Blow up on murder, p.1

Blow Up on Murder, page 1


Blow Up on Murder

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Blow Up on Murder

  Blow Up on Murder

  A Spirit Lake Mystery

  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.

  Praise for Blow Up on Murder

  “Britt Johansson is a character that will engage your attention from page one. Blow Up on Murder is suspenseful with compelling plots and subplots that will hold you hostage until you reach the gripping end. Ms. Townsdin has done it again. This is a must read if you love a good mystery.”

  –R. Franklin James, author of the Hollis Morgan Mystery series

  “The beautiful, yet somehow austere countryside can lull you into false security—then hammer you with a deadly surprise, especially if you’re Britt Johansson, a risk-taking war photographer, back from overseas, but not separated from her haunting memories of death. She takes off on a mission to uncover the truth and....I’ll leave it at that. Townsdin leads you into places and circumstances you’ll only guess at until the end.”

  –Mark S. Bacon, author of the Nostalgia City Mystery series

  “If you haven’t been reading Linda Townsdin’s Spirit Lake Mystery Series, you’re missing out on great visual storytelling, smart, complex plots, compelling characters and well-conceived murder/mystery suspense with independent-minded photojournalist, Britt Johansson and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Ben. She becomes embroiled in an explosion at the local college where a close friend is seriously injured. Britt fights her own PTSD from covering a previous story in Nigeria, but is determined to hold herself together until she finds the perpetrator of the crime. Just when you think herbs can help you relax, you haven’t met Emmaline at her best and worst, a character so cleverly conceived you might never have a cup of tea in your future.”

  –Sherry Joyce, author of The Dordogne Deception and Dangerous Duplicity

  Copyright© 2017 Linda Townsdin

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or otherwise, without expressed written permission from the author.

  The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

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  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, t
wisted 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 mi
crophones 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.”

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