked if she presumed to tell me what to photograph.

    I documented them interviewing and gathering evidence. Now that the immediacy had passed and the wounded taken away, I wanted to finish and get out of there. Chloe’s delicate face wavered in front of my vision, the cuts on her legs and arms, her shattered foot.

    To take my mind off Chloe’s condition, I walked over to the sneering young investigator taking a break. Cory, how’d you guys get here so fast?

    He said, I don’t talk to the media, even hotshots like you. His attempt to look down his nose at me failed. I was three inches taller. Helicoptered up from the Cities.

    The hotshot comment caught me by surprise. You know me?

    He snorted. Robyn locked in on you right away. She wants the best and who could miss the tall blonde with attitude and a couple of Pulitzers?

    I showed him some of that attitude by walking away.

    The older guy, Carpenter, had an easy way about him. I was relieved they weren’t all like Cory. I asked Carpenter about the woman in charge.

    You don’t want to underestimate her. She’s the smartest of all of us. Iranian mother and German-American father—Special Forces. Robyn was born in the US, speaks Farsi and a couple other languages.

    He gazed at a sliver of Branson Lake, visible through the classroom buildings and trees. A yearning expression crossed his face. I said, I’m guessing that’s where you’d rather be today.

    His eyes cut back to mine. You called that right. I’m retiring next year. Then I’ll be fishing for something besides the scumbags who did this.


    At the end of the day, I followed Barry across the street from campus to the vacant storefront building where her people had set up their operations center. She stopped at the door and I nearly trampled her. I won’t be needing you anymore. She checked her watch. Have your reporter come by and I’ll give him ten minutes.

    Much as I respected her commanding demeanor, it rankled to be summarily dismissed. However, I shrugged it off. It wasn’t the first time.

    A few blocks away at the StarTribune bureau, I ran up the stairs to the second level where the StarTrib leased offices from the downstairs neighbors, Lakeshore Realty. The bureau covered the entire northern section of the state, including several Ojibwe reservations. Two people were expected to handle it all.

    Cynthia was speaking on the phone in her office, the only enclosed space. Jason and I shared a pod of two desks with a partition between them, a micro-version of every newsroom I’d ever been in. I set up my laptop, inserted the memory card from my camera and studied each frame, already knowing which one was the money shot.

    Cynthia ended her call and stood behind me peering at the photos I’d taken of the quad. When she saw the one of Chloe—fresh young face turned toward the camera, dark eyelashes resting on pale skin, a smear of blood on her cheek, ponytail hanging from the gurney like a question mark—she tapped the screen. That one. Page one.

    People would be outraged, as they should be. I wrote a caption and sent it to Cynthia with a note for her to hold it while I ran it by Chloe. It was a news event in public so I wasn’t obligated to ask for permission, but this was Chloe.

    I scrolled through the pictures of Barry on my screen. An attractive woman, fit, tough and confident. Black hair pulled into a loose bun at the back of her neck, tendrils softening her thin face. Dark blue pants suit, white shirt open at the neck. Pearl studs in her ears the only jewelry, no ring. From the faint lines around her eyes, I guessed forty.

    It had pleased the feminist in me to see the all-male contingent of law enforcement leaning forward to get their instructions from this diminutive woman. I sent the two photos along with several others to Cynthia and was ready to head home when Jason came bounding up the steps, back from his interview with Barry.

    Get what you needed?

    He swiped a hand through sandy hair. They won’t release the name of the kid who was killed until tomorrow. His parents are in Norway on vacation and they had to locate them.

    Do they have anything concrete yet on who did this?

    They’ve got a bunch of people talking to students and professors, and others are going through computer profiles of everyone on campus. It’s a beehive in there.

    He sat at his computer cringing slightly. It was so crazy today I was stunned for a minute. Nothing’s happened since you’ve been gone except the usual gas drive-offs, turtles blocking traffic, domestic disputes and drunk driving accidents, and now this? Anyway, it’s good to see you sitting across from me again.

    It’s good to see you, too. I wanted to ask how he was doing now that his girlfriend, Thor, the sheriff’s forensic tech, had gone back to school in Minneapolis, but maybe that was better left alone.

    My stomach howled. The last food I’d eaten was a bowl of oatmeal at the campsite at six that morning. I’d seen Ben across the quad a couple of times during the day, but he’d be swamped until they figured out who detonated the bomb and why.

    I rolled my chair away from the desk. Cynthia’s waiting for your copy. I’m heading out.

    Jason’s fingers were already flying across his keyboard.


    I stopped at the hospital

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