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In the following days the headlines would brag how the savage summer storm had descended upon the murder, the city's fortieth of the year, and wreaked havoc upon brutality. But, of course, beyond the chance of a thunderstorm, Todd knew none of what was to come.
It did occur to him that for once the weather guys weren't going to screw up, that the midsummer heat and humidity were about to be doused with rain. As he parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the edge of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, Todd, wearing black jeans and a freshly pressed blue shirt, glanced out the windshield at the skies now looming so dark over the river and to the northwest. It was going to pour, there was no doubt about that. On a hot July night like this it was usually light until nine-thirty or tenthe long days one of the few payoffs these northern parts offered after the long wintersbut not tonight. As predicted, something was blowing in from the westerly plains, clouds so black and virulent that they not only blotted out the setting sun, but sucked up whatever light was left of the day. Even as Todd sat there, the streetlights flashed on, and he glanced at the clock on the dashboard, saw that it was seven twenty-five. He just hoped that this guy would be on time, that whatever he had to say would be quick, that this furtive meeting would be over before the skies slit open.
He was just reaching for the door handle when a muffled sound started ringing in his briefcase. Leaning over to the floor in front of the passenger seat, he stuck his hand in his leather case, groped about, then pulled out his cellular phone.
Flipping it open, he said, "Todd Mills."
"Hey, it's me."
"Hey, you. What's up?"
"Just driving around," replied Steve Rawlins, Todd's boyfriend, who was a homicide investigator on the Minneapolis police force.
"Burning up taxpayers' money, are you?"
"Right," laughed Rawlins. "I'm on middle watch until ten-thirty," he said, referring to his shift on Car 1110, which was manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week by investigators. "Want to get a late bite to eat when I'm done?"
"Sure. I'm meeting this guythe one I told you aboutdown at the Stone Arch Bridge. I just parked in the lot in front of the Whitney Hotel, but this shouldn't take too long. In fact, I should get going. I want to get this over with as quickly as I can before it rains."
"Don't forget your phone. I mean, you don't know this guy, do you?"
"Don't worry, Sergeant," joked Todd. "In fact, I bet he doesn't even showit looks like it's about to pour."
"Well, be careful. Actually, we're having a pretty quiet night, so I'll give you a call in a bit. Hey, and think about where you want to eat."
Todd hung up, slipped his phone into his shirt pocket. He sat there for a moment, told himself he had to stop obsessing about itRawlins's health. Everything was going to be okay. Only a few months ago Rawlins had been shot at the Megamall, but he'd recovered just fine. In fact, perfectly. Now the only question was would he survive HIV infection.
Trying to escape the worry, Todd climbed out of the Cherokee into the thick, humid air, which immediately closed in all around him. Breathing with gills would have been easier, he thought, and then wished that he was already in some air-conditioned restaurant having a nice meal and a glass of wine. Looking at the darkening clouds, he started toward the Stone Arch Bridge, a serpentine structure of granite and limestone built over a century ago to carry the trains of the Great Burlington Northern across the Mississippi. According to the various historical markers along the way, the nearly hundred-per-day passenger trains on this route were long gone, and the bridge had recently been converted to pedestrian and bike use. Todd proceeded onto the bridge, his eyes scanning past the massive lock, past the harnessed falls of St. Anthony, and to the purple-black billows of clouds now shimmering and popping with lightning.
He hated this kind of meeting. As Channel 10's investigative reporter he got calls like this every week, each one more odd than the next, first someone going on about a conspiracy to rob the Federal Reserve bank, the next claiming her next-door neighbor had stuffed her poodle down the garbage disposalnever mind the alien sightings, there were so many of those. So when Todd got the call this afternoon, at first he was skeptical. The man on the other end, however, was insistent.
"What do you mean," Todd had interrupted, "someone's blackmailing you?"
"I'll tell you when I see you, but it's very serious. And there's nothing someone like me can do."
Todd made a snap decision and said, "Give me your number. I'll call you right back."
Todd had mumbled something about wanting to go to his office, but the truth of the matter was that Todd wanted to make sure this guy was legit. He'd had something like that before, a guy who claimed he was a doctor when in fact he was nothing more than a patient with a gripe and a thirst for revenge. Todd was going to make that kind of mistake only once.
"No!" the man had replied, his voice all hushed. "Listen, I can't talk anymore. I . . . I just can't. But I swear, this is for real. Meet me tonight in the middle of the Stone Arch Bridge. Seven-thirty."
"I need your help. Please . . . just be there tonight."
The line had clicked dead.
