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|The Prey Series|
The wind whistled down the frozen run of Shasta Creek, between the blacker-than-black walls of pine. The thin naked swamp alders and slight new birches bent before it. Needle-point ice crystals rode it, like sandpaper grit, carving arabesque whorls in the drifting snow.
The Iceman followed the creek down to the lake, navigating as much by feel, and by time, as by sight. At six minutes on the luminous dial of his dive watch, he began to look for the dead pine. Twenty seconds later, its weather-bleached trunk appeared in the snowmobile headlights, hung there for a moment, then slipped away like a hitchhiking ghost.
Now. Six hundred yards, compass bearing 270 degrees...
Time time time...
He almost hit the lake's west bank as it came down from the house, white-on-white, rising in front of him. He swerved, slowed, followed it. The artificial blue of a yard-light burrowed through the falling snow, and he eased the sled up onto the bank and cut the engine.
The Iceman pushed his faceplate up, sat and listened. He heard nothing but the pat of the snow off his suit and helmet, the ticking of the cooling engine, his own breathing, and the wind. He was wearing a full-face woolen ski mask with holes for his eyes and mouth. The snow caught on the soft wool, and after a moment, melt-water began trickling from the eye holes down his face beside his nose. He was dressed for the weather and the ride: the snowmobile suit was windproof and insulated, the legs fitting into his heavyweight pac boots, the wrists overlapped by expedition ski mitts. A heavyweight polypropylene turtleneck overlapped the face mask, and the collar of the suit snapped directly to the black helmet. He was virtually encapsulated in nylon and wool, and still the cold pried at the cracks and thinner spots, took away his breath...
A set of bear-paw snowshoes was strapped behind the seat, on the sled's carry-rack, along with a corn-knife wrapped in newspaper. He swiveled to a sidesaddle position, keeping his weight on the machine, fumbled a miniature milled-aluminum flashlight out of his parka pocket, and pointed it at the carry-rack. His mittens were too thick to work with, and he pulled them off, letting them dangle from his cuff-clips.
The wind was an ice pick, hacking at his exposed fingers as he pulled the snowshoes free. He dropped them onto the snow, stepped into the quick-release bindings, snapped the bindings and thrust his hands back into the mittens. They'd been exposed for less than a minute, and already felt stiff.
With his mittens on, he stood up, testing the snow. The latest fall was soft, but the bitter cold had solidified the layers beneath it. He sank no more than two or three inches. Good.
The chimes sounded in his mind again: Time.
He paused, calmed himself. The whole intricate clockwork of his existence was in danger. He'd killed once already, but that had been almost accidental. He'd had to improvise a suicide scene around the corpse.
And it had almost worked.
Had worked well enough to eliminate any chance that they might catch him. That experience changed him, gave him a taste of blood, a taste of real power.
The Iceman tipped his head back like a dog testing for scent. The house was a hundred feet farther along the lake shore. He couldn't see it; except for the distant glow of the yard-light, he was in a bowl of darkness. He pulled the corn-knife free of the carry-rack and started up the slope. The corn-knife was a simple instrument, but perfect for an ambush on a snowy night, if the chance should present itself.
In a storm, and especially at night, Claudia LaCourt's house seemed to slide out to the edge of the world. As the snow grew heavier, the lights across the frozen lake slowly faded and then, one by one, blinked out.
At the same time, the forest pressed in: the pine and spruce tiptoed closer, to bend over the house with an unbearable weight. The arbor vitae would paw at the windows, the bare birch branches would scratch at the eaves. All together they sounded like the maundering approach of something wicked, a beast with claws and fangs that rattled on the clapboard siding, searching for a grip. A beast that might pry the house apart.
When she was home alone, or alone with Lisa, Claudia played her old Tammy Wynette albums or listened to the television game shows. But the storm would always come through, with a thump or a screech. Or a line would go down somewhere: the lights would stutter and go out, the music would stop, everybody would hold their breath... and the storm would be there, clawing. Candlelight made it worse; hurricane lanterns didn't help much. For the kinds of wickedness created by the imagination during a nighttime blizzard, only modern science could fight: satellite-dish television, radio, compact disks, telephones, computer games. Power drills. Things that made machine noise. Things that banished the dark-age claws that pried at the house.
Claudia stood at the sink, rinsing coffee cups and stacking them to dry. Her image was reflected in the window over the sink, as in a mirror, but darker in the eyes, darker in the lines that framed her face, like an old daguerreotype.
From outside, she'd be a madonna in a painting, the only sign of light and life in the blizzard; but she never thought of herself as a madonna. She was a Mom with a still-shapely butt and hair done with a red rinse, an easy sense of humor, and a taste for beer. She could run a fishing boat and swing a softball bat and once or twice a winter, with Lisa staying over at a friend's, she and Frank would drive into Grant and check into the Holiday Inn. The rooms had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors next to the bed. She did like to sit on his hips and watch herself fuck, her head thrown back and her breasts a burning pink.
Claudia scraped the last of the burnt crust from the cupcake tin, rinsed it and dumped it in the dish rack to air-dry.
A branch scraped against the window. She looked out, but without the chill: she was humming to herself, something old, something high school. Tonight, at least, she and Lisa weren't alone. Frank was here. In fact, he was on the stairs, coming up, and he was humming to himself. They did that frequently, the same things at the same time.
"Um," he said, and she turned. His thinning black hair fell over his dark eyes. He looked like a cowboy, she thought, with his high cheekbones and the battered Tony Lamas poking out of his boot-cut jeans. He was wearing a tattered denim shop apron over a t-shirt and held a paintbrush slashed with blood-red lacquer.
"Um, what?" Claudia asked. This was the second marriage for each of them. They were both a little beat-up and they liked each other a lot.
"I just got started on the bookcase and I remembered that I let the woodstove go," he said ruefully. He waggled the paintbrush at her. "It's gonna take me another hour to finish the bookcase. I really can't stop with this lacquer."
"Goddammit, Frank..." She rolled her eyes.
"I'm sorry." Moderately penitent, in a charming cowboy way.
"How about the sheriff?" she asked. New topic. "Are you still gonna do it?"
"I'll see him tomorrow," he said. He turned his head, refusing to meet her eyes.
"It's nothing but trouble," she said. The argument had been simmering between them. She stepped away from the sink and bent backwards, to look down the hall toward Lisa's room. The girl's door was closed and the faint sounds of Guns 'N Roses leaked out around the edges. Claudia's voice grew sharper, worried. "If you'd just shut up... It's not your responsibility, Frank. You told Harper about it. Jim was his boy. If it's Jim."
"It's Jim, all right. And I told you how Harper acted." Frank's mouth closed in a narrow, tight line. Claudia recognized the expression, knew he wouldn't change his mind. Like what's-his-name, in High Noon. Gary Cooper.
"I wish I'd never seen the picture," she said, dropping her head. Her right hand went to her temple, rubbing it. Lisa had taken her back to her bedroom to give it to her. Didn't want Frank to see it.
"We can't just let it lay," Frank insisted. "I told Harper that."
"There'll be trouble, Frank," Claudia said.
"And the law can handle it. It don't have nothing to do with us," he said. After a moment he asked, "Will you get the stove?"
"Yeah, yeah. I'll get the stove."
Claudia looked out the window toward the mercury-vapor yard-light down by the garage. The snow seemed to come from a point just below the light, as though it were being poured through a funnel, straight into the window, straight into her eyes. Small pellets, like birdshot. "It looks like it might be slowing down."
"Wasn't supposed to snow at all," Frank said. "Assholes."
He meant television weathermen. The weathermen said it would be clear and cold in Ojibway County, and here they were, snowing to beat the band.
"Think about letting it go." She was pleading now. "Just think about it."
"I'll think about it," he said, and he turned and went back down to the basement.
He might think about it, but he wouldn't change his mind. Claudia, turning the picture in her mind, put on a sweatshirt and walked out to the mudroom. Frank had gotten his driving gloves wet and had draped them over the furnace vent; the room smelled of heat-dried wool. She pulled on her parka and a stocking cap, picked up her gloves, turned on the porch lights from the switch inside the mudroom and stepped out into the storm.
The picture. The people might have been anybody, from Los Angeles or Miami, where they did these things. They weren't.
They were from Lincoln County. The printing was bad and the paper was so cheap it almost crumbled in your fingers. But it was the Harper boy, all right. If you looked close, you could see the stub of the finger on the left hand, the one he'd caught in a log splitter; and you could see the loop earring. He was naked on a couch, his hips toward the camera, a dulled, wondering look on his face. He had the thickening face of an adolescent, but she could still see the shadow of a little boy she'd known, working at his father's gas station.
