Chapter XII: Prodigal Son

Conners stretched back and placed both his hands behind his head, smiling to himself as he placed both of his feet upon the table in the center of his office. So far, he hadn't taken a case since Bill's funeral… mostly because he hadn't picked a business name yet and so had no practice that he could legally set up. However, the universe had apparently decided it wasn't content with allowing him to keep out of work, and so had brought him a case from the police that he would be permitted to consult on. To top it off, it was Jessica Lawrence who brought it to him.

"It's a fairly straight-forward case," she said, as Conners flipped through the crime scene photos on his e-mail. "But that means it's something they won't mind you consulting on, and it could be good publicity for you, not to mention the help with future cases."

"Indeed," said Conners, smiling softly. "One murder is a fluke. Two cases is indisputable proof I can do your jobs better than you."

She rolled her eyes at him.

"It's not like you've got anything else on your plate right now."

"What makes you think that? I've got a few different cases crying for my attention right now."

"If that were true, I wouldn't have found you here."

He smiled softly at her words. She was completely right, of course. If he'd had a case he would've been cracking down on it, not lounging around his office.

"It's nice to know you're already this focused on me, Lawrence. Honestly all this flirting is incredibly flattering."

"You wish," she said, standing up. "You want the case?"

"I'll take a look. Never know, maybe it'll turn to actually be interesting."

He walked with her to a wine-red muscle car parked outside his building. It surprised him for a moment when Lawrence climbed inside the car and motioned to him to get in. As he did, he glanced around at the vehicle, still a little taken aback.

"What?" she asked, seeing his curiosity. "You didn't think all cops drove patrol cars, did you?"

"In all fairness," he said, softly. "All the cops I've met prior to you did drive them."

She shook her head softly.

"Officers usually drive a patrol car. Detectives usually don't, but this is actually my personal ride."

"Really?" he asked, growing more and more surprised by the moment. "I didn't think you'd drive something like this."

"What did you expect?" she asked, smirking. "A bright pink mini-cooper? My cousin was a car mechanic and I learned early on how to handle things like changing a tire or the oil. From there on, I'd just hang out at his shop. I started to pick up some things and would help him out from time to time. I actually found it to be great stress relief when school was getting to me. Fifteen years of that and I managed to get my own ideal car and start fixing it up."

"I guess I just never thought of you as a car person," he said, honestly.

"You're smart, Conners, but you don't know everything about me."

He nodded in agreement as she started up the car and Conners nearly jumped in his seat as the engine exploded into life. Lawrence began to move through the traffic tapping on the steering wheel in time with a song that was playing on the radio. Lawrence was clearly a skilled driver too, often flying through yellow lights at the last moment and moving through lanes with a lot of skill and practice. Still, he thought he would've preferred a cabbie, or even walking. At least they were less inclined to risk his life.

Lawrence drove on through the city and out into the suburbs, and finally out into the much wider country. The drive wasn't nearly so long as the time Bill had taken him to the cult grounds, but he still had to slap the sleepiness out of himself. As he took a look around the scene, Conners reached into his pocket, unearthing a jolly rancher, which he promptly unwrapped and popped into his mouth.

The crime scene was a farm with a gravel driveway that was spread over ten acres or so. He saw several wire fences containing goats, chickens, a few cows, and even a lama–who was currently perched atop three bales of hay and spitting at a patrolman who was stood too close. The sight made him chuckle softly. To the west was a decent-sized garden with several rows that all lay empty in the January cold. Finally there were two buildings: a two-story house with a small balcony in the back, and a large barn that was open at the end of the driveway.

"Victim's this way," said Lawrence indicating the barn.

Conners nodded and followed her towards the barn and as they reached the police tape, the officer who had been spit at by the lama stopped him.

"It's alright, he's with me," said Lawrence. "Conners, this is officer Miller. Jake, this is Michael Conners."

"Detective Michael J. Conners," he corrected her.

"Yes, Private Detective Michael J. Conners. He's an ass, but he's been useful before."

Officer Miller chuckled and moved back so Conners could enter.

"You always find the strange ones Lawrence. Can't say I've heard of this guy before."

"It's alright," said Conners, smiling as if they were friends. "I've never heard of you either, and I doubt I'll remember you once this is wrapped up."

The cop frowned and looked as if he were about to retort, the corners of his mouth twitching. However, he seemed to think better of it and mere motioned for them to move forward to examine the scene.

As they entered, Conners felt his excitement burst forth like a dam that had just burst, and a flood of adrenaline hit him as he looked around the slightly dusty barn. The first thing he saw that annoyed him was the abundance of footprints on the floor that disturbed the gathering dust. While there was clearly a path that was often traveled, many other sections of the barn looked as if they'd gone untouched for at least several months or even a few years. However, given the parade of police-issue shoes that had galloped all around the floor, it would take far too long examine the floor for any useful evidence, if any even would've existed.

