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Authors: Donald Harstad

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The Big Thaw

BOOK: The Big Thaw


What initially looks like a small time midwinter break-in, leads to something much bigger — a million dollar siege of a floating casino on the frozen Mississippi River. But the temperature is rising and the heat is on Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman…

Following hard on the heels of the bestselling
Eleven Days
Known Dead
, Donald Harstad really hits his stride with
The Big Thaw
, an irresistible big thriller with a Fargo-like atmosphere. The dead of winter has hit the heartland. It’s thirty below zero and all anyone has to look forward to in Nation County, Iowa is an evening’s entertainment aboard a floating casino docked a short drive away on the Mississippi River. With his friend and partner Hester Gorse pulling security duty on the Beauregard, it’s left to Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman to keep Nation County criminals in check. In Carl’s experience, though, crime takes a holiday when the mercury falls. But the men lying low at a nearby compound have much bigger plans. They’re waiting for a break in the weather to pull off a masterful million-dollar siege of the state’s biggest economic asset. And Hester, trapped on the Beauregard, is directly in the line of fire. While desperately trying to maintain his control of the investigation, Carl has to plan for disaster relief, lobby the FBI for a team of SWAT sharpshooters, hold the media at bay, and save Hester’s life before the temperature rises for the big thaw…



The Big Thaw
Donald Harstad


The third book in the Carl Houseman series
Copyright © 2000 by Donald Harstad



To Rae and Nick Anderson
Thank you for your encouragement, support, and confidence that good things were going to happen. Most of all, thank you for prying open some doors.






Monday, January 12, 1998, 2309


About a minute after I got settled in bed, I heard a faint scratching sound. It took me a second to realize that I’d left my police walkie-talkie on. It was sitting in its charger, about fifteen feet from the bed. I thought about getting up and turning it off, but there were several reasons I didn’t. First, Sue was already asleep beside me, and I didn’t want to wake her by moving around some more. Second, the intermittent transmissions by the bored dispatcher were kind of soothing, in a distant way. I could hear her talk, but the volume was set so low, I couldn’t make out the words. Perfect. Third, I was just too damned tired to get up.

I was getting to that presleep stage, when the pitch of the dispatcher’s voice began to rise. After a moment, she began to speak rapidly, excitedly to cars that were apparently too far away for me to hear. I sat up, and listened for a moment. Still couldn’t make out the content, and now I just had to find out. I swung my legs off the bed, got up, and padded over to the little radio. Just in time to be able to make out the Maitland car, which was within a quarter mile of me, asking a question.

“Comm, Twenty-five, what’s going on?”

“Twenty-five, Five and Nine are in pursuit of a burglary suspect, out on the old Grange road.”

I knew what was coming, and was reaching for the phone when it rang.

“They want some assistance, and Lamar said to call you, since it might involve a burglary investigation. They started the chase about five minutes ago down by Hellman’s curve, and they’ve been going up…”

“Okay…” I interrupted, “just let me get dressed … give me directions after I’m in the car…”

“Ten-four…” She was new, and newbies had a tendency to use ten codes over the phone.

“Wear your long Johns, it’s getting really cold.”

“Yeah…” as I hung up the phone.

“Who was that?” mumbled Sue.

“Gotta go … they’re chasing a guy and need help.” I reached into my drawer and pulled out my long underwear. I pulled it on, and put on two pair of socks.

“Dress warm…” came a mumbled caution from Sue, who was going back to sleep.

“Yep…” I pulled on my uniform trousers, which had the utility belt attached, and were hanging next to the bed. On with the laced Gor-Tex boots, stand, slip on the turtlenecked jersey shirt, grab the uniform shirt, pull the pants up, tuck everything in, pull the “woolly-pully” sweater over my head, and I was heading down stairs less than three minutes after the phone had rung. On the way to the back door, I grabbed my handgun out of the drawer, and inserted a magazine. I pulled back the slide to chamber a round, pressed the hammer drop, and shoved it into my holster. I pulled my little walkie-talkie out of its charger, and grabbed my recharging flashlight from the shelf by the door as I left the house. When I opened the door, it was like walking into a wall of cold air.

