Rushmore McKenzie returns with a too-personal case that leads him up the legendary Highway 61 in the latest in this awardwinning series
Rushmore McKenzie is a former cop, current millionaire, and an occasional unlicensed P.I. who does favors for friends. Yet he has reservations when his girlfriend's daughter asks him to help her father Jason Truhler, the ex-husband of McKenzie's girlfriend, and a man in serious trouble. En route from St. Paul to a Canadian blues festival on Highway 61, he met a girl, blacked out, and awoke hours later in a strange motel, with the girl's murdered body on the floor. Slipping away unnoticed and heading home, he thought he'd got away--until he started getting texts with photos of the body and demands for blackmail payments he couldn't pay.
McKenzie soon finds that Truhler was set up in a modified honey trap, designed to blackmail him. But Truhler's version wasn't exactly the truth either. And McKenzie now finds himself trapped in the middle of a very dangerous game with some of the most powerful men in the state on one side and some of the deadliest on the other.
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June 07, 2011
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Excerpt from Highway 61 by David Housewright
I watched Erica through my kitchen window while she tossed bread crumbs to the ducks that lived beside the pond in my backyard, and I wondered--when did she become so damn pretty? She was cute when I first met her, but that was when she was nearly fifteen. Now she was twelve days past her eighteenth birthday and nearly as beautiful as her mother. Certainly she was taller--by at least two inches. Erica confided to me once that when she was sure her mother was going to scold her over some offense, she would put on high heels so she would tower over her.
"I keep hoping it'll intimidate her," she said, "only it never does."
The man sitting at the table behind me sighed dramatically. I ignored him. He pulled a pack of Marlboros from his jacket pocket, shook one out, and placed it between his lips. I waited until he lit it with a silver lighter.
"No smoking," I said.
Jason Truhler sighed again, putting more effort into it this time. He moved to the sink, drowned the cigarette with the faucet, and dropped the remains into the garbage disposal.
I continued to watch his daughter while he slipped silently back into the chair. Erica knelt on the grass and scattered bread crumbs so close to her that the ducks came near enough to pet. I almost opened the window and shouted, "They bite, you know." I didn't because I knew she wouldn't like it.
The ducks had moved in soon after my father and I had built the pond a few years back. Dad liked the ducks; one of the things he told me just before he died was to take care of them. So I did, feeding them corn and grain and whatever they put in those bags of wild birdseed I buy at Petco. Ever since, they would leave in the fall and return in the spring, often more than a dozen birds at a time. I used to name them until it became impossible for me to tell them apart.
I glanced at my watch. It told me the day, month, and date--Sunday, November 8. Duck hunting season had been open for nearly a month, and while the ducks were safe within the Twin Cities metropolitan area, I was always worried about how they would fare once they started south. I expected them to take wing at any moment; was surprised that they hadn't left long ago. A pal at the DNR said they might have lingered past their traditional departure date because I fed them, because I domesticated them. I hoped not.
Truhler sighed again.
"What exactly do you want from me?" I asked. I continued to look out the window.
"Rickie says you help people."
"Favors," I said. Since quitting the St. Paul cops to take a three-million-dollar reward for capturing a particularly resourceful embezzler, I have, on occasion, assisted people with their more pressing issues. "I sometimes do favors for friends, people I like. I don't like you."
"You don't know me."
"I know your ex-wife."
"Not everything Nina says about me is true."
"Of course it is."
"You haven't heard my side."
I turned my head just enough to look him in the eye. "I don't want to hear your side."
"But what? There's nothing to debate here. I love your ex-wife. I love her enough to say so to complete strangers. Which means I'm more than happy to dislike her ex-husband with as much vehemence as she desires for whatever reasons she deigns to offer. Any questions?"
"I knew it was a mistake coming here," Truhler said.
I returned to the window. Marvelous Margot, the woman with whom I shared the pond, emerged from her house and walked across her lawn. Erica saw her. They screamed each other's name the way teenagers do that have been apart for a while and hugged, although Margot was hardly a teenager. She was pushing forty-five. She had been pushing forty-five for as long as I'd known her.
Margot was a life-loving babe--I could think of no better way to describe her. She was a babe not only in her wolf-whistle appearance but also in her take-no-prisoners attitude, one of those free spirits who lived exactly as she wished, as her three ex-husbands could attest. As far as I knew she and Erica had spoken less than a half dozen times, yet Erica seemed to like her enormously. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
"I wouldn't have come here at all," Truhler said, "except Rickie said you could help me. She said you could be trusted. I'd hate to see her disappointed."
Meaning I would be the one who disappointed her, not him.
"Does Erica know what trouble you're in?" I asked.
