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Heywood brings to life Michigan's Upper Peninsula in his predictable fifth novel to feature conservation detective Grady Service (after 2005's Running Dark), though an implausible plot fails to match the rich rural setting. Soon after Service's son and his girlfriend die in an auto accident, the grief-stricken Service finds evidence indicating their vehicle was forced off the road. Before his private inquiry can make much progress, an untrustworthy FBI special agent, Tatie Monica, enlists Service to pursue a murderer who has targeted conservation agents across the U.S., using an obscure and gruesome Viking pattern of mutilations. An improbable cameo by George W. Bush injects some lame humor ("You ain't one-a them Dem'crats, are ya, big guy?" the president asks Service), while the eventual revelation of the connection between the trail of bodies and the fatal accident will surprise few. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Grady Service, in shock from his own personal loss, is ordered by the FBI to work on a longstanding serial killer case. Someone is knocking off the top Fish and Game officers nationwide. That someone also murdered Grady's girlfriend and son. Heywood's fifth "Woods Cop" mystery (after Running Dark) features a fast-paced plot revolving around a progressively more dangerous situation. Putting the thrill back in thriller, this nail-biting read will appeal to fans of C.J. Box's wildnerness series and Thomas Perry's Jane Whiteside novels. Heywood lives in Portage, MI.
Grady Service stared down at the large white metal drawers, his mind cluttered by unconnected thoughts, mostly fragments: spring, the season of change, breakup and runoff, a time of sloppy excess; his old man, whom he'd never gotten along with; more than two erratic decades as a conservation officer, mostly alone; the divorce from his late first wife; and finding Nantz, and learning he was a father-all of this rolling around in his aching head as he stared at the drawers. He felt blood rushing to his head, then racing away, his insides in chaos, at the edge of an abyss-one he knew he could not back away from.
"Grady," Captain Ware Grant said from beside him. "You don't have to do this." The captain grasped his detective's arm.
Service pushed the hand away. "Open them," he ordered the hospital orderly.
"Which one first?"
The captain pointed.
It seemed like the man took forever to pull out the drawer and unzip the black plastic bag. There was a bright yellow biohazard label on it. The plastic didn't look strong enough to contain a human being, he thought, his mind grasping for details to cling to, something to process that would make sense. Anything but this.
He stared down, saw Maridly Nantz's face, unmarked, like she was asleep. "The other one," Service whispered, his legs reducing to gelatin.
It was the same in the second drawer, Walter asleep, his son, his only son, the only one he was ever likely to have, his dead son, at eighteen.
"No," Grady Service said. It was not a word born of thought, but a defensive thing, a verbal arm instinctively raised to ward off an assailant.
Captain Grant stood nearby, saying nothing. The orderly left them alone in the small, chilled room.
"But she was a pilot," Service said after a long time.
"Accidents happen, Grady."
"Not to her, not to Maridly Nantz. Safety was in her blood."
The captain kept quiet.
A sign in the room said no smoking. Grady Service lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
He smoked the cigarette down to embers, GI'd the butt, and put it in his pocket. He stood between the drawers, with one hand on the love of his life and the other hand on his son, both killed in an accident on the way back from Houghton.
Grady Service wanted reasons, tears, anything to take the ice out of his blood, but nothing came. Inside all he could feel was a cold rage, at chance, at God, at anything, everything. He had spent his life around death in all forms, but this was different.
Eventually he felt the captain move his hands away from the bodies and he watched as his superior zipped the bags and slid the drawers into the wall. The drawers squeaked, needed oil. Nantz would hate a noisy drawer, would take it as a personal affront. Walter would not pay attention. Nothing bothered the boy.
In the corridor outside the orderly stepped in front of Service. "You can't smoke in there, dude."
The blow sent the man backward, sliding down the waxed floor like a human stone in a curling match.
The captain ignored the man with the bleeding face, took a tight hold on Service's arm, and kept him walking away from the morgue, up the stairs, toward the light.
M-35 was curvy where it crossed Schweitzer Creek about four miles south of Palmer, but the hardtop was dry, the shoulder wide, and the county road commission had brushhogged it, providing plenty of room for a sliding vehicle. Grady Service stomped up and down the road, studying the marks left by Nantz's pickup truck, trying desperately to make sense of them.
"She was a pilot," he said, as if this alone explained why Maridly Nantz could not be dead.
Captain Grant said, "Even the best pilots have accidents."
"Not this pilot-not her," Service growled. "Look, she skidded to the right here," he said, walking along the rubber marks, "fought out of it, and rolled the other way. Not that tough to get out of. We all do it in the snow every winter, and in summer on washboard roads that will rip the steering wheel out of your hands. She's done it a million times. We all have." It had been a dry day in early May. There was no excuse.
"Sometimes there's no explanation," the captain said. "It just happens."
"Not to Nantz, not to Walter. Where's her truck?"
"U.P. Autobody and Collision in Negaunee Township," the captain said.