Hanging from the rafters was a thick rope that had been cut, with the body that had presumably hung from it laying on the ground beneath it. The man appeared to be in his fifties, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair that lay flat on his head. His clothing was all quite sturdy and old, baring the unmistakable marks of having been repaired by and inexperienced hand. Several tears and buttons had been sewn in place with a different colored thread, and while they were sturdy, they did stick out a touch from the originals.

His hands were thick and callused, baring the small scars that were common for those that did a lot of work with their hands. The truly interesting thing was the man's neck. At first glance there was simply a deeply-lined mark just below the jawline, as was fairly common with hangings. However, within the mark was a much thinner line that could only have been made with a much finer line, about as thin as picture wire. Such marks were not uncommon in cases of strangulation, though the fact that it had been done so high up on the neck suggested either a man at least six-and-half feet tall, or a premeditated act that was intended to be covered up ahead of time. Conners mentally filed away the information for later.

The man's fingers and teeth held the unmistakable stain of a smoker and from the slight aroma that hung around him, Conners would've bet he smoked weed too. However, he couldn't smell any alcohol on the man, and his boots didn't bare the wear and tear of drunken stumbling.

The rest of the barn held little of interest. Aside from that standard tools, a few bales of hay, and feed; there was a stand-up ladder that lay on its side, presumably used to help hang the man, and an aging television in the corner that had a system so old Conners couldn't place it.

"His name's Jacob Carter. Age 52," said the officer who had greeted them. "Corner says he probably died around two in the morning. Obvious cause of death is suicide by hanging."

"Nope," said Conners, leaning against the doorframe of the barn.

"What do you mean?" asked Lawrence, looked at him curiously.

"Oh," Conners said, feigning nervousness. "I wouldn't want to embarrass officer whatshisface here. Plus I always get so bashful in front of others."

"Just tell us."

"You're no fun anymore," he sighed, pointing to the body. "There's a second thinner mark around his neck where the noose dug into the skin. He was strangled before he was hung up. More likely the killer only knocked him out. It takes a little while to fully strangle someone to death. However, what the strangulation didn't do, the hanging did."

Lawrence crouched down and examined the man's neck, standing up a moment later and nodding to confirm what he'd seen.

"Good eye, Conners," she said. "Carter had two boys: Luke and Lars. Lars was the one who called us in. He said that he thought Luke might've been involved in his dad's death. We'll have to bring them both in and talk to them."

Conners coughed unconvincingly.

"What?" Lawrence asked, and he could hear her roll her eyes.

"Only that we could do worse than to search the house."

"They've already searched it, there wasn't anything suspicious."

"No," said Conners. "They didn't find anything. Which is why I am suggesting you and I search the house."

"If I say yes will you shut up and help?"

"And here I thought I was being helpful."

She sighed and waved to the officer who had waved them in as they make the thirty foot or so trek to the back door of the house. The wood that made up by the back porch was fairly old, and more than once it creaked worryingly as they walked upon it. However, once they entered the old house, it was fairly different. The floors were all hardwood, but swept and cleaned fairly well. The kitchen was very small, even by the standards of most Chicago apartments, with just enough room for a stove, sink, refrigerator, and a set of cabinets. There was a singular bedroom on the ground floor, and a quick look inside revealed that one of the son's likely had the room, as several posters and magazines coated the place, particularly of several women… the most modest of which were wearing swimsuits.

Conners searched the bedroom carefully, but turned nothing interesting up. There were several clothes: all of which were sturdy and roughly washed. There was an old stereo with a few dozen cassette tapes in a tower next to it that boasted several rock bands, primarily from the eighties. There was also a drum set in the corner that was poorly cared for and had several clothes and papers strewn atop it. In the closet was some type of reptile terrarium, though no reptile lay within it. Then there was the full-size mattress that lay upon the box springs on the floor, with a messy slew of bedsheets in a pile atop it.

Eventually, Conners satisfied himself with the room and glanced over at Lawrence, but she hadn't found anything that interested her either.

They head into the main room which had a small wooden fireplace and a stairway to the bedroom upstairs, which Conners immediately began to walk up while Lawrence began to speak to the two men sat upon the couch. The master bedroom–such as it was–had room only for a queen-size bed, a chest of drawers, a small television set atop the dresser, and an old guitar upon a stand in the corner.

Curious, Conners went to the guitar and examined it. A brief look over the instrument revealed why the thing had caught his eye. The topmost string of the guitar was strung incorrectly. It didn't take long for him to see that what should've been a low E string was actually an A string. While the incorrect string had been tightened somewhat, it wasn't even close to being in tune with the rest of the instrument, which was very nearly in perfect tune.

Lawrence came up as he was examining the instrument.

"Something interesting?" she asked.

"I'm fairly certain I've found what was strangled our farmer," Conners said, and explained the issue with the guitar to Lawrence.

She nodded in agreement with his findings, only then mentioning off-handed, "Do you play guitar? Only I wouldn't have thought to look for that."

Conners was slightly thrown by this question, because he didn't play guitar. He'd never so much as touched one… or had he? He certainly didn't remember having touched one, but what if he had used to play one? The information was in his brain somewhere.

"Maybe," he said, softly, more to himself than Lawrence.