"She knows--she only knows I'm having difficulty and that it has something to do with a trip I took in July. I admitted that much to her when she came to visit this weekend. I get her every third weekend. Now that she's eighteen, she doesn't have to obey the court order, but she does. She's a good girl."
"She told me if I was in trouble I should talk to you. 'Tell McKenzie,' she said. 'He can fix anything.'"
"You believed her?"
"She told me about some of the things you've done for people. Helping the FBI corral some gunrunners, catching the guy who kidnapped that cop's kid, solving that murder down in Victoria, Minnesota--Rickie thinks you're quite a guy."
I was glad to hear it. Still ...
"You like her," Truhler said. "I know you do."
"That'll only get you so far."
"I'm not asking for much."
"Yes, you are."
It was my turn to sigh like a bad actor. I pivoted toward Jason Truhler. There was an expectant gleam in his eyes as if he were waiting for an MC to pull a name from a hat and announce the winner of a door prize.
"To put it bluntly, I'm your ex-wife's lover," I said. "I'm the last person you should be talking to. You're the last person I should try to help. Nothing good will come of it."
"Then why did you agree to see me?"
I looked out the window again. Erica and Margot were sitting next to each other on the grass on Margot's side of the pond. God knew what Margot was telling her. Whatever it was, it made Erica laugh.
I was in love with Nina Truhler, so it was important that her daughter like me. To gain Erica's favor I made a point of not calling her Rickie, although everyone else did, until she gave her permission. I never hung around her house, never raided her refrigerator, never watched her TV, never commented on her clothes; never stayed the night while she was there. I always spoke to her like an adult, declined to offer advice unless it was requested, vowed not to reveal her secrets even to her mother, scrupulously avoided phrases like "When I was your age," and refused to take sides when she and Nina quarreled. Most important, I promised to be there whenever she needed me.
Saturday night she called. She said she needed me.
"I can give you the name of a good private investigator," I said.
"I'm afraid to hire an ordinary PI," Truhler told me. "If they come across a crime, they have to report it. If the cops ask them questions, they have to answer or risk losing their licenses, right? They don't have privilege like an attorney or a doctor. They can't guarantee confidentiality."
"What makes you think I can?"
He gestured with his chin at the window.
"She's a pretty girl, isn't she," he said. "Smart, too. We raised her right, divorce and all. No matter what Nina tells you about me or what I could tell you about her if you cared to listen, we managed to keep the gloves on when it came to Rickie. She turned out all right. She loves both of her parents."
It's my dad, she told me. Will you help him? For me?
"All right," I said. "Tell me about your difficulty."
Truhler covered his mouth with his hand, turned his head, and coughed. "Excuse me," he said.
Yeah, you had better not let me see you smile, my inner voice said. You haven't won anything yet.
"Well," I said aloud.
"First, you have to promise not to tell Rickie, or Nina, for that matter."
"I already promised not to lie to either of them."
"I'm not saying lie. I'm saying--just don't tell them about me."
"As long as it doesn't hurt them."
Truhler thought about it for a few beats. "It won't," he said.
"We have a deal?"
I shrugged in reply.
Truhler stared as if he were trying to see inside my head.
Good luck with that, my inner voice said. Half the time, I don't even know what's going on in there.
"How do I know I can trust you?" Truhler asked.
"Because Erica said so."
Truhler thought about it for a moment. He said, "I suppose I have to tell someone."
Don't tell me. Please don't tell me. If you tell me, then I'll become involved, and I don't want to be involved.
"I'm being blackmailed," Truhler said.
Ahh, geez ...
I moved away from the window and sat at the kitchen table across from Truhler.
"I don't know. It started four months ago. They've been demanding nine thousand nine hundred and eighty dollars in twenties each month. It's an odd amount. I don't know why they picked such an odd amount."
"Banks are required to report cash transactions of ten thousand or more to the U.S. Treasury Department," I said. "The law was passed in the early seventies to help catch criminals attempting to launder drug money. Now Homeland Security uses it to keep watch over the rest of us. The blackmailers set the amount so you wouldn't attract attention."
"You know about these things. That's good."
"What do they have on you?"
"What do you mean?"
"What secret is worth ninety-nine eighty a month?"
"They say, they claim ... this is hard to say."
I didn't give him any help.
He stood abruptly and began to pace the kitchen floor. He was nearly as tall as I was and straight. He had fine brown eyes that you could see in his daughter and auburn hair that had been cut short and meticulously scrubbed of all gray, a gesture toward vanity that I found distasteful in a man. Plus, his face was far too pretty for someone his age. He looked like a guy whose problems had always been solved with a smile or by someone else. He stopped pacing, stared at the miniature guillotine I used to halve bagels as if it were the first time he had ever seen one, then turned toward me.
