A Hard Ticket Home (Mac McKenzie Mysteries)

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9780843956818: A Hard Ticket Home (Mac McKenzie Mysteries)
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When a friend is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant from her long-lost older sister, former cop Rushmore McKenzie embarks on an investigation that takes him to Minneapolis in search of the missing woman. Reprint.

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About the Author:

David Housewright has worked as a journalist covering both crime and sports (sometimes simultaneously), an advertising copywriter and creative director, and a writing instructor. He won the Edgar Award for his first novel, Penance, in 1996, and the Minnesota Book Award for his second, Practice to Deceive, in 1998. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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  1Stacy Carlson was nine years old and she was dying. Her parents told me so while I watched her playing happily on the front lawn of their home, and the news hit me so hard I nearly lost my breath.“Does she know?”“We haven’t told her,” Molly Carlson said. “But, yes, I think she knows. We took her to enough doctors, even took her to the Mayo Clinic.”“What did the doctors tell you?”“Leukemia,” Richard Carlson answered from across the living room, answered as if he wished to spare his wife the pain of speaking the word. “They say her body is producing too many white blood corpuscles. They say her spleen and lymph glands are enlarged. They say she needs a bone marrow transplant or she’ll die. Only, neither of us is compatible and finding a donor outside the family, that’s a twenty thousand to one shot. Leastwise, that’s what they say.”Carlson was a big man, big in every direction, 275 at least and not all of it was fat. His eyes were a pale green and what little hair he had was gray. All the other times I had seen him he had worn the faded jeans and T-shirts of a working contractor—a guy who not only designed and sold lake homes, but who also dug foundations and hammered nails. Today he was wearing his Sunday best: black boots, designer jeans, a checkered shirt with imitation pearl snaps, and a belt with a garish buckle declaring his fidelity to Winston Cup racing. He lived in a three-story house that he had built himself in a neighborhood where all the other houses were close to the ground. Somehow he had managed to build it without uprooting the dozen magnificent oak, maple, and birch trees that surrounded it. It was because of the house and trees that I had hired Carlson to build my own lake home.“You want me to find a donor for Stacy?” I asked.“We want you to find our other daughter, Jamie,” Carlson said.“Jamie,” repeated Mrs. Carlson. Her voice was soft, almost a whisper. She was wearing a powder-blue dress printed with yellow flowers. She was eighteen inches shorter and 150 pounds lighter than her husband, but her hair was just as gray. She sat in a chair, her hands folded neatly in her lap, and watched Stacy through a large bay window. She never took her eyes off the girl.“We had—we have another daughter. Jamie. She left us seven years ago. Stacy was only two back then. We had her late. She was—a present. Anyway, Jamie left us and never came back. We tried to find her, even thought about hiring a private investigator. Then we figured, well, that’s the way Jamie wanted it. Only now ...”“Jamie might be a compatible donor,” I volunteered. “Jamie might be able to save Stacy’s life.”Molly nodded. “Family members are best. And Jamie has a rare blood type, B-negative, same as Stacy. The doctors say, the first thing you need to be a compatible donor is the same blood type.”A missing person. Missing persons made me nervous. Most missing persons are missing because they want to be and rarely does anything good come of finding them. Still, Stacy Carlson was nine years old and she was dying. Her hair was long and blond and tied in a ponytail. Her eyes were vibrant green, her smile was bright enough to melt snow. I couldn’t possibly imagine the pain and anguish Molly and Richard Carlson must have suffered as they watched their daughter, knowing she was literally dying before their eyes. When I was in the sixth grade I lost my mother to a brain tumor literally overnight. My father died just five months ago, yet his passing too was fairly quick, although we had both seen it coming. This was something else. Losing a child, slowly ...“Tell me about Jamie,” I said.“You’ll try to find her?” Molly asked, her face bright with hope.“I can’t promise anything, but yes, ma’am, I’ll try.”Molly squeezed my hands like it was a done deal. “Thank you,” she said.“You understand, right? Richard told you I’m not a private investigator? I don’t have a license. I don’t have legal standing.”“He said you used to be a policeman.”“Yes. For eleven years in St. Paul.”“He said you help people.”“Sometimes. When I can.”“I appreciate this, Mac,” Carlson said. In all my previous dealings with Carlson, he had spoken loudly. I figured he always spoke that way, big men sometimes do. Yet in his own home his voice was small. It was what my mother had called “an indoor voice.”