In the depths of winter, Cedar County is on occasion literally frozen in place. Roads are impassable; the area schools are closed for days at a time. And the bad guys and gals, they’re hunkered down like everyone else until the weather breaks. But this winter isn’t the usual. There’s arson and murder. The iniquities of some particularly unsavory ancestors are being visited upon the current generation.
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Toby Osmann moved out of the shadows of the forest and lumbered up the steep hill. He paused to catch his breath, allowing the two plastic gas cans he was lugging to settle into the snow. He slowly scanned the area, listening intently as he turned his head from side to side. All he could hear was the roar of the wind moving in the leafless trees and his own panting. He trudged on, trying to lift the heavy gas cans above the thick blanket of snow, his arms and legs too short for the task. As he sucked in the frigid air and forcibly expelled it, his jaw moved up and down, marionette-like. Nearly inaudible ramblings began flowing from his mouth — scatological obscenities and foul oaths.
Reaching the old farmhouse, he stopped for a moment, again looking and listening for any signs of life, any movement. There were none.
One at a time, he pushed the cans onto the deck, then, grabbing a railing, he pulled himself up. He trudged along the exterior wall of the house, avoiding the deep drift that had formed on the outer edge of the porch.
He stopped at the kitchen door, taking in its features in the dull blue light reflecting off the snow. He peered into the window in the upper half of the door. Frost on the interior of the glass partially obstructed his view.
Pulling off his gloves, he ran his hands over the cold smooth surface. A sharp chill ran through his frame.
"No one here. No one to hear. I'm in control. Pick the lock, leave the window." He worked a tension tool into the cylinder on the doorknob, then raked the key pins. The cylinder slowly yielded to his clockwise pressure.
Moving in largo time, the rhythm of his life and the speed of his cognition, he pushed the door open, the rusty hinges protesting with a dissonant moan. He set the gas cans down inside the door, switched on a small flashlight, and ran the yellowish beam around the rubbish-covered kitchen. Every horizontal surface — counters, the kitchen table, the sink, the top of the refrigerator — was stacked with dishes, pans, yellowing newspapers, empty food containers, and other assorted trash.
He moved through the rest of the refuse that filled the rooms on the ground floor. Gazing at the smudged mirror in one of the bedrooms, he was startled by his reflection in the dim light — large eyes, magnified by thick glasses, peering from a round face bound by tangled, shaggy hair.
He felt his control slipping away. With a sharp left jab, he shattered the mirror. The flashlight slipped from his hand, hit the floor, and the world fell into darkness. He fished around on the cold floor, his fingers sifting through the glass splinters. He wanted to push against the sharp edges until he felt the unique joy of rubbing his fingers in warm, slippery blood. "Stay in control," he said. "Toby hears you, Dr. Schulte. I'm not a cutter, not a cutter anymore."
He searched his pockets for his headlamp, filling the silence with a singsong of mumbled obscenities until he located it. After struggling to get the headband in place, he stood for a long moment as his eyes adjusted to the brilliant white beam.
Finding the door to the basement at the back of the kitchen, he climbed down the open staircase, controlling his descent by tightly clinging to the handrail. At the bottom he stood for a long moment, moving his head in a clockwise motion as he poured the light over the decades of detritus that choked the area: beat-up paint cans in one corner, a workbench littered with tools nearby. Tattered suitcases and cardboard boxes, some with clothing spilling from them, occupied much of the floor. A narrow trail through the debris led to a door at the end of the room. He followed it, his headlamp like a spotlight on the large hasp bolted to the doorframe and the brass padlock that secured the door. He carefully lifted the lock, tipping his head to put the beam of the light on the keyway. "Lucky, lucky little lock waiting for the tickle of Toby's steel cock," he intoned as he began to work the mechanism with his delicate picks, his hands starting to tremble in the cold. After several attempts, he was able to turn the tumbler and pull the lock open. He considered the prize briefly, then tossed it to the side and pulled the door open.
When he stepped into the room and the beam from his headlamp illuminated what was inside, words tumbled from his lips, a mixture of religious awe and profanities.
Shelves lined the walls, each holding neatly stacked boxes of ammunition. Rifles and shotguns stood sentry-like in a long floor rack. Pistols, barrel ends facing right, were carefully aligned on a board above the long guns. A large automatic rifle occupied the one table in the room. Behind the weapon, near the wall, were piles of cartridge boxes. He picked one up — Winchester .30-06.
After filling his backpack with cartridges, he lugged the heavy rifle up the stairs, repeating the mantra, "Lucky, lucky me. Lucky, lucky Toby. The game will soon be on."