“Boy,” I breathed to myself. Marsha’s “really cold” hadn’t done it justice.

I used my sweater sleeve to protect my hand as I opened the car door. Even in the garage, it wasn’t smart to touch metal in this weather. I turned the key, and the engine took right off. Back out of the car, unplugging the engine heater, then hit the button to open the door.

In the car, turned on the defroster, set the temperature to high, turned on the headlights, dropped the rechargeable flashlight into its charger on the dash, rear-window defroster to “on.” I turned on my flashing headlights and red dash and rear-window lights as I backed out. Then the police car radio.

“… onto Willims road, but not sure…” came blasting over the speaker. Sounded like Five’s voice.

I waited a beat to make sure the radio traffic was clear, then picked up the mike and told the office that I was back at work. “Three’s ten-eight. Comm,” I said, “where you want me?” Hopefully I would be able to get ahead of the chase from here in Maitland, and not end up following the pack.

“Stand by, Three,” crackled the voice.

She had no choice, but I was already at the main intersection leading out of Maitland, so I had to stop and wait to be told which way to turn. Frustrating, but not a lot could be done about it. I fastened my seat belt and shoulder harness.

“Five,” she asked, “where do you want Three to go?”

As luck would have it, he was close enough for me to hear his transmissions, so Marsha wasn’t going to have to rebroadcast everything we said.

“Tell him to head north, toward the Whiskey 6 Victor intersection, then west toward the County Line road…”

“Three’s direct,” I snapped, saving Marsha and the rest of us a little time.

“Three, Five, Ah’ve been behind this idiot for almost eight miles. New snow, can’t see him anymore, but Ah’m following the tracks and the cloud of snow.” Nine struggled.

“Ten-four.” Been there. With new snow, the first thing you lose in a chase is the taillights of the vehicle you’re chasing. Snow packs up on the rear of the suspect vehicle, and they just fade out. Quickly. Then, if the car you’re chasing is moving fairly fast, they throw up a rooster tail of snow, and you don’t even get to see the reflections from their headlights. The good news is that the tracks they leave make it virtually impossible to lose their direction of travel. It’s just that you can’t be sure how far ahead they actually are. So, to avoid running into the back of them at a high rate of speed, you tend to get a little cautious. Because of that, they tend to lengthen their lead.

“Any idea how far up he is on you?” I asked.

Five answered. “Probably not more than a mile. I’m doing about sixty, and it’s really hard to stay on the road. His tracks look like he’s fishtailing a lot on the curves, so he’s probably about sixty too.”

“Ten-four, and where’s Nine at?”

“Ah just tried to cut ’em off and missed…” came Nine’s familiar drawl. “Ah’m behind Five somewhere, I think…”

Out of the picture, in other words. Damn.

“You think I can get to the intersection by Ullan’s farm, Five, before the suspect gets there?”

“Close…” he said. “Could be close.”

I was still on paved roads, as opposed to the gravels the chase was on, so I was able to take a few more chances. I pushed it up to about 75 on the straight stretches … but had to back off pretty far on the downhill curves.

I figured I could cut the chase off. I hate that. No lonelier feeling in the world than to have a pursuit coming right at you. It had to be done. If not, the suspect would be in Ossain County in two minutes after turning onto the paving.

“Comm, Three,” I said, after switching the radio to the INFO channel, “you might see if Ossian County has a car anywhere near this area.”

A few seconds later, as I descended a long, straight hill, I could see the intersection by Ullan’s farm. No lights visible except the golden glow of the yard light near Ullan’s house.

“Three’s comin’ down the hill to Ullan’s, and nothing yet…”

“Three, Five … he’s gotta be close, because I just passed the quarry…”

The quarry was less than three miles from the highway.

