Looking into an unsolved murder as a favor, McKenzie soon uncovers either the strangest set of coincidences or the sites of a very real, very deadly conspiracy.
Once a police detective in St. Paul, Minnesota, Rushmore McKenzie has become not only an unlikely millionaire, but an occasional unlicensed private investigator, doing favors for friends and people in need. When his stepdaughter Erica asks him for just such a favor, McKenzie doesn’t have it in him to refuse. Even though it sounds like a very bad idea right from the start.
The father of Malcolm Harris, a college friend of Erica’s, was found murdered a year ago in a park in New Brighton, a town just outside the Twin Cities. With no real clues and all the obvious suspects with concrete alibis, the case has long since gone cold. As McKenzie begins poking around, he soon discovers another unsolved murder that’s tangentially related to this one. And all connections seem to lead back to a group of friends the victim was close with. But all McKenzie has is a series of odd, even suspicious, coincidencesuntil someone decides to make it all that more serious and personal.
About the Author
DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT is the author of the Twin Cities P.I. Mac McKenzie Novels, including The Devil May Care. He has won the Edgar Award and is the three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for his crime fiction. He is the current president of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
What the Dead Leave Behind
By David Housewright
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 David Housewright
All rights reserved.
The way he paced recklessly in front of me, bouncing off furniture, tripping on the throw rug; the way he looked at me with unblinking eyes — I decided the kid was messed up. My only question: Was it a temporary condition possibly brought on by pharmaceuticals or permanent?
"It's been a year," he said. "A year. And no one's done anything."
I was sitting in a chair. He halted in front of me and waved his fist. The effort caused his body to sway uncertainly.
"Anything," he repeated.
"Malcolm," Erica said. She patted the cushion next to her. "Please."
He turned reluctantly and moved to the sofa. He didn't sit so much as collapse as if all the weight of the world was forcing him down. Erica took his hand in hers, and I noticed for the first time that his knuckles were scraped and a couple of drops of blood had dried in the creases between his fingers.
"It'll be all right," she told him.
"No it won't," he said.
Erica squeezed his hand, and he sighed. His eyes closed with the sigh, and she gazed at him with such affection that for a moment I felt anxious. What the hell was this kid to her, I wondered — besides being a good-looking boy who was in trouble that a strong woman like her might be able to help him with? I had known Erica since I had become involved with her mother — has it really been over six years now? I watched her evolve from an awkward, nerdy teen into a beautiful, smart-as-hell young woman who was a year away from earning both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science degree from Tulane University. I had never known her to look at anyone like she looked at Malcolm.
"McKenzie will help," she said.
You will? my inner voice asked.
"Won't you?" Erica said.
"What do you need?" I asked. "Be specific."
Malcolm's eyes snapped open, and he practically leapt from the sofa. He was taller than I was but thin and pale, and I wondered — how could anyone going to school in New Orleans be pale? He began pacing again. I Came this close to telling him to sit his ass back down, but resisted. I knew Erica wouldn't like it.
"You're a detective," he said. "Rickie said you're a detective."
"In a manner of speaking," I said.
"Well, are you or aren't you?"
"I don't have a license, if that's what you're asking."
"Then how can you help?" Malcolm's voice was suddenly high and out of control.
"I never said I could."
"Rickie told me ..."
He made a noise in his throat that might have been a sob. He stopped pacing and gazed at his damaged hand as if seeing it for the first time.
"How did that happen?" I asked.
Malcolm hid it behind his back.
"None of your business," he told me.
I watched him. He watched me.
"What?" he asked again.
"For you to tell me the reason why you're here. While we wait, would you like something to drink? Coffee? Dr Pepper? We got milk."
"You say that like you're old."
"Old enough to drink."
"Have you been drinking?"
"No. I — I guess I'm not making a very good impression, am I? Something my mother said earlier kind of threw me. Mr. McKenzie, I don't do drugs and I don't drink. Not a lot, anyway."