He put the instrument back where he'd picked it up and shook himself slightly to get his brain back on task. Still, in the back of his mind, the question lingered… how did he know the guitar? Staggering slightly, he reeled back with his left hand and slapped himself across the face, jolting himself out of his musings into the present moment forcefully.

"Whoa!" Lawrence exclaimed, taking a step back from him. "What was that about?"

"Sorry," he said, slightly embarrassed. "I sort of forgot you where there. It's a habit from my time with Bill. When my mind gets stuck on something, I sort of have to jump-start it a little."

"Right," she said, hesitantly. "Just… don't do that in front of any suspects, alright?"

"Fair enough. Let's go talk to the sons. The guitar string being the murder weapons shoots them right to the top of suspect list I think."

"I agree."

They head down the staircase together, Conners in front and sat across from the two brothers. Had it not been for their matching eyes, Conners might've thought they weren't related at all. Lars wore the same rough clothing as the dead farmer. His hands and arms were scared and sported callouses, and his face and hands were tanned by the sun. Lucas, by contrast was thin, wearing a decent suit and had thin glasses, with clean, office-worker hands.

Lawrence waved to Luke, who followed her somewhere where he could be questioned separately. Privately, Conners thought this was a mistake. It was a long-standing practice of police not to question suspects in the same room to keep emotions in check and more easily pit one against the other. However, when it came to family there was too much emotional discourse not to use in a questioning, especially when the brothers were clearly as different as Lars and Luke. Still, he knew he had to watch himself if he wanted to keep working on cases with her, and he did, so he kept silent about it.

"Hello," Conners said to the larger son. "I am Detective Michael J. Conners. I hope you don't mind answering a few questions for me."

"Lars Carter," said the boy, shaking Conners hand quickly before nodding that he should sit.

"So Lars," said Conners, throwing his feet up over the armrest of the chair as he sat down. "Why do you think your brother killed your father?"

"Luke was always the black sheep of us all," said Lars, looking Conners in the eye. "Father and me always tended the land saw to the animals together. Luke weren't never one for all that. Father knew I was always to follow in his footsteps, not Luke. I think Luke hated father for it."

Father, Conners noted. Always 'father,' not 'pop' or 'dad.' Uncommon for a farmhand.

"And what was so different about Luke?" asked Conners, noting Lars' steady tone and hands. "Why wasn't he ever interested in the farm work?"

"He were always a pussy," said Lars, and the right corner of his lips twitched upward for a moment.

Contempt, Conners noted mentally.

"He'd carry three bales of hay into the barn and need a breather. When he got a letter to go to the city for a college, he signed up that same night. He barely ever came home after that. Maybe twice a year or so. Last time he stops by, he and father get into it. Father says he's an ungrateful bastard and all that. I think that set him off. Next day, father turns up dead. Can't see as how it was really suicide."

Conners nodded and stood up, stretching slightly.

"Well Lars," he said. "I'm quite in agreement that your father did not commit suicide. We found a second mark beneath the rope, typical of strangulation."

Lars flashed his contempt again for a split-second, and Conners turned to follow after Lawrence.

"I'll need to question your brother," he said, not looking at Lars. "But I'm confident we'll have this wrapped up very quickly."

"Thanks detective."

Conners smiled softly to himself and went to the bedroom where Lawrence was questioning Luke. The door was closed and a police officer was standing outside the door. Conners raised his hand to knock on the door and while the officer appeared to be about to stop him, he seemed to think better of it and Conners rapped his knuckles on the door sharply.

A moment later, the door opened about a foot and Lawrence's head poked out from the room. For a moment, she stood there, merely staring at him. When Conners didn't speak she sighed.

"What do you need?" she asked, impatiently.

"You know, I had a dream like this once," Conners said, rubbing his facial hair softly.

"Asshole," she hissed. "I'm kind of in the middle of something here."

"Luke is innocent," Conners said. "Lars is brimming with contempt all over the place, uses distancing language and his right hand at least has a fresh cut on the inside of it. I felt it as I shook his hand."

"You're sure?"

"Like nine-five percent sure," Conners said. "I mean, I could talk to Luke to be completely sure, but then my whole deduction becomes way less impressive. Although I'm going to make one last really cool deduction if you'll indulge me."

"I've been indulging you since we met," Lawrence sighed. "Why would I stop now?"

"Ask Luke how his dad felt about his efforts in college and what the farmer had to sell to send him. If the answer is 'nothing' I'll rescind my accusation."

Lawrence stayed put for a moment, then went back into the bedroom, reappearing a few seconds later with a defeated expression.

"He says the dad nearly went bankrupt and had to sell his crops and livestock at a much lower price to pay what parts of his tuition the scholarship didn't cover."

"I know," said Conners, smiling. "But I do so love it when I'm proven right."

"Alright," she said, letting out a long sigh again. "Miller, go read Lars his rights and cuff him. I'll talk to Luke. Conners… insufferable attitude aside… good job on this."

Conners winked, popping a jolly rancher into his mouth.

"Thanks for the party invite. I'm always down to be your plus one."