And now Todd was here, walking along the broad bridge, wondering if this guy was going to show and what all the drama was really about. Or was this nothing, was Todd merely a fool for being here? No, his job was all about hot stories and great ratings, so he had no choice but to come tonight. WLAK management expected something sharp from Todd at least every six weeks, and he'd passed that milestone last Friday.
He looked beyond St. Anthony Falls and to the north. No thunder, at least not yet, but the black clouds were throbbing, a near continuous pulse of white light. The air was oddly still, too, just the way things got before the shit hit the fan. There hadn't been any mention of severe weather, but when a cold front dropped from Canada and collided over the plains with a warm front from the Gulf of Mexico, anything could happen. A few years back the sirens in Todd's neighborhood hadn't gone off until five minutes after a tornado had Hoovered the better part of a strip mall into the heavens.
Todd didn't like this.
And apparently no one else did, for he looked up and down the bridge and didn't see another soul. Something was going to hitand soonand everybody but Todd had the brains not to venture out onto a high bridge over an endless wash of water. A human weather vane Todd did not aspire to be.
He glanced at his watch. Seven twenty-eight. He would give this guy seven minutes and then Todd was out of there.
As he continued to the middle of the bridge, Todd wondered why the hell he'd gotten the call in the first place. Was it his notoriety and his relatively new position as investigative reporter at Channel 10? Or the fact that he was queer?
Because some part of Todd would always be paranoid, he suspected the latter, that this might be some kind of bizarre setup. In his early forties and in great shape"If you're gonna work in broadcast you gotta keep that chest bigger than your gut," his agent, Stella, continually proddedTodd had thick brown hair, a handsome face that was a tad broad and a tad rugged except for the eyes, which were soft, too soft for his face. Whereas he used to be extraordinarily closeted, the events of his life had now made him the most visible gay person in Minneapolis, and from time to time he got calls at the station asking him out to dinner. From time to time, too, he got threatening messages on his Voice Mail. Hate mail too. Which is what he feared out here tonight, an attack of some sort. But, no, thought Todd, the tension and worry in the caller's voice had been real, hadn't it?
Reaching the midway point of the bridge, Todd stopped and looked around. Virtually no sign of anyone, male or female. He stared at the falls as they roared over a broad concrete apron the milling giants had built so long ago. Looking straight down more than a hundred feet, the dark, muddy waters of the Mississippi swirled and churned. Next, raising his head, Todd gazed at the glass towers of downtown Minneapolis, huge modern boxes that sprouted like Oz on the plains. Oz, Todd mused, about to be slapped by an evil storm, for the thunder was starting now, not just an occasional burst, but long and steady rumbles. This was going to be a biggie.
Something grasped his right shoulder, and Todd jerked away and spun around. "Jesus!"
Before him stood a young man, twenty-five, maybe thirty, short brown hair poking out from beneath a blue baseball cap. His face was pure, simple, with a lot of color in the cheeks, and there was no doubt about it, he was gorgeous. A plaid shirt concealed his upper body, but even so his strength was more than apparent.
"You're Todd Mills. I recognize you from TV," he said, with a broad smile that showed off bright, white teeth.
He was awfully pretty, this guy, and Todd couldn't help it, couldn't help but wonder: gay? Their eyes caught and held for a millisecond too long, and before Todd had a chance to consciously contemplate the other man's sexuality, his instincts flashed: yes. So what, wondered Todd as he noted that the other man's eyes perfectly matched the blue plaid of his shirt, is this all about?
Todd said, "And you're . . ."
"I'm Mark." He saw the confusion on Todd's face, and added, "Mark Forrest."
A few drops of rain started to fall, and Todd looked at this man, who on the phone this morning had sounded so secretive and confused, yet now appeared so animated, even jovial. Tread carefully, Todd told himself, determined not to be duped either by this guy's good looks or his story, whatever that might prove to be. Who even knew, thought Todd as he double-checked and noted that the other man wasn't wearing a wedding band, if Mark Forrest was his real name.
"So what's up?" asked Todd, glancing over at the clouds and thinking they had but a few minutes before it started pouring.
"What do you want? Why did you call me?"
Forrest looked at Todd as if he were nuts. "I didn't call you. You called me."
"You called and asked to meet secretly with me. Said it was something about a blackmail story."
"No, I didn't. I never called you." Wondering what the hell this was all about, Todd said, "I got a call this morning from a guy who said someone was blackmailing him. I'm presuming that was you."
"What?" Forrest said with a confused grin. "Fuck, no. I got no secrets."
He studied this Mark Forrest, saw the wholesomeness leaking out his pores, and Todd's instincts told him that Forrest was telling the truth. Yes, he was part of the younger generation, the young gay guys who'd never considered the closet and had always been out, easily and naturally so. Which meant only one thing. Then again, this wasn't the first time something like this had happened, nor would it be the last.
