It took a few moments before I could force myself to leave the car. It was small, ugly, and old and I hated it—a tan 1987 Dodge Colt with strips of rust running along the rocker panels and back wheel wells. But it was gloriously warm.
I had parked on the shoulder of the deserted county road, edging as close to the ditch as I dared. On the opposite side of the ditch loomed oak, pine, spruce, ash, and birch trees, bending and swaying in the hard wind. About 150 feet behind me was the turnoff that led to the lake property. I had studied the road carefully before driving past. In the summer, it would be dirt. Now it was ice and hard-packed snow, just wide enough for a single vehicle driven slowly. I found the impression of one set of tire tracks going in. None came out.
I was reluctant to use the road. What if Thomas Teachwell was watching it, what if he saw me coming? I wasn’t overly concerned that he might shoot me. According to my information it was unlikely that
Teachwell even had a gun, much less knew how to use it—although a man on the run is capable of anything. Nor was I anxious that he might escape. What did I care? But if Teachwell escaped with the money … That, after all, was why I had chased him 278 miles north from the Twin Cities on the coldest day in the past two decades. For the money.
I searched my memory for a few motivational phrases. “The job gets easier once you start,” was something my mother often told me. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” was a favorite of my high school hockey coach. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” That was something my skills instructor at the police academy liked to say. None of the clichés inspired me enough to lift the door handle. Finally, I recited out loud the words my father used whenever I complained about picking up other people’s trash along the highway when I was slaving away my summers for the county: “Hey, kid. You got a problem with workin’ for a living?”
I opened the door and stepped out. The frigid air hit me so hard I nearly fell back against the car. A violent gust gathered grains of ice from the road and swirled them around my face. The knit ski mask I wore afforded some protection, yet instinctively I closed my eyes and angled my head away from the wind.
“Do you believe this!” I exclaimed to the empty highway. Often in the past I’ve heard people speak of icy winds cutting like a knife. They’re wrong. It isn’t a knife, it’s a club. It doesn’t cut, it bludgeons.
I slammed shut the car door and immediately patted the pockets of my bright red snowmobile suit, feeling the weight in both of them. My gun and badge were in the right. My cell phone was in the left. Satisfied, I spun into the wind and trudged, head down, toward the turnoff. I thought about locking the door, but any notion of car thieves lurking nearby was blown away with the next polar blast. Given the current temperature, I doubted the car would start again, anyway.
After a few steps I became keenly aware of my isolation. In front of
me the county road stretched like a ribbon of gray and white until it bent behind a stand of trees and was gone. Behind me the gray-white road didn’t turn, but merely receded into a distant horizon of blowing snow. My ancient Colt was the only evidence that I was living in the twenty-first century. I longed to see another vehicle—snowplow, truck, car, SUV, even one of those damn minivans. None appeared. I began to question the wisdom of the entire enterprise.
“I’m going to die out here,” I told myself. “They’re going to find me frozen to a tree like that guy in that Redford movie,
Still, I moved on. Snow and ice crunched loudly beneath my heavy Sorrels. Mostly it sounded like I was trodding on potato chips, but every few steps I heard a loud, alarming crack that shrieked like the rending of lake ice and made me flinch. About halfway to the turnoff, I left the county highway and moved toward the woods. With my second step into the ditch I descended unexpectedly into waist-deep snow. There was a moment of panic—somehow I had the idea I was sinking into a kind of Nordic quicksand—but it promptly subsided. With hard effort, I plowed my way across the ditch to the steep embankment on the far side. Grabbing hold of the low-hanging branch of a spruce tree, I pulled myself up.
The snow wasn’t as deep in the woods, only about a foot. It was hard going, but not as hard as it had been. Still, after fifty yards I was breathing rapidly and I began to feel warm inside my snowsuit. After a few more yards I was perspiring freely. I paused for a moment to rest.
“Can sweating in subzero temperatures bring on hypothermia?” I asked myself. Not having a clear answer troubled me. “Damn, Mac. You should have been better prepared.”
