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Wolf Pass

Wolf Pass

3.5 2
by Steve Thayer

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When a railroad engineer is shot dead, and it is determined that the bullet came from a sniper's rifle more than six hundred yards away, all eyes turn on Deputy Sheriff P. A. Pennington as a suspect. Pennington-the man who solved the Wheat Field murders-is by far the best marksman in town, and had been an Army Ranger sniper in the war. When the engineer's young and


When a railroad engineer is shot dead, and it is determined that the bullet came from a sniper's rifle more than six hundred yards away, all eyes turn on Deputy Sheriff P. A. Pennington as a suspect. Pennington-the man who solved the Wheat Field murders-is by far the best marksman in town, and had been an Army Ranger sniper in the war. When the engineer's young and sexy wife is shot dead days later, he realizes that his worst nightmare is about to begin.

During the war, Nazi SS Colonel Christian Wolfgang Stangl-known as "the Wolf"-controlled the narrow mountain railroad pass in the Bavarian Alps used to ship millions of dollars in gold and war loot. Pennington had been sent on a suicide mission to shut down the pass-but the Wolf got away. Now it appears as if the Wolf is at his door.

Author Biography: Steve Thayer is the author of five novels, including The Weatherman and Silent Snow.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Thayer's story is far-fetched, but Pennington's amiable narration makes it go down easily enough. Before it's over, he's been elected sheriff and is promising more books about his adventures. These, he hints, may include additional mischief from Hitler's heirs: "The Nazis were like a virus that would lie in wait for a hundred years, slowly evolving into a fresh force." We haven't heard the last of evildoing in Kickapoo Falls. — Patrick Anderson
Publishers Weekly
Thayer brings back Deputy Sheriff P.A. Pennington of Kickapoo County, Wis. (hero of last year's The Wheat Field), who singlehandedly solves a set of sniper murders in which he is the chief suspect. The thriller is set in 1962, when Pennington is running for sheriff. As a Catholic, he meets with a good deal of suspicion from his largely Protestant electorate. That suspicion gets new focus when the double murder of a railway engineer and his wife disrupts the campaign, as the wife is a former lover of Pennington's. The engineer is shot at long range, and Pennington, a brilliant sharpshooter during WWII, is the obvious suspect in both murders. Yet he has a strong hunch about the real identity of the killer: former SS officer Col. Wolfgang Stangl. During the war, Pennington had escaped from a prison camp that Stangl directed. Now, Pennington believes, Stangl has come to the U.S. to set him up in a complicated revenge plot-and, what's worse, Stangl seems to be plotting to assassinate President Kennedy. Needless to say, Kickapoo law enforcement finds this story a bit far-fetched. But Pennington has a comely female Scotland Yard detective on his side, who mysteriously shows up in Kickapoo to help him out with the case. Their attempts to unveil Stangl bring the novel to a stunning climax. This fast-paced, sexy suspense novel also offers a snapshot of postwar ethnic and social rivalries in the bucolic fictional Wisconsin county. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Renegade SS officer exacts vengeance on the cop who gave him so much trouble during the war. Leaving his earlier Twin Cities settings, Thayer (Saint Mudd, 1992, etc.) returns to little Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin, and to Deputy Pennington, the WWII sniper who starred in Wheat Field (2002). It's now 1963, and Pennington is running for sheriff-tricky, given that he's a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region and also that he drags more than a few rumors behind him-just as a sniper takes out two local residents. The first is a railway engineer, shot in his train from such a distance that sharpshooter Pennington is the prime suspect. Next is the engineer's wife, a lonely beauty who used to invite Pennington over for canoodling (also tricky, since Pennington has been unable to, well, function since the war). Though he takes his sweet time saying so, Pennington is sure who the shooter is: Colonel Wolfgang Stangl. Your prototypic aristocrat SS sadist, Stangl imprisoned Pennington after he'd been parachuted into Germany to wreak some havoc with his sniper rifle on the critical rail junction of Wolf Pass (his first kill was an engineer on a train), which was under Stangl's purview. Nobody, of course, believes that an SS killer is really stalking Pennington, especially not his opponent in the sheriff's race, who's backed by the Gunn Club and its wealthy German-American-and Nazi-sympathetic-followers. Add to all this the gorgeous female Scotland Yard inspector who shows up to help Pennington, and Pennington's suspicion that Stangl is leading up to an assassination attempt on President Kennedy, with whom Pennington is soon to attend a Mass in St. Paul. Thayer puts his usual mix of whipcrackpacing and sexual obsession ("It seems like all the women in Kickapoo County had big tits") to fine use in this local noir. Well-researched, violent as always: an excellent addition to what's becoming a promising series of thrillers.

