THE CONFESSION THAT COULD KILL HIM…
Jonah Borden is not your typical Lutheran pastor, and he takes pains to make sure everyone knows it. He’s a tough-guy, thinks-he’s-funny, rock-music-playing, gourmet-cooking, painfully-moderate-drinking, hard-boiled man of the cloth. He is even available for a bit of romance, under the right circumstances.
Doug Norstad, a member of Jonah Borden’s church, is arrested for a vigilante killing. Norstad shares his true alibi with Borden, under the privileged status of religious confession. Knowing now that the man is innocent, Borden must prove it somehow, without divulging his secret. Along the way he uncovers a twisted series of murders and cover ups. Before it is all over, Borden himself has been bribed, beaten, shot, and arrested for murder. Even worse, he may be falling in love.
Set in the midst of the striking beauty of Minnesota’s Lake Superior Coastline, Superior Justice will draw you in with its unique and quirky characters, and keep you guessing until the end.
Daniel Spooner died on a Tuesday in early May, just as the lunch hour was ending in Grand Lake. He died in custody, just in front of the courthouse. He died because his heart was broken into three pieces by a single .30-caliber bullet. Later, some called it a crime. Many more called it justice. For me, once Spooner’s killer told me his real alibi, it became a royal pain in the neck.
Two hours after Spooner was shot, I was sitting in my office, drinking smooth afternoon decaf and parsing Greek verbs. Bach played quietly in the background. I vaguely remembered that listening to classical music could actually make you more intelligent. That was good, because Greek verbs make me feel stupid. Even so, I was actually eager to study. Back in the day, I could never have imagined that feeling.
The phone beeped and the speaker crackled. It was my part-time secretary, Julie.
“Chief Jensen on line one.”
I grabbed the handset. “Julie, why do people say ‘back in the day?’”
“I prefer the expression, ‘time was,’ myself.”
“Time was, back in the day, you could use ’em both at once.”
“I hope Chief Jensen enjoys talking with you as much I have,” said Julie, and broke the connection.
I punched the button for line one. “Borden,” I said.
“Jonah, it’s Dan Jensen.” Jensen was the chief of the Grand Lake police.
“Hi, Dan, what can I do for you?” I sipped some more coffee. Surely God gave us coffee to show that he wants us to enjoy life.
“Well, somebody popped Daniel Spooner.”
“Spooner? The guy who confessed to killing Missy Norstad?”
“Wow,” I said. It’s a useful word when you’re waiting for people to give you more information, like why they really want to talk to you. There was a pause. I could tell it wasn’t comfortable for Jensen.
“Well, we don’t really know anything right now, of course, but our main suspect is Doug Norstad.”
“Missy’s dad,” I said. I waited while silence filled up the line.
“Come on, Jonah. You’re supposed to be the perceptive and intuitive guy here.” There was a plaintive quality to his voice.
“Okay,” I said. “I intuit and perceive that you need to pick up Norstad for questioning, and you want me to go along to smooth things over.” I sipped some coffee. “You Minnesota Norwegians really have a hard time just asking for something, don’t you?”
“I’m a Swede,” said Dan stiffly. Then, after a moment, he added “Isn’t ‘intuit’ some kind of Eskimo?”
“Sorry about that. I’m sure you’re right about the Swede, of course. I think you’re wrong about the Eskimo though.”
“So, you gonna help me with Norstad? I mean, you are the police chaplain.”
“When do you want to do it?”
“Can I pick you up in fifteen minutes?”
“Sure,” I said. “Give me time for one more cup of coffee.”
Jensen pulled into the church parking lot in a white unmarked SUV. I was a bit amused by the notion of an unmarked Grand Lake police car. Everyone in town knew it on sight, which, if Bach had sufficiently boosted my intelligence to understand correctly, destroyed the purpose of an unmarked vehicle.
I climbed in next to the chief. Dan Jensen was in his late thirties. He was tall and a bit heavy, but with a big frame that hid the extra weight well. His hair was blond, thin and short, peppered with almost indistinguishable spots of light gray. His wide Scandinavian face was clean shaved, and his most prominent feature was a pair of piercingly blue eyes. The impression of intelligence and acuity given by those eyes was backed up in reality by a fine brain.
“Hey, Dan,” I said, and shook his hand, then climbed into the front seat next to him.
“Jonah,” he returned.
“Whaddya got?” I asked.
He looked at me sideways.
“Hey, come on, like you said, I’m the police chaplain. That makes me part of the force. What do you think I’ll do, taint the evidence?”
“Department,” said Jensen.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It makes you part of the police department. We don’t really have a ‘force.’ We have a department.”
“I’d rather be part of a ‘force’—it sounds so much more exciting than ‘department.’”
“May the force be with you then,” said Dan.
“You gonna tell me about this or not?” I said.
He sighed. “Okay. But don’t think that means I won’t throw your rear-end in the slammer if you share evidence in an on-going investigation.”
“Hey, do what you think is best,” I said. “Part of my job is keeping sensitive information confidential.”
“I have a feeling we’ll want you in on this one,” said Dan after a minute. “Here’s what we know: They were moving Spooner to the courthouse over the lunch hour. He was out in the open, and someone shot him, probably with a thirty-thirty.” Dan picked up a can of Coke from a cup holder and sipped it.
“You get ballistics back already?”
Jensen nodded his approval of the question. “Not yet. We found a weapon. May be the murder weapon.”
“That ought to make it a bit easier.”