I continued walking. My plan was simple if not contradictory: Follow the road to the lake cabin, but stay off it. Keep your distance, but don’t let it out of your sight. Make sure Teachwell doesn’t see you coming, but don’t get lost, either.
The “woods were dark and deep,” as the Robert Frost poem suggested. There was no sun, or even the hint of sun, and a subtle gloom fell around me. Yet it wasn’t the lack of light that made the woods seem so terribly strange and weird. It was the lack of sound. The wind that had blown so ferociously across the county road was less noticeable here. The trees still swayed and twisted above me, but on the forest floor all was still. And silent. Even my feet trudging through the snow made little noise. The only sound I could hear through the blue ski mask was the muffled timbre of my own breath. I found it very disconcerting. For the first time I understood why some people believe that going deaf is worse than going blind.
After a while, I began to lose sense of both time and distance. I was sure I had hiked a long way, but was unable to determine with any accuracy how far—the trail behind me seemed to disappear into the trees after only a few dozen yards. And while I was positive that the lake cabin was just up ahead, I had nothing on which to base that assertion except my own natural confidence.
I stopped, pulled off one of the large, fur-lined brown leather mittens they used to call “choppers” when I was a kid, and read my watch. How long had I been walking? One hour? Two? Twenty minutes? I should have checked the time before I left the county highway.
There was little else to do—I had limited my options, which, of course, is never a wise thing to do—so I continued hiking forward, although I had to admit my enthusiasm was waning. Ice formed around the mouth hole in the ski mask, and my eyebrows, left exposed by the eye holes, were frosted. I knew cold. I had grown up in Minnesota, after all. Only I couldn’t remember ever being colder. Certainly it was too cold to travel by foot.
That’s when I realized I had lost sight of the road.
Okay, this is a mistake,
I admitted to myself.
They really are going to find me frozen to a tree.
I held on through a level stretch of woods. The pump jockey at the service station in Ponemah said the cabin was less than a mile from the county road, yet that estimate had proved to be woefully inaccurate. I didn’t know how far I had walked, but it was a helluva lot farther than a mile.
Then I was out of the woods. The clearing had appeared so abruptly that I was several yards deep into it before I turned and quickly retreated back along my trail until I was safely concealed by the trees.
I squatted behind a stand of spruce and examined the clearing. An SUV was parked about thirty yards from the mouth of the road. The license plate was obscured by snow but I knew a 2001 Toyota 4Runner when I saw one. Teachwell’s. Beyond it was a small, redwood-stained cabin, one of those prefabricated jobs built atop gray cinder blocks. A curl of white smoke drifted up from a metal pipe on the roof and was caught by the wind.
“I don’t believe it,” I said in a low whisper. Half the cops in Minnesota were searching for Thomas Teachwell—Minneapolis Police Department, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, State Highway Patrol, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, even the FBI. Yet I was the one who found him. ’Course, it was plain dumb luck that I knew where to look. I had been in a bar on West 7th Street in St. Paul drinking beers with Bobby Dunston—make that
Bobby Dunston, thank you very much—when this guy on the other side of the bar—a DWI just waiting to happen—pointed at the TV suspended in the corner and said, “I know where he is.” One of the local stations was reporting that the search continued for Thomas Teachwell, CFO for a national restaurant chain based in Minneapolis. I had seen the teletype the feds had issued on him. He was being sought for embezzling an undisclosed amount of the company’s assets. They used the term “undisclosed” for the same reason they use it when miscreants take down a bank. They didn’t want to encourage copycats. Yet you know they had the amount
down to the penny. I figured it was at least half a million—why else would the FBI be involved?
“I’m tellin’ yah,” the DWI repeated. “I know where he is.”
“Yeah?” asked the bartender.