In the foreground of the picture was the torso of an adult man, hairy-chested, gross. The image came too quickly to Claudia's mind; she was familiar enough with men and their physical mechanisms, but there was something about this, something so bad... the boy's eyes, caught in a flash, were black points. When she'd looked closely, it seemed that somebody at the magazine had put the pupils in with a felt-tipped pen.
She shivered, not from the cold, and hurried down the snow-blown trench that led out to the garage and woodshed. There were four inches of new snow in the trench: she'd have to blow it out again in the morning.
The trench ended at the garage door. She shoved the door open, stepped inside, snapped on the lights and stomped her feet without thinking. The garage was insulated and heated with a woodstove. Four good chunks of oak would burn slowly enough, and throw off enough heat, to keep the inside temperature above the freezing point on even the coldest nights. Warm enough to start the cars, anyway. Out here, in the Chequamegon, getting the cars to start could be a matter of life and death.
The stove was still hot. Down to coals, but Frank had cleaned it out the night before she wouldn't have to do that, anyway. She looked back toward the door, at the woodpile. Enough for the night, but no more. She tossed a few wrist-thin splits of sap-heavy pine onto the fire, to get some flame going, then four solid chunks of oak. That would do it.
She looked at the space where the woodpile should have been, sighed, and decided she might as well bring in a few chunks now give it a chance to thaw before morning. She went back outside, pulling the door shut, but not latched, walked along the side of the garage to the lean-to that covered the woodpile. She picked up four more chunks of oak, staggered back to the garage door, pushed the door open with her foot and dropped the oak next to the stove. One more trip, she thought; Frank could do his share tomorrow.
She went back out to the side of the garage, into the dark of the woodshed, picked up two more pieces of oak.
And felt the short hairs rise on the back of her neck.
Somebody was here with her...
Claudia dropped the oak splits, one gloved hand going to her throat. The woodlot was dark beyond the back of the garage. She could feel it, but not see it, could hear her heart pounding in her ears, and the snow hitting her hood with a delicate pit-put-pit. Nothing else: but still...
She backed away. Nothing but the snow and the blue circle of the yard-light. At the snow-blown trench, she paused, straining into the dark... and ran.
Up to the house, still with the sense of someone behind her, his hand almost there, reaching for her. She pawed at the door handle, smashed it down, hit the door with the heel of her hand, followed it into the heat and light of the mudroom.
Frank stood there, with a paint rag, eyes wide, startled. "What?"
"My God," she said. She pulled down the zip on the snowmobile suit, struggled with the hood snaps, her mouth working, nothing coming out until: "My God, Frank, there's somebody out there by the garage."
"What?" He frowned and went to the kitchen window, looked out. "Did you see him?"
"No, but I swear to God, Frank, there's somebody out there. I could feel him," she said, catching his arm, looking past him through the window. "Call nine-one-one."
"I don't see anything," Frank said. He went through the kitchen, bent over the sink, looked out toward the yard-light.
"You can't see anything," Claudia said. She flipped the lock on the door, then stepped into the kitchen. "Frank, I swear to God there's somebody..."
"All right," he said. He took her seriously: "I'll go look."
"Why don't we call...?"
"I'll take a look," he said again. Then: "They wouldn't send a cop out here, in this storm. Not if you didn't even see anybody."
He was right. Claudia followed him into the mudroom, heard herself babbling: "I loaded up the stove, then I went around to the side to bring some wood in for tomorrow morning..." and she thought, I'm not like this.
Frank sat on the mudroom bench and pulled off the Tony Lamas, stepped into his snowmobile suit, sat down, pulled on his pacs, laced them, then zipped the suit and picked up his gloves. "Back in a minute," he said. He sounded exasperated; but he knew her. She wasn't one to panic.
"I'll come," she blurted.
"Nah, you wait," he said.
"Frank: take the gun." She hurried over to the service island, jerked open the drawer. Way at the back, a fully loaded Smith and Wesson.357 Magnum snuggled behind a divider. "Maybe it's Harper. Maybe..."
"Jesus," he said, shaking his head. He grinned at her ruefully, and he was out the door, pulling on his ski gloves.
On the stoop, the snow pecked his face, mean little hard pellets. He half-turned against it. As long as he wasn't looking directly into the wind, the snowmobile suit kept him comfortable. But he couldn't see much, or hear anything but the sound of the wind whistling over the nylon hood. With his head averted, he walked down the steps onto the snow-blown path to the garage.
The Iceman was there, next to the woodpile, his shoulder just at the corner of the shed, his back to the wind. He'd been in the woodlot when Claudia came out. He'd tried to get to her, but he hadn't dared use the flashlight and in the dark, had gotten tangled in brush and had to stop. When she ran back inside, he'd almost turned away, headed back to the snowmobile. The opportunity was lost, he thought. Somehow, she'd been warned. And time was pressing. He looked at his watch. He had a half hour, no more.
But after a moment of thought, he'd methodically untangled his snowshoes and continued toward the dark hulk of the garage. He had to catch the LaCourts together, in the kitchen, where he could take care of both of them at once. They'd have guns, so he'd have to be quick.
The Iceman carried a Colt Anaconda under his arm. He'd stolen it from a man who never knew it was stolen. He'd done that a lot, in the old days. Got a lot of good stuff. The Anaconda was a treasure, every curve and notch with a function.
The corn-knife, on the other hand, was almost elegant in its crudeness. Homemade, with a rough wooden handle, it looked something like a machete, but with a thinner blade and a squared end. In the old days it had been used to chop cornstalks. The blade had been covered with a patina of surface rust, but he'd put the edge on a shop grinder and the new edge was silvery and fine and sharp enough to shave with.
The corn-knife might kill, but that wasn't why he'd brought it. The corn-knife was simply horrifying. If he needed a threat to get the picture, if he needed to hurt the girl bad but not kill her, then the corn-knife was exactly right.
Standing atop the snow, the Iceman felt like a giant, his head reaching nearly to the eaves of the garage as he worked his way down its length. He saw Frank come to the window and peer out, and he stopped. Had Claudia seen him after all? Impossible. She'd turned away, and she'd run, but he could hardly see her, even with the garage and yard-lights on her. He'd been back in the dark, wearing black. Impossible.
The Iceman was sweating from the short climb up the bank, and the struggle with the brush. He snapped the releases and pulled the bindings loose, but stayed balanced on the shoes. He'd have to be careful climbing down into the trench. He glanced at his watch. Time time time...
He unzipped his parka, pulled his glove and reached inside to touch the wooden stock of the Anaconda. Ready. He was turning to step into the trench when the back door opened and a shaft of light played out across the porch. The Iceman rocked back, dragging the snowshoes with his boots, into the darkness beside the woodshed, his back to the corrugated metal garage wall.
Frank was a dark silhouette in the light of the open door, then a three-dimensional figure shuffling down the snow trench out toward the garage. He had a flashlight in one hand, and played it off the side of the garage. The Iceman eased back as the light crossed the side wall of the garage, gave Frank a few seconds to get farther down the path, then peeked around the corner. Frank had gotten to the garage door, opened it. The Iceman shuffled up to the corner of the garage, the gun in his left hand, the corn-knife in his right, the cold burning his bare hands.
Frank snapped on the garage lights, stepped inside. A moment later, the lights went out again. Frank stepped out, pulled it tight behind him, rattled the knob. Stepped up the path. Shone the flashlight across the yard at the propane tank.
Took another step.
The Iceman was there. The corn-knife whipped down, chunked. Frank saw it coming, just soon enough to flinch, not soon enough to avoid it. The knife chocked through Frank's parka and into his skull, the shock jolted through the Iceman's arm. A familiar shock, as though he'd chopped the blade into a fence post.
The blade popped free as Frank pitched over. He was dead as he fell, but his body made a sound like a stepped-on snake, a tight exhalation, a ccccuuuhhhhh, and blood ran into the snow.
For just a second then, the wind stopped, as though nature were holding her breath. The snow seemed to pause with the wind, and something flicked across the edge of the woods, at the corner of the Iceman's vision. Something out there... he was touched by an uneasiness. He watched, but there was no further movement, and the wind and snow were back as quickly as they'd gone.
The Iceman stepped down into the trench, started toward the house. Claudia's face appeared in the window, floating out there in the storm. He stopped, sure he'd been seen: but she pressed her face closer to the window, peering out, and he realized that he was still invisible. After a moment, her face moved back away from the window. The Iceman started for the house again, climbed the porch as quietly as he could, turned the knob, pushed the door open.
