About the Author
Hometown:St. Paul, Minnesota
Date of Birth:February 23, 1944
Place of Birth:Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Education:State University of Iowa, Iowa City: B.A., American History; M.A., Journalism
Read an Excerpt
1The wind whistled down the frozen run of ShastaCreek, between the blacker-than-black walls of pine. Thethin naked swamp alders and slight new birches bentbefore it. Needle-point ice crystals rode it, like sandpapergrit, carving arabesque whorls in the drifting snow.
The Iceman followed the creek down to the lake, navigatingas much by feel, and by time, as by sight. At six minuteson the luminous dial of his dive watch, he began tolook for the dead pine. Twenty seconds later, its weather-bleachedtrunk appeared in the snowmobile headlights,hung there for a moment, then slipped away like a hitchhikingghost.
Now. Six hundred yards, compass bearing 270 degrees. . .
Time time time . . .
He almost hit the lake’s west bank as it came down fromthe house, white-on-white, rising in front of him. Heswerved, slowed, followed it. The artificial blue of a yardlight burrowed through the falling snow, and he eased thesled up onto the bank and cut the engine.
The Iceman pushed his faceplate up, sat and listened.He heard nothing but the pat of the snow off his suit andhelmet, the ticking of the cooling engine, his own breathing,and the wind. He was wearing a full-face woolen skimask with holes for his eyes and mouth. The snow caughton the soft wool, and after a moment, meltwater begantrickling from the eye holes down his face beside his nose.He was dressed for the weather and the ride: the snowmobilesuit was windproof and insulated, the legs fitting intohis heavyweight pac boots, the wrists overlapped by expeditionski mitts. A heavyweight polypropylene turtleneckoverlapped the face mask, and the collar of the suitsnapped directly to the black helmet. He was virtually encapsulatedin nylon and wool, and still the cold pried at thecracks and thinner spots, took away his breath . . .
A set of Bearpaw snowshoes was strapped behindthe seat, on the sled’s carry-rack, along with a corn-knifewrapped in newspaper. He swiveled to a sidesaddle position,keeping his weight on the machine, fumbled a miniaturemilled-aluminum flashlight out of his parka pocket,and pointed it at the carry-rack. His mittens were too thickto work with, and he pulled them off, letting them danglefrom his cuff-clips.
The wind was an ice pick, hacking at his exposed fingersas he pulled the snowshoes free. He dropped them onto thesnow, stepped into the quick-release bindings, snapped thebindings and thrust his hands back into the mittens. They’dbeen exposed for less than a minute, and already felt stiff.
With his mittens on, he stood up, testing the snow. Thelatest fall was soft, but the bitter cold had solidified the layersbeneath it. He sank no more than two or three inches.Good.
The chimes sounded in his mind again: Time.
He paused, calmed himself. The whole intricate clockworkof his existence was in danger. He’d killed once already,but that had been almost accidental. He’d had toimprovise a suicide scene around the corpse.
And it had almost worked.
Had worked well enough to eliminate any chance thatthey might catch him. That experience changed him, gavehim a taste of blood, a taste of real power.
The Iceman tipped his head back like a dog testing forscent. The house was a hundred feet farther along the lakeshore. He couldn’t see it; except for the distant glow of theyard light, he was in a bowl of darkness. He pulled the cornknife free of the carry-rack and started up the slope. Thecorn-knife was a simple instrument, but perfect for an ambushon a snowy night, if the chance should present itself.
In a storm, and especially at night, Claudia LaCourt’shouse seemed to slide out to the edge of the world. As thesnow grew heavier, the lights across the frozen lake slowlyfaded and then, one by one, blinked out.
At the same time, the forest pressed in: the pine andspruce tiptoed closer, to bend over the house with an unbearableweight. The arbor vitae would paw at the windows,the bare birch branches would scratch at the eaves.All together they sounded like the maundering approachof something wicked, a beast with claws and fangs that rattledon the clapboard siding, searching for a grip. A beastthat might pry the house apart.
