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Minneapolis had a brown Christmas. It happens, sometimes. Store owners complain about not selling sleds, skis, and shovels, but no one else seems to mind. We know what’s coming. And just after midnight on January 4 it did, falling wet and heavy. Eighteen inches on an earth frozen stiff by a clear, cold December.
I decided to give myself a snow day and stayed under the comforter to dream in the gray light, but the dreams never came or maybe they did and fizzled out unremembered. Then I woke at the crack of 8:55 to a buzzing nightstand accompanied by a medley of plows scraping streets, snow throwers whining under stress, and tires spinning themselves to nowhere.
I answered my cell. “Hello.”
“Shap? You available?” It was Ellegaard.
“Professionally or romantically?”
“Sheesh, Shap. This is serious. East side of Edina near Arden Park. We caught something…” He paused. I could tell he was shaken. “… something sick.”
Ellegaard didn’t swear or drink. He wasn’t an alcoholic or Mormon or twelve so he had no excuse. “What happened?” I said.
“Dang it, Shap, just get over here.”
Anders Ellegaard and I attended the Minneapolis Police Academy together. A week after getting our badges, the mayor, fending off a Republican challenger, made a show of cutting costs. Last hired, first fired. While the other layoffees sat on their pimply ones playing video games until the rehiring, Ellegaard and I got industrious. I went to work for a private-detective firm and started accruing hours toward my license. Ellegaard found a police job across France Avenue in the regal suburb of Edina, where the cops worked the most white-collar job you can while wearing a blue collar. Neither of us put on a Minneapolis police officer’s uniform again.
Edina PD spent most of its time camped out at the bottom of a hill on 50th writing speeding tickets to Mercedes and BMWs. The revenue helped pay for consultants when a real crime came Edina’s way and apparently one had—the Edina police hadn’t worked a murder in over a decade.
“We need you, Shap,” said Ellegaard. “Now.”
I owned a shitbox one-bedroom near 54th and Drew. A divorce settlement left me with enough money to pay cash for it. The house was more expensive than it looked—good schools and restaurants within walking distance inflated the neighborhood’s property values. Every week I received at least one offer to buy it, always from a builder. People saw great value in my home, as long as they could wipe it off its foundation.
It’d take me ten minutes to walk to Ellegaard on the east side of Arden Park or an hour to shovel the driveway so I could back my aged Volvo out of the garage and get it stuck in the unplowed alley. “I’ll walk over,” I said. “Save me an acai berry croissant or whatever you Edina hard-asses are eating these days.”
I downed two cups of coffee, threw on a jacket, and laced up my Sorels. I opened my front door. A foot and a half of the heavy stuff pressed against the storm door. I wedged it open just enough to slip outside. It was thirty degrees. Compared to the last few weeks of subzero fuckery, it felt like summer. The plows had only scraped the main thoroughfares, leaving most Minneapolis streets rutted and sloppy. I trudged west on the snow-covered sidewalk then hit a stretch some do-gooder had cleared to justify the grand he’d spent on his snowblower. Then I was Ernest Shackleton again until I reached the Edina border where the suburb’s streets glistened wet and clean thanks to a battalion of overnight plows.
I turned right on Minnehaha Boulevard which hugged the east edge of Arden Park. A massive house on a hill rose to my right. A sign in the yard read VOTE NO SIDEWALKS FOR—snow covered the remainder of the sign.
On my left, Parks & Rec had already plowed the hockey and free-skating rinks. Shouts and screams and skates and sticks and pucks slapping boards. All comfortable and familiar. Memories of skating with pretty girls with ropey braids and swollen sweaters. It was a youth well spent. I might’ve become nostalgic if I hadn’t seen the flashing police cherries two blocks away through the leafless oaks and maples.
The police gathered outside a gargantuan architectural mongrel bred of colonial, Cape Cod, and Tudor, all capped off with an English country–style roof of steam-bent cedar shingles that rounded at the edges like mushroom caps. The place looked like a painting you’d see in an art gallery at the mall. A massive red oak, probably older than the state of Minnesota, umbrellaed the front yard, hundreds of dead brown leaves still clinging to its branches in the January air. The wide driveway was clear and dry, evidence of hot water tubes snaking beneath. That’s where Ellegaard waited for me.
