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Authors: Victoria Houston

Dead Frenzy

BOOK: Dead Frenzy
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Dead
Frenzy
=

VICTORIA HOUSTON

For Nicole,
with gratitude for steering me clear of dark water.

Titles by Victoria Houston

D
EAD
A
NGLER
D
EAD
C
REEK
D
EAD
W
ATER
D
EAD
F
RENZY
D
EAD
H
OT
M
AMA
D
EAD
J
ITTERBUG
D
EAD
B
OOGIE
D
EAD
M
ADONNA
D
EAD
H
OT
S
HOT

one

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

—Henry David Thoreau

The
morning was so still not even the wind whispered as Osborne sipped from his first cup of coffee. But as he sat, the woods awoke. A woodpecker rattled on a dead aspen and overhead a squirrel chucked.

He tipped back in his chair, closing his eyes and lifting his face to the sun. Below, just off his dock, a canoe paddle dipped. Henry Darden out for his morning cruise. Mollie, his wife, would be in her paddleboat heading straight across the lake. You could set your clock by those two codgers—on Loon Lake at the dot of seven any day it was decent.

A fish jumped. Even with his eyes closed, Osborne sensed the circles radiating out across the black surface. From the sound of the splash, he guessed a smallmouth. Loon Lake was rich with bass these days. He resisted the urge to trot down with his fly rod and tease a few, too darn cozy right where he was. And his rig was too light for bass anyway. He inhaled. Such peace, such solitude. Such a fine life. Even tonight would be good: He had a date to fly-fish with the woman of his dreams.

Osborne sighed happily. Then he grimaced. Things would not stay this calm for long. The news in the morning paper, folded on his lap, was good and bad. That national bass-fishing tournament set to open in ten days would pump a lot of bucks into the Loon Lake economy. With two warm winters sabotaging their snowmobile tourism, the little town needed the action. But geez Louise, the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
was estimating 15,000 visitors. Fifty professionals paired with fifty amateurs—and the rest
gawkers?

Fifteen thousand was triple what the president of the chamber of commerce had told the city council when they voted to allow the tournament. This was bass country and the tournament had been angling for several years to have access to the three hundred-plus lakes in the region. Lakefront owners like Osborne had balked at first. The fishing tournament featured afternoon boat racing, which tended to draw too many cowboys. In the long run, no one could resist the money.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Twenty miles away, on the very same late July weekend, Tomahawk was hosting their annual Harley-Davidson Rally—another 30,000 razzbonyas. What a contrast: one crowd decked out with bass poppers and miles of monofilament while the other flashed chrome and leather. Problem was, both drank way too much beer. On the roads and on the water, the northwoods would be a zoo. Lew would have her hands full.

Yep, Osborne thought as he opened his eyes and sipped from his mug. She just might need some help. He smiled. Every day he was amazed. Who would have ever expected this sixty-three-year-old retired dentist to be courting a police chief?

Not Henry and Mollie, that’s for sure. He could imagine the expressions on the faces of those two every time Lewellyn Ferris’s squad car passed their kitchen window, two doors down from his, on its way to Osborne’s. He wouldn’t put it past Mollie to sneak by in the wee hours to see if Lew was spending the night. They had nothing on him yet, but boy, hope springs eternal.

As if in answer to his thoughts, tires crunched in the driveway. Lew. He heard the door slam and waited for her whistle. It was a habit they had fallen into while grouse hunting last fall—makes it easy to know exactly where someone is in the woods so you shoot a bird and not a buddy. These summer mornings she often used it to see if he was already out on his deck.

But today—no whistle. Instead, footsteps through the house and the porch screen door banged. Heavy feet hit the wooden stairs behind him.

“Ray? Grab a mug.” Eyes closed again, Osborne kept his face to the sun as he waved his hand toward the coffeepot on the table beside him. He was surprised. The fishing guide was usually on the lake by now, with or without a client. Had he caught his limit already? Or more than that? Ray bent the law whenever he needed to.

