Bruner, Wisconsin, is really two different towns. On one side are the magnificent summer estates of wealthy families who value their privacy and privilege above all else. A few miles away, but a world apart, are the homes of the working men and women who cook, clean, and tend to the needs of the summer visitors. It’s a place of staggering natural beauty, but where death can come unexpectedly and with no regard for a person’s bank account or family tree. A place of steadfast loyalties and friendships, but where the long and brutal winter can make even the most intimate friends turn on each other with frightening intensity.
This is the place where Sheriff Paul Summers finds himself grasping for answers when the wild, unpredictable woman who captured his heart years ago is discovered brutally and spectacularly murdered inside her family’s snowbound estate. As the last person to see her alive, and given his complicated history with the victim, Paul is not only lead investigator on the case but, in the eyes of many in Bruner, the prime suspect in her killing. Battling rumors of an evil cult’s being formed just outside of town, the disappearance of another citizen, and a wife whose grasp of reality is quickly slipping away, Paul must race to find the true guilty party before a massive winter storm leaves them all cut off from the outside world and at the mercy of a remorseless killer.
As the approaching storm gathers in intensity, so do the twists and turns that bring Paul ever closer to unraveling the big secrets that haunt this small town. In a stunning conclusion, Paul witnesses firsthand the startling power and beauty of heaven’s fury.
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SHE IS EXQUISITE, wonderfully responsive to my touch, and eager to please me any way she can. She is Intrepid, the canoe my father and I built twenty-four years ago during a long, hard Wisconsin winter.
Intrepid was a labor of love, assembled meticulously rib by rib in our drafty wooden barn because my father, John Summers, was a meticulous man. Joints had to be seamless; weight distribution exact; surfaces sanded silky smooth; and we had to use tools one at a time and return them to their designated hook or drawer before we could use the next one. My father allotted just one hour a day for the project, but during that time he allowed nothing to disturb us, not even my two younger brothers, who desperately wanted to be included. During that hour we were completely alone in a world dominated by the sweet smell of freshly cut birch and maple and the soothing sounds of jazz drifting softly from my father’s dust-covered eight-track player.
It seemed like it took forever to build Intrepid, but in the end it didn’t take long enough. We became father and son that winter despite what we both knew he’d done. Then, suddenly, he was gone. It was what he wanted, what I assume finally brought peace to his soul, but I still haven’t forgiven him.
The sun’s late-afternoon rays are captured by the river, transforming its glittering silver surface to burnt orange as Intrepid glides into the flames. Her smooth hull and sharp keel guide me downstream past the dense pine forest that surrounds the river on both sides, isolating me from the outside world. I inhale the warm summer air as I paddle. Wrapped inside it are the pleasant scents of pine, honeysuckle, wildflowers, and the water—scents that don’t last long in north-country.
My daydream is shattered by the hollow ring of an old rotary phone that sits on my desk, and I’m thrust back into reality. Back to my small office and the gray Wisconsin winter laying siege to the territory outside my precinct.
The old phone hides among a stack of pending misdemeanor reports, unsolved crossword puzzles, and Styrofoam cups half-full of stale coffee. Over its ring I hear my assistant, Mrs. Erickson, gossiping on her phone. She and I are alone in this bush-league excuse for a precinct. It has just a small reception area, my office, a file room, a single jail cell, and a cramped conference room that’s barely big enough for my four deputies and me at our weekly Monday afternoon meetings. It doesn’t intimidate people the way it should—the way my barracks in Madison did and the way my precinct in Minneapolis did before that.
Mrs. Erickson is deep into her conversation and she ignores me. She’s the lightning rod of a well-organized information web that’s especially active in northern Wisconsin during the winter and encompasses several hundred square miles. North the short distance to Lake Superior, also called the Big Lake around here; west to Minnesota’s port city of Duluth; south to the tiny town of Hayward; and east into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mrs. Erickson constantly relays lies, rumors, and sometimes even a little truth to her inner circle, who pass on the information to others, who pass it on to still others. Like concentric waves forced outward by the impact of a falling stone in a pond, the information spreads quickly into the community until it seems like everyone knows everyone else’s business. I don’t like the idea of everyone knowing my business; I don’t think it’s good for the community in general for everything to be so transparent. But my opinion doesn’t matter.
When I became sheriff of Dakota County four years ago, I tried to sweep away Mrs. Erickson’s web. Mostly because I wanted her focused on being my assistant, but a little, I have to admit, because I wanted to control the flow of information around here. I had a stern talk with her about it one morning a few weeks after I took over, and that afternoon I was called into a quickly convened, closed-door session of the Bruner town council. The meeting was held in the storage room of Cam Riley’s hardware store, which is a few doors down from the precinct. There I was told in no uncertain terms to stop interfering.
I’ve never spoken to Mrs. Erickson again about how much time she wastes on the phone, because I need this job. Being sheriff of Dakota County is basically the end of the line for a lawman. Still, it’s frustrating not to be completely in charge.
“Mrs. Erickson, answer that call!”
Her chair rolls heavily across the wooden floor beneath her sturdy form, then my door slams shut. She won’t be answering the call. She understands the leverage she has around here and isn’t afraid to use it.