He told the uniforms to let me through the yellow tape. Whole families stood outside and craned their necks. The watercoolers would be abuzz the next day in the executive wings of Target, UnitedHealthcare, Cargill, and General Mills. A KARE 11 news van pulled up. They’re the station that cares. Or so it said on the back of their news team parkas.
Ellegaard looked like a Boy Scout, only he’d traded in his kerchief and merit badges for a Brooks Brothers suit. He was a six-foot-three, blue-eyed blond who either shaved twice a day or didn’t shave at all—I couldn’t tell which. He had hair like an anchorman on the six o’clock news, and I wanted to slap him for it. “Chief McGinnis,” he said, “I’d like you to meet Nils Shapiro.”
I pegged the Edina Chief of Police for early-sixties. Craig McGinnis stood six foot five and had the build of a decathlete. He had a full head of silver hair, wore a charcoal suit and a red cashmere scarf. I hoped the scarf was a Christmas present he felt obligated to display rather than an affectation. If it were the latter, he and I were going to have a problem.
“Nils Shapiro,” he said. Shaking my hand like it was the love-tester machine at Bennigan’s. “That’s an unusual name.”
“Yeah, but only Swedes and Jews know it.”
“I’ll bet,” he said. He smiled. “Detective Ellegaard says you’re the best private investigator in Minnesota. Said you cracked the Duluth murders but didn’t get credit for it.”
“I don’t need a lot of attention.”
“I like that in a man. Even more in a woman.” He laughed at his joke but the laughter didn’t last. I guessed whatever was in that house wasn’t going to let him experience much joy for a while. He looked at me and mustered the toughest expression he had in him. “Consultants who work for Edina PD don’t talk to the press. They don’t talk to Minneapolis PD. They don’t talk to the Feds. They don’t talk to their wives, their girlfriends, post on the Internet. They don’t communicate outside of Edina PD. Period. And even though you’re an independent contractor, if you break our chain of command, you’re gone. Understood?” I nodded. “How much do you charge?”
“Five hundred a day plus expenses.”
“Expensive, but I suppose you’re going to tell me I get what I pay for.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. But the more I charge the less my employer tends to waste my time.”
McGinnis looked to Ellegaard for assurance. Ellegaard gave him a nod.
“All right,” McGinnis said. “Take him inside.”
Ellegaard led me up the walk toward a pair of double front doors. “We’re not going in this way,” he said, “but I want you to see something.” He put on a latex glove and knocked on a massive slab of oak. A voice from inside told him it was okay to open it, and Ellegaard did with a gentle nudge.
I looked inside. A thick coating of grayish dust blanketed the foyer. It didn’t look like natural dirt, and any normal human being would have cleaned it up. “Someone murder the maid?”
“Don’t joke,” said Ellegaard. “That dirt is why you’re here.”
“Any idea what that shit is?”
“The consensus at the moment is it looks like what you’d find inside a vacuum cleaner bag—you know, when it’s full and you have to change it.”
Then I felt it, the lightness, the excitement, as if I’d discovered a sealed box in my basement I’d never noticed before. I’d felt it in Duluth. I’d felt it on my first date with Micaela. I’d felt it as a boy the first time I heard Nirvana’s “Lithium.” And I knew I was about to experience something significant well before I knew what that thing was or whether it would be good or bad.
“The M.E. is upstairs in the master suite with the body,” said Ellegaard. “Other than that, CSU has stayed outside. They’re afraid they’ll make matters worse.”
“How could they make matters worse?”
“That dirt or dust or whatever it is, it’s all over the house. It continues up the stairs and down a hall and into the master suite and leads right up to the body, which is … Well, you’ll see. CSU isn’t quite sure what to do with it.”
I looked over my shoulder and saw the CSU team standing outside their van, sipping coffee and looking uncomfortable and unsure. Each one of them probably had the same expression at prom. “What are you saying, Ellie? The crime scene’s so contaminated they’re afraid they’ll uncontaminate it which will, in effect, further contaminate it?”