When she was home alone, or alone with Lisa, Claudiaplayed her old Tammy Wynette albums or listened to thetelevision game shows. But the storm would always comethrough, with a thump or a screech. Or a line would godown somewhere: the lights would stutter and go out, themusic would stop, everybody would hold their breath . . .and the storm would be there, clawing. Candlelight made itworse; hurricane lanterns didn’t help much. For the kinds ofwickedness created by the imagination during a nighttimeblizzard, only modern science could fight: satellite-dish television,radio, compact disks, telephones, computer games.Power drills. Things that made machine noise. Things thatbanished the dark-age claws that pried at the house.
Claudia stood at the sink, rinsing coffee cups and stackingthem to dry. Her image was reflected in the windowover the sink, as in a mirror, but darker in the eyes, darkerin the lines that framed her face, like an old daguerreotype.
From outside, she’d be a madonna in a painting, the onlysign of light and life in the blizzard; but she never thoughtof herself as a madonna. She was a Mom with a still-shapelybutt and hair done with a red rinse, an easy sense of humor,and a taste for beer. She could run a fishing boat and swinga softball bat and once or twice a winter, with Lisa stayingover at a friend’s, she and Frank would drive into Grant andcheck into the Holiday Inn. The rooms had floor-to-ceilingmirrors on the closet doors next to the bed. She did like tosit on his hips and watch herself fuck, her head thrown backand her breasts a burning pink.
Claudia scraped the last of the burnt crust from the cupcaketin, rinsed it and dumped it in the dish rack to air-dry.
A branch scraped against the window. She looked out,but without the chill: she was humming to herself, somethingold, something high school. Tonight, at least, sheand Lisa weren’t alone. Frank was here. In fact, he was onthe stairs, coming up, and he was humming to himself.They did that frequently, the same things at the same time.
“Um,” he said, and she turned. His thinning black hairfell over his dark eyes. He looked like a cowboy, shethought, with his high cheekbones and the battered TonyLamas poking out of his boot-cut jeans. He was wearing atattered denim shop apron over a T-shirt and held a paintbrushslashed with blood-red lacquer.
“Um, what?” Claudia asked. This was the second marriagefor each of them. They were both a little beat-up andthey liked each other a lot.
“I just got started on the bookcase and I rememberedthat I let the woodstove go,” he said ruefully. He waggledthe paintbrush at her. “It’s gonna take me another hour tofinish the bookcase. I really can’t stop with this lacquer.”
“Goddammit, Frank . . .” She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Moderately penitent, in a charming cowboyway.
“How about the sheriff?” she asked. New topic. “Areyou still gonna do it?”
“I’ll see him tomorrow,” he said. He turned his head, refusingto meet her eyes.
“It’s nothing but trouble,” she said. The argument hadbeen simmering between them. She stepped away from thesink and bent backwards, to look down the hall towardLisa’s room. The girl’s door was closed and the faint soundsof Guns ’N Roses leaked out around the edges. Claudia’svoice grew sharper, worried. “If you’d just shut up . . . It’snot your responsibility, Frank. You told Harper about it. Jimwas his boy. If it’s Jim.”
“It’s Jim, all right. And I told you how Harper acted.”Frank’s mouth closed in a narrow, tight line. Claudiarecognized the expression, knew he wouldn’t change hismind. Like what’s-his-name, in High Noon. Gary Cooper.
“I wish I’d never seen the picture,” she said, droppingher head. Her right hand went to her temple, rubbing it.Lisa had taken her back to her bedroom to give it to her.Didn’t want Frank to see it.
“We can’t just let it lay,” Frank insisted. “I told Harperthat.”
“There’ll be trouble, Frank,” Claudia said.
“And the law can handle it. It don’t have nothing to dowith us,” he said. After a moment he asked, “Will you getthe stove?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get the stove.”
Claudia looked out the window toward the mercury-vaporyard light down by the garage. The snow seemed tocome from a point just below the light, as though it werebeing poured through a funnel, straight into the window,straight into her eyes. Small pellets, like birdshot. “It lookslike it might be slowing down.”
