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Longshot on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #4
Longshot on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #4
Longshot on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #4
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Longshot on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #4

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Longshot on Murder

When a homicide with ties to a 20-year-old casino burglary and murder rocks the Spirit Lake reservation, photojournalist Britt Johansson does whatever it takes to get her story—and justice for the wrongly accused. 

Drawn into the crosshairs of a vengeful gang, the cards are stacked against her. The FBI, tribal police, and even the man she loves warn her away. On her own, Britt has to beat the odds and expose the elusive gang leader, who won't stop his vicious attacks unless she backs off. 

And Britt never backs off. 

Release dateSep 14, 2019
Longshot on Murder: A Spirit Lake Mystery, #4
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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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    Longshot on Murder - Linda Townsdin

    Chapter 1

    I shouldered my camera pack, headed into the truck stop and took a seat at the counter. A man a few stools down hunched over his plate as if someone might take it from him. Wary, darting looks out the sides of his eyes at the people around him, while everyone else tilted back watching hockey on an overhead television. The season was technically over but never truly over in Minnesota. The game had to be a replay.

    On screen, several hockey players clashed and went down in a heap. The watchers whooped and banged the counter with their palms. A short, wiry guy next to me leapt up, knocking the spoon from my hand. I grabbed his forearm, adrenaline shooting through me. The man backed away. Sorry, lady, I didn’t mean to do that.

    Heat spread across my cheeks. I’d overreacted. It happened a lot lately. I released my grip. No problem. You startled me.

    The counter guys went back to their food, chuckling and rehashing the scuffle, but the hunched man watched me, looked away when our eyes met. Maybe forty, scar along his right cheek. Short, dark hair. He looked familiar.

    Swallowing the last of his coffee, he rose as if he wanted to get out fast, no lingering to ask for a refill. About six-four, muscles stretching his t-shirt, no visible tats. The white tee and stiff jeans brand new. At the cashier stand, he reached in his pocket for bills and handed them over without looking at the guy taking his money.

    I kept him in sight through the window, his chest rising and falling as if he’d undergone an ordeal. Maybe all the commotion got to him too. He crossed the parking lot, looked toward the highway, then started walking like a man with a purpose.

    I’d seen that face somewhere, tried to place him, couldn’t, and let it go. I finished my coffee and late lunch, not as good as anything I’d get at my brother’s restaurant in Spirit Lake. I’d been hungry before taking the flight from L.A. to Minneapolis, and my growling stomach had refused to wait another three hours. I hefted my camera pack—it went everywhere with me—paid the bill and left, already looking forward to dinner at Little’s Café.

    Highway 371, mostly two-lane ran north-south through the center of Minnesota. Spirit Lake, deep in the North Country, wasn’t that far from the Canadian border. For years I’d avoided coming back after taking off after high school. Too many memories on this road, not all good. Where did nostalgia get you anyway? A song, a place, a person or event triggered a wash of memories and those led to others and there you were, lost in the rabbit hole.

    Getting lost was happening too much lately. A car backfired or loud noise, and I’d be back in Iraq or Nigeria. Witnessing too many deaths had taken a toll. I’d been harder to deal with than usual, which was saying a lot. Drinking on the job and ranting at co-workers who complained about me were the catalyst for this forced leave of absence.

    It was a testament to my LA Times editor, Marta, also my best friend, that this time she set aside her need for my services to force me to take care of my mental state. She said she needed me to have steady hands and a healthy mind to do my best work. I took issue with that. I was still doing my best work.

    Dark clouds bunched up overhead and fat drops of rain hit the windshield, showing restraint at first and then letting it rip. My wipers slapped back and forth making me dizzy. In the distance, a blur morphed into the tall guy from the restaurant, thumb out, headed north just like me, his t-shirt now transparent and plastered to his body.

    I pulled over and let him catch up. My brother judged many of my actions as reckless, and this would be one of them. The stranger looked out of his element at the restaurant, but he didn’t scare me. And I’d seen that face somewhere.

    I hit the button and the window slid down. Hop in.

    His eyes widened, probably surprised a lone woman would pick him up, but I’m five-ten, adept at martial arts, and I’ve defied death so many times picking up a hitchhiking man didn’t even register as a threat.

    A quick glance told me there was no room for a weapon under his soaked clothes. No boots to hide a knife or small gun in. If he made a move, I’d jab my pointy elbow in his throat and boot him out, but he didn’t send out threatening vibes. Picking up danger signals was one of my specialties, or so I thought. I rubbed my burn-scarred hands. I’d misjudged a couple of times.

    He opened the door and slid in, raising his chin in a hello. Thanks. You were at the truck stop.

    I pulled onto the highway. Where you headed?

    He swiped at the water dripping off his nose. Up north, Spirit Lake reservation.

    I noted his medium-toned skin, grey-flecked eyes. You Ojibwe?

