Authors: Kate Watterson
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For Bruce Muggenburg and David Nordgren.
You are both intelligent, articulate, and a little bit eccentric in your own way. I happen to admire that very much. I count myself lucky to have you in my life.
Many thanks to my editor, Kristin Sevick, for insightful advice, the necessary guidance I sorely needed, and her delightful sense of humor as we walked this road together. As always, Barbara Poelle is a joy to work with, and she is both a canny agent and not just a colleague, but a true friend.
Several detectives in northern Wisconsin were kind enough to take time from their busy schedules to help answer my questions. I truly appreciate their courtesy, and as I think most of us do, their dedication to such a difficult job. Any mistakes are strictly my own.
He was never sure if the cold influenced him. It should be the opposite. That as the ground grew more unyielding and the air frigid he would sleep better. It just didn’t work that way.
There were fewer of them this time of year. It didn’t really matter—it just was. Each month had a certain draw. Perhaps that was why he was so hungry. He had to work for it this time of year.
The summer was too easy. He’d done the summer first, but there really was no challenge in it. June. July, August, September.
Even October had been child’s play.
The woods were quiet, sleeping, waiting, full of shadows.
* * *
The car sat
there, tucked into the side of the road between two white pines on a level spot, nose into the shadows, carefully parked in the turnoff, all windows up. Detective Ellie MacIntosh walked past it twice, a full circle, the empty windows not talking to her. No movement inside, no signs of violence, the patches of frost on the windshield starred with symmetrical snowflake crystals. Autumn leaves tickled her ankles.
It was absurd, but she’d taken her gun out. She didn’t even realize it until she lowered the weapon, her breath leaving her lungs in an audible exhale. “There’s no one visible in the vehicle. Try not to touch anything that might give us fingerprints, but open the trunk.”
“Yes, ma’am.” To his credit, the county officer who had called in the abandoned car didn’t point out he’d already told her that no one was visible inside. He instead nodded at another officer and between them they took a crowbar and went to work. In the meantime, several other law enforcement vehicles had arrived, the meandering curve on the remote road taking on color and movement, the naked trunks of the trees reflecting the swirling blue lights.
She’d hoped … Well, she’d just
this call hadn’t been the one they were waiting for, because if it was …
It meant it had happened again.
The wrench of metal screamed, the trunk popped open, and the two officers peered inside. One of them said, “Detective? Want to take a look at this?”
Ellie took two steps and stared into the trunk. Did she want to look? No, she sure as hell didn’t. Whatever was in there, she didn’t want to see it. Her palms were damp and hot despite the cold; her heart pounding.
The plain interior held a blanket and a flare for emergencies. There was also an atlas with a torn cover.
She muttered hoarsely, “That bastard.”
He was a stage prop in his own life.
was enlightening realization. Bryce Grantham eyed the darkening sky as he turned off the highway and took the small county road. Trees clawed tearing hands at the sky, the wind picking up enough that it moaned in rising protest through the branches. The shriek was audible above the music, even when he flicked up the sound.
He’d forgotten what it was like up here in late October.
The north woods held a special kind of melancholy this time of year. Gray skies, falling leaves, naked branches, and deserted roads. No more tourists, no more summer cabins full of life and light, nothing but a vast engulfing silence and autumn dying into the chill, inexorable grip of winter. Most of the places were shuttered, roof supports put in under the rafters to handle the heavy snow load, the boats hauled out of the water and beached, covered with canvas like gray shrouds, lining the shores of cold lakes that would eventually freeze into thick silent ice packs.
There, I’m all cheered up,
Bryce thought in grim amusement as he guided the SUV around a turn, the wheels humming on the wet pavement. It was misting, just enough to get everything wet but not enough for windshield wipers. A soliloquy on the bleak state of his surroundings wasn’t going to improve his mood any more than the lackluster meeting he’d just attended in Wausau.
A long, boring-as-hell day with a bunch of similar boring-as-hell colleagues, and a cold, lonely night ahead. What more could a man want?
Food, he realized. A man could—and he did—want food.
All sarcasm aside, he was hungry, and the lunch provided had been little more than catered lasagna, wilted salad, and generic garlic bread. A stop at the grocery store might not have been a bad idea before he headed for the cabin. It was too late now and all he could hope for was some canned food still on the shelves when he got there, and if that didn’t pan out, he had a case of beer in the back of the car.