“Don’t call me Ellie,” he said. “That nickname didn’t come with me to Edina. I don’t want it to start now. And yeah, something like that. We don’t even know how to begin on this.”
We walked away from the front doors and into the garage, where a dozen paper yard bags sat filled with leaves awaiting pickup in the spring. We entered the house through the garage service door. Ellie hadn’t oversold it—the dusty dirt was everywhere. Gray and fluffy. In the mudroom. In the kitchen. Ellegaard put sanitary shoe covers over his loafers. I took off my boots and put the sanitaries over my socks.
We headed upstairs, looking down on the living room that featured a grand piano. Of course it did. This was the kind of neighborhood where every parent makes their kid take piano lessons but no parent wants their kid to be a musician.
If the fluffy gray stuff hadn’t blanketed the master suite, it would have been immaculate. A king-sized four-poster of the Shaker persuasion was the main attraction centered between nightstands and wall sconces. Framed photographs of children, from babies to preteens, sat on the nightstands and floating shelves. A chaise longue took up space, but not enough. The room was so big you had to be in shape to get from one piece of furniture to the next. A wall of windows offered a view of the acre-sized backyard bordered by the Minnehaha Creek, now frozen and covered in snow. You could sit in a cushioned window seat if it was too exhausting to stand while looking out at all that beauty.
Only the mummy-shaped pile of dust on the bed seemed to be at odds with the interior decorator’s grand vision. A thermometer stuck out of it at an odd angle, and the M.E. stood over it. Julie Swenson. She usually worked on Minneapolis bodies. I’d met her a few times at the Hennepin County morgue. She had long gray hair and eyes with a hint of blue. I guessed she was over fifty. I usually stuck to south of forty like myself, but something about the honesty of her hair tempted me to fall in love with her. Maybe I’d tell her one night in the cold room when she wasn’t holding the bone cutter.
“There’s the body,” said Ellie, pointing to the sarcophagus of dust with the thermometer sticking out of it.
“No shit,” I said, turning away from the look I knew Ellie was giving me. “Hey, Julie. You moonlighting in Edina?”
“I am while their M.E. is in Fiji. Pleasure seeing you here in the hamlet, Nils.” Her eyes didn’t mean it though, and I ditched my plans for romance in the cold room.
Julie Swenson pulled the thermometer from the dust-covered body. She tapped her fingers on an iPad then estimated the time of death between 11:30 P.M. and midnight.
A uniform led a neighbor into the bedroom. “This is Beth Lindquist from around the corner on Bruce Place,” said the officer. “She can ID the body.”
“I think I can,” said Beth, small and timid. She sniffled. “But I don’t know…” She had shoulder-length dark hair, a slender frame, slightly stooped shoulders, and a neck that appeared too thin to hold up her head. I guessed Beth was in her midforties, but she seemed ten years older than that, as if she’d modeled her image on a woman in her mother’s generation. No one, I guessed, had ever called Beth Lindquist a firecracker, but plenty of people had called her ma’am. “I don’t know if I can handle seeing—” Beth stopped and, for the first time since entering the room, noticed the dust-covered body on the bed. She shuddered.
Ellie stepped toward her. “Mrs. Lindquist, I’m Detective Ellegaard. I know this is difficult. But we’d greatly appreciate your help, so please, take as much time as you need.”
Beth Lindquist nodded, shut her eyes and inhaled slowly. She held the breath then exhaled—a move she learned in yoga, no doubt. Then she nodded. Goddamn Ellegaard. His power on women was like a microwave’s on a marshmallow—too bad he’d married young.
Beth moved forward in small steps like she was a hundred and two. Julie Swenson brushed away some dust and exposed the gray face of a woman with eyes closed. Wisps of blond hair looked especially yellow next to her colorless skin. Beth Lindquist screamed, dropped to her bony knees, and whimpered, “Poor Maggie. Poor, poor soul.”
Ellegaard and I left the master suite and explored the rest of the house. The gray fluff was everywhere. On the carpet. On the furniture. Other than that, the place felt more like a five-star hotel than a home—each room looked like it had been professionally staged, even the basement rec room.