    A fraction. On my dad’s side.

    I’m headed to Spirit Lake too. I’m Britt Johansson.

    Daniel LeBlanc. He shivered. I’d have handed him a towel if I had one.

    He shot another sideways look at me. How come you stopped? Didn’t your mom teach you anything?

    Not much. My mother hadn’t been a great judge of character considering the man she married, my long-deceased father. You looked familiar. What I didn’t say was that I could use someone to talk to on the long drive. My own head wasn’t the best place to be right now. I blasted the heater. You from Spirit Lake?

    Long time ago.

    I tried to start conversations a couple more times, but he seemed to be lost gazing at the landscape. I got it. When a storm was brewing, the lakes turned a mesmerizing deep navy. Once away from the populated towns, there are only lakes and mile after mile of woods on either side of the road, so close to the highway you could reach out and touch the pines. It was even hard for me to keep my eyes on the road and I’d made this trip many times.

    Half an hour later, the heavy cloud moved East and the thunderstorm took a breather.

    I turned down the heat and glanced at Daniel. His eyes were wide open, drinking in every detail, his head swinging from side to side to gather in the entire panorama.

    I said, Not much changes here.

    He focused on me for a beat as if surprised to find himself in a car with a stranger. He still didn’t speak, but I caught a slight nod. And then he turned back to the window.

    I tried again. Did you go to Cooper High?

    I graduated in 1998.

    I was 2003. I realize where I know you from. Basketball, right? Your team photo was in the trophy case. It was before my time, but you were a legend. His hair was long then, and he was skinnier, a wide grin on his face when he made a shot. I played for a while, too. Coach used to show us videos of your games.

    A sad, faraway look moved across his face, but he didn’t reply. I rolled down the window to let in the spring breeze and inhaled the scent of rain and lake and pine.

    Just my luck, he’d turned out to be a dud of a conversationalist. I understood keeping to yourself in certain circumstances like on a plane—popping in ear buds, eyes on my laptop rather than engaging in chatter with the person crammed in next to me. Impossible to get out of it once they started, and then you were stuck for the duration. But here, in my car, going to the same place where we probably knew some of the same people, he could make an effort.

    I shrugged it off and kept driving. I’d drop him off on the highway before pulling into Spirit Lake and Little’s Café. Daniel could hitchhike the rest of the way to wherever he was going on the res.

    Thinking about Little and Lars, Rock and my cabin kept me pleasantly in my own world until we reached the outskirts of Spirit Lake. The town’s population hadn’t changed in years—500 give or take.

    I slowed. I’m turning off to stop at my brother’s restaurant.

    That’s fine. Just let me out here.

    Did you say you’re going to the res? I don’t mind taking you out there. It’s getting dark, might not be easy to get a ride. I mentally slapped my head. Sometimes I contradict myself in the middle of a decision. I didn’t really want to take him anywhere, but what was this guy doing here?

    He calculated for a minute. My dad’s place is at the edge of the res on north Spirit Lake Loop. He looked at me, maybe for the first time. If you don’t mind.

    We passed the town. A motel, gas station, hardware and hamburger stand were a few of the businesses along the highway. The tourist shops wouldn’t open for another month.

    The main business district is a block over and faces Spirit Lake. I pointed left, Little’s Café is on that corner.

    I’ve been through here. Odd name for a restaurant. Little’s.

    It’s my brother’s nickname. He was named after Jan, our father, hence Little Jan. He’s five-five, so the Little stuck.

    It took three minutes to pass the town and we were once again swallowed up by trees lining the highway. Two miles later as we neared the Spirit Lake loop, Daniel sat up straight in his seat. The flashing neon Dreamcatcher Casino sign winked in the distance. His big hands gripped his thighs, knuckles white, voice tight as we passed. The casino looks different than when I was last here.

    When was that?

    It’s been twenty years.

    I glanced at him. Twenty years was a long time. They’ve renovated and added a hotel. Why had seeing the casino caused him to tense up? Had he been in the military or even prison? He didn’t have the usual prison-type tattoos, or any ink I could see. Several scars of varying sizes dotted the arm facing me. They looked old.

    I turned left onto North Spirit Lake Loop. Daniel lifted his chin. My dad’s place is four miles from here.

    Is your dad waiting for you at the house?

    He passed away a long time ago.

    You have other family here?

    Maybe a cousin.

    I drove around the loop, the lake coming in and out of view between breaks in the wooded areas. After a few miles, he pointed to a dirt road on the left, away from the lake. We followed the winding washboard a half mile through dense forest. This part of the reservation was unfamiliar to me. My old Ojibwe friend, Edgar, lived on the more populated lake side.

    Daniel indicated another turnoff. This is it.

    I pulled into a gravel drive and left the car idling, hoping I could find my way out of this maze of unpaved roads, muddy from spring melt-off. Are you sure this place is on the reservation?

