Authors: Aaron Stander
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Police Procedural, #Thriller
Writers & Editors
WHO HELPS THIS ALL HAPPEN
he blast from an assault rifle, intensified by the heavy overcast, reverberated through the valley, and bounced off the steep, heavily wooded hillsides. As the blare faded away, Ray Elkins, the Sheriff of Cedar County, lying behind an embankment of sand and second growth hardwoods, glanced up. He became aware again of the pounding rain on the newly emerged foliage overhead and the distant thunder as the storm continued to roll off Lake Michigan.
The clothing beneath his body armor had soaked through hours before, and he shivered as he and the other members of the SWAT team held their positions surrounding the cottage.
An early morning confrontation in the Mission Point Summer Colony had turned into a daylong standoff. The shooter had holed up in an old cottage of the still-deserted colony, a collection of more than 250 small seasonal dwellings built on the shore and through the valleys of an old Indian mission. Most of the structures in the colony dated back to a period near the turn of the twentieth century.
Ray lifted his head above the ridge, looked toward the white-framed building, and glanced at his watch. It was only a few minutes after four. Even with the dreary weather, there were still hours of light. And if the situation continued into darkness, banks of spotlights were already in position to illuminate the area.
In the early hours of the confrontation, Ray had tried to establish communication with the shooter, Garrick “Garr” Zwilling. First he had attempted to use a landline, then a cell—the numbers provided by the manager of the colony. Both were out of service.
Next, he had tried a bullhorn. Each attempt was met with gunfire, not necessarily in Ray’s direction. Most of the action seemed to be directed toward a nearby cottage, the windows and doors the focus of the shooter’s fury.
In the earliest stages of the faceoff, trying to avoid a “suicide by police” scenario, Ray quickly moved to contain the scene. SWAT team members surrounded the cottage from protected positions behind rolling dunes, preventing any possible escape. Other officers, some from neighboring jurisdictions, helped seal off the site from a hoard of curious onlookers drawn to the area as rumors of confrontation spread through the nearby communities.
Ray had hoped that Zwilling would eventually run out of bullets, rage, or both and come out with his hands in the air. These always end badly, he thought. He reflected on the all
too familiar patterns. The shooters, always male and usually young, with histories of depression, conditions often exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, would force a deadly showdown.
A prolonged break in gunfire prompted Ray to move to a better vantage point. He slowly surveyed the scene as he reviewed his options. The exterior of the century old cottage was covered with lap siding, the multiple coats of white paint peeling in places. The trim around the windows and porch were a forest green, as was the lettering of the name, Ravenswood Cottage.
The glass in most of the windows facing Ray was now cracked or broken. Heavy shutters still covered the windows on the second story.
Using binoculars, Ray tried to peer into the dark interior through the heavy gloom. He could see no light or movement, just indistinct shadows. Then his focus shifted to the sound of breaking glass, followed by the shutters on a second story window being pushed open. He anticipated another volley of gunfire, but only silence followed.
Several minutes later a tiny flicker of light appeared on the left side of the ground floor. A flash followed. Windows and doors exploded outwards, waves of flame propelling the fragments of wood and glass. Then the walls buckled out, fracturing in the middle. The roof and second story seemed to be suspended midair for a second or two before collapsing into a roaring inferno. Ray could see a figure moving among the debris that was thrown from the structure, the man’s hair and clothing aflame.
Before he could move from his position, other team members were already running toward the figure. By the time Ray reached the man, two EMTs had smothered the burning clothing with blankets and pulled him a safe distance from the roaring pillar of flames. “Still alive,” said one of them, in answer to Ray’s questioning expression. Then the victim was quickly loaded on a stretcher and carried away.
Firefighters and their equipment moved forward from a staging area a few hundred yards away and began to pour water on the flames. Within minutes, all that remained were the blackened remnants of the cottage. The cement block pillars of the foundation, only four courses high, now rose above the debris.
he next morning Ray stood on the promontory that had been his command post the day before with Richard Grubbs, the manager of the Mission Point Summer Colony. In the dappled light—the brilliant sun streaming through the dense foliage of the hardwood forest—firemen shifted through the charred debris.
“Building was there for close to a hundred years,” said Grubbs. “Made it through lots of storms, winters, generations of families, gone in what…?”
“Fifteen minutes,” answered Ray. “Actually, it was gone in a few seconds, fifteen minutes more for the fire to destroy what was left.” He looked over at his companion. Grubbs was tall, thin, and slightly stooped. A blue cotton, button-down shirt extended beyond the neck of a sweatshirt and khaki pants hung on his aging body. His feet disappeared into a worn pair of Bean camp moccasins.
“Well, there wasn’t much there, just framing, no drywall or plaster. It was one of the few cottages that hadn’t changed much over the years.”
“The explosion reduced it to kindling. What was left was quickly consumed by fire,” said Ray. He turned to Grubbs. “Sounds like you were familiar with the place.”
“I was in there many times over the years. In fact, I stopped by a couple of days ago to talk to Garr. One of our maintenance guys had reported that Zwilling was in residence. Normally we open the grounds for the summer residents the last weekend in April, but this year we moved it to the middle of May. That last ice storm in March, the one that knocked out the power for four or five days, caused a huge amount of destruction here. We still have roads blocked by fallen trees. Power hasn’t been fully restored to all the cottages. We notified all the owners of the delay, but somehow Zwilling didn’t seem to get the word. I went over to ask him to leave the area.”
“It was clear that the man had been drinking…probably for days. He was wild, unshaven, and
belligerent. In fact, I was thinking about calling your department for assistance. That said, we try to keep things in the family. Yesterday morning I asked one of our guys to check and see if Zwilling had left as