Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Adult
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: May, 2002
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.
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
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
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
was humming to
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
your responsibility, Frank. You
Harper about it. Jim was
“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
“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.