“Sure. I know this guy who knows this guy who was paired up with Teachwell on a golf course couple years ago when Teachwell was getting a divorce and the guy said that Teachwell told him that the only thing he regretted about his divorce was that he couldn’t visit his brother-in-law’s cabin in northern Minnesota anymore. The guy said that Teachwell said that he enjoyed it up there because it was so isolated, because you could go for weeks at a time without seeing another human being.”
“Hey, Bobby,” I said. “Hear that? Isn’t that what you plainclothes guys call a clue?”
“Leave me alone, McKenzie.”
“Seriously, Bobby. You should go to northern Minnesota and catch this guy. Think how happy you’ll make the feds. They might even give you a new tie to wear.”
“One, there’s no way this guy’s holed up in his ex-brother-in-law’s cabin. He’s probably skipped the country by now. Two, it’s not my case and not my jurisdiction. Three, screw the FBI. And four, I believe this constant reference to my attire is merely a manifestation of your resentment over the inescapable fact that I have been elevated to the dizzying heights of detective while you continue to languish in the lowly ranks of patrolman.”
I chose to ignore the last remark, mostly because it was true.
“It’s your own fault, you know,” Bobby added. “You should never have used a shotgun on that guy.”
I chose to ignore that remark, too.
“I’m just saying, you’re missing a golden opportunity,” I said.
“Think so? Then you go. Catch Teachwell, maybe they’ll promote you to sergeant. They might even give you a nice suit and tie to wear.”
I put two fingers in my mouth, pretending I was going to force myself to vomit. Still, the idea of showing up Bobby was just too delicious to ignore. The next day I did a little research. I discovered that Teachwell had married and divorced a woman named Yvonne Martinson. Yvonne had a brother named Anthony Martinson, a middle manager for 3M. I conducted a property search on the PC and discovered that Anthony had a cabin on Lower Red Lake in the Red Lake Indian Reservation, a dozen miles west of Ponemah and about an hour’s drive from the Canadian border. I had some ATO coming, so I took a day. The sarge asked me what I was going to do and I told him lay on the beach. Since the wind chill was minus 67 degrees at the time, he thought that was pretty funny.
I watched the cabin for what seemed like a long time. Nothing moved except for the white smoke drawing out of the chimney and disappearing in the stiff wind. I began to think that it must be toasty warm inside the cabin and I wanted so much to be warm again. I worked my way to the left, staying low behind the tree line, wishing that I wasn’t dressed in red, until I found what I thought was a blind spot, an angle on the cabin where I wouldn’t be seen from either a side or front window.
I stopped and studied the cabin some more. To my left was Lower Red Lake, a body of water so large that I was unable to see the opposite shore. There were a half dozen such lakes in Minnesota. Plus about fifteen thousand more where you could see the other side and almost nine thousand miles of rivers and streams. In summer it’s glorious. In winter, well …
I counted slowly—“One, two, three”—and dashed forward. I used to have good speed. In high school I ran the hundred meters in 12.4 seconds. Only the snow was too deep for speed. I didn’t run so much as I plowed. I tried to keep my feet up, tried to rise above the snow and mostly failed. Floundering, once falling, I pushed myself forward—I must have made
a terrific target, a slow-moving red blob against pure white. The vague fear of freezing was suddenly replaced by something far more tangible—the fear of being shot. It was a fear I had known before.
Finally, I was there. The cabin had been raised on a hill. The rows of cinder blocks supporting the back of it were only one deep, but in front the gray blocks were stacked six high. I slipped under the cabin and fell to my knees on frozen dirt. I took one deep breath. The noise of it distressed me. I quickly covered my mouth with a chopper, hoping my breathing wouldn’t be heard through the floor above.
I began to see things beneath the cabin while I waited to regain my breath—canvas lawn chairs, old planks, a stack of red-tinged shingles, an ax, a metal minnow bucket, a boat anchor, a busted oar, the cracked windshield of a speed boat—only it was the brown earth that seemed most out of place. With all the snow around, it seemed incongruous that this small patch of dirt would remain unmolested.