"They should have left it here so I could see."
"You're not a trained accident investigator."
"Bullshit," Service said. "They took it away before I could look it over."
"They took it away because it's standard procedure. The removal had nothing to do with you."
"I want to see it."
"The Troops are looking at it."
"I want to see it," Service demanded.
Marquette deputy sheriff "Weasel" Linsenman drove up, parked, got out of his cruiser, and approached sheepishly, his head bowed. "I just heard, man. Jesus, Grady. I'm so sorry."
Linsenman started to step closer, but stopped.
"U.P. Autobody," Service said.
"You want me to show you where it is?" the deputy asked.
Service and Linsenman had been friends for a long time, and had shared some tense professional moments together, but both men tended to lead solitary lives, Service with his girlfriend and son, and the deputy with his dogs. They were friends who barely knew each other, yet willingly covered each other's backs.
"I'm so sorry, Grady."
Service looked up and seemed only then to recognize his friend. "She was a pilot."
Linsenman glanced at the captain, who shook his head almost imperceptibly, a signal for the deputy to keep silent.
U.P. Autobody & Collision was in Negaunee Township, not far from the state police post. There were two main buildings, basic pole barns, painted taupe, a metal fence around the property, and rows of wrecked vehicles strewn around. Service looked at the buildings and said "Taupe," to the captain, who raised an eyebrow. Service had never heard the word taupe until Nantz taught him. He was the old dog, nearly twenty years older than she, yet it seemed he learned more from her than the other way around.
They went inside a door marked office and asked about Nantz's truck. A woman at reception sent them to the back building where they found a large man with a potbelly and muttonchops that hung down the side of his face like feathers.
Neither the captain nor Service was in uniform. "Hey," the man said. "Sorry, but youse can't just waltz in here."
Service grabbed the man by the throat, backed him over to a metal wall, and slammed him against it. The metal reverberated like a reluctant steel drum. "Red Ford, just came in," Service said.
The man shook his shoulders, took a step away, and pointed. "The state's not done with it yet," he stammered.
Service walked over to the wreck, which was in the back of the shop, partially covered with a black plastic tarp. The roof was flat, but had been cut open with the Jaws of Life. Both sides of the truck were caved in, the grill shattered. Two deflated air bags lay on the floor near the wreck. Powder residue from the bags spackled the floor and hood of the truck like gray pollen.
"When will the accident investigation team be back?" the captain asked.
"AIT's business, their time," the man said.
Service turned toward the man, felt fire rippling along his spine.
"His girlfriend and son were in it," the captain said.
The man's demeanor immediately changed. "I'm sorry. They said they'd be back tonight; they got called out to another accident all the way down by Traunik."
Service stared at the man. "Who're you?"
"You the honcho?"
The man shook his head. "I just drive the wrecker."
"You tow it in?"
The man nodded.
"How long you done this for a living?"
"Seventeen, eighteen years."
"You see anything that catches your attention?"
The man held up his hands. "I just haul them."
"You've got eyes and a brain," Service said.
"Nobody wants to hear what the wrecker driver has to say."
"I want to hear."
"The AIT will kick my ass."
"The Troops want to get to the truth," the captain said, intervening. "Anything that helps will be welcomed."
"I heard them talk when they come in. They think it's a rollover, pure and simple."
"You have a different view?" the captain asked.
"Over twenty years you see a heckuva lot of wrecks. You didn't look, you'd be bored outta your bloody mind, eh?"
Service lurched, his face flushing, "You think wrecks are for your entertainment?"
The man quickly raised his arms. "No. I'm just saying, when you see so many, you get to looking at them pretty closely."
"Have you seen something to suggest it's not a simple rollover?" the captain asked.
The man shook his head. "I could lose my job. The boss has contracts with the state in four counties."
The captain was adept at interviewing reluctant witnesses. "You won't lose your job for telling the truth. We're conservation officers ... cops."
"Youse're game wardens, no fake?"
"The Troops will draw their own conclusions," Captain Grant said.
The man looked conflicted, crossed his arms, and approached the wreckage. "Maybe it was just an accident," he began.
"But?" Grady Service interjected gruffly.
"I don't have 'er all worked out in my head yet," the man said, "but as I looked it over, it seemed to me that something else might have happened."
"Work it out now," Service said.
"Here," the man said, leaning over the rear of the truck. "There's paint here, just a few flecks."
Service and the captain flanked the man, leaned over, looked down. "Green paint," Service said.
"Or blue," the man countered. "Can't tell for sure unless you actually lift a sample and analyze it."
"That paint wasn't there before," Service said.
"She might have backed into something over in Houghton," the captain offered.
"This didn't come from backing into something," the wrecker driver said. "I'd say it came from her being hit."
"Rammed?" the captain asked.
"Not rammed ... not exactly. The bumper don't show it; in fact, nothing shows it, but look at the left rear taillight."
"Gone," Service said.
The man nodded. "Left one's gone, right one isn't. And where's the foreign paint?"