I grab the receiver. “This is Sheriff Summers,” I mutter angrily.
A familiar voice races to my ear. Gentle but powerful, it sets my nerves on fire. “Hi.”
“I’m so glad you’re there.”
It’s Cindy Prescott Harrison. She’s beautiful, rich, and married—to someone else. She’s a member of one of the River Families, as the locals call them. Wealthy outsiders who own estates south of town where they summer, the River Families usually only mix with locals when they need something.
“Why are you so glad I’m here?” I ask, trying too hard to sound casual.
Cindy heard it right away. “I am relaxed, damn it.”
She laughs an easy laugh that’s haunted me for years. “I’m on my way up there for the weekend,” she explains, “but I want to fill my car up before I go to the estate so I’m going to Bat’s Exxon station first. Then I’ll drop by the precinct. I’ll be there in a little while, so you stay put,” she orders in a firm but friendly tone. “I can’t wait to see you.”
I lean back in my creaky chair, push up a slat of the dusty blind behind me, and peer out through a grimy pane into the half-light of the late afternoon. Big, puffy flakes are beginning to fall from the leading edge of a storm that’s bearing down on us. It isn’t even four o’clock, but it’ll be dark in less than thirty minutes. By then there’ll be an inch or two of new snow on the ground and I need to get home before things get bad, home to the other woman who haunts me.
“Cindy, I’ve got to—”
“I swear they’re following me,” she interrupts. Her voice turns faint as she looks over her shoulder. “I’m scared.”
“What?” I lean forward over my desk and press the receiver tightly to my ear. “Scared? Why?”
“This blue van’s been behind me ever since I left Hayward,” she says, her voice back at full volume. “When I slow down, it slows down. When I speed up, it speeds up.”
Hayward is the next town south of here. It’s twenty miles away through the pine forest that isolates Bruner from the rest of the world. It isn’t quite as remote an outpost as Bruner, but almost.
“They’re following me, Paul, I know they are.”
Panic and anger knife through me. I’d kill anyone who touched her. “They?”
“I can see two in the front, and there’s probably a gang of them in the back. I’ve waved for them to pass me a couple of times, but they won’t. It’s creepy, I—”
Suddenly I’m picking up only garbled syllables. “Cindy?” The gibberish continues for what seems like an eternity. Finally, her voice blares through the phone again.
“Paul, Paul are you there? I hate cell phones,” she mutters.
“Cindy.” I can hear her, but apparently she can’t hear me. “Cindy!”
“Paul, Paul! God, the reception’s terrible out here. I hope these guys don’t try to—”
The connection dies and I’m left to wonder if the blue van is real or just a ploy. Cindy can manipulate things so easily.
She’s been able to manipulate me ever since I’ve known her. Ever since our first encounter that early summer afternoon so long ago on the Boulder River when I came around a bend and found her skinny-dipping alone. She was standing there knee-deep in the water as I paddled Intrepid downstream, smiling coyly at me, arms at her sides, not trying to hide anything. Water from her long blond hair was dripping down her beautiful, tanned body and her eyes were flashing. I was embarrassed and spellbound at the same time. I tried to seem like I wasn’t looking at her, like I didn’t notice her, when it must have been obvious I did. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught her signaling for me to stop.
After she got a towel from the riverbank and wrapped it loosely around herself, we talked for an hour. She did most of the talking, because I could barely put together a coherent sentence. I was sixteen, my hormones were raging, and I couldn’t stop sneaking sidelong glances at this gorgeous girl. It turned out she was staying at her family’s estate for the summer, assuming she was going to be bored out of her mind. It ended up being the best summer of her life, she told me years later.
It was the best summer of my life, too. Until her family found out she was seeing me and suddenly she was gone with no warning. Whisked back to the family compound in Minneapolis by her father before we were supposed to meet at her family’s gate out on State Road 681 one August night. I waited there until midnight, hoping she’d show up, but she never did. Then it turned into the worst summer of my life. Not just because Cindy was gone, but because I suddenly figured out how the world really worked and which color my collar was. Then I lost my father.
I try calling Cindy’s cell phone three times but it goes straight to her voicemail. Finally, I put the phone back down, the image of her standing there naked knee-deep in the river that summer afternoon vivid in my mind. As vivid as it’s ever been.
I take a deep breath, aware that I should be getting home, but I can’t shake the fear I heard in Cindy’s voice. It sounded real. Maybe the blue van wasn’t a figment of her imagination, and maybe the men inside just made their move, which is why my calls keep going straight to her voicemail. It’s not far-fetched to think that. There are strange men who do strange things in the north-country when it’s dark sixteen hours a day and gray the other eight. I’ve come face-to-face with that grim reality a few times.
I should go make sure Cindy’s safe. The road between here and Hayward is desolate. It’s a perfect place for a group of men with a bad case of cabin fever to do an evil deed. It would be official police business for me to check on her, my wife couldn’t argue with that.
I shake my head. That’s stupid. My wife can argue with anything—and often does.
I turn around and peer out the window again, trying to make a decision. The snow is falling faster and the flakes are turning smaller.
The storm is here.
© 2010 Stephen Frey