“Wasn’t supposed to snow at all,” Frank said. “Assholes.”
He meant television weathermen. The weathermen saidit would be clear and cold in Ojibway County, and herethey were, snowing to beat the band.
“Think about letting it go.” She was pleading now.“Just think about it.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, and he turned and wentback down to the basement.
He might think about it, but he wouldn’t change hismind. Claudia, turning the picture in her mind, put on asweatshirt and walked out to the mudroom. Frank hadgotten his driving gloves wet and had draped them overthe furnace vent; the room smelled of heat-dried wool.She pulled on her parka and a stocking cap, picked up hergloves, turned on the porch lights from the switch insidethe mudroom and stepped out into the storm.
The picture. The people might have been anybody,from Los Angeles or Miami, where they did these things.They weren’t.
They were from Lincoln County. The printing was badand the paper was so cheap it almost crumbled in your fingers.But it was the Harper boy, all right. If you lookedclose, you could see the stub of the finger on the left hand,the one he’d caught in a log splitter; and you could seethe loop earring. He was naked on a bed, his hips toward thecamera, a dulled, wondering look on his face. He had thethickening face of an adolescent, but she could still seethe shadow of a little boy she’d known, working at hisfather’s gas station.
In the foreground of the picture was the torso of anadult man, hairy-chested, gross. The image came tooquickly to Claudia’s mind; she was familiar enough withmen and their physical mechanisms, but there was somethingabout this, something so bad . . . the boy’s eyes,caught in a flash, were black points. When she’d lookedclosely, it seemed that somebody at the magazine had putthe pupils in with a felt-tipped pen.She shivered, not from the cold, and hurried downthe snow-blown trench that led out to the garage andwoodshed. There were four inches of new snow in thetrench: she’d have to blow it out again in the morning.
The trench ended at the garage door. She shoved thedoor open, stepped inside, snapped on the lights andstomped her feet without thinking. The garage was insulatedand heated with a woodstove. Four good chunksof oak would burn slowly enough, and throw off enoughheat, to keep the inside temperature above the freezingpoint on even the coldest nights. Warm enough to start thecars, anyway. Out here, in the Chequamegon, getting thecars to start could be a matter of life and death.
The stove was still hot. Down to coals, but Frank hadcleaned it out the night before—she wouldn’t have to dothat, anyway. She looked back toward the door, at thewoodpile. Enough for the night, but no more. She tossed afew wrist-thin splits of sap-heavy pine onto the fire, to getsome flame going, then four solid chunks of oak. Thatwould do it.
She looked at the space where the woodpile should havebeen, sighed, and decided she might as well bring in a fewchunks now—give it a chance to thaw before morning. Shewent back outside, pulling the door shut, but not latched,walked along the side of the garage to the lean-to that coveredthe woodpile. She picked up four more chunks of oak,staggered back to the garage door, pushed the door openwith her foot and dropped the oak next to the stove. Onemore trip, she thought; Frank could do his share tomorrow.
She went back out to the side of the garage, into thedark of the woodshed, picked up two more pieces of oak.
And felt the short hairs rise on the back of her neck.
Somebody was here with her . . .
Claudia dropped the oak splits, one gloved hand goingto her throat. The woodlot was dark beyond the back ofthe garage. She could feel it, but not see it, could hear herheart pounding in her ears, and the snow hitting her hoodwith a delicate pit-put-pit. Nothing else: but still . . .
She backed away. Nothing but the snow and the bluecircle of the yard light. At the snow-blown trench, shepaused, straining into the dark . . . and ran.Up to the house, still with the sense of someone behindher, his hand almost there, reaching for her. She pawed atthe door handle, smashed it down, hit the door with theheel of her hand, followed it into the heat and light of themudroom.
She screamed.Frank stood there, with a paint rag, eyes wide,startled. “What?”