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Read an Excerpt


A Novel


Copyright © 2003 Steven Leonard Thayer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0399149910

Chapter One


In all my life the hills never changed. They were born of glaciers, mountains of ice that reached two miles high. For over a million years these immense ice packs shifted back and forth, carving out the land below. The last of the prodigious glaciers were seen heading north some ten thousand years ago, leaving behind great ridges of dirt and rock, and dark and deep waters that sparkle like stars beneath the summer sun. It is geography with an unusual heft and expanse. Today, enormous boulders are scattered about, and old wooded roads of dirt dip and rise on a dramatic scale. Too rugged for development. Too isolated for big-city tourists. So the rocks and trees in the heart of Wisconsin roll on for miles, up and down, jutting in and out, acting for a thousand years like a natural protector to all creatures, great and small, who choose to live in the vast green hollows. But too often over the years, unmitigated evil found its way into those beautiful hills. Then violence would shatter this hushed and peaceful world, and spill down into the villages nestled in the valleys. Like my hometown.

I found Frank Prager hanging out of the cab of his steam locomotive, like a sodden rag doll. A swath of blood, dark and red, stained theentire side of the cab, blacking out the white of the locomotive's four-digit number. A semicircle of railroad workers stood before the train station in Kickapoo Falls, like statues in the midmorning sun. Shocked. Silent. Grieving. I stuck a foot into the steel wheel workings of the 82-ton monster, grabbed onto a handrail, and hoisted myself up to the dangling body. The cab was nothing more than a partly enclosed platform on the back of a giant, belching boiler that could exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit under full steam. The dead engineer smelled of oil and coal. Grease and iron. And blood. Brain bits and skull fragments had splashed around the cab, smearing the gauges on the back of the boiler. His black and white striped overalls were tattered and worn. His cap, equally worn, lay at the track below my feet. Balancing on one foot and clinging to the handrail, I grabbed a fistful of soggy hair and lifted his head with my free hand. He'd been shot between the eyes. One shot. A large caliber. The damage to his face was extensive. Death was instantaneous. I recoiled in horror and unceremoniously let his head drop. What remained of his face made a soft bash against the side of the cab.

I jumped down to the tracks. Wiped my hands with a handkerchief. I slipped on my sunglasses and instinctively searched the high wooded hills, their peaks sheared off by ancient ice. White birches lined the lower regions just above the train station. Above that stood some of the oldest rock in North America-quartzite bluffs more than a billion years old, massive boulders that rolled into the spruce and the pine. Behind the pulpwood was a forest of maple, elm, white ash, and black oak that climbed into a steel-blue sky, where I was forced to avert my eyes from the glare. Death had found engineer Prager on a near-perfect September morning. The shot that killed him had come out of the sun.

"Tell me what happened."

Walter Beyer, the train's conductor, was standing beside me, visibly shaken. His normally pristine black uniform was askew. His coat was open wide. The tie around his neck had been yanked loose. The cap that was seldom seen off of his head was being wrung between his hands. "We were running two minutes behind," he said. "I checked my watch and called `all aboard' and ... I don't know ... Frank stuck his head out the cab to look down the train, like he always did ... then his head snapped back, real violent-like, and he dropped over the window there ... blood running out of him like a faucet. I climbed up there to check on him, and I seen that ... well, you saw it ... half his face was gone."

The conductor was a good deal older than his friend Frank Prager. The stubble of hair remaining on his balding head had gone to silver and white. The proud age lines of a railroad man creased his eyes. Like the old steam locomotive behind us, he was nearing retirement.

"Did you see anything?" I asked him.

"No, nothing unusual. I thought I might have heard a shot, but you know how noisy train yards can be." He shook his head in amazement. "The thing of it is, Deputy, I was staring up into the hills when it happened ... it was such a pretty day. I saw nothing. Had to be some kind of ghost up there. People that live here sometimes, you know, take the hills for granted. But Frank and I never did. We took this old train through these hills near every day. Never tired of the view. Guess I'll never look at them the same."