“Ten-four, Five.” I slid to a halt with my car across the gravel road at the intersection. “Uh, you got anything good on this guy, or what?” I had to know if there was any sort of a confirmation of a crime, hopefully a felony.

“No, negative, Three. Uh, I just saw him and, uh, tried to stop him and he took off…” The “uhs” told me that he was really concentrating on his driving.

Damn. I backed my car up, being sure I was leaving enough room for the suspect to get safely by. You aren’t allowed to really get serious about blocking a road unless there’s a felony charge on the oncoming driver. I got out of my car, taking my shotgun with me. I deliberately didn’t take time for my parka, because I felt the suspect should be there within a few minutes or less. I did, however, put on my down-filled vest. God, it was cold. I pulled my gloves on, and jacked a round into the chamber of the 12-gauge pump. I stood well off to the side and rear of my car. No point in getting run over if he lost control. I pulled my turtleneck up to cover my face.

The only sound was the purring of the engine on my car. Dead quiet. There was either no moon, or it wasn’t up yet. I looked up, and the stars were just everywhere. No twinkling, just millions of little steady points. The way it gets in Iowa when it’s so cold the moisture freezes and precipitates out of the atmosphere.

I became aware of a faint whining sound, growing louder. Then the squeaking of tires on fresh snow, and faint headlights coming right toward the intersection. He’d been traveling so fast, and busting through drifts, the snow had covered his headlights. He probably couldn’t see much of anything except my headlights. I could barely see him as he slid past me, disoriented by the sudden appearance of my car’s bright and flashing lights, lost control, and shot off the road and the shoulder and straight into the ditch on the other side of the paved road, disappearing in a cloud of snow.

“Uh, Three’s got him stopped at the intersection!” I said into my walkie-talkie, as I walked quickly toward the suspect’s car. Through the snow piled up on the roof and the snow stuck to the windows, I could just barely see someone inside trying to get the door open. The depth of the snow was making that pretty difficult, as it was piled up nearly window high in the furrow he’d made through the drifts.

I stopped at the edge of the ditch, and watched the driver’s door being opened, closed, slammed open an inch farther into the snow, closed … After five or six repetitions, I just pointed my shotgun at the struggling driver, and yelled, “Hold it right there!”

The door stopped moving instantly. Then, after banging on it a couple of times to loosen the ice, the suspect rolled the window down. “I surrender!” he yelled. “Don’t shoot! I surrender!”

I got my first good look at him. “Fred?” I looked at the thin, frightened face. “Is that you, Fred?”

“Mr. Houseman?”




Tuesday, January 13, 1998, 0004


I was sitting in my patrol car with Fred Grothler, a.k.a. Goober; the driver of the car that now sat comfortably in the ditch. I had Fred in the front passenger seat. He was no threat, and seemed sober. I was filling out the officer’s section of a state motor vehicle accident report. I had to do it instead of Five, Mike Connors, as Mike had been involved in a chase with the vehicle in the ditch. He would be assumed to be biased, and unable to be objective in his assessment of the cause of the accident. I, on the other hand, the proximate cause of the accident, was assumed to be emotionally uninvolved. Attorneys. But having to fill out the accident report was just another reason I hated assisting with chases. I had unzipped my down vest, and had donned my gold-rimmed reading glasses. I turned to Fred/Goober.

“You wanna tell me what the hell you were doin’?”

Goober just sat there, shivering. Nerves, I thought. It was cold, and he was a bit damp, but it was warm enough in my car. He shouldn’t have been shaking from the cold. “I, I, I dddon’t know,” he said.

“You don’t know if you want to tell me, or you don’t know what you were doing?”

Goober looked at me. “I ddon’t kn, kn, know.”

I’d talked with Deputy Mike, and he’d told me that he’d been doing routine patrol in the area where we’d been having some residential burglaries, and he’d seen a car sitting on the side of the road, honking its horn. He turned on his top lights, and was just getting out of his patrol car to see if the occupant needed help, when the suspect vehicle had turned on its lights and taken off, scattering snow clogs all over him.

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