“My God,” she said. She pulled down the zip on thesnowmobile suit, struggled with the hood snaps, hermouth working, nothing coming out until: “My God,Frank, there’s somebody out there by the garage.”
“What?” He frowned and went to the kitchen window,looked out. “Did you see him?”
“No, but I swear to God, Frank, there’s somebody outthere. I could feel him,” she said, catching his arm, lookingpast him through the window. “Call nine-one-one.”
“I don’t see anything,” Frank said. He went through thekitchen, bent over the sink, looked out toward the yardlight.
“You can’t see anything,” Claudia said. She flipped thelock on the door, then stepped into the kitchen. “Frank, Iswear to God there’s somebody . . .”
“All right,” he said. He took her seriously: “I’ll go look.”
“Why don’t we call . . . ?”
“I’ll take a look,” he said again. Then: “They wouldn’tsend a cop out here, in this storm. Not if you didn’t evensee anybody.”
He was right. Claudia followed him into the mudroom,heard herself babbling: “I loaded up the stove, then I wentaround to the side to bring some wood in for tomorrowmorning . . .” and she thought, I’m not like this.
Frank sat on the mudroom bench and pulled off theTony Lamas, stepped into his snowmobile suit, sat down,pulled on his pacs, laced them, then zipped the suit andpicked up his gloves. “Back in a minute,” he said. Hesounded exasperated; but he knew her. She wasn’t one topanic.
“I’ll come,” she blurted.
“Nah, you wait,” he said.
“Frank: take the gun.” She hurried over to the serviceisland, jerked open the drawer. Way at the back, a fullyloaded Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum snuggled behinda divider. “Maybe it’s Harper. Maybe . . .”
“Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. He grinned at herruefully, and he was out the door, pulling on his ski gloves.
On the stoop, the snow pecked his face, mean little hardpellets. He half-turned against it. As long as he wasn’tlooking directly into the wind, the snowmobile suit kepthim comfortable. But he couldn’t see much, or hear anythingbut the sound of the wind whistling over the nylonhood. With his head averted, he walked down the stepsonto the snow-blown path to the garage.The Iceman was there, next to the woodpile, his shoulderjust at the corner of the shed, his back to the wind. He’dbeen in the woodlot when Claudia came out. He’d tried toget to her, but he hadn’t dared use the flashlight and, in thedark, had gotten tangled in brush and had to stop. Whenshe ran back inside, he’d almost turned away, headed backto the snowmobile. The opportunity was lost, he thought.Somehow, she’d been warned. And time was pressing. Helooked at his watch. He had a half hour, no more.
But after a moment of thought, he’d methodically untangledhis snowshoes and continued toward the dark hulkof the garage. He had to catch the LaCourts together, inthe kitchen, where he could take care of both of them atonce. They’d have guns, so he’d have to be quick.
The Iceman carried a Colt Anaconda under his arm.He’d stolen it from a man who never knew it was stolen.He’d done that a lot, in the old days. Got a lot of goodstuff. The Anaconda was a treasure, every curve and notchwith a function.
The corn-knife, on the other hand, was almost elegantin its crudeness. Homemade, with a rough wooden handle,it looked something like a machete, but with a thinnerblade and a squared end. In the old days it had been used tochop cornstalks. The blade had been covered with a patinaof surface rust, but he’d put the edge on a shop grinder andthe new edge was silvery and fine and sharp enough toshave with.
The corn-knife might kill, but that wasn’t why he’dbrought it. The corn-knife was simply horrifying: If heneeded a threat to get the picture, if he needed to hurt thegirl bad but not kill her, then the corn-knife was exactlyright.
Standing atop the snow, the Iceman felt like a giant,his head reaching nearly to the eaves of the garage as heworked his way down its length. He saw Frank come to thewindow and peer out, and he stopped. Had Claudia seenhim after all? Impossible. She’d turned away, and she’drun, but he could hardly see her, even with the garage andyard lights on her. He’d been back in the dark, wearingblack. Impossible.