An hour later, after compiling information from officers at the crime scene, Ellegaard, Chief McGinnis, and I hopped into a black unmarked Lincoln SUV. We drove six blocks into Minneapolis to grab coffee at Dunn Brothers and review what we knew so far. Dunn Brothers roasts their own beans in a contraption that looks like half a locomotive and occupies a decent chunk of the seating area. It’s loud and hot, especially when you’re layered up for a winter day, but the androgynous barista with green and blue hair keeps me up-to-date on bands that matter, so I’ve made it my spot.
Ellegaard read from his notes. “Maggie Somerville, age forty-one, lived in and owned the home. The maid let herself in with a key and discovered the body. We found no evidence of forced entry anywhere in the house. No windows had been left open or unlocked. Same for doors.”
I said, “Then the killer is still in the house or has a key.”
“He’s not in the house and let’s not jump to conclusions,” said McGinnis, brushing something only he could see from that damn red scarf.
Ellegaard continued. “Maggie had been divorced a year and a half and had two kids, ages eleven and nine. They spent the night at their father’s in Morningside. A uniformed officer visited Robert Somerville and informed him that his ex-wife had been murdered. The officer reported that Robert burst into tears when hearing the news.”
“That’s hard to fake,” I said. “Although selective amnesia’s not uncommon.”
“For a traumatic event, maybe,” said McGinnis. “I doubt this murder was traumatic—it was well planned.”
Red scarf made a good point.
Ellegaard said, “According to her friend, Beth Lindquist, who identified the body, Maggie had been seeing a man for the past six months. Andrew Fine.”
“I kind of know an Andrew Fine,” I said. “Where does he live?”
Ellegaard searched his notes. “Indian Hills.”
“I bet that’s him. I grew up with his younger brother, Stevey.”
“In Edina?” said McGinnis.
“How do you know Andrew Fine grew up in Edina?”
McGinnis looked annoyed by my question. “Andrew Fine lives on a five-acre estate with its own bass pond. It’s my job, as Chief of Police, to know who’s who and where they came from.”
“Well, good job then. And to answer your question, no, I didn’t grow up in Edina. I grew up in New Hope, a misnamed town if there ever was one.”
“Then how do you know Andrew Fine?”
“I said I know his brother, Stevey. I only kind of know Andrew. And I kind of know him because all Minneapolis Jews know each other. It’s mandatory. We have to take a test and everything.”
McGinnis looked disappointed. I wondered what he’d expected to hear. Or perhaps it was a general disappointment in the private detective he’d just hired.
Ellegaard said, “Two uniforms found Fine at home at his Indian Hills estate. When they told him Maggie had been murdered, he didn’t seem too upset. Just said it was a shame.”
“Well, we have a clear place to start,” I said.
McGinnis dumped a packet of sugar into his latte and stirred without taking his eyes off me. “And where is that?”
“Whoever killed Maggie had a key or at least left the house with one. No dead bolts had been left unlocked. And he—and I am going to assume it’s a he for now—knew Maggie well, if not intimately.”
“Why do you think that?” said Ellegaard.
“For starters, there was no sign of a struggle.”
“We won’t know that until we dust her off,” said McGinnis.
“Everything was in place. The body was on top of a perfectly made bed. My guess is Maggie was comfortable with the killer until it was too late.” McGinnis stirred his latte as if he was trying to dissolve rocks. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the killer rode straight into the garage in the victim’s car.”
Ellegaard sipped his chamomile tea. He didn’t drink caffeine either. I don’t know how he survived. Or why, for that matter. “You think Maggie Somerville drove her own killer into her garage?”
“It’s possible. If she went out last night. We should have CSU examine her car for hair and fibers.” McGinnis looked dubious. “And Chief McGinnis is right—the killer planned the murder well in advance. That dust has to be from a vacuum cleaner bag—nothing else looks like that. But not just one bag. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. It takes time to amass that many vacuum cleaner bags full of dirt.”
“Unless he went fishing in a hotel garbage bin,” said Ellegaard.