"Come on," said Todd as the rain started coming down in large pellets. "Someone set us up."
"Let's just get out of here. My car's over there. We'll figure it out."
Out of nowhere a huge gust of wind exploded over them, and in an instant the rain was hitting as hard as if it were being sprayed from a fire hose. A burst of lightning struck just up the river, followed almost immediately by a deafening explosion of thunder. Todd lifted his arm up to shield his face from the pelting water, opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly an enormous sound drowned him out, a wail that rose and continued in desperate warning. Shit, you didn't grow up in the Midwest without knowing what that meant, without knowing that the only time it was safe to hear sirens like those was the first Wednesday of the month at 1:00 P.M.
Scanning the skies for a funnel cloud, Todd grabbed Mark Forrest by the arm and, above the ever-increasing wind, shouted, "We gotta get out of here!"
Forrest hesitated just a moment, that was all. Then the two of them turned, started toward the downtown side of the river. Todd was already soaked, but with any luck they could make it safely to his car. As he took a step forward, however, a huge blast of wind blew him off-balance. Oh, my God, thought Todd, is this really a tornado? A dazzling and deadly lightning bolt struck a lamppost not fifty feet in front of them, followed instantly by thunder so loud that Todd could feel the force of the sound reverberate in his chest. Shielding his eyes with his right hand, Todd looked up, saw the blackened lamppost tip off the bridge and blow to the turbulent waters below. The wind, Todd realized as the two of them struggled along, was coming from the right, whooshing down the river from the northwest and growing stronger by the second.
Glancing toward downtown, Todd saw nothing, not a single light. All of the buildings were gobbled up by the darkness, swallowed by the rain and clouds and wind. Jesus, just how bad was this going to be?
Suddenly a figure in a hooded yellow slicker emerged out of nowhere, someone small, someone running desperately along the Stone Arch Bridge. Another fool, thought Todd, as Mark and he charged on, their heads bowed against the torrent. Someone else looking to get killed.
A huge gust came up, Mark lost his footing, and with a wide grin, this cowboy of a guy screamed, "Holy shit!"
The approaching man was struck by the same gust, and he swerved and caught himself on the railing. Clasping the hood over his head with his left hand, he rushed on, nearing Todd and Mark. Another burst of wind blew back the guy's jacket, and it was then that Todd saw it, the glint of metal. An umbrella, thought Todd, useless in such a storm and folded up for safekeeping. The rain pelted Todd's face, and he closed his eyes, opened them, struggled to see.
White light burst all around them and the skies exploded like a bomb. Suddenly that other person was swerving right at them. Stumbling toward them like a drunk as he reached into his jacket. Dear God, thought Todd, wiping at his eyes. That was no umbrella, that was a gun.
"Look out!" screamed Todd into the roar of the storm.
Forrest, still grinning, glanced at Todd, wiped the water from his face, and shouted back, "What?"
Todd pointed at the assailant, but Mark Forrest never really saw what was happening, never understood. There was another explosion, this one from the gun, and in a split second a bullet slammed into Forrest's deep chest. It threw him back and he stumbled across the bridge. Clutching the railing for support, Mark Forrest looked down at himself, saw the watery blood washing down his chest, next looked up at his killer, and only then perhaps realized what this was all about.
As Todd started to rush to Forrest, he froze. The small man was whipping around, his yellow slicker a blur as he trained his pistol on Todd. Reflexively, Todd threw himself to the side, fell as he scrambled to escape, and behind him heard the single burst of a gun.
And then the heart of the storm struck them all.
Todd tried to stand up, to rush farther away, but was blown on his side like a twig. As he landed in a puddle, he glanced back, saw the assailant hurled aside by the wind. A wall of water seemed to crash over Todd, rain that bit and pelted so hard that he could barely see two or even three feet. He looked to the side, thought he saw Mark Forrest somehow hanging on to the railing. And still the wind gained in strength, barreling down the river, blasting everything in its path. Todd crawled to his knees, tried to stand, and thought for sure this was it, he was going to be sucked into the skies. He threw himself to the side, grabbed at the base of a lamppost, and hung on, hoping to hell that just this once he was stronger than Mother Nature. Above it all, he heard a rattling and ripping and raised his head to see a sign, one of the historical markers, blown from its stand. As it came hurtling at him, Todd clutched his head, but it wasn't enough, for the sign struck him with such force that Todd's head seemed to explode. He tried to open his eyes but couldn't, and the massive summer storm went from dark and overpowering to totally black and quiet.