"Well, I'm going to have something. Erica?"
"Nothing for me, thank you," she said.
The high-rise condominium that Erica's mother and I shared in downtown Minneapolis was wide open. We didn't have rooms so much as areas — dining area, TV area, a music area where Nina's Steinway stood. The entire north wall was made of tinted floor-to-ceiling glass with a dramatic view of the Mississippi River. If that wasn't enough, there was a sliding glass door built into the wall that led to a balcony that I almost never use because I'm afraid of heights. The south wall featured floor-to-ceiling bookcases that turned at the east wall and followed it to a large brick fireplace. To the left of the fireplace was a door that led to a guest bedroom with its own full bath that Erica used whenever she was in town. Against the west wall, and elevated three steps above the living area, was the kitchen area. Beyond that was a master bedroom that also featured floor-to-ceiling windows.
I moved to the kitchen area. I found a Summit Pale Ale in the refrigerator, popped the cap, took a long pull from the bottle, and settled on a stool at the island. From there I was able to look down into the living area. Erica and Malcolm could see and speak to me, yet the distance between us was such that they were compelled to move forward, which was exactly what I wanted — anything to change the dynamic.
"I'm sorry," Malcolm said. "I just don't know how you can help me."
"Neither do I until you tell me what you need."
He turned as if he were contemplating a dash for the door. Erica grabbed his arm with both hands and gave it a shake.
"Talk to him," she said.
Malcolm lowered his head.
"I'm listening," I said.
The words were hard for him to speak.
"I need to know who killed my father," he said. "I need to know why."
* * *
The story came out in bits and pieces. It took a while for me to splice them together, to get the timeline correct.
What happened, Friday, December 13, last year — the final day for classes at Tulane University before the Christmas break — Malcolm couldn't wait to get home to New Brighton, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. He was surprised by how much he had missed snow and crisp, clean air. He walked out of his final class at 3:10 P.M., went to the dorm, finished packing, and left to meet his friends. Malcolm said he partied hearty — something that was not altogether difficult to do in New Orleans even when you're an underage sophomore. Eventually, he wandered over to PJ's Willow Café, grabbed a quick bite, took the shuttle to Louis Armstrong International Airport, caught the 5:55 A.M. flight, and, after a brief layover in Dallas, arrived bleary-eyed in Minneapolis at 11:20 Saturday morning. Only there was no one to meet him.
He called home. There was no answer. He called his father's cell phone. No answer. He called his mother's cell. She answered on the third ring. He tried to make a joke out of it. "Remember me?" he said. "Your one and only child?" That's when he learned that his father had gone missing. Apparently he had called Malcolm's mother Friday afternoon and told her that he needed to work late. He said he wanted to finish up a project that night so he could spend the entire weekend with his son without worrying about it. Except he never came home. She was in the process of making frantic phone calls to everyone her husband knew, to all the Twin Cities hospitals, when Malcolm's plane landed. Eventually they contacted the police.
Saturday passed and then Sunday. No sign of him. On Monday about 11:00 A.M. they received a phone call from the New Brighton Police Department. A man tentatively identified as Frank Harris had been found lying unconscious and covered with snow in a drainage ditch inside Long Lake Regional Park by a morning jogger. He was alive, but just barely.
Mother and son rushed to Unity Hospital. They were informed that Harris had been stabbed in the head. He never regained consciousness. He died on Christmas Eve.
* * *
Well, that sucks, I thought but didn't say.
"A year has passed," Malcolm said. "More than a year."
I don't know why, but I glanced at my watch to confirm the passage of time. It was 7:22 P.M. Monday, December 28.
One year and four days to be precise, my inner voice said.
"I still don't know what happened," Malcolm said. "No one knows. Or at least they haven't informed me."
"You said something happened tonight that messed you up."
"My mother told me ..."
"We were talking about my father, and she said ..."