He hadn’t drunk his dinner since college—not even during the thing with Suzanne—but this just might be the night.
With his first stroke of luck of the day, he caught sight of the little tavern on the corner of the last intersection before he turned for Loon Lake. He’d assumed it would be closed already for the season, but a beer sign glowed in the window and the lot held six vehicles, most of them pickup trucks or four-wheel drives. Bryce pulled the Land Rover in next to a battered Ford Ranger and got out, turning up his collar against the whip of the wet wind. At least he could get some pizza, if he remembered correctly. The frozen variety, cooked in a little electric oven behind the bar, but he really wasn’t too picky at the moment.
For a man who thought he wanted solitude, he was surprised to find he craved the warmth of light and human voices.
This trip wasn’t set in stone, he reminded himself sharply as he held the door for another refugee who also hurried to get in out of the weather. The young woman shivered as she slipped past him, giving him a fleeting smile. “Nasty out,” she murmured. “And it’s just going to get colder, isn’t it? I hate winter.”
If so, she should probably choose somewhere else to live, but Bryce smiled back, grateful himself to be out of the blustery elements as he followed her into the place, hit at once by the smell of food and the yeasty scent of spilled beer. In the corner, Willie Nelson wailed out a lament from the jukebox, and three men in flannel shirts sat at the bar, idly talking. Several of the other tables were occupied also, and the two of them drew cursory looks, but everyone went back to their drinks and murmured conversation.
He said politely, “Yeah, northern Wisconsin isn’t the best place if you don’t like the cold.”
“You’re telling me. And I don’t.” She shivered again and looked around as if picking out a table. “Like the cold, that is. It seeps into your bones up here. If I didn’t have to be here, trust me, I wouldn’t be.”
Even a little wet and windblown, in a padded coat appropriate for a blustery October evening, she was very pretty, he realized in an offhand sort of way. Dark hair cut in a clean swing at the line of her jaw, blue eyes, very little make up because she really didn’t need it, blue jeans hugging nice curves. Young. Early to midtwenties maybe.
Bryce glanced back at the doorway. No one else had arrived with her as far as he could tell, and given how few people were in the place, if she’d been meeting someone, surely the person would have said something or motioned her over.
He was actually a little shy with women most of the time—too damn shy according to Suzanne—but to his own surprise he found himself saying in a perfectly normal voice, “I was going to have a beer. Can I get you one too?”
She hesitated, her gaze assessing enough that he wondered how he measured up. He needed a haircut one of these days but had been putting it off, so his hair was probably a little on the shaggy side, his leather jacket slick with rain, his expensive tailored slacks and Italian loafers out of place in a roadside tavern. Still he must have seemed harmless enough because she gave an almost imperceptible nod. “Actually, that’d be great. Thanks.”
There were no waitresses at the Pit Stop. Bryce went to the bar and asked for two drafts of Old Style, paid the bartender—who looked like a lumberjack right down to his bristly beard—and when he turned around, found the young woman had selected the table in the corner farthest away from the door. Good choice; he didn’t want the blast of cold, damp air every time someone came and went either. Bryce carried their drinks over and set hers down in front of her, but held on to his for a second. “Mind if I sit here too, or are you expecting someone?”
Bold for him. Maybe all of Suzanne’s cutting remarks had had an effect after all.
That was kind of hard to decipher. No, he shouldn’t sit? Or no, not expecting someone?
So much for his attempt at being a little more outgoing. He stood there like an idiot, trying to decide if he needed to make a strategic retreat, until the young woman noticed his dilemma and laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t really answer that well, did I? Out of practice, I guess. Please, sit. I’d like the company.”
He pulled out one of the rickety chairs, trying to ignore the wobble of legs probably attached to the base in the 1950s. The scratched surface of the table also dated back decades, and over time people had etched their initials in spots. His companion fingered her glass of beer—it was in a plastic cup actually—and looked at him.
Of course. This was when he was supposed to make witty conversation and wow her with his intellect, but chances were he’d just bore her to tears.
Been there, done that
he thought, luminous, dark in color, more indigo than anything, framed in wet lashes. Now that she’d taken off the shapeless parka, he could see that she wore underneath it a shirt in a soft pink material that clung to her breasts. “I get the impression you are not a native. You live close by?” he asked, trying to sound conversational.