"They say I murdered a girl."
"What girl?" I asked.
"I don't know."
"Of course you do."
"The blackmailers--I presume they have hard evidence that connects you to the girl."
"They have photographs."
"Yet you claim you don't know the girl."
"That requires explanation," I said.
"I went to the Thunder Bay Blues Festival."
"It was held during the Fourth of July weekend, but that was just a coincidence. The Fourth doesn't mean anything up in Canada."
"Who did you go with?"
"No one," Truhler said. "When I go to these things, I just want to be alone with the music. I don't want to bother with other people. I don't want to worry if they can see the stage, if it's too cold or too hot for them, if they're hungry or thirsty, if they want to leave early or stay late, if they can find me in the crowd or if I can find them. Haven't you ever done anything like that?"
I once went to the Lowertown Music Festival in St. Paul to catch Moore By Four by myself and to Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis to hear bluesmen Tinsley Ellis and Big Daddy Cade, and there have been plenty of Minnesota Twins baseball games, but those events took place in the afternoon and I only went alone because most of my friends were at work--such is the lot of the idle rich. But drive alone 350 miles from the Twin Cities to Thunder Bay just to hear some tunes?
"No," I said.
He seemed surprised by my answer.
"I heard you were a music guy, like me," he said. "I guess all this is because I love music. I love it even more than Nina does. That's what attracted us to each other in the first place, you know, our mutual love of music."
Truhler paused as if he expected me to comment. I refused. If I admitted that I also harbored a deep affection for music, then we'd have something to bond over, and I didn't want to bond with him.
"Get to the point," I said.
* * *
According to Jason Truhler, it had been one of those summer days that Minnesotans dream about when it's January and the snow is blowing and the wind is howling--seventy-eight degrees with a light breeze wafting off of Lake Superior and not a cloud in the sky. Truhler entered Marina Park where the blues festival was being held from the pedestrian bridge spanning North Water Street, a blue canvas camping chair folded into a blue canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
He had checked in at the Prince Arthur Hotel the evening before. The hotel was a hundred years old and reeked of old-world charm--that was the word he used, reeked. He did not care about the hand-carved woodwork, the vaulted ceilings, or the early twentieth-century appointments. Nor did Truhler care that he had a spectacular view of the Sleeping Giant, one of Thunder Bay's most popular tourist attractions, a natural rock peninsula jutting into Lake Superior that resembled a giant lying on his back when viewed from the city. He stayed there solely because of the convenient pedestrian bridge that abutted the hotel's parking lot. Truhler was all about convenience.
He ignored the daredevils riding skateboards in the retro-California-style swimming pool bowl at the bottom of the bridge and the nearly 250 boats moored in slips at the marina to his right. His destination was the new, improved band shelter several hundred yards to his left where the bluesmen were holding forth. To reach it he crossed yet another bridge; this one arched above a small inlet that separated the marina from the rest of the park.
That's where he met the girl.
Her hair was the color of red roses and wheat, her eyes were big and brown, and her skin was pale and unblemished. She was wearing a light blue sleeveless blouse over khaki shorts that had a flap of fabric in front to make them look like a skirt. Her legs were long and slender.
The girl was leaning against the railing at the center of the bridge and looking out toward Lake Superior. When Truhler reached her, she turned her head and smiled as if she had been expecting him. Her eyes twinkled.
"What kind of ducks are those, do you think?" she asked.
Truhler stopped and glanced over the railing. Beneath him was a large duck with a pale brown head and body, a dark brown back, a dark bill, and a subtle cinnamon neck ring. A squadron of ducklings surrounded it. While he watched, the large duck dove headfirst into the lake. The ducklings followed. They stayed under water for nearly ten seconds before popping up like bubbles. The girl giggled when they dove and giggled even more when they reemerged.
Truhler said he didn't know from waterfowl.
The girl said, "I think they're ring-necked diving ducks."
"If you already knew, why did you ask," Truhler said.
"Do you mind that I asked?"
No, Truhler didn't mind. Nor did he mind when she asked other questions--where was he from, where was he staying, was he alone? The more he answered, the more the girl smiled, and the more she smiled, the more Truhler felt compelled to be polite--that's what he said, he was being polite.
"Are you here for the blues festival?" she asked.
"So am I."
Perhaps she would like some company, he said.
She said she would like that very much.
The girl had a folding canvas chair in a bag of her own. She retrieved it from the bridge deck, and together they followed the winding path until they reached the main entrance to the festival grounds. Truhler offered to treat the girl to a thirty-five-dollar ticket, but she already had one. They found a grassy knoll in the back with a clear view of the stage and set up. He offered to buy her a beverage. Beer, or perhaps a Jack Daniel's Country Cocktail. She liked the idea of a Black Jack Cola.