The Iceman was sweating from the short climb up thebank, and the struggle with the brush. He snapped the releasesand pulled the bindings loose, but stayed balancedon the shoes. He’d have to be careful climbing down intothe trench. He glanced at his watch. Time time time . . .
He unzipped his parka, pulled his glove and reached insideto touch the wooden stock of the Anaconda. Ready.He was turning to step into the trench when the back dooropened and a shaft of light played out across the porch.The Iceman rocked back, dragging the snowshoes with hisboots, into the darkness beside the woodshed, his back tothe corrugated metal garage wall.
Frank was a dark silhouette in the light of the opendoor, then a three-dimensional figure shuffling down thesnow trench out toward the garage. He had a flashlight inone hand, and played it off the side of the garage. TheIceman eased back as the light crossed the side wall of thegarage, gave Frank a few seconds to get farther down thepath, then peeked around the corner. Frank had gotten tothe garage door, opened it. The Iceman shuffled up to thecorner of the garage, the gun in his left hand, the corn-knifein his right, the cold burning his bare hands.
Frank snapped on the garage lights, stepped inside. Amoment later, the lights went out again. Frank steppedout, pulled it tight behind him, rattled the knob. Steppedup the path. Shone the flashlight across the yard at thepropane tank.
Took another step.
The Iceman was there. The corn-knife whipped down,chunked. Frank saw it coming, just soon enough to flinch,not soon enough to avoid it. The knife chocked throughFrank’s parka and into his skull, the shock jolted throughthe Iceman’s arm. A familiar shock, as though he’d choppedthe blade into a fence post.
The blade popped free as Frank pitched over. He wasdead as he fell, but his body made a sound like a stepped-onsnake, a tight exhalation, a ccccuuuhhhhh, and bloodran into the snow.
For just a second then, the wind stopped, as though naturewere holding her breath. The snow seemed to pausewith the wind, and something flicked across the edge of thewoods, at the corner of the Iceman’s vision. Something outthere . . . he was touched by an uneasiness. He watched,but there was no further movement, and the wind andsnow were back as quickly as they’d gone.
The Iceman stepped down into the trench, started towardthe house. Claudia’s face appeared in the window,floating out there in the storm. He stopped, sure he’d beenseen: but she pressed her face closer to the window, peeringout, and he realized that he was still invisible. After amoment, her face moved back away from the window. TheIceman started for the house again, climbed the porch asquietly as he could, turned the knob, pushed the dooropen.
“Frank?” Claudia was there, in the doorway to thekitchen. Her hand popped out of her sleeve and the Icemansaw the flash of chrome, knew the flash, reacted,brought up the big .44 Mag.
“Frank?” Claudia screamed. The .357 hung in her hand,by her side, unready, unthought-of, a worthless icon ofself-defense. Then the V of the back sight and the i of thefront sight crossed the plane of her head and the .44 buckedin the Iceman’s hand. He’d spent hours in the quarry doingthis, swinging on targets, and he knew he had her, felt theaccuracy in his bones, one with the target.
The slug hit Claudia in the forehead and the worldstopped. No more Lisa, no more Frank, no more nights inthe Holiday Inn with the mirrors, no memories, no regrets.Nothing. She didn’t fly back, like in the movies. Shewasn’t hammered down. She simply dropped, her mouthopen. The Iceman, bringing the Colt back to bear, felt athin sense of disappointment. The big gun should batterthem down, blow them up; the big gun was a UniversalForce.
From the back room, then, in the silence after the shot,a young girl’s voice, not yet afraid: “Mom? Mom? Whatwas that?”
The Iceman grabbed Claudia’s parka hood, dragged herinto the kitchen and dropped her. She lay on the floor likea puppet with the strings cut. Her eyes were open, sightless.He ignored her. He was focused now on the backroom. He needed the picture. He hefted the corn-knifeand started back.
The girl’s voice again. A little fear this time: “Mom?”
Excerpted from "Winter Prey"
Copyright © 2009 John Sandford.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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