“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” he added. “Only, I’m not asking for charity. I know you usually do these things for free, but I’m a man who likes to pay his own way. Just ask anybody in Grand Rapids. Money’s not a problem.”“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Money’s not a problem with me, either. I have plenty.”“I pay my own way,” Carlson insisted.“We’ll talk about it later.”“I know you’ve been thinking about extending the deck at your place, maybe screening off part of it.”“We’ll talk about it later.”Carlson nodded.“You spell your name S-O-N, right?” I said.“What?”“Your name. S-O-N or S-E-N?”“S-E-N is Danish. I’m Swedish,” Carlson answered with a certain pride.I made a note of it on a yellow legal pad I stole from my girlfriend’s office. “How do you spell your daughter’s name?”“J-A-M-I-E.”“Middle name?”“Anne,” he said, then added, “with an E.”I wrote it down. “Jamie Anne Carlson. Pretty name.”“Thank you.” Molly smiled slightly and looked down at her hands, still folded in her lap.Carlson sat in an old, stuffed chair that had carried too much weight for too long and stared at a spot on the wall that no one else could see, leaving his wife to answer my questions.“It was the year Jamie graduated from high school,” Molly said. “Right after the Fourth—the weekend after the Fourth—she just took the clothes that would fit into one suitcase and left. We thought she would come back when her money ran out. She didn’t. When she didn’t come back by September, we went to the police. They said they couldn’t help us. They said since she wasn’t a minor and since there wasn’t any indication of foul play—that’s the phrase they used, foul play—well, they said they couldn’t do anything.”“We thought of looking for her ourselves,” Carlson said. “Hiring a private detective. But I guess we didn’t see any point in it. Besides, we always thought she’d call. We always thought she’d come home.”“Why did she leave?” I asked. “Was she unhappy?”“She didn’t seem unhappy,” Molly said.“Did you have a fight, a serious disagreement of some kind?”“No. I don’t remember a fight. Truth is—truth is, Mr. McKenzie, we don’t know why she left. One day she was living here perfectly fine, talking about going to the community college in the fall. Next day she was gone.”“Boyfriend?”“No!” Molly was adamant. It was the first time she had raised her voice. “My Jamie wasn’t like that.”“Something made her leave,” I reminded her.“I guess she just wanted to see some of the world.”“The world.” Carlson spat the word like it was an obscenity.Molly stared at him for a moment before continuing.“She didn’t like it here. She said there was nothing for someone her age to do.”Carlson shook his head in disbelief.“Plenty to do,” he insisted. “It’s not like Grand Rapids is some hick town.”“Yes, it is,” said Molly. “We like it, but ... Mr. McKenzie, Jamie was young and she was pretty, she was smart and she was bored. She wanted to leave here and she knew we disapproved, knew we would try to talk her out of it ... .”“Maybe so, but she didn’t have to just up and go like that. Without saying good-bye. Without even leaving a note. That ain’t right.”And she hasn’t tried to contact you again, not once in seven years, I thought but didn’t say.“No, it isn’t right,” I agreed.“Where do you think Jamie went?” I asked.“The Cities,” Molly said. “Where else?”In Minnesota? There was no place else, I agreed silently.“Do you know Jamie’s social security number? It’ll help me find her.”“I don’t know,” Molly said. “I know she had one—the government gave her one when she was born. It’s probably around here somewhere.”I took a white card from my wallet. I had five hundred printed about a year ago with just my name and phone number. I think I had given out twenty so far.“If you can find her social security number, call me.”“R. McKenzie,” Molly read slowly. “What does the R stand for?”Usually when people ask that question, I simply answer, “My first name.” For some reason I told Molly the truth.“Rushmore.”“Rushmore? I never heard that before.”“My parents took a vacation to the Badlands of South Dakota. They told me I was conceived in a motor lodge near Mount Rushmore, so that’s what they named me. I’m sure they thought it was a good idea at the time. Anyway, it could have been worse. I could have been Deadwood.”Both Carlson and Molly thought that was pretty funny. ’Course, they had never had to raise their hands when teachers called “Rushmore” on the first day of school.“Driver’s license?” I asked.“Jamie had one. I don’t know the number or anything.”I made note of that on the legal pad, too. The Department of Motor Vehicles would be one of my first stops.“You said she was talking about going to a two-year college. What major?”“She wanted to be a paralegal and work in a law office.”I made a note of that, then said, “I could use a photograph of her.”“I’ll get it.” Molly rose from the chair and went into an adjacent dining room.Carlson watched her leave, then said, “You might wanna try talking to Merci Cole,” his voice dropping several decibels.“Who?”If I had trouble hearing Carlson, his wife did not. A moment later, she was standing under the arch that separated the living room from the dining room.