"Frank?" Claudia was there, in the doorway to the kitchen. Her hand popped out of her sleeve and the Iceman saw the flash of chrome, knew the flash, reacted, brought up the big.44 Mag.
"Frank?" Claudia screamed. The.357 hung in her hand, by her side, unready, unthought-of, a worthless icon of self-defense. Then the V of the back sight and the i of the front sight crossed the plane of her head and the.44 bucked in the Iceman's hand. He'd spent hours in the quarry doing this, swinging on targets, and he knew he had her, felt the accuracy in his bones, one with the target.
The slug hit Claudia in the forehead and the world stopped. No more Lisa, no more Frank, no more nights in the Holiday Inn with the mirrors, no memories, no regrets. Nothing. She didn't fly back, like in the movies. She wasn't hammered down. She simply dropped, her mouth open. The Iceman, bringing the Colt back to bear, felt a thin sense of disappointment. The big gun should batter them down, blow them up; the big gun was a Universal Force.
From the back room, then, in the silence after the shot, a young girl's voice, not yet afraid: "Mom? Mom? What was that?"
The Iceman grabbed Claudia's parka hood, dragged her into the kitchen and dropped her. She lay on the floor like a puppet with the strings cut. Her eyes were open, sightless. He ignored her. He was focused now on the back room. He needed the picture. He hefted the corn-knife and started back.
The girl's voice again. A little fear this time: "Mom?"
Lucas Davenport climbed down from his truck. The light on the LaCourt house was brilliant. In the absolutely clear air, every crack, every hole, every splinter of glass was as sharp as a hair under a microscope. The smell of death the smell of pork roast-slipped up to him, and he turned his face toward it, looking for it, like a stone-age hunter.
The house looked oddly like a skull, with its glassless windows gaping out at the snowscape. The front door was splintered by fire axes, while the side door, hanging from the house by a single hinge, was twisted and blackened by the fire. Vinyl siding had melted, charred, burned. Half of the roof was gone, leaving the center of the ruin open to the sky. Pink fiberglass insulation was everywhere, sticking out of the house, blowing across the snow, hung up in the bare birch branches like obscene fleshy hair. Firehose ice, mixed with soot and ash, flowed around and out of the house like a miniature glacier.
On the land side of the house, three banks of portable stadium-style lights, run off an ancient gas-powered Army generator, poured a hundred million candlepower of blue-white light onto the scene. The generator underlined the shouting of the firemen and the thrumming of the fire truck pumps with a ferocious jackhammer pounding.
All of it stank.
Of gasoline and burning insulation, of water-soaked plaster and barbecued bodies, diesel fumes. The fire had moved fast, burned fiercely, and had been smothered in a hurry. The dead had been charred rather than cremated.
Twenty men swarmed over the house. Some were firemen, others were cops; three or four were civilians. The snow had eased, at least temporarily, but the wind was like a razor, slashing at exposed skin.
Lucas was tall, dark-complected, with startling blue eyes set deep under a strong brow. His hair was dark, but touched with gray, and a bit long; a sheath of it fell over his forehead, and he pushed it out of his eyes as he stood looking at the house.
Quivering, almost like an expensive pointer.
His face should have been square, and normally was, when he was ten pounds heavier. A square face fit with the rest of him, with his heavy shoulders and hands. But now he was gaunt, the skin stretched around his cheekbones: the face of a boxer in hard training. Every day for a month he'd put on either skis or snowshoes, and had run up through the hills around his North Woods cabin. In the afternoon he worked in the woodlot, splitting oak with a mail and wedge.
Lucas stepped toward the burnt house as though hypnotized. He remembered another house, in Minneapolis, just south of the loop, a frozen night in February. A gang leader lived in the downstairs apartment; a rival group of 'bangers decided to take him out. The top floor was occupied by a woman Shirleen something who ran an illegal overnight child-care center for neighborhood mothers. There were six children sleeping upstairs when the Molotov cocktails came through the windows downstairs. Shirleen dropped all six screaming kids out the window, breaking legs on two of them, ribs on two more, and an arm on a neighbor who was trying to stop their fall. The woman was too big to jump herself and burned to death trying to get down the single stairway. Same deal: the house like a skull, the firehose ice, the smell of roast pork...
Lucas unconsciously shook his head and smiled: he'd had good lines into the crack community and gave homicide the 'bangers' names. They were locked in Stillwater, and would be for another eight years. In two days he'd done a number on them they still didn't believe.
Now this. He stepped back to the open door of his truck, leaned inside, took a black cashmere watch cap off the passenger seat and pulled it over his head. He wore a blue parka over jeans and a cable-knit sweater, pac boots, and expedition-weight polypropylene long underwear. A deputy walked around the Chevy Suburban that had pulled into the yard just ahead of Davenport's Ford. Henry Lacey wore the standard tan sheriff's department parka and insulated pants.
"Shelly's over here," Lacey said, jerking a thumb toward the house. "C'mon I'll introduce you... what're you looking at, the house? What's funny?"
"Thought you were smiling," Lacey said, looking vaguely disturbed.
"Nah... just cold," Lucas said, groping for an excuse. Goddamn, he loved this.
"Yeah." Lucas followed, pulling on his thick ski gloves, still focused on the house. The place might have been snatched from a frozen suburb of hell. He felt at home.
Sheldon Carr stood on a slab of ice in the driveway, behind the volunteer tanker and pumper trucks. He wore the same sheriff's cold-weather gear as Lacey, but black instead of khaki, with the sheriff's gold star instead of the silver deputy's badge. A frozen black hose snaked past his feet down to the lake, where the firefighters had augered through three feet of ice to get at the lake water. Now they were using a torch to free the hose, and the blue flame flickered at the edge of Carr's vision.
Carr was stunned. He'd done what he could, and then he stopped functioning: he simply stood in the driveway and watched the firemen work. And he froze. His cold-weather gear wasn't enough for this weather. His legs were stiff and his feet numb, but he couldn't go into the garage, couldn't tear himself away. He stood like a dark snowman, slightly fat, unmoving, hands away from his side, staring up at the house.
"Piece a..." A fireman slipped and fell, cursing. Carr had to turn his whole body to look at him. The fireman was smeared with ash and half-covered with ice. When they'd tried to spray the house, the wind had whipped the water back on them as sleet. Some of the firemen looked like small mobile icebergs, the powerful lights glistening off them as they worked across the yard. This one was on his back, looking up at Carr, his mustache white with frost from his own breath, face red from the wind and exertion. Carr moved to help him, hand out, but the fireman waved him away. "I'd just pull you down," he said. He clambered awkwardly to his feet, struggling with a frozen firehose. He was trying to load it into a pickup truck and it fought back like an anaconda on speed. "Piece a shit..."
Carr turned back to the house. A rubber-encased fireman was helping the doctor climb through the shattered front door. Carr watched as they began to pick their way toward the back bedroom. The little girl was there, so burnt that God only knew what had happened to her. What had happened to her parents was clear enough. Claudia's face had been partly protected by a fireproof curtain that had fallen over her. A fat bullet hole stared out of her forehead like a blank third eye. And Frank...
"Heard anything from Madison?" Carr called to a deputy in a Jeep. The deputy had the engine turning over, heater on high, window down just far enough to communicate.
"Nope. It's still snowin' down there. I guess they're waitin' it out."
"Waitin' it out? Waitin' it out?" Sheldon Carr was suddenly shouting, eyes wild. "Call the fuckers back and tell them to get their asses up here. They've heard of four-by-fours, haven't they? Call them back."
"Right now," the deputy said, shocked. He'd never heard Sheldon Carr say anything stronger than gol-darn.
Carr turned away, his jaw working, the cold forgotten. Waiting it out? Henry Lacey was walking toward him, carefully flatfooted on the treacherous slab of ice that had run down into the yard. He was trailed by a man in a parka. Lacey came up, nodded, said, "This is Davenport."
Carr nodded: "Th-th-thanks f-f-for coming." He suddenly couldn't get the words out.
Lacey took his elbow. "Have you been out here all the time?"
Carr nodded numbly and Lacey tugged him toward the garage, said, "My God, Shelly, you'll kill yourself."
"I'm okay," Carr ground out. He pulled his arm free, turned to Lucas. "When I heard you were up here from the Cities, I figured you'd know more about this kind of thing than I do. Thought it was worth a try. Hope you can help us."