When there was no answer, Osborne turned around.

He was surprised to see his daughter standing there, eyes red, arms crossed tightly across her body as if she was holding herself together. She wore jeans and an old purple T-shirt. Her pale blond hair was pulled back in a single braid. Her face looked pale, washed out.

“Erin, honey!” Osborne dropped his feet from the deck railing and stood up, a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What’s wrong—are the kids okay?”

“Kids are fine, Dad.”

“Are
you
okay?”

At the sound of his three simple words, his daughter collapsed onto the steps, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.

Osborne watched in astonishment. He had just seen her two days ago and she was as lighthearted as ever. What on earth? He stood there, unsure what to do as the younger of his two daughters cried her heart out. Finally, wiping at her nose with the back of one hand as if she were three instead of thirty, Erin looked up, her eyes desperate.

“Tell me this—are we dealing with a life-and-death situation?”

“The dream is back, Dad … and there’s a reason. Can we take a walk?”

“Of course. Let me unplug the coffee.”

He knew the dream. It had taken two years of expensive psychological counseling and weekly trips to Wausau to push it out of her head. Why the hell was it back now?

Erin walked past him down off the deck toward the driveway. He followed her up the driveway to the road. Osborne’s home sat on a peninsula between two lakes in the Loon Lake chain of five lakes, each identified by a number. He expected her to turn left or right to follow the road, but she crossed instead. The overgrown path ahead of her would take them into an old hemlock forest and over to Second Lake.

“Erin … wait.” He wanted her to stop. She hadn’t been in there for seventeen years.

He hadn’t either. In fact, he had no intention of ever going in there again. “Erin, please stop. Where are you going?”

She marched ahead as if she hadn’t heard him. Osborne hurried to catch up. Maybe it would be okay. After all, things had changed. A cottage now graced the path that led into the old forest. He wondered if they weren’t trespassing and hoped no one was home.

But as he followed Erin into the woods, he could see one thing had not changed. The old hemlocks stood guard still, as menacing and secretive as ever. He had played there as a boy and even then would stay for only a short while. The forest floor beneath the trees was dark and shadowed and silent. He felt like he always had: that he was being watched. Erin must have sensed it, too, because she slowed and dropped back as if to be closer to him.

The old hemlock loomed ahead. The fallen one, the skeleton.

He caught up with her just as she stopped. She was looking down. His gaze followed hers into the cave that nature had carved under the branches of the ancient tree. And as if it were yesterday, he remembered every detail of that awful sight.

He had arrived home early from the office that late summer day seventeen years ago. He was planning to change, meet Dick at the landing, and get in a good evening of muskie fishing. But when he drove into the driveway of his new home, it was filled with cars. Mary Lee’s bridge group was running late. He’d hurried into the kitchen only to find Brenda Anderle, a pretty redhead who had just moved in down the road, on her knees trying to comfort Erin.

“She’s upset about something, Dr. Osborne.” Brenda had looked up with concern in her eyes.

“Paul—I
told
Erin I’ll help her out in a few minutes. I have one more hand to play,” Mary Lee called out from the living room, exasperation in her voice.

Meanwhile, Erin was looking up at him, eyes wide and terrified. She was wearing her Brownie uniform as was another little girl, standing by the back door, whom Osborne didn’t recognize. “Oh, Daddy,” Erin said, “we found a dead thing in the woods. I think it’s a person and it’s … it’s too scary, Dad—”

“A deer carcass, Erin. Don’t worry about it.” Osborne interrupted, feeling as impatient as his wife. These kids had imaginations out of control and he was already running late.

“No, Dad—it’s not!” The child was trembling. Osborne had never seen her so upset. The other little girl had begun to cry.

“Okay, okay. Let’s hurry then and take a look.”