“That’s true,” I said. “But Dumpster diving outside a hotel is risky. I tailed an unfaithful husband, who frequented hotels, and I had to dig through the Dumpsters to prove what he’d been up to. I avoided video surveillance and hotel dicks who’d been looking for an excuse to kick someone’s ass. And even if all that dirt did come from vacuum cleaner bags in a hotel Dumpster—that takes some planning, too.”
“And what about getting all that dust in the house,” said Ellegaard. “How did the killer do that without anyone noticing?”
“I don’t know, but it all points to one thing: the killer was close to Maggie Somerville. So close he gave her a peaceful death—he even shut her eyes. He knew he’d be a suspect. That’s why he filled the crime scene with the DNA and fibers of thousands of people. We could test that house for decades and never isolate forensic evidence that pointed to one suspect. And if the killer is worried about DNA, then chances are his DNA is in the system.”
McGinnis stopped stirring. I had his attention.
“And then there’s the weather.”
“What about it?” said Ellegaard.
“The killer waited for a weather event like last night. The ground was frozen solid. He left on that. No footprints. No indentations. No anything. And he took extra precaution by leaving at the beginning of a heavily forecasted snowstorm. No way in hell can we track his exit out of that house.”
McGinnis and Ellegaard looked at each other and communicated telepathically the way cops can after working together for fifteen years. The androgynous barista swooped by and dropped a napkin on the table in front of me. It said EXMAGICIAN.
“Here’s how we’re going to do this,” said McGinnis. “Ellegaard, you question Robert Somerville and Andrew Fine. See if either of them have a key to Maggie Somerville’s house. And that neighbor lady…”
Ellegaard consulted his notes. “Beth Lindquist.”
“Find out everything she knows about Maggie Somerville’s personal life. How much she played. Where she hung out. If her child-custody schedule was strict so we can check local spots on her nights without the kids. Follow up with every name you hear about. Family. Friends. And I want a list of all Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, and whatever other connections she has. Get the names and run ’em. See if anything turns up. If Mr. Shapiro here is right, we got to pay attention to anyone whose DNA is in the system.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ellegaard, just like he did at the academy when some leatherneck told him how to jump over a fence or put on his armor. He was damn close to making lieutenant and he wouldn’t stop playing the good boy, and I kind of loved him for it.
“And you might as well hit some hotels,” said McGinnis. “See if anyone’s noticed full vacuum cleaner bags disappearing from garbage bins or wherever the hell else they’d disappear from. And bring a sample of our dust. See if it looks more like the dust of one hotel over another. Might as well start learning what we can about the stuff.”
That sounded like an awful lot of work I wouldn’t be doing. But I knew Ellegaard was getting the easy road.
“Nils,” said McGinnis, “you’re going to attack from another angle. When it comes to our persons of interest, blend in. Observe. Tail. Make acquaintances if you can with the ex, Robert Somerville, and the boyfriend, Andrew Fine, and any other names we get from Detective Ellegaard. Edina PD will apply the heat and draw focus. You slip into their lives when their guard is down. And use those boyish looks of yours to meet Maggie Somerville’s single friends.” He looked like he was about to take back that idea. He thought a moment, peering down at his stirred-to-death latte then looked back up. “Are you married?”
Ellegaard’s cell rang. He answered it.
“I was married,” I said.
“I know,” he said, as if we had something in common. “Marriage. It’s complicated, isn’t it?”
“My marriage was simple. My divorce is complicated.”
He considered asking more but thought better of it. “None of this is S.O.P.,” he said, “but we’re going to have a frightened little suburb on our hands and I want to put this to bed as soon as possible. If anyone asks who you are, tell the truth. You’re a private detective investigating the murder of Maggie Somerville. Just don’t reveal who you’re working for.”
“I never do.”
“And another thing, Shapiro. Don’t get too wrapped up in your theories an hour after we left the crime scene. Keep your ears and eyes open. Follow the trail that presents itself.”
I nodded as Ellegaard hung up the phone. “That was CSU,” he said. “Maggie Somerville’s car is full of gray dust.”
Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Goldman