    On the border. It’s been in my family for at least sixty years. I’m the only one left, except for my cousin, if he’s still around.

    I could feel Daniel’s tension. I hoped it was excitement and not something darker.

    A weathered clapboard house surrounded by a chain link fence was set back into the woods. A new black pickup sat in the drive. Rap with a heavy bass thumped from the house. A light from inside shone through bent blinds.

    I said, Looks like someone’s here.

    No longer holding himself so tight, Daniel radiated relief. I was afraid the house wouldn’t still be here. He pointed toward a rusted vehicle at the side, so overrun with weeds it was almost part of the landscape. That was my dad’s car.

    Floodlights came on in front, sides and behind the house revealing a bare muddy yard. Hackles raised, two small dogs tore out from the back, barking and leaping at the chain link fence. 

    The hair on my neck twitched. It might not have been a smart move for me to be out here alone in the middle of nowhere with a hitchhiker I’d picked up—my brother would say no shit. My heartbeat ratcheted up a notch.

    Daniel thanked me for the ride and went to unlatch the gate. Several more of the black and tan dogs raced from the side yard, snarling, their sharp teeth slashing at Daniel’s hand on the fence. He snatched it away and stepped back.

    I turned the car around to face the road, then waited to see what would happen next. The dogs kept barking and jumping. A stocky guy, Native, came to the door, red bandana around his head, long hair. Plaid flannel shirt hanging open over a graphic t-shirt. Rolled up sleeves revealed thick, heavily tattooed arms. His right hand hung loose at his side. I instantly thought weapon.

    The guy yelled over the din. What you want?

    Daniel shouted. I’m Daniel LeBlanc and this is my house. I’m looking for my cousin. Who are you?

    The man took out his phone, punched in a number, talked into it, then said, Come back tomorrow. One o’clock.

    Daniel’s legs spread wide, he said, I’ll wait here.

    The guy whistled and a dozen more identical dogs rushed from behind the house in a swarm of black and tan. They joined the others leaping at the fence, snarling, fierce.

    Daniel backed up a few more feet.

    The guy with the moon face went inside and came back out cradling a rifle in his arms. He yelled, You don’t leave, I’m turning them loose.

    I popped on a telephoto lens, leaned out the window and took photos of the truck and license plate, house, the guy with the rifle, frenzied dogs snapping at the fence, their teeth glistening with saliva.

    Clouds blotted out the moon but there was no need for a flash with the floodlights. I got Daniel’s profile, chin lifted, and photographed the woods surrounding the little house, dwarfing it, looming and black. A whiff of something foul and rotting assaulted my nostrils.

    I yelled, Daniel, let’s go. I’ll take you to a motel in town.

    He came to the window and bent toward me, his face close to mine. I’m staying here.

    It gets cold at night and you’re not even wearing a jacket. If you don’t have money, I’ll pay for it.

    He looked back at the house, the guy holding the rifle, the shrill dogs.

    You do realize this place looks suspicious, right? Chain link fence, guard dogs.

    He snorted. Those aren’t dogs.

    They’re small but that many could take down a moose.

    He looked at my camera. Who are you?

    "I’m a photographer on contract for the LA Times and sometimes the Minneapolis StarTribune."

    You didn’t tell me that before.

    You haven’t been exactly forthcoming yourself.

    Bandana guy yelled something. Our heads swiveled toward him. His rifle was pointed at Daniel. Daniel’s eyebrows rose slightly, which I took for alarm. A shot rang out and I threw open the passenger side door. Get in!

    He moved fast for a big man. I stepped on the gas and fishtailed out of there.

    Chapter 2

    Daniel sat forward, his spine rigid as I backtracked along rutted and muddy roads to the paved Spirit Lake Loop, letting my heart-rate return to normal. I said, Either that guy was a bad shot, or it was a warning.

    He didn’t say anything. If he wasn’t going to talk about the rifle pointed at him, I wouldn’t bring it up again either.

    When we were on the highway, I said, I’m sorry that didn’t work out for you back there. I’ll take you to a motel in town.

    He sounded far away. I’d hoped everything would look the same. My dad took good care of the place. We didn’t have an ugly fence back then. And seeing his car like that, all broken down.

    You were close to your dad?

    It was just the two of us after my mom took off.

    I was trying to think how to respond to that when he said, She was white and hated the res after a while. I was still a baby, don’t remember her.

    You don’t keep in touch?


    Tell me more about your dad. That seemed a safer subject.

    He worked for a couple of resorts and summer residents guiding, doing odd jobs. Daniel smiled, the first I’d seen, wistful. Dad used to take me with him in the summers and when I was old enough, I helped with mowing and whatever needed doing. He knew everything about hunting and fishing, how to fix anything.