"Henry tells me it's a mess," Lucas said.
He grinned as he said it, a slightly nasty smile, Carr thought. Davenport had a chipped tooth, never capped, the kind of thing you might have gotten in a fight, and a scar bisected one eyebrow. "It's a..." Carr shook his head, groping for a word. "It's a gol-darn tragedy," he said finally.
Lucas glanced at him: he'd never heard a cop call a crime a tragedy. He'd never heard a cop say gol-darn. He couldn't see much of Carr's face, but the sheriff was a large man with an ample belly. In the black snowmobile suit, he looked like the Michelin tire man in mourning.
"Where's LES?" Lucas asked. The Division of Law Enforcement Services did mobile crime-scene work on major crimes.
"They're having trouble getting out of Madison," Carr said grimly. He waved at the sky. "The storm..."
"Don't they have four-by-fours? It's all highway."
"We're finding that out right now," Carr snapped. He apologized: "Sorry, that's a tender subject. They shoulda been halfway here by now." He looked back at the house, as if helpless to resist it: "Lord help us."
"Three dead?" Lucas asked.
"Three dead," Carr said. "Shot, chopped with some kind of ax or something, and the other one... shoot, there's no way to tell. Just a kid."
"Still in the house?"
"Come on," Carr said grimly. He suddenly began to shake uncontrollably, then, with an effort, relaxed. "We got tarps on 'em. And there's something else... heck, let's look at the bodies, then we'll get to that."
"Shelly, are you okay?" Lacey asked again.
"Yeah, yeah... I'll show Davenport Lucas? I'll show Lucas around, then I'll get inside. Gosh, I can't believe this cold."
Frank LaCourt lay faceup on a sidewalk that led from the house to the garage. Carr had one of the deputies lift the plastic tarp that covered the body and Lucas squatted beside it.
"Jesus," he said. He looked up at Carr, who'd turned away. "What happened to his face?"
"Dog, maybe," Carr said, looking sideways down at the mutilated face. "Coyotes... I don't know."
"Could have been a wolf," Lacey said from behind him. "We've had some reports, I think there are a few moving down."
"Messed him up," Lucas said.
Carr looked out at the forest that pressed around the house: "It's the winter," he said. "Everything's starving out there. We're feedin' some deer, but most of them are gonna die. Shoot, most of them are already dead. There're coyotes hanging around the dumpsters in town, at the pizza place."
Lucas pulled off a glove, fumbled a hand-flash from his parka pocket and shone it on what was left of the man's face. LaCourt was an Indian, maybe forty-five. His hair was stiff with frozen blood. An animal had torn the flesh off much of the left side of his face. The left eye was gone and the nose was chewed away.
"He got it from the side, half-split his head in two, right through the hood," Carr said. Lucas nodded, touched the hood with his gloved finger, looking at the cut fabric. "The doc said it was some kind of knife or cleaver," Carr said.
Lucas stood up. "Henry said snowshoes..."
"Right there," Lacey said, pointing.
Lucas turned the flashlight into the shadows along the shed. Broad indentations were still visible in the snow. The indentations were half drifted-in.
"Where do they go?" Lucas asked, staring into the dark trees.
"They come up from the lake, through the woods, and they go back down," Carr said, pointing at an angle through the jumble of forest. "There's a snowmobile trail down there, machines coming and going all the time. Frank had a couple sleds himself, so it could have been him that made the tracks. We don't know."
"The tracks come right up to where he was chopped," Lucas said.
"Yeah but we don't know if he walked down to the lake on snowshoes to look at something, and then came back up and was killed, or if the killer came in and went out."
"If they were his snowshoes, where are they now?"
"There's a set of shoes in the mudroom, but they were so messed up by the firehoses that we don't know if they'd just been used or what... no way to tell," Lacey said. "They're the right kind, though. Bearpaws. No tails."
"But we still got a problem," Carr said, looking reluctantly down at the body. "Look at the snow on him. The firemen threw the tarps over them as soon as they got here, but it looks to me like there's maybe a half-inch of snow on him."
Carr stared down at the body for a moment, then dropped his voice. "Listen, I'm freezing and there's some strange stuff to talk about. A problem. So do you want to see the other bodies now? Woman was shot in the forehead, the girl's burned. Or we could just go talk."
"A quick look," Lucas said.
"Come on, then," Carr said.
Lacey broke away. "I gotta check that commo gear, Shelly."
Lucas and Carr trudged across a layer of discolored ice to the house, squeezed past the front door. Inside, sheetrock walls and ceiling panels had buckled and folded, falling across burned furniture and carpet. Dishes, pots and pans, glassware littered the floor, along with a set of ceramic collector's dolls. Picture frames were everywhere. Some were burned, but every step or two, a clear, happy face would look up at him, wide-eyed, well-lit. Better days.
Two deputies were working through the house with cameras: one with a video camera, the power wire running down his collar under his parka, the other with a 35mm Nikon.
"My hands are freezing," the video man stuttered.
"Go on down to the garage," Carr said. "Don't get yourself hurt."
"There're a couple gallon jugs of hot coffee and some paper cups in my truck. The white Explorer in the parking lot," Lucas said. "Doors are open."
"Save some for me," Carr said. And to Lucas: "Where'd you get the coffee?"
"Stopped at Dow's Corners on the way over and emptied out their coffeemaker. I did six years on patrol and I must've froze my ass off at a hundred of these things."
"Huh. Dow's." Carr squinted, digging in a mental file. "That's still Phil and Vickie?"
"Yeah. You know them?"
"I know everybody on Highway 77, from Hayward in Sawyer County to Highway 13 in Ashland County," Carr said matter-of-factly. "This way."
He led the way down a charred hall past a bathroom door to a small bedroom. The lakeside wall was gone and blowing snow sifted through the debris. The body was under a burnt-out bedframe, the coil springs resting on the girl's chest. One of the portable lights was just outside the window, and cast flat, prying light on the scorched wreckage, but left the girl's face in almost total darkness: but not quite total. Lucas could see her improbably white teeth smiling from the char.
Lucas squatted, snapped on the flash, grunted, turned it off and stood up again.
"Made me sick," said Carr. "I was with the highway patrol before I got elected sheriff. I saw some car wrecks you wouldn't believe. They didn't make me sick. This did."
"Accidents are different," Lucas agreed. He looked around the room. "Where's the other one?"
"Kitchen," Carr said. They started down the hall again. "Why'd he burn the place?" Carr asked, his voice pitching up. "It couldn't have been to hide the killings. He left Frank's body right out in the yard. If he'd just taken off, it might have been a day or two before anybody came out. Was he bragging about it?"
"Maybe he was thinking about fingerprints. What'd LaCourt do?"
"He worked down at the res, at the Eagle Casino. He was a security guy."
"Lots of money in casinos," Lucas said. "Was he in trouble down there?"
"I don't know," Carr said simply.
"How about his wife?"
"She was a teacher's aide."
"Any marital problems or ex-husbands wandering around?" Lucas asked.
"Well, they were both married before. I'll check Frank's ex-wife, but I know her, Jean Hansen, and she wouldn't hurt a fly. And Claudia's ex is Jimmy Wilson and Jimmy moved out to Phoenix three or four winters back, but he wouldn't do this, either. I'll check on him, but neither one of the divorces was really nasty. The people just didn't like each other anymore. You know?"
"Yeah, I know. How about the girl? Did she have any boyfriends?"
"I'll check that too," Carr said. "But, uh, I don't know. I'll check. She's pretty young."
"There's been a rash of teenagers killing their families and friends."
"Yeah. A generation of weasels."
"And teenage boys sometimes mix up fire and sex. You get a lot of teenage firebugs. If there was somebody hot for the girl, it'd be something to look into."
"You could talk to Bob Jones at the junior high. He's the principal and he does the counseling, so he might know."
"Um," Lucas said. His sleeve touched a burnt wall, and he brushed it off.
"I'm hoping you'll stay around a while," Carr blurted. Before Lucas could answer, he said, "Come on down this way."
They picked their way toward the other end of the house, through the living room, into the kitchen by the back door. Two heavily wrapped figures were crouched over a third body.
The larger of the two people stood up, nodded at Carr. He wore a Russian-style hat with the flaps pulled down and a deputy sheriff's patch on the front. The other, with the bag, was using a metal tool to turn the victim's head.
"Can't believe this weather," the deputy said. "I'm so fuck-uh, cold I can't believe it."
"Fucking cold is what you meant to say," said the figure still crouched over the body. Her voice was low and uninflected, almost scholarly. "I really don't mind the word, especially when it's so fucking cold."