Back on the main floor he fetched the gas cans and tipped one of them at the top of the basement staircase, listening as the five gallons of gasoline splashed down the stairs. Then he poured the second container around the house. Finally, he pulled a corrugated paper box from the front pocket of his backpack and placed it on the floor of the kitchen. He opened the top and looked into the interior at the time clock, batteries, igniter, and explosives. Toggling the switch from off to on, he smiled as the seconds on the digital face began rolling forward.CHAPTER 2
Ray Elkins, Cedar County Sheriff, ducked under the police line at the bottom of the drive and clambered through the deep snow up the steep hill toward the fire engines. He looked over at the smoldering ruins. What had once been a house had been reduced to a pile of smoking rubble. He saw a flicker of fire rise from the pile, wavering against the backdrop of the snowy woods.
Ray hated fire scenes. Foo often they were the site of great violence — uncontrollable death and destruction. And while the fires were seldom started with criminal intent, the devastation they caused brought heartbreak and suffering to the victims' lives.
Too many times he had stood with the survivors as the fire crews tried to control and then extinguish a blaze. Woodstoves, kitchen fires, electric heaters, and old wiring were usually the suspected causes when the old houses and trailers of the rural poor went up in flames. And the victims usually asked a variation of the same question, "What do I do now?" as they struggled with the almost incomprehensible losses.
"As it turns out, Sheriff, we couldn't do much of anything," said Tom Butler, the township fire chief, as he stopped at Ray's side. "The access road is seasonal. It was drifted entirely over. The first crew on the scene couldn't get up the hill from the highway. We needed an end loader to clear a path. While we were waiting, a couple of the young guys huffed it up the hill. They reported back that there was no rush. The structure appeared to be unoccupied and was fully engaged. We eventually got a rig and a tanker close to the fire. It was getting light by then.
"Just as we were starting to deploy the hoses, one of the guys runs over and starts yelling at me about the popping. I couldn't hear it from where I was standing near the idling diesels."
"Yeah, ammunition starting to cook off Sounds like popcorn on steroids. Once you've heard it, you know what it is. Some yahoos need a few thousand rounds stashed around the house to feel secure. When we hear ammo popping, our SOP is to just pull back until things go quiet. The loose rounds don't do much damage. They just burst, the bullets don't go anywhere. Loaded guns, that's a different matter. Guys with piles of ammo have lots of guns, loaded, of course. That's what happened here. Bullets were whizzing around for a bit.
"After things cool down, if someone bothers to rake through the ruins, they will find a collection of guns with spent rounds in the chambers."
"What happens now?" asked Ray.
"We'll wait until the fire mostly burns itself out. Then we'll cool the hotspots. But we're going to do it from a distance just in case. You should probably get the State Police arson investigator. Here's a vacant building — no power, no heat — that suddenly goes up in smoke. Someone did something.
"When I first got up here, I thought I smelled gasoline. I bet that someone poured a lot of fuel around the interior. You know this house belonged to your predecessor, Orville Hentzler?" said Butler.
"People have pointed his house out to me over the years," Ray acknowledged.
"He was one mean piece of work. Someone must have been carrying a grudge for a long time."
"When you arrived, were there any tracks in the snow leading up to the house? A snowmobile, snowshoes, tracks of any kind?"
"Well, if there were, I didn't notice any. Our focus was getting to the fire. Like I said, the drive was impassable, and we were getting heavy lake effect snow."
"Did you talk to Mike Ogden?" asked Ray, his eyes glued to the computer screen at the center of his desk. He continued to fill in the incident report as he waited for Sues answer.
"He was just finishing up when 1 arrived."
"How's our favorite arson investigator?"
"He seemed upset. There's a possibility that he's going to be transferred to State Police Headquarters in Lansing," said Sue.
"Doesn't sound like it. More a funding issue. They're cutting personnel. Ogden would be filling a couple of slots."
"Bad news if that happens. We've depended on his expertise. What did he say about the fire?"
"Arson. Said we can take that to the bank. And he added that it was a novice job or the arsonist didn't give a rip if his crime was discovered. Mike found a plastic gas can in the yard near the structure. He showed it to me. It was melted and partially burned, but there were still traces of gasoline. He also said he was divorced."
Ray looked away from the screen. "What?"
"Ogden said he was divorced," continued Sue. "I never knew he was married. He never hinted at it. No wedding band. I mean, we've worked together a lot over the last few years."
"And he was talking about his marital status as he was looking over a possible crime scene?" asked Ray as he turned and gave Sue his full attention. He noticed she was wearing her hair differently, a style that enhanced her natural attractiveness.
"No, that was later when we went to catch a burger at Art's. We were sitting there doing small talk, and the divorce thing came out of nowhere."
"So what's the big deal?"
"I don't know. There were times in the past when he was lingering. You know how guys hang around if they're sort of interested. He's a nice guy and all, but I think I've always made it quite clear that I wasn't interested. You know, I was involved with someone."
"Did he ever hit on you?"
"Never. So, did you know the house once belonged to Orville Hentzler?"
"Yes, My memory is that it was a dilapidated old farmhouse. I'm wondering about motive."
"PREVECT," said Sue.
"What?" Ray gave her a look.