"Near the left rear light," Service said. Nantz took good care of her vehicles, would not abide even marginal damage. If she'd dinged her truck, she would have gotten it fixed immediately. It was a matter of pride for her, almost a fetish. The plane she owned, her vehicles, her house, everything had to be in working order and cosmetically shipshape. Why had she cut him slack? he wondered. He'd never worked that out: Her the neat freak, him the slob. It made no sense.
The man suddenly seemed to withdraw from his observations. "All these years I seen me a heap of wrecks, and after a while you get to recognize some things. I'm not saying this is how it went down, but it's possible."
"Say what it is you have to say," Grady Service said.
"Ask me, it looks like somebody put a PIT against this truck." PIT was short for precision immobilization technique, a maneuver used by police officers to spin a vehicle and end the chase.
"The state police agree?" the captain asked.
"I didn't say nothing about it to them. I didn't really see it until I got back here and started looking."
"But they'll see it," the captain said.
"Maybe, maybe not. Most cops have to PIT somebody, they're so jacked up over what they done and the fact they survived it, they don't really look at the damage. You know, if you get through it, who cares about dings in your patrol car? And why look for PIT damage on a civilian truck off the cement by its lonesome?"
"PIT," Service said.
Ptacek said, "Not just a PIT, but a PIT by a smaller vehicle against a bigger one, say a big pickup like this Ford, and probably the PIT driver in the smaller car wasn't so good at the maneuver. When you get a mismatch in vehicle size, the smaller one ain't gonna drive away without damage."
Service said, "Walk me through it."
"Walk us through it," the captain said, correcting his detective.
The man grabbed some bricks, set them on the shop floor, and reconstructed the accident as he thought it could have happened. When he was done, he stood up and fumbled with a pack of cigarettes. "Okay if I smoke?"
The captain nodded. "You work here."
Grady Service looked at Nantz's Ford, the dark flecks, the missing taillight, and closed his eyes, trying to match what the man had just shown him with the bricks with what he had seen out on the highway. He worked his way through the events several times and felt a wave of dizziness begin to envelop him.
"Not an accident, Cap'n." Service put his hand on the back of Nantz's truck to hold himself up. "Not an accident," he repeated.
Without remembering why or how, Grady Service had his .38 snub out of the holster in the back of his belt and was staring at it in his hand.
"Detective!" the captain said in his sharpest command voice. He looked at the wrecker driver and waved for him to get out.
The man backpedaled out the door.
"Grady, give me your piece."
"Murder, Captain. Not an accident. They were murdered."
"The gun, Grady. Now."
Service pondered the captain's request and finally held out the small pistol, grip toward the captain.
"I got more guns, Captain."
"Captain, I am going to hunt down the cocksucker who did this and I am going to blow his fucking brains out."
The captain grabbed Service's arm, but the bigger man swept him away and barged outside.
Ware Grant found him sitting in his Tahoe and got in beside him.
"You're off duty until further notice, Detective."
"I'll find who did this-one way or another," Grady Service said, grinding his teeth. His mind was in overdrive. If Nantz had been deliberately forced off the road, there could be only two reasons, and one of them-the most likely in his mind-was revenge against him.
"I'll talk to the Troops. Let the process work, Grady."
Service's face twisted in a rictus of pain and anger. "Yeah, do that-but I promise you this: Whoever did this is never going to make it to trial. This is personal."
Only then did tears come, and he wasn't sure if they flowed from grief or the need for vengeance.
On his way home he called Nantz's cell phone and landline providers to request the bills from her phones. Maybe there was something there. Anything.
"I'm sorry, sir, are you related to the lady?" the cell phone company woman asked.
"I live with her."
"I'm sorry, sir, but the phone is not in your name."
"I'm with the DNR," he said, his temper spiking.
"I'm sorry, sir, but you'll need to get a warrant from the regular police."
Regular police! He broke off the call and pounded the steering wheel with his fists. He inhaled to settle himself, and considered calling the captain to see what he could do, but decided against it. Why the fuck didn't you marry her? he asked himself.
He then called the Marquette County Sheriff's Department and learned that Linsenman was off duty and called him at home.
"How're you doing?"
"I need a favor."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Like what?"
"I need to get Nantz's current phone records, but the company won't give them to me because we weren't married, the house phone is in her name, and I'm not regular police. Can you get them for me?"
"No problem," Linsenman said. "What do you want?"
"Home phone and her personal cell phone." He gave his friend the numbers.
"I can do this by fax. What's the rationale for the affadavit?"
"Needed for an ongoing investigation."
"The accident investigation is still open?"
"Just do it, okay?"
"Okay, drop them at your house or your office?"
"Your house is in Gladstone."
"Huh," the deputy said. "I'll drop them out at the camp. Anything else?"
"I appreciate this," Grady Service said.
Excerpted from strike dog by joseph heywood Copyright © 2007 by Joseph Heywood. Excerpted by permission.
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