“Merci Cole? Why do you say that?”“Who’s Merci Cole?” I asked, writing her name on the yellow pad.“She was a friend of Jamie’s,” Molly answered, still watching her husband.“Friend,” Carlson muttered under his breath. It was another word he didn’t seem to like. “I didn’t say they were friends.”“Maybe not a friend.” Molly turned away from her husband. “But they knew each other. Merci ran with a wild crowd—not Jamie’s type of people at all. I don’t think Merci received much supervision at home. She didn’t have a father, she was born illegitimate. Her momma worked all the time at the paper mill. She died—when did she die?”“Two years, three months ago,” Carlson said. Molly seemed surprised that he knew the answer.“They became friendly when they were both up for queen at that festival they had at the end of the school year,” Molly added. “Spring Fling. They both lost. People said it was because they were both tall with blond hair and green eyes. They split the vote and the girl with dark hair won. The girls spent a great deal of time together during the contest. They seemed to have this, I don’t know, rapport.” She turned toward her husband. “But I don’t know why you think Merci had anything to do with Jamie leaving.”“I didn’t say she did.”“Well, then ...”“Well, then—they both left at nearly the same time.”“So?”“So, I don’t know, maybe they ran into each other.”“Merci was a thief,” Molly said.This time Carlson didn’t argue. Instead, he found his spot on the wall and stared some more. Molly sighed in resignation and went back to watching her daughter through the window.“Tell me about it,” I said. “Anybody.”“Merci was a waitress at the diner near the mill,” Carlson said. “Leastwise she was until she and the Steele boy, Richie, ran off with money they stole from the till. Didn’t take the deputies long to catch ’em, neither. They didn’t even get as far as Duluth. Oh, they swore they were innocent, said they didn’t steal anything, said they were running away to get married. But the money was sure enough missing and they were sure enough leaving in a hurry. After she was arrested, Merci used her one phone call to contact Jamie. Jamie used her savings to bail Merci out.”“Why would she do that?” I asked. “You said they weren’t close.”“I don’t know,” Molly answered.“What happened after Merci was arrested?”“The Steele boy, his father is big over at the paper mill,” Carlson continued. “So you know the cops went easy on him once the old man replaced the money that was stolen. Merci they told to get out of town. They said if she wasn’t gone within forty-eight hours they were going to arrest her. So off she goes.”I nodded. It was a typical tactic of a small town police force. Whenever the rurals have a problem that isn’t worth their time and aggravation—or when the fix is in—they just tell the suspect to grab the next stage out of Dodge and don’t come back.“That was toward the end of June,” Carlson said. “Week or so before Jamie left.”“One thing has nothin’ to do with the other,” Molly insisted.“I didn’t say it did,” Carlson said.I jotted the facts down on the yellow pad along with a question: Was 18-year-old Jamie’s sense of justice so offended by the treatment of her friend that she would abandon her family and home?Molly shook her head at her husband, then gave me the photograph, a two-by-three high school graduation shot. It showed a young woman posed against a dark, marbled background. She was beautiful. Bright green eyes, hair like a palomino pony, skin—you knew not so much as a pimple ever dared blemish that skin. I looked from the photo to the Carlsons to the little girl playing quietly outside and then back to the photo. How did Richard and Molly Carlson ever produce a child who looked like this? Twice?“I’ll be in touch.”Molly squeezed my hand. Again she said, “Thank you.”I shook hands with Carlson and went to my Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in their driveway. Stacy waved as I drove away. I waved back.
Ten minutes later I parked in front of the Judy Garland Museum, Judy singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” on a weather-battered speaker, the ticket taker singing along. Kirsten Sager Whitson was leaning against the building, waiting for me.“Sorry I took so long.” I gestured toward the museum. “How was it?”“Okay,” she answered without enthusiasm. I reached for her hand. She pulled it away and filled it with her purse, making it seem like a casual gesture instead of the deliberate snub I knew it to be. She moved quickly to the passenger door of my SUV, opening it before I had the chance to do it for her.A visit to the museum—Judy Garland had been born Francis Gumm in Grand Rapids; her family later moved to Duluth—had been Kirsten’s idea, an alternative to meeting one of my “cases.” Kirsten didn’t approve of my occasional forays into detective work and said so. She thought they were common, even used that word once. “Common.” I reminded her that I was eleven years a police officer. “How common is that?” Only that was before Teachwell and, in Kirsten’s world view, didn’t count.Teachwell’s company and insurance carrier had agreed to pay a finder’s fee of fifty cents on ...

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