"It wasn't you he was worried about, it was me," Carr said bluntly. "You see anything down there, Weather, or are you just fooling around?"
The woman looked up and said, "We've got to get them down to Milwaukee and let the pros take a look. No amateur nights at the funeral home."
"Can you see anything at all?" Lucas asked.
The doctor looked down at the woman under her hands. "Claudia was shot, obviously, and with a pretty powerful weapon. Could be a rifle. The whole back of her head was shattered and a good part of her brain is gone. The slug went straight through. We'll have to hope the crime lab people can recover it. It's not inside her."
"How about the girl?" Lucas asked.
"Yeah. It'll take an autopsy to tell you anything definitive. There are signs of charred cloth around her waist and between her legs, so I'd say she was wearing underpants and maybe even, um, what do you call those fleece pants, like uh..."
"Sweat pants," Carr said.
"Yes, like that. And Claudia was definitely dressed, jeans and long underwear."
"You're saying they weren't raped," Lucas said.
The woman stood and nodded. Her parka hood was tight around her face, and nothing showed but an oval patch of skin around her eyes and nose. "I can't say it for sure, but just up front, it doesn't look like it. But what happened to her might have been worse."
"Worse?" Carr recoiled.
"Yes." She stooped, opened her bag, and the deputy said, "I don't want to look at this." She stood up again and handed Carr a Ziploc bag. Inside was something that looked like a dried apricot that had been left on a charcoal grill. Carr peered at it and then gave it to Lucas.
"What is it?" Carr asked the woman.
"Ear," she and Lucas said simultaneously. Lucas handed it back to her.
"Ear? You can't be serious," Carr said.
"Taken off before or after she was killed?" Lucas asked, his voice mild, interested. Carr looked at him in horror.
"You'd need a lab to tell you that," Weather said in her professional voice, matching Lucas. "There are some crusts that look like blood. I'm not sure, but I'd say she was alive when it was taken off."
The sheriff looked at the bag in the doctor's hand and turned and walked two steps away, bent over and retched, a stream of saliva pouring from his mouth. After a moment, he straightened, wiped his mouth on the back of a glove, and said, "I gotta get out of here."
"And Frank was done with an ax," Lucas said.
"No, I don't think so. Not an ax," the woman said, shaking her head. Lucas peered at her, but could see almost nothing of her face. "A machete, a very sharp machete. Or maybe something even thinner. Maybe something like, um, a scimitar."
"A what?" The sheriff goggled at her.
"I don't know," she said defensively. "Whatever it was, the blade was very thin and sharp. Like a five-pound razor. It cut through the bone, rather than smashing through like a wedge-shaped weapon would. But it had weight, too."
"Don't go telling that to anybody at the Register," Carr said. "They'd go crazy."
"They're gonna go crazy anyway," she said.
"Well, don't make them any crazier."
"What about the guy's face?" Lucas asked. "The bites?"
"Dog," she said. "Coyote. God knows I see enough dog bites around here and it looks like a dog did it."
"You can hear them howling at night, bunches of them," the deputy said. "Coyotes."
"Yeah, I've got them up around my place," Lucas said.
"Are you with the state?" the woman asked.
"No. I used to be a Minneapolis cop. I've got a cabin over in Sawyer County and the sheriff asked me to run over and take a look."
"Lucas Davenport," the sheriff said, nodding at him. "I'm sorry, Lucas, this is Weather Karkinnen."
"I've heard about you," the woman said, nodding.
"Weather was a surgeon down in the Cities before she came back home," the sheriff said to Lucas.
"Is that Weather, like 'Stormy Weather'?" Lucas asked.
"Exactly," the doctor said.
"I hope what you heard about Davenport was good," Carr said to her.
The doctor looked up at Lucas and tilted her head. The light on her changed and he could see that her eyes were blue. Her nose seemed to be slightly crooked. "I remember that he killed an awful lot of people," she said.
The doctor was freezing, she said, and she led the way toward the front door, the deputy following, Carr stumbling behind. Lucas lingered, looking down at the dead woman. As he turned to leave, he saw a slice of nickeled metal under a piece of crumbled and blackened wallboard. From the curve of it, he knew what it was: the forepart of a trigger guard.
"Hey," he called after the others. "Is that camera guy still in the house?"
Carr called back, "The video guy's in the garage, but the other guy's here."
"Send him back here, we got a weapon."
Carr, Weather, and the photographer came back. Lucas pointed out the trigger guard, and the photographer took two shots of the area. Moving carefully, Lucas lifted the wallboard. A revolver. A nickel-finish Smith and Wesson on a heavy frame, walnut grips. He pushed the board back out of the way, then stood back as the photographer shot the gun in relation to the body.
"You got a chalk or a grease pencil?" Lucas asked.
"Yeah, and a tape measure." The photographer groped in his pocket, came up with a grease pencil.
"Shouldn't you leave it for the lab guys?" Carr asked nervously.
"Big frame, could be the murder weapon," Lucas said. He drew a quick outline around the weapon, then measured the distance of the gun from the wall and the dead woman's head and one hand, while the photographer noted them. With the measurements done, Lucas handed the grease pencil back to the photographer, looked around, picked up a splinter of wood, pushed it through the fingerguard, behind the trigger, and lifted the pistol from the floor. He looked at the doctor. "Do you have another one of those Ziplocs?"
"Yes." She opened her bag, supported it against her leg, dug around, and opened a freezer bag for him. He dropped the gun into it, pointed the barrel at the floor, and through the plastic he pushed the ejection level and swung the cylinder.
"Six shells, unfired," he said. "Shit."
"Unfired?" Carr asked.
"Yeah. I don't think it's the murder weapon. The killer wouldn't reload and then drop it on the floor... at least I can't think why he would."
"So?" Weather looked up at him.
"So maybe the woman had it out. I found it about a foot from her hand. She might have seen the guy coming. That means there might have been a feud going on; she knew she was in trouble," Lucas said. He read the serial number to the photographer, who noted it: "You could try to run it tonight. Check the local gun stores, anyway."
"I'll get it going," Carr said. Then: "I n-n-need some coffee."
"I think you're fairly hypothermic, Shelly," Weather said. "What you need is to sit in a tub of hot water."
As they climbed down from the front door, Lucas carrying the pistol, another deputy was walking up the driveway. "I got those tarps, Sheriff. They're right behind me in a Guard truck."
"Good. Get some help and cover up the whole works," Carr said, waving at the house. "There'll be guys in the garage." To Lucas he said, "I got some canvas sheets from the National Guard guys and we're gonna cover the whole house until the guys from Madison get here."
"Good." Lucas nodded. "You really need the lab guys for this. Don't let anybody touch anything. Not even the bodies."
The garage was warm, with deputies and firemen standing around an old-fashioned iron stove stoked with oak splits. The deputy who'd been doing the filming spotted them and came over with one of Lucas' Thermos jugs.
"I saved some," he said.
"Thanks, Tommy." The sheriff nodded, took a cup, hand shaking, passed it to Lucas, then took a cup for himself. "Let's get over in the corner where we can talk," he said. Carr walked around the nose of LaCourt's old Chevy station wagon, away from the gathering of deputies and firemen, turned, took a sip of coffee. He said, "We've got a problem." He stopped, then asked, "You're not a Catholic, are you?"
"Dominus vobiscum," Lucas said. "So what?"
"You are? I haven't been in the Church long enough to remember the Latin business," Carr said. He seemed to think about that for a moment, sipped coffee, then said, "I converted a few years back. I was a Lutheran until I met Father Phil. He's the parish priest in Grant."
"Yeah? I don't have much interest in the Church anymore."
"Hmph. You should consider..."
"Tell me about the problem," Lucas said impatiently.
"I'm trying to, but it's complicated," Carr said. "Okay. We figure whoever killed these folks must've started the fire. It was snowing all afternoon we had about four inches of new snow. When the firemen got here, though, the snow'd just about quit. But Frank's body had maybe a half-inch of snow on it. That's why I had them put the tarp over it, I thought we could fix an exact time. It wasn't long between the time he was killed and the fire. But it was some time. That's important. Some time. And now you tell me the girl might have been tortured... more time."
"Okay." Lucas nodded, nodding at the emphasis.
"Whoever started the fire did it with gasoline," Carr said. "You can still smell it, and the house went up like a torch. Maybe the killer brought the gas with him or maybe he used Frank's. There're a couple boats and a snowmobile out in the back shed but there aren't any gas cans with them, and no cans in here. The cans'd most likely have some gas in them."