“Not necessarily. We think this guy was smart. There were a few people around—you know, the press, some rubberneckers, and of course, the cops who moved him. Most everyone we questioned thought the shot came from across the street, maybe up high.”
“Remind me, what’s across the street?”
“Tommy’s café is in the bottom floor. Top two floors are empty. We went over there, and up on the roof, behind the false front, we found the rifle and scope.”
“Shoot,” I said, “all you have to do is track it down.”
“Shoot?” asked Jensen incredulously.
“Hey whaddya expect?” I said, “I’m a pastor, after all. You think I’ll start cussing a blue streak?”
“I am deeply disappointed in you,” said Jensen.
“Get used to it,” I said. “It’s what I do best, disappoint people. Heck, even my mother wanted me to be cop, not a pastor.”
“Heck?” said Jensen.
“All right, we just covered my linguistic habits. Now, you got the gun. What’s the problem?”
“Jonah, it’s a thirty-thirty, an ordinary deer gun. You know how many un-registered deer rifles there are in this state?”
“Neither does anyone else. You don’t have to register them. They’re bought and sold through papers, garage sales, you name it.”
“Shoot,” I said.
Jensen glared at me. I returned his look with wide-eyed innocence. A man must have his fun somehow.
“That’s not all,” he said finally. “He filed off the serial number—probably wouldnta had to, cause we don’t track ’em, like I said. He also ran a rat-tail file down the barrel. If he did that after he fired, ballistics won’t match.”
“What about the brass?” I asked.
Jensen looked at me sharply. I shrugged “My dad was a cop,” I said.
“It was only one shot. He didn’t leave the brass. Probably at the bottom of Lake Superior right now.”
“Anything else at the scene?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. It gets better. He left his clothes.”
I envisioned a naked vigilante superhero, racing like a white wad of blubber through Grand Lake. “Anyone see a streaker about that time?”
“Very funny. These still had the Goodwill store smell on them. He probably wore them over the top of his other clothes to prevent powder residue.”
“Smart guy,” I commented. “I’m assuming then, no prints on the gun, or the area?”
“Nothing,” said Jensen.
I digested this for a minute. “Now, Dan, not to be contentious, but why Norstad?”
“Come on, Jonah, Spooner raped and murdered his daughter.”
“So, motive. Didn’t Missy have a boyfriend? How about him?”
“I’m so glad we have you to help us. Maybe we should promote you to chaplain-detective.”
“Sorry. You checked, of course.”
“In school,” said Jensen.
“So Doug had a motive, I’ll give him that. But if Johann Sebastian has adequately restored my memory, I recall that Spooner molested at least three other minors. What about their families?”
“Those were all out of state. We’re checking, of course, reverend-detective, but Norstad is closer.”
“Hey, Doug is a part of my church. I’m helping you, but I wanna help him too, if I can. I have a right to ask why you’re after him.”
“We’re not after him. But he had motive.” He took another sip of Coke, and turned north on Highway 61. “What about his guns? You ever hunt with him?”
I sighed. “Okay, so Doug Norstad uses a thirty-thirty. So do half the men in Superior County, and about a third of the women. So do I, for that matter.”
“Doesn’t matter that much, I guess,” said Jensen. “Whoever this was he’s smart. He will have bought the gun from the paper or at a flea market or something. It won’t be his regular gun. But it will be one he’s comfortable with.” He slurped his soda again. I looked out the window at the lake to our right.
“It was a pretty fair shot,” said Jensen. “Norstad any good?”
“I don’t really like this, Chief.”
“Welcome to police work, pastor,” said Jensen. “Was he a good shot?”
“Dan, everyone up here hunts. You probably coulda made that shot. Heck, I probably coulda made it.”
“And so could Norstad. So we got motive, we got method, and you and I are going to find out if we got opportunity.”
“Motive, method and opportunity are all pretty circumstantial,” I said.
“So far, it looks like that’s all we’ll have. Doesn’t look like we’ll have any physical evidence we can use.” He sipped his Coke and glanced at me. “Look, Jonah, Spooner was already a convicted rapist and pedophile. He confessed to killing Melissa Norstad. If Doug Norstad gets the right jury, he may even get off altogether.”
“You really want that, Dan? A killer gets off scot-free?”
“I don’t know what I want on this one. The whole thing stinks. Spooner deserved to die. If Norstad pulled the trigger, he did us all a favor.” Jensen grimaced and readjusted his Grand Lake PD ball cap.
“But you don’t like anyone taking the law into their own hands,” I said.
“No. I believe in due process.”
“Yeah. It’s a lousy system, but it’s better than the alternatives.”
The car swooped up and down the hills. I glanced at the rocky, pine-clad hill crests to the left, and then turned to gaze again at the great sweep of Lake Superior to our right. I never tired of looking at that timeless horizon and the broad carpet of perfect blue beneath it. But I did turn left to look longingly upstream as we crossed the bubbling, clear water of the Blue River. I could almost feel my rod shudder as I imagined a big steelhead trout stripping line from my reel.
I turned back to Jensen. “Dan, I’ve spent a lot time with the Norstads over the past six months. First, Melissa disappears. Then, they find the body. Finally, Spooner’s confession. That family has been through hell, and they don’t need this right now.”
“I know it,” said Jensen. “That’s why I brought you along.”
We were silent for a few more minutes.
“Did your mom really want you to be a cop?” he asked.
“Heck yeah,” I said.