"You are old enough to drink, aren't you?" he asked.
She giggled at the question. "Of course I am, silly."
"I thought that meant she was over twenty-one," Truhler told me. "I didn't realize until later that the drinking age in Ontario is nineteen." I asked him if it mattered. He said it did. "What kind of guy do you think I am?" I didn't say.
They sat through several acts--I was surprised to hear Minneapolis blues band Big Walter Smith and the Groove Merchants was among them--and downed several cocktails that Truhler said didn't affect him at all. Toward late afternoon, the girl slid a blunt wrapped in cherry-vanilla paper from her purse and lit up. After several tokes she offered the blunt to Truhler. He took a long drag, hoping the people around him wouldn't notice that the thin cigar had been hollowed out and filled with grass. They passed the blunt back and forth until they could no longer hold it without burning their fingertips. The girl sealed the remains inside a plastic 35 mm film canister and dropped it into her purse. Truhler laughed. He asked the girl where she got the canister. He hadn't seen a roll of film in years.
The next thing Truhler remembered, he was naked and lying facedown on a bed in a motel room.
He woke up slowly, so slowly that at first he didn't realize he was awake. He kept his eyes closed. There was a throbbing pain above his eyes, and he knew from experience that when he opened them, the pain would increase. He remembered the cocktails and he remembered the dope and then he remembered the girl and wondered if she was still there. Truhler swept his arms slowly across the mattress, pleased that his fingers did not find her--it would be so much easier if she was gone. He touched his own body and found that he was naked. It didn't entirely surprise him. He was cold. He reached out for a sheet or bedspread to cover himself, but his hands came up empty. He opened his eyes. The dull pain in his forehead increased, as he knew it would, followed by a stabbing pain at the base of his skull. He closed his eyes, reached back, and rubbed his neck. His fingers found a bump that was sensitive to the touch. Where did that come from, he wondered.
Truhler rolled onto his back and opened his eyes again. There were cracks in the ceiling. A bare lightbulb in a chipped fixture glared at him. That wasn't right, he told himself. He raised himself up on his elbows and glanced around the room. Truhler didn't know where he was, but it sure as hell wasn't the pristine and elegant Prince Arthur Hotel.
He thought about the girl. What was her name? Hell, did she even tell him her name? Truhler couldn't remember. He called out. "Hey." Maybe she was in the bathroom. "Hey." There was no answer. He collapsed back on the bed.
Truhler had never suffered a blackout in his life, he told me. Not once. He said that sometimes his memory had become a little fuzzy, especially when he was a kid and hitting the booze like he would live forever. Yet waking up in a strange room without knowing how he got there--that was a new experience, and he wondered if the dope had something to do with it.
He called out again. "Hey."
He sat up and looked around. It was definitely a motel room, and not a very expensive one. Regulations and pricing information were attached to the back of the door. There was a battered credenza with a TV and cable box mounted on top. A table tent next to the TV advertised X-rated pay-per-view movies with the promise that the titles of the films wouldn't appear on the bill. The drapes of the window were tightly closed. A small wooden table stood in front of the window. There was a wooden chair set on either side of the table. He could see that his clothing was piled neatly on top of one of the chairs and the girl's clothes were just as carefully stacked on the other. Truhler wondered about that for a moment. If he had screwed what's-her-name, the girl, he couldn't imagine being tidy about it.
He stepped off the bed. His foot touched something wet and sticky on the floor. His first thought, was that he had stepped into a spilled drink. He looked at the floor. It was a lake of blood. The girl floated below him in the lake. She was naked and curled into a fetal position with her hands clutching her throat. Her throat was deeply slashed; he could see a black hole beneath her fingers. Her lifeless eyes were open. They seemed to stare at him.
Truhler screamed and fell back onto the bed. He frantically wiped the blood off of his foot with the bedsheet and screamed some more. The instinct for self-preservation kicked in, and he covered his mouth with both of his hands to keep from screaming again, praying that no one had heard him; that no one would come knocking on the door demanding to know what was wrong.
Had he killed the girl?
He couldn't remember.
Truhler began to tremble with a chill that had nothing to do with the cold and his own nakedness. They'd blame him, he knew they would. The cops would come and they would see the girl and they would see him and they would point their fingers and say, "You did it."
Except he could not have killed her. He could not have done a thing like that.
He swept his body with both his eyes and his hands. There was no blood. Nor was there blood on the bed except where he had wiped his foot. Yet there seemed to be blood everywhere else. How could he have killed the girl like that without getting blood on himself, slashing her throat with, with what? He looked about for a knife without leaving the safety of his island bed and found none. He tried hard to avoid looking at the girl.