"Anyway, the house went up fast," Lucas said.
"Yeah. The folks across the lake were watching television. They say that one minute there was nothing out the window but the snow. The next minute there was a fireball. They called the firehouse."
"The one I came by? Down at the corner?"
"Yeah. There were two guys down there. They were making a snack and one of them saw a black Jeep go by. Just a few seconds later, the alarm came in. They thought the Jeep belonged to Phil... the priest. Father Philip Bergen, the pastor at All Souls."
"Did it?" Lucas asked.
"Yes. They said it looked like Phil was coming out of the lake road. So I called him and asked him if he'd seen anything unusual. A fire or somebody in the road. And he said no. Then, before I could say anything else, he said he was here, at the LaCourts'."
"Here?" Lucas eyebrows went up.
"Yeah. Here. He said everything was all right when he left."
"Huh." Lucas thought about it. "Are we sure the time is right?"
"It's right. One of the firemen was standing at the microwave with one of those prefab ham sandwiches. They take two minutes to cook and it was about ready. The other one said, 'There goes Father Phil, hell of a night to be out.' Then the microwave alarm went off, the guy got his sandwich out, and before he could unwrap it, the alarm came in."
"Yeah. There wasn't enough time for Frank to have that snow pile up on him. Not if Phil's telling the truth."
"Time is weird," Lucas said. "Especially in an emergency. If it wasn't just a minute, if it was five minutes, then this Father Phil could have..."
"That's what I figured... but doesn't look that way." Carr shook his head, swirled coffee around the coffee cup, then set it on the hood of the Chevy and flexed his fingers, trying to work some warmth back in them. "I got the firemen and went over it a couple of times. There just isn't time."
"So the priest..."
"He said he left the house and drove straight out to the highway and then into town. I asked him how long it took him to get from the house, here, to the highway, and he said three or four minutes. It's about a mile, so that's about right, with the snow and everything."
"But if he had something to do with it, why'd he admit being here? That doesn't make any gol-darned sense," the sheriff said.
"Have you hit him with this? Sat him down, gone over it?"
"No. I'm not real experienced with interrogation. I can take some kid who's stolen a car or ripped off a beer sign and sit him down by one of the holding cells and scare the devil out of him, but this would be... different. I don't know about this kind of stuff. Killers."
"Did you tell him about the time bind?" Lucas asked.
"I was stumped," Carr said, turning to stare blankly at the garage wall, remembering. "When he said he was here, I couldn't think what to say. So I said, 'Okay, we'll get back to you.' He wanted to come out when we told him the family was dead, do the last rites, but we told him to stay put, in town. We didn't want him to..."
"... Contaminate his memory."
"Yeah." Carr nodded, picked up the coffee he'd set on the car hood, and finished it.
"How about the firemen? Would they have any reason to lie about it?"
Carr shook his head. "I know them both, and they're not particular friends. So it wouldn't be like a conspiracy."
Two firemen came through the door. The first was encased in rubber and canvas, and on top of that, an inch-thick layer of ice.
"You look like you fell in the lake," Carr said. "You must be freezing to death."
"It was the spray. I'm not cold, but I can't move," the fireman said. The second fireman said, "Stand still." The fireman stood like a fat rubber scarecrow and began chipping the ice away with a wooden mallet and a cold chisel.
They watched the ice chips fly for a moment, then Carr said, "Something else. When he went by the fire station, he was towing a snowmobile trailer. He's big in one of the snowmobile clubs he's the president, in fact, or was last year. They'd had a run today, out of a bar across the lake. So he was out on the lake with his sled."
"And those tracks came up from the lake."
"Where nobody'd be without a sled."
"Huh. So you think the priest had something to do with it?"
Carr looked worried. "No. Absolutely not. I know him: he's a friend of mine. But I can't figure it out. He doesn't lie, about anything. He's a moral man."
"If a guy's under pressure..."
Carr shook his head. Once they'd been playing golf, he said, both of them fierce competitors. And they were dead even after seventeen. Bergen put his tee shot into a group of pines on the right side of the fairway, made a great recovery and was on the green in two. He two-putted for par, while Carr bogied the hole, and lost.
"I was bragging about his recovery to the other guys in the locker room, and he just looked sadder and sadder. When we were walking down to the bar he grabbed me, and he looked like he was about to cry. His second shot had gone under one of the evergreens, he said, and he'd kicked it out. He wanted to win so bad. But cheating, it wrecked him. He couldn't handle it. That's the kind of guy he is. He wouldn't steal a dime, he wouldn't steal a golf stroke. He's absolutely straight, and incapable of being anything else."
The fireman with the chisel and mallet laid the tools on the floor, grabbed the front of the other fireman's rubber coat, and ripped it open.
"That's got it," said the second man. "I can take it from here." He looked at Carr: "Fun in the great outdoors, huh?"
The doctor was edging between the wall and the nose of the station wagon, followed by a tall man wrapped in a heavy arctic parka. The doctor had light hair spiked with strands of white, cut efficiently short. She was small, but athletic with wide shoulders, a nose that was a bit too big and a little crooked, bent to the left. She had high cheekbones and dark-blue eyes, a mouth that was wide and mobile. She had just a bit of the brawler about her, Lucas thought, with the vaguely Oriental cast that Slavs often carry. She was not pretty, but she was strikingly attractive. "Is this a secret conversation?" she asked. She was carrying a cup of coffee.
"No, not really," Carr said, glancing at Lucas. He gave a tiny backwards wag of his head that meant, Don't say anything about the priest.
The tall man said, "Shelly, I hit every place on the road. Nobody saw anything connected, but we've got three people missing yet. I'm trying to track them down now."
"Thanks, Gene," Carr said, and the tall man headed toward the door. To Lucas, he said, "My lead investigator."
Lucas nodded, and looked at Weather. "I don't suppose there was any reason to do body temps."
The doctor shook her head, took another sip of coffee. Lucas noticed that she wore no rings. "Not on the two women. The fire and the water and the ice and snow would mess everything up. Frank was pretty bundled up, though, and I did take a temp on him. Sixty-four degrees. He hadn't been dead that long."
"Huh," said Carr, glancing at Lucas.
The doctor caught it and looked from Lucas to Carr and asked, "Is that critical?"
"You might want to write it down somewhere," Carr said.
"There's a question about how long they were dead before the fire started," Lucas said.
Weather was looking at him oddly. "Maddog, right?"
"You were the guy who killed the Maddog after he sliced up all those women. And you were in that fight with those Indian guys."
Lucas nodded. "Yeah." The Crows coming out of that house in the dark, .45s in their hands... Why'd she have to bring that up?
>"I had a friend who did that New York cop, the woman who was shot in the chest? I can't remember her name, but at the time she was pretty famous."
"Lily Rothenburg." Damn. Sloan on the steps of Hennepin General, white-faced, saying, "Got your shit together?... Lily's been shot." Sweet Lily.
"Oh, yes," Weather said, nodding. "I knew it was a flower name. She's back in New York?"
"Yeah. She's a captain now. Your friend was a redheaded surgeon? I remember."
"Yup. That's her. And she was there when the big shoot-out happened. She says it was the most exciting night of her career. She was doing two ops at the same time, going back and forth between rooms."
"My God, and now it's here," Carr said, appalled. He looked at Lucas. "Listen, I spent five years on the patrol before I got elected up here, and that was twenty years ago. Most of my boys are off the patrol or local police forces. We really don't know nothin' about multiple murder. What I'm askin' is, are you gonna help us out?"
"What do you want me to do?" Lucas asked, shaking away the memories.
"Run the investigation. I'll give you everything I can. Eight or ten guys, help with the county attorney, whatever."
"What authority would I have?"
Carr dipped one hand in his coat pocket and at the same time said, "Do you swear to uphold the laws of the state of Wisconsin and so forth and so on, so help you God?"
"Sure." Lucas nodded.
Carr tossed him a star. "You're a deputy," he said. "We can work out the small stuff later."
Lucas looked at the badge in the palm of his hand.
"Try not to shoot anybody," Weather said.
The Iceman's hands were freezing. He fumbled the can opener twice, then put the soup can aside and turned on the hot water in the kitchen sink. As he let the water run over his fingers, his mind drifted...
He hadn't found the photograph. The girl didn't know where it was, and she'd told the truth: he'd nearly cut her head off before she'd died, cut away her nose and her ears. She said her mother had taken it, and finally, he believed her. But by that time Claudia was dead. Too late to ask where she'd put it.