    A warm memory of looking down from my canoe at schools of iridescent blue and green sunfish came to mind. I used to clean cabins and babysit at Preston’s Resort, on the north loop. I’d take the tourist kids fishing. They’d come back to the resort sunburned and grinning with their string of sunnies.

    Daniel said, My dad worked at Preston’s, too, and lots of other homes and resorts—Martinson’s, Drake’s Bay. He was the caretaker during the winter. I washed windows all one summer to make money for college.

    It wasn’t a huge coincidence that we both worked at Preston’s. Many locals depended on the influx of tourists for their livelihoods. Preston’s was one of the largest resorts in the area and employed a lot of people for the few short summer months. I’d waitressed in their dining room one summer.

    Daniel asked, Is it still there?

    It’s closed now. A management company bought it and is selling the cabins. Lots of resorts are doing that. We were nearing Sprit Lake and I was still curious, knowing I might never see him again. Do you mind if I ask what happened to your dad? You said he died a long time ago.

    He drowned harvesting wild rice. It happened right after I left Spirit Lake. He looked out the passenger side window. Subject closed.

    I’m sorry. An Ojibwe man fell out of a canoe and drowned? Most I knew had been harvesting wild rice since they were kids.

    I pulled into Donna and Jake’s motel on the outskirts of town. The neon vacancy sign flashed. The connected convenience store that sold bait, snacks and gas, was closed.

    Daniel thanked me and opened the door. I lifted my camera. Let me take your photo.

    You ask every stranger you meet to take their picture?

    Only the interesting ones.

    He almost smiled. Go ahead.

    He was too cramped in the rental, but he faced the camera with direct eyes and I got a good head shot. I reached into my bag and held out some bills. This will cover the room.

    Thanks, I’m good. He started to get out of the car.

    You don’t have a cell phone, do you?

    Not yet.

    Cell service is spotty up here anyway. I pointed toward town and told him the Catholic church had an ongoing rummage sale. You could probably find a jacket there tomorrow.

    I’ll check it out. I’m sure as hell never going into a Walmart again.

    That was an interesting reaction. No Walmart in Spirit Lake.

    He stepped away.

    Wait. I grabbed one of my cards—Britt Johansson, Photojournalist, and my number. In case you want to contact me. Or check at Little’s Cafe. My brother can usually locate me.

    He took it and bent forward into the window. Thank you, but I won’t be staying in town after tonight. I have business to take care of and I need to do it on my own.

    Who do you think will show up out there tomorrow?

    My cousin.

    He walked toward the office, then turned back and lifted his chin in a goodbye. Flickering lights from the motel and bait sign strobed across his white t-shirt. I got that photo too. It was too good to pass up.

    I drove away feeling like a mother hen. What was I, the Spirit Lake Welcome Wagon? Maybe his nervousness at the crowded restaurant softened me. And I’m a sucker for people who love the area as much as I do. I was still curious about what he was doing the past twenty years. That last bit about having business to attend to sounded ominous. Getting his dad’s house back might not be that easy. But that wasn’t my problem—I’d likely never see Daniel again.

    The lights were dimmed at Little’s Café, so I continued on through town, passed the Spirit Lake Loop sign and caught the south loop. My cabin was a mile from town, but I kept going another mile to Little’s house. I hadn’t called ahead to let them know I was coming. In the past, something always happened to delay my arrival. I could hear Little, hands on hips, Where were you? I was worried. My response was always excuses followed by an apology. This time I’d pop in and see how that went over.

    I followed the pine and birch-lined drive to their house and pulled in behind Little’s blue Jeep parked outside the garage. Lights blazed from every window. I heard Rock’s bark, then the front door flew open. In the next instant, I was out of the car on my knees with an armful of black and white energy, licking and barking. Bursting with a silly joy, I hugged him and ruffled his ears. It happened every time and it always hit me by surprise that a forty-pound dog could make me so happy.

    Little and his partner, Lars, came down the steps, both talking at once. My brother was the beautiful one of the family, petite, silky pale hair, eyebrows like angel’s wings. But when those wings drew together, you’d better watch out. He hugged me, then his hands went to his hips and the frown appeared, informing me I’d done it wrong again. Why didn’t you call?

    Lars thumped my back. Great to see you. Lars was a city boy and former professor but started dressing like Paul Bunyan when they moved up north. Partially bald, prone to wearing plaid shirts with suspenders, barrel-shaped upper body with spindly legs, his beauty was in his personality.

    Once we’d settled at the kitchen table with mugs of tea, Little said, We thought you were heading out on another Mideast assignment.

    I dipped my face to the cup. Sometimes I skirted around details to save myself from Little’s judgy comments but blurted out the truth this time. I’m on a mandatory leave of absence. Loud noises make me jump out of my skin. I have nightmares and don’t sleep much. Marta’s making me talk to a therapist. When the therapist okays it, I can go back to work. I didn’t mention the drinking because

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