This was the first I'd ever heard of a ghost in the hills. In the summertime, the baronial hills were where we went to escape the tourists who flocked to Kickapoo Falls to frolic in the Dells, an enchanting fifteen-mile stretch of the Wisconsin River, where a melting glacier had left behind soaring cliffs and haunted gorges. The region's economy depended on those tourists, who were both a blessing and a scourge.

Walter Beyer nodded at Frank's tattered cap lying on the ground alongside the tracks. "May I?" he asked.

"Yes, go ahead."

The old conductor reached down and picked up the engineer's cap. Held it in his hands, along with his own.

A horde of passengers was strung out along the tracks, standing beside the twenty murky yellow cars that trailed the engine. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railway, nicknamed the Milwaukee Road, was a popular train, a lifeline for small towns in Wisconsin. Its importance could not be overstated. Already, word had spread down Main Street. A crowd from town was gathering. Cars and pickup trucks were pulling right up to the tracks. More deputies arrived. I ordered the station sealed off. The sheriff, or rather the acting sheriff, squealed to a halt with lights twirling and a siren screaming. The mayor was with him. I walked their way.

Packy Deitz jumped from the squad. "Frank got shot?"

"Yes. He's dead."

He stared up at the corpse. "Sweet Jesus, here we go again. Do you know who did it, Mr. Pennington?"

"Not yet," I told our cherubic mayor.

In Kickapoo Falls, the office of mayor was largely ceremonial. The real power lay in the sheriff's office. "Dear God," he said, "let's hope this was a hunting accident. The last thing this town needs is another murder. Especially with you two running for sheriff." The mayor moved off toward the body.

Sheriff Zimmer stood beside me now. He surveyed the sight as his deputies tried to clear the murder scene and restore some order to the train station. He was a tall, slender man. Wore a thick mustache at a time when mustaches were not only out of fashion, but they smacked of a sinister character. Still, the thick but neatly trimmed mustache somehow looked right on him. Lent him an air of authority and respect, though I often wondered what he'd look like without it.

Normally at this point I would describe J. D. Zimmer's personality, but he didn't seem to possess one. Some deputies called him "the iceman." I remember him as a reticent man. His steely eyes often made it difficult to discern his thinking. Looking back, I don't think I ever once saw him smile. He came up from Madison to fill the sheriff's position, the governor's appointment after the unfortunate death of our beloved Sheriff Fats. It was a death some still blamed on me. And though he was sent up to our county by the governor, rumor had it Zimmer's appointment came straight out of the Kickapoo Gunn Club-a very private and very secretive organization in which Zimmer was said to be a proud member. Perhaps, it was whispered, even some kind of club officer.

Zimmer, too, was hiding behind sunglasses that end-of-summer day. Sometimes he wore them indoors. Claimed bright light bothered his eyes. Maybe it did, but it was an annoying habit. Other than that, at the time of the engineer's murder, I liked the man well enough. He wore the sheriff's uniform as proud as Fats had worn it. On Labor Day we had all switched to our winter grays. Long-sleeved, tapered shirts. Black slacks. Silver Stetsons. Our badges were pinned proudly to our chests. The emblem of the Kickapoo County Sheriff's Department was embroidered on our arms. Fats had kept us looking sharp. He hated the slovenly appearance of rural cops. J.D. Zimmer was continuing that tradition. I vowed, if elected, I too would see that our policy of sharp uniforms continued.

Zimmer spoke without glancing my way, focusing his dark glasses instead on the dead engineer dangling from the train. "When is that trip of yours to St. Paul?"

Seemed like a strange question, considering the circumstances. "Next month," I reminded him.

He nodded the victim's way. "Do you think you can wrap this up before then?"

With a homicide, Fats once told me, people want justice, and they want it fast. You want to wrap it up quick. Don't let it linger. For a hundred years, justice in Kickapoo County had been swift and harsh. Zimmer seemed to understand that.

"I can try."

"Frank was a hunter, wasn't he?"

"Yes," I told him, "Frank and Lisa were both hunters."

"Lisa hunts?"


I watched him chewing on a thought. "I know it's out of season, but do you think this might have been some kind of hunting accident?"

"If you were out hunting illegally, Sheriff, would you hunt in the hills above a crowded train station?"

"Kids playing with a rifle?"

"It would have to be one hell of a rifle ... and one hell of a kid."

"And the shot came from those hills?"

"Yes, it had to."