"To get over it."
"Is that when you hurt your hand?"
He gazed at his damaged fingers again; flexed them.
"I hit something stupid," Malcolm said.
"No. A wall. God, McKenzie. I would never hit my mother. Not like ..."
"I would never hurt my mother."
"What exactly do you want me to do?"
Erica was staring directly into my eyes when she asked, "McKenzie, can you find out who killed Malcolm's father for us?" Making it clear that I would be doing the favor for her and not Malcolm. It was unfair. It would have been easy for me to tell the kid to take a hike, but Erica ... There were maybe six people in the entire world that could claim a chunk of my heart, and she was one of them.
"I don't know what I can do that the cops can't," I said.
"Then what good are you?" Malcolm asked.
"You'd be surprised how often people ask that question."
Or maybe not.
"Mal, don't talk like that." Erica spoke calmly, almost soothingly, yet at the same time there was a metallic sound in her voice that demanded both attention and respect — swear to God, it reminded me of someone racking the pump of a shotgun. "McKenzie is my friend. We came here to ask for his help. Remember?"
"I'm sorry," Malcolm said. "I'm just — I'm just ..." He hung his head. "I don't know what to do. I can't sleep. I can't study. My grades are shit. Every day ..."
Erica draped an arm around his shoulders and drew him close. She said something to him, but I couldn't hear over my inner voice screaming.
This is the boyfriend? Are you kidding me?
"I'll look into it," I said aloud.
"Thank you," Erica said.
"McKenzie." Malcolm's head came up. His eyes were moist, his voice shaking. "I don't need anyone to go to jail. I don't even need to know who did it. I just want to know what happened."
"I'll be asking a lot of questions of a lot of people, including you," I said. "Not now, though. Tomorrow."
"Thank you. I'm sorry I was so rude. You're treating me better than I deserve."
"You've been through a lot, losing a father the way you did."
He nodded his head as if he agreed with me.
"Just out of curiosity, how is your mother taking all of this?" I said.
Malcolm snorted like it was a question asked in poor taste.
"I've never seen her happier," he said.
* * *
There was some hemming and hawing, and then they left. Erica said she would drive Malcolm home and return later. I didn't ask for an ETA, and she didn't volunteer one. Once they departed, I went to my PC. I found only one story; it appeared on the Web site of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
NEW BRIGHTON MAN DIES AFTER ASSAULT; LYING INJURED IN PARK FOR TWO NIGHTS
A New Brighton man recently assaulted and left badly injured in a city park for nearly two days has died. Preliminary autopsy reports conducted by the Ramsey County medical examiner's office indicate Frank Harris, 48, died on Christmas Eve of a penetrating wound to his brain, New Brighton police reported. His manner of death was "provisionally" ruled a homicide.
Harris was found unconscious shortly before 8 A.M. Monday, Dec. 16, in a drainage ditch in Long Lake Regional Park. His car was found in the lot near the park entrance.
A nearby resident was jogging through the park that morning and saw Harris in the ditch, lying still. Temperatures at the time hovered around the single digits above zero.
Evidence collected at the scene and other information uncovered through police investigations indicate that Harris drove to the park Dec. 13 between 5:45 and 10:20 P.M., got out of his vehicle, and entered the park, where he was violently attacked and abandoned.
Hospitalized and in critical condition in the days after he was found, Harris was not able to communicate with police about the circumstances of the assault.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Crime Stoppers of Minnesota at 800-222-8477. Callers can remain anonymous, and tips could lead to a cash reward.
The only part of the piece that I found informative was the bit about Crime Stoppers. My experience, cops rarely ask the public for assistance unless they have diddly squat.
I printed the document and was rereading it for the third time when Nina Truhler came through the door.
"Hey, you," she said.
We hugged and kissed like an old married couple even though we are neither old nor married.
"How was your day?" Nina asked.
"I met Erica's new boyfriend."
"Who did you meet?"