So he'd killed the girl, chopping her with the corn-knife, and burned the house. The police didn't know there was a photo, and the photo itself was on flimsy newsprint. With the fire, with all the water, it'd be a miracle if it had survived.
Still. He hadn't seen it destroyed. The photo, if it were found, would kill him.
Now he stood with his fingers under the hot water. They slowly shaded from white to pink, losing the putty-like consistency they'd had from the brutal cold. For just a moment he closed his eyes, overwhelmed by the sense of things undone. And time was trickling away. A voice at the back of his head said, Run now. Time is trickling away.
But he had never run away. Not when his parents had beaten him. Not when kids had singled him out at school. Instead, he had learned to strike first, but slyly, disguising his aggression: even then, cold as ice. Extortion was his style: I didn't take it, he gave it to me. We were just playing, he fell down, he's just a crybaby, I didn't mean anything.
In tenth grade he'd learned an important lesson. There were other students as willing to use violence as he was, and violence in tenth grade involved larger bodies, stronger muscles: people got hurt. Noses were broken, shoulders were dislocated in the weekly afternoon fights. Most importantly, you couldn't hide the violence. No way to deny you were in a fight if somebody got hurt.
And somebody got hurt. Darrell Wynan was his name. Tough kid. Picked out the Iceman for one of those reasons known only to people who pick fights: in fact, he had seen it coming. Carried a rock in his pocket, a smooth sandstone pebble the size of a golf ball, for the day the fight came.
Wynan caught him next to the football field, three or four of his remora fish running along behind, carrying their books, delight on their faces. A fight, a fight...
The fight lasted five seconds. Wynan came at him in the stance of an experienced barehanded fighter, elbows in. The Iceman threw the rock at Wynan's forehead. Since his hand was only a foot away when he let go, there was almost no way to miss.
Wynan went down with a depressive fracture of the skull. He almost died.
And the Iceman to the cops: I was scared, he was coming with his whole gang, that's all he does is beat up kids, I just picked up the rock and threw it.
His mother had picked him up at the police station (his father was gone by then, never to be seen again). In the car, his mother started in on him: Wait till I get you home, she said. Just wait.
And the Iceman, in the car, lifted a finger to her face and said, You ever fuckin' touch me again I'll wait until you're asleep and I'll get a hammer and I'll beat your head in. You ever touch me again, you better never go to sleep.
She believed him. A good thing, too. She was still alive.
He turned off the hot water, dried his hands on a dish towel. Need to think. So much to do. He forgot about the soup, went and sat in his television chair, stared at the blank screen.
He had never seen the photograph as it had been reproduced, although he'd seen the original Polaroid. He had been stupid to let the boy keep it. And when the boy had sent it away...
"We're gonna be famous," the kid said.
"What?" They were smoking cigarettes in the trailer's back bedroom, the boy relaxing against a stack of pillows; the Iceman had both feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees.
The boy rolled over, looked under the bed, came up with what looked like a newspaper. He flipped it at the Iceman. There were dozens of pictures, boys and men.
"What'd you do?" the Iceman asked; but in his heart he knew, and the anger swelled in his chest.
"Sent in the picture. You know, the one with you and me on the couch."
The Iceman lurched at him; the boy giggled, barely struggling, not understanding. The Iceman was on his chest, straddling him, got his thumbs on the boy's throat... and then Jim Harper knew. His eyes rolled up and his mouth opened and the Iceman...
Did what? Remembered backing away, looking at the body. Christ. He'd killed him.
The Iceman jumped to his feet, reliving it and the search for a place to dump the body. He thought about throwing it in a swamp. He thought about shooting him with a shotgun, leaving the gun, so it might look like a hunting accident. But Jim didn't hunt. And his father would know, and his father was nuts. Then he remembered the kid talking about something he'd read about in some magazine, about people using towel racks, the rush you got, better than cocaine...
The Iceman, safe at home, growled: thinking. Everything so difficult. He'd tried to track the photo, but the magazine gave no clue to where it might be. Nothing but a Milwaukee post office box. He didn't know how to trace it without showing his face. After a while he'd calmed down. The chances of the photo being printed were small, and even if it was printed, the chances of anyone local seeing it were even smaller.
And then, when he'd almost forgotten about it, he'd gotten the call from Jim Harper's insane father. The LaCourts had a photo.
Remember the doctor.
If the photo turned up, no one would immediately recognize him except the doctor. Without the doctor, they might eventually identify him, but he'd know they were looking, and that would give him time.
He got to his feet, went to wall pegs where he'd hung his snowmobile suit over a radiator vent. The suit was just barely enough on a night like this. Even with the suit, he wouldn't want to be out too long. He pulled it on, slipped his feet into his pac boots, laced them tight, then dug into his footlocker for the.44. It was there, wrapped in an oily rag, nestled in the bottom with his other guns. He lifted it out, the second time he'd use it today. The gun was heavy in his hand, solid, intricate, efficient.
He worked it out, slowly, piece by piece:
Weather Karkinnen drove a red Jeep, the only red Jeep at the LaCourt home. She'd have to take the lake road out to Highway 77, and then negotiate the narrow, windblown road back to town. She'd be moving slow... if she was still at the LaCourt house.
Weather's work was finished. The bodies were covered and would be left in place until the crime lab people arrived from Madison. She'd performed all her legal duties: this was her year to be county coroner, an unpleasant job rotated between the doctors in town. She'd made all the necessary notes for a finding of homicide by persons unknown. She'd write the notes into a formal report to the county attorney and let the Milwaukee medical examiner do the rest.
There was nothing holding her. But standing in the shed, drinking coffee, listening to the cops even the cops coming over to hit on her, in their mild-mannered Scandinavian way was something she didn't want to give up right away.
And she wouldn't mind talking to Davenport again, either, she thought. Where'd he go to? She craned her neck, looking around. He must be outside.
She flipped up her hood, pulled it tight, put on her gloves. Outside, things were more orderly. Most of the fire equipment was gone, and the few neighbors who'd walked to the house had been shooed away. It still stank. She wrinkled her nose, looked around. A deputy was hauling a coil of inch-thick rope up toward the house, and she asked, "Have you seen, uh, Shelly, or that guy from Minneapolis?"
"I think Shelly's up to the house, and the other guy went with a bunch of people down to the lake to look at the snowmobile trail, and they're talking to snowmobile guys."
She looked down toward the lake, thought about walking down. The snow was deep, and she was already cold again. Besides, what'd she have to contribute?
She went back to the garage for another cup of coffee, and found that it was gone, Davenport's Thermoses empty.
Davenport. God, she was acting like a teenager all of a sudden. Not that she couldn't use a little... friendship. She thought back to her last involvement: how long, a year? She counted back. Wait, jeez. More than two years. God, it was nearly three. He'd been married, although, as he said charmingly, not very, and the whole thing was doomed from the start. He'd had a nice touch in bed, but was a little too fond of network television: it became very easy to see him as a slowly composting lump on a couch somewhere.
Weather sighed. No coffee. She put on her gloves, went back out and trudged toward her Jeep, still reluctant to go. In the whole county, this was the place to be this night. This was the center of things.
But she was increasingly feeling the cold. Even with her pacs, her toes were feeling brittle. Out on the lake, the lights from a pod of snowmobiles shone toward the house. They'd been attracted by the fire and the cops and by now, undoubtedly, the whole story of the LaCourt murders. Grant was a small town, where nothing much happened.
The Iceman sliced across the lake. A half-dozen sleds were gathered on the ice near the LaCourt house, watching the cops work. Two more were cruising down the lakeshore, heading for the house. If the temperature had been warmer, a few degrees either side of zero, there'd have been a hundred snowmobiles on the lake, and more coming in.
Halfway across, he left the trail, carved a new cut in the soft snow and stopped. The LaCourt house was a half mile away, but everything around it was bathed in brilliant light. Through a pair of pocket binoculars he could see Weather's Jeep, still parked in the drive.
He grunted, put the glasses in a side pocket where they'd stay cold, gingerly climbed off the sled and tested the snow. He sank in a foot before the harder crust supported his weight. Good. He trampled out a hole and settled into it, in the lee of the sled. Even a five-mile-an-hour wind was a killer on a night like this.
From his hole he could hear the beating of a generator and the occasional shouts of men working, spreading what appeared to be a canvas tent over the house. Their distant voices were like pieces of audible confetti, sharp isolated calls and shouts in the night. Then his focus shifted, and for the first time, he heard the other voices. They'd been there, all along, like a Greek chorus. He turned, slowly, until he was facing the darkness back along the creek. The sound was unearthly, the sound of starvation. Not a scream, like a cat, but almost like the girl, when he'd cut her, a high, quavering, wailing note.