"Let's get some Boy Scout troops up there. Comb every inch for clues."

"I'm on it, Sheriff."

I was about to turn and go, get back to work, when the sheriff stopped me with a pointed question. "Have you ever seen anything like this before, Deputy Pennington?"

I didn't answer the question, because the truth was, I had. The sheriff noticed my lack of a response. He looked directly at me for the first time. "You are the department's homicide investigator, are you not?"

Despite the upcoming election, we'd had an amicable relationship. Still, I didn't care for the way he'd put that. "Yes, Sheriff, I am."

"Well then, Deputy, it looks like you've got a homicide on your hands."

"Yes, it does. Somebody has to tell his wife. It should probably be me. I have to question her anyway."

"Yes, I understand you two are friends. You should be the one to tell her."

I didn't care for the way he phrased that, either. It would be the first homicide Zimmer and I had worked. No sheriff likes a murder on his watch, and we were off to a bad start on this one.

The morning sun felt good on my face. We were on the autumn side of summer. Labor Day had come and gone. The tourists had gone back to Chicago, or Milwaukee, or Minneapolis, or back to wherever the hell it was they had come from. I'd been looking forward to some rest and relaxation before the heat of the election. But as I walked back to my squad, I overheard several snippets of conversation that told me there would be no vacation before November.

"Gonna be a terrible blow for Lisa."

"Lisa's a pretty thing ... she'll marry again."

But the remark that troubled me most was the observation our loudmouthed mayor made to the sheriff when he thought I was too far away to hear. "Good Lord, that's no hunting accident, Sheriff. One shot ... from high in the hills ... right between the eyes. There's only one man in Kickapoo County who can shoot like that."

Chapter Two

CAMP KICKAPOO: In the Beginning

I tell this aspect of the story secondhand because it took place during World War II, while I was away, serving in Europe. Censorship was strict during those war years. Newspapers seldom published anything about German POWs. Photographs of German prisoners were subject to confiscation. Though often ignored, fraternization between prisoners and civilians was forbidden. After the war, government documents relating to the POWs were sealed. As a result, few Americans remember that over four hundred thousand German prisoners of war were held in more than five hundred prison camps in the United States. There were camps in every state in the union. More than a hundred fifty base camps, which spawned numerous branch camps. In fact, one of the first military sites selected for the housing of German prisoners was Camp McCoy in the heart of Wisconsin. The site was chosen because it was far from war-related industries and close to forests and farms, where laborers were badly needed. As fate would have it, one of the first branch camps out of McCoy was a small logging compound built for two hundred fifty prisoners at the foot of the Kickapoo Hills.

I feel comfortable in telling the story of Camp Kickapoo because of the trust I had in my primary source. As he told it to me, it all happened very fast and somewhat mysteriously. In early March of 1943, a Madison newspaper announced that a stockade and four watchtowers had transformed a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp into a prisoner-of-war camp-a small cluster of wooden buildings nestled beneath high bluffs three miles south of Kickapoo Falls. Across the road from the camp, wooden barracks were hastily erected in a farm field that had been leased by the army. At the end of March, soldiers who were to serve as guards arrived and moved into the barracks.

One American industry severely crippled by the labor shortage during the war was the pulpwood industry. Pulpwood states like Maine, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin suddenly found themselves in need of thousands of loggers. Since the pulpwood industry produced items essential to the war effort, the government moved quickly toward using prisoners of war to cut pulpwood, which are the softwoods such as spruce, aspen, or pine, used in the making of paper.

The hills surrounding the new camp were remote and ruggedly scenic, a seemingly endless forest of massive trees, with deep blue lakes and fast-running rivers. The small camp itself was another story. At Camp McCoy the prisoners had enjoyed accommodations similar to the best the United States provided for its own men. But the wooden buildings that formed their new camp were stark. Bleak. Barely functional. Chill winds shot through the doors and windows. The grounds were rough and muddy. The latrine was two hundred yards away. The nearest town was three miles away. The POW enclosure was divided into four compounds, three residential and one for recreation. Standard double-woven wire fencing topped with barbed-wire overhangs surrounded the whole works. At night, the haunting bright lights of the new stockade up in the hills could be seen from the town.


Excerpted from WOLF PASS by STEVE THAYER Copyright © 2003 by Steven Leonard Thayer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Steve Thayer is the author of five novels, including The Weatherman and Silent Snow.

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