"Aren't you glad you sent me to FBI and FEMA continuing education courses?" said Sue, finding an open space on the whiteboard. In a neat hand she wrote:
Profit Revenge Excitement Vandalism Extremism/Terrorism Crime Concealment
"REV," said Ray. "I'd bet on some combination of those three: revenge, excitement, and vandalism. And vandalism and excitement are probably one and the same. We haven't seen much arson lately."
"It's been a few years. Maybe we have a budding pyromaniac." "Now that's a happy thought. Revenge?"
"You tell me. How does torching a house inflict harm on someone who's been long dead?"
"Perhaps it's a poetic gesture? Sorr of like telling someone you're divorced," said Ray.
"I don't see the fit."
"Neither do I. That was just a segue in case you needed to talk about the divorce info some more," said Ray.
"No, I'm over it. And I'm not interested. I'm going to stick with canines, specifically Simone," said Sue. "She's always happy to see me, and there's never any unwanted drama in our relationship. Don't worry, I'll continue to share her. You need a dependable relationship, too. Maybe we should go to a biweekly schedule — equal time. But she's going to get fat, Elkins, if you keep feeding her lamb chops."CHAPTER 3
Ray guided his guest from the brilliant afternoon — the sun reflecting off the snow — into the tenebrous interior of the Last Chance, a favorite local bar and grill. Narrow rectangles of light projected from the small windows near the ceiling, illuminating the dark knotty pine paneling and worn black and red asbestos floor tiles. Most of the regular lunch crowd had already departed. There were just a few scattered tables where people were lingering over coffee or beer in quiet conversations.
"I wish I could have seen it while it was still in flames or at least smoldering. That would have been very cleansing," said Gretchen Witherspoon, the daughter of Rays predecessor as Cedar County Sheriff.
"For safety reasons, the firefighters on the scene had to stand clear and allow the fire to burn itself out. They reported ammunition burning off and some gunfire coming from the building, shells in loaded guns exploding due to the heat."
She gave Ray a long look. "That's not surprising. You never knew my dad, did you?"
"Only by reputation," said Ray. "When I was a kid growing up here, I knew that Sheriff Hentzler was to be avoided at all costs. And after I moved back here and became sheriff, well, I heard lots of stories. But you know how stories change over the years."
"Yes. Stories and legends, and as the years go by, it becomes harder to separate the grain from the chaff." Gretchen inhaled deeply and chewed on her lower lip. She wiped away a tear.
"Lots of memories," said Ray.
"Yes," she said. "Lots of memories, most of them painful. It was a weird marriage. He was decades older than my mother. His first wife had died years before. There were no children from that marriage. When I was growing up, he seemed more like other kids' grandfathers than fathers." She paused, tears welled up in her eyes. "I learned to be a survivor. That was my mothers greatest gift to me. That said, we both were scared of that SOB. Mom protected me and absorbed most of the damage. My brother, on the other hand, my poor sensitive brother, he didn't make it."
Gretchen went silent, turning away from Ray, slowly gazing around the room. Then she looked back at him, her eyes locking onto his. Ray could see a wave of sadness spread across her face.
"He rammed his car into a tree along M22 during the spring of his junior year in high school. It was a clear night, the road was dry, there were no skid marks, no braking. I was away by then, living in Ann Arbor. People up here said it was a tragic accident. It was tragic but hardly an accident. Dylan had been subjected to seventeen years of constant humiliation. He was depressed, crying for help, and all he got from my father were insults and abuse. I think Dylan just needed out. He couldn't take it anymore. And after Dylan's death, my mother decamped. She moved to the other end of the country and worked at restarting her life. Sadly, the damage was done. She died a few years later — uterine cancer. I know it's not rational or scientific, but I blame her death on him, too. His hate and anger were toxic. He harmed the people around him at the cell level. I mean, he was very handsome and could be friendly and engaging. He knew how to court his public. He knew how to get votes. He also had lots of prejudices, but his voters shared many of those. He knew how to manipulate people's fears to his best advantage. I was the lucky one, escaping before I was permanently damaged."
She paused as the waitress arrived with the menus. After they ordered, Gretchen continued, "Let me give you the backstory. My father went off to fight the Nazis in 1942 or 1943. He was maybe seventeen. He came back a big hero, with all the medals to prove it. As he told it, he'd killed a lot of Germans to make the world safe for democracy again. And I suspect he was brave and heroic. He was a man's man.
"Not long after he was mustered out of the service, the sheriff at that time immediately latched on to him. Nothing like having a young, handsome war hero on the force. Anyway, the war hero stuff was an important part of my fathers character. Our home was filled with lots of relics of the war: guns, bayonets, shells for I don't know what. On top of that, he was a gun collector. There were handguns and long guns of every type. He called his man cave in the basement 'the powder room.' There were no-smoking and no-trespassing signs on the door. Whenever he got something he was especially proud of, he would make me go down there and admire it. I couldn't have cared less. All those guns arranged just so. Shelves loaded with ammunition boxes."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Center Cannot Hold"
Copyright © 2018 Aaron Slander.
Excerpted by permission of Writers & Editors, LLC.
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