He followed the girls across the road and down the path past the orchard and into the hemlocks. The stately timbers stood high against the sky, shutting out the light. As they ran, the girls told him how they had found this thing. Searching for mosses for their forestry badge, they had been feeling their way through the tangled roots of the old trees.

“I’m the one who found it, Dad,” said Erin, calming now that someone believed her.

“Okay, hon.” Osborne was so sure they had stumbled onto a dead deer that once they pointed to the cave beneath the tree, he hurried over and thrust his face forward so fast that he almost hit it with his nose. He backed off fast. Very fast.

Two arms reached up at him. Human, oozing and green, thrusting their way through a large burlap sack torn by animals. Later, he thought the smell should have warned him but the wind, at that moment, was from the east and masked the odor.

“OhmyGod,” he had managed just before vomiting.

Later that evening they learned that the corpse was what was left of a teenage girl, a local girl baby-sitting for a family of tourists from Illinois. She had been missing from the family’s cabin for two days but they thought she had run off with a boy. It was also learned that a desperate Loon Lake man, a patient of Osborne’s, had been seen with the girl and, later, seen leaving the woods. Before he could be arrested, he shot himself. The murder was considered solved.

“But why deal with this now?” he asked Erin. “That was a long, long time ago.”

“I was so frightened, Dad. But I got past it, didn’t I? And I can stand here today and it won’t hurt me, will it?”

“Of course not, sweetheart. You know, you’re not making much sense to your old man.”

“They found the man who killed her, didn’t they?”

“I believe so,” said Osborne. He hesitated. Should he say it? Since he didn’t understand why they were here in the first place, would he make it worse if he told her he never had believed Jack Schultz was guilty? Osborne decided to keep his mouth shut.

“Let’s go down and see if that old bench is still by the water.”

Again, he followed her. The bench was there, weathered, the red paint long gone, but sturdy enough for the two of them to sit.

“Well, Dad,” Erin managed a grin as she sat down, “I survived that—so … I guess I can survive this.” Tears squeezed from her eyes. She wiped them away.

“Erin.” Osborne put his hand on her knee. “I don’t understand what this is all about. Survive what?”

She sat back, sniffled, crossed her arms again, and took a deep breath. “Mark left me two days ago. I don’t know where he is. I thought he would be back yesterday, but he’s gone. Oh, Dad, I am so frightened.”

“What! Mark’s gone? Well, how do you know he left? Maybe something happened. He fell out of his boat—”

“He left me a letter, Dad.”

“Oh.”

Stunned, Osborne pulled her close. She breathed in deeply as if to settle herself but all the extra air did was flush out more tears. He rocked her as she wept. Erin, happy, ebullient Erin with the perfect family. How could this happen?

“Take it easy, now. It can’t be as bad as it seems. Mark’s a good man. Let’s take some time and figure this out.”

Deep down Osborne had a hunch. Much as he loved her, he knew her to be too much like her late mother in one way: too full of her own life, always overprogrammed. Even he found it hard to make her stop and listen.

“And there is certainly no reason to be afraid.”

“But I am. I am so afraid. I know that’s why I’m having that nightmare, Dad.”

He gripped her shoulder and felt defeated. For two years after finding the girl’s body, little Erin would wake up screaming, haunted by a dream of bloody arms in a wooden box reaching out to grab her. How many nights had he held that terrified little body? If this was Mark’s way of getting attention, he was having one hell of an effect.

They sat in silence, arms around each other. Osborne listened to the hollow roar of the wind overhead. He watched the whitecaps rolling at them, ferocious and foaming. This peninsula always amazed him—you cross a twelve-foot road and walk half a mile into a different world. First Lake would be still and Second Lake wild. Like life, calm one moment, out of control the next.

Yes, he thought, Erin has a serious problem at hand. But she brought up another one that concerned him just as much. A problem long forgotten but as potent today as it was seventeen years ago. If he believed that Jack Schultz did not kill that girl—and he had good reason to—then who did? And where was the killer today?

BOOK: Dead Frenzy
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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