"What happened to Robin?"
"I didn't know there was a Robin."
"I told you. Engineering student goes to Notre Dame."
"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. No, this one — he's from New Brighton, but he goes to Tulane; probably where they met."
"How do you know Malcolm is Erica's boyfriend? Did she say so?"
"She let him call her Rickie."
That's what people called Erica until her junior year of high school when she announced to one and all that it was a childish nickname and insisted that henceforth she would only answer to her given name. She even demanded that Nina change the sign above her jazz joint from RICKIE'S to ERICA'S. Nina told her that when she inherited the club, she could call it whatever she pleased.
"Sounds serious," Nina said.
"Oh, it gets better."
I gave Nina the hard copy of the Pioneer Press article. When she finished reading I said, "Malcolm's old man. They want me to find out who the killer is."
"Erica asked for the favor."
"She did that so you wouldn't say no."
"That's my theory, too."
"You spoil that girl."CHAPTER 2
Tuesday morning with the gray sky promising snow, I sat at my computer and composed a list. When I finished, I attempted to contact the New Brighton Police Department only to discover that the city didn't have one. Instead, its Web site guided me to the Department of Public Safety. Tucked inside the bureaucracy were both a Police Division and a Fire Division, each supervised by a deputy director instead of a chief.
Under Police Division, I discovered a link to a page listing "cold case files." I clicked on it. There were three histories. The first involved a woman identified as Jane Doe, whose nude body was discovered, like Frank, in Long Lake Regional Park by two people strolling a walking path. Unlike Harris, she had been lying there for six weeks to three months before anyone noticed. The cops believed she had died of "homicide violence" yet didn't go into further detail.
That was thirteen years ago. Six years later, the body of Raymond Bosh, a seasonal employee working for the city's Department of Parks and Public Works, was found at Veterans Park. The brief description did not list how he died, only where — near the tool shed where he was loading a dry line marker with powdered chalk to line the baseball diamond — and when — between 3:00 and 3:30 P.M. on a Tuesday in July.
The final story belonged to Harris. It told me even less than the newspaper article had.
Beneath each description was a request for information, along with a phone number, e-mail address, and Facebook link. I called the number. A woman answered. She didn't know who was handling the Harris investigation, but she forwarded my call to one of the Police Division's three investigators.
"Detective Clark Downing," he said instead of "hello."
"Detective, my name's McKenzie. I'm calling regarding the Harris case."
"Yes." His voice sounded both surprised and hopeful.
"If you give me your e-mail address, I'd like to send you something."
"A list — you'll see."
He recited his e-mail address; I sent him the document. Nearly ninety seconds passed with neither of us speaking before it arrived. I remembered when that used to be considered fast.
"What is this?" Downing asked.
"I don't know the federal agents or the assistant U.S. attorney, but I met Commander Dunston, and I worked with Lieutenant Rask a couple of months ago."
"Give them a call. Ask them about me."
"So when I call back you'll know you're not talking to a complete moron."
* * *
I was going to give him an hour. Instead, Downing called me twenty minutes later.
"I'm not sure what to make of this," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Bobby Dunston told me that you used to be a pretty good cop when you were with the St. Paul PD and that you've been very helpful to them in the past. Clayton, Lieutenant Rask, he said that you not only helped him solve a homicide a couple of years ago, you saved the Minneapolis Police Department considerable embarrassment, although he wouldn't give specifics."
"It left the restroom with its zipper down — what can I say?"
"They also said you could be a real smartass and that you like to play fast and loose with the rules."
"I'm sure they meant that in a good way."
"What's your interest in the Harris case?"
"His son, Malcolm — he came to me yesterday and asked me to look into it. He has a lot of unanswered questions. They're keeping him awake at night. In fact, I'd say he's displaying signs of PTSD."
Excerpted from What the Dead Leave Behind by David Housewright. Copyright © 2017 David Housewright. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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