Singing together, blood songs after the storm. He shivered, not from the cold.
But the cold had nearly gotten to him twenty minutes later when he saw the small figure walking alone toward the red Jeep. Yes. Weather.
When she climbed inside her truck, he brushed the snow off his suit, threw a leg over the sled and cranked it up. He watched as she turned on the headlights, backed out of her parking space. She had further to go than he did, so he sat and watched until he was sure she was turning left, heading out. She might still stop at the fire station, but there wasn't much going on there except equipment maintenance.
He turned back toward the trail, followed it for a quarter mile, then moved to his right again, into new snow. Stackpole's Resort was over there, closed for the season, but marked with a yard-light. He could get off the lake on the resort's beach, follow the driveway up to the highway, and wait for her there.
He'd had an image of the ambush in his mind. She'd be driving slowly on the snowpacked highway, and he'd come alongside the Jeep with the sled. From six or ten feet away, he could hardly miss: the.44 Magnum would punch through the window like it was toilet paper. She'd go straight off the road, and he'd pull up beside her, empty the pistol into her. Even if somebody saw him, the sled was the perfect escape vehicle, out here in the deep snow. Nothing could follow him, not unless it had skis on the front end. Out here, the sled was virtually anonymous.
The snow-covered beach came up fast, and he braked, felt the machine buck up, took it slowly across the resort's lakeside lawn and through the drifts between two log cabins. The driveway had been plowed after the last storm, but not yet after this one, and he eased over the throw-piles down into it. He stopped just off the highway, where a blue fir windbreak would hide the sled. He felt like a motorcycle cop waiting behind a billboard.
Waiting. Where was she?
There was a movement to his left, at the corner of his eye, sudden but furtive, and his head snapped around. Nothing. But there had been something... There. A dog, a small German shepherd, caught in the thin illumination of the yard-light. No. Not a shepherd, but a coyote. Looking at him from the brush. Then another. There was a snap, and a growl. They never did this, never. Coyotes were invisible.
He pulled down the zip on his suit, took the.44 out of the inside pocket, looked nervously into the brush. They were gone, he thought. Somewhere.
Headlights turned the corner down at the lake road. Had to be Weather. He shifted the pistol to his other hand, his brake hand. And, for the first time, tried to figure out the details of the attack. With one hand on the accelerator and the other on the brake... He was one hand short. Nothing to shoot with. He'd have to improvise. He'd have to use his brake hand. But...
He put the gun in his outside leg pocket as the headlights closed on him. The Jeep flashed by and he registered a quick flickering image of Weather in the window, parka hood down, hat off.
He gunned the sled, started after her, rolling down the shallow ditch on the left side of the road. The Jeep gained on him, gained some more. Its tires threw up a cloud of ice and salt pellets, which popped off his suit and helmet like BBs.
She was traveling faster than he'd expected. Other snowmobiles had been down the ditch, so there was the semblance of a trail, obscured by the day's snow; still, it wasn't an official trail. He hit a heavy hummock of swamp grass and suddenly found himself up in the air, holding on.
The flight might have been exhilarating on another day, when he could see, but this time he almost lost it. He landed with a jarring impact and the sled bucked under him, swaying. He fought it, got it straight. He was fifty yards behind her. He rolled the accelerator grip forward, picking up speed, rattling over broken snow, the tops of small bushes, invisible bumps... his teeth chattered with the rough ride.
A snowplow had been down the highway earlier in the evening, and the irregular waves of plowed snow flashed by on his right. He moved further left, away from the plowed stuff: it'd be hard and irregular, it'd throw him for sure. Weather's taillights were right there. He inched closer. He was moving so fast that he would not be able to brake inside his headlight's reach: if there was a tree down across the ditch, he'd hit it.
He'd just thought of that when he saw the hump coming; he knew what it was as soon as he picked it up, a bale of hay pegged to the bottom of the ditch to slow spring erosion. The deep snow made it into a perfect snowmobile jump, but he didn't want to jump. But he had no time to go around it. He had no time to do anything but brace himself, and he was in the air again.
He came down like a bomb, hard, bounced, the sled skidding through the softer snow up the left bank. He wrestled it to the right, lost it, climbed the right bank toward the plowed snow, wrestled it left, carved a long curve back to the bottom.
The Iceman was shaken, thought for an instant about giving it up; but she was right there, so close. He gritted his teeth and pushed harder, closing. Thirty yards. Twenty...
Weather glanced in her side mirror, saw the sled's headlight. He was coming fast. Too fast. Idiot. She smiled, remembering last year's countywide outrage. Intersections of snowmobile trails and ordinary roads were marked with diamond-shaped signs painted with the silhouette of a snowmobile. Like deer-crossing signs, but wordless. The year before, someone had used black spray paint to stencil IDIOT CROSSING on half the snowmobile signs in Ojibway County. Had done the job neatly, with a stencil, a few signs every night for a week. The paper had been full of it.
An image of his face, shoulders, and hands popped into her mind. He was beat-up, wary, like he'd been hurt and needed help; at the same time, he looked tough as a railroad spike. She'd felt almost tongue-tied with him, found herself trying to interest him. Instead, half the things she'd said sounded like borderline insults. Try not to shoot anyone.
God, had she said that? She bit her tongue. Why? Trying to impress him. When he'd focused on her, he seemed to be looking right into her. And she liked it.
The bobbing light in her side mirror caught her eye again. The fool on the snowmobile was still in the ditch, but had drawn almost up beside her. She glanced back over her shoulder. If she remembered right, Forest Drive was coming up. There'd be a culvert, and the guy would catapult into Price County if he tried to ride over the embankment at this speed. Was he racing her? Maybe she should slow down.
The Iceman was befuddled by the mechanics of the assassination; if he'd had a sense of humor, he might have laughed. He couldn't let go of the accelerator and keep up with her. If he let go of the brake... he just didn't feel safe without some connection with the brake. But he had no choice: he took his hand off the brake lever, pulled open the Velcro-sealed pocket flap, got a good grip on the pistol, slid it out of his pocket. He was fifteen feet back, ten feet. Saw her glance back at him...
Five feet back, fifteen feet to the left of her, slightly lower... the snow thrown up by the Jeep was still pelting him, rattling off his helmet. Her brake lights flashed, once, twice, three times. Pumping the brakes. Why? Something coming? He could see nothing up ahead. He lifted the gun, found he couldn't keep it on the window, or even the truck's cab, much less her head. He saw the edge of her face as she looked back, her brake lights still flashing... What? What was she doing?
He pushed closer, his left hand jumped wildly as he held it awkwardly across his body; the ride was getting rougher. He tried to hold it, the two vehicles ripping along at fifty miles an hour, forty-five, forty, her brakes flashing...
Finally, hissing to himself like a flattening tire, he dropped the gun to his leg and rolled back the accelerator. The whole thing was a bad idea. As he slowed, he slipped the pistol back into his pocket, got his hand back on the brake. If he'd had a shotgun, and he'd been in daylight, then it might have worked.
He looked up at the truck and saw her profile, the blonde hair. So close.
He slowed, slowed some more. She'd stopped pumping her brakes. He turned to look back, to check traffic. And suddenly the wall was there, in front of him. He jerked the sled to the right, squeezed the brake, leaned hard right, wrenched the machine up the side of the ditch. A block of frozen snow caught him, and the machine spun out into the road and stalled.
He sat in the sudden silence, out of breath, heart pounding. The Forest Road intersection: he'd forgotten all about it. If he'd kept moving on her, he'd have hit the ends of the steel culvert pipes. He'd be dead. He looked at the embankment, the cold moving into his stomach. Too close. He shook his head, cranked the sled and turned toward home. He looked back before he started out, saw her taillights disappear around a curve. He'd have to go back for her. And soon. Plan it this time. Think it out.
Weather saw the snowmobile slow and fall back. Forest Road flashed past and she came up on the highway. He must have read her taillights. She'd seen the road-crossing sign in her headlights, realized she wouldn't have time to stop, to warn him, and had frantically pumped her brakes, hoping he'd catch on.
And he had.
Okay. She saw his taillight come up, just a pinprick of red in the darkness, and touched the preset channel selector on her radio. Duluth public radio was playing Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
Now about Davenport.
They really needed to talk again. And that might take some planning.
She smiled to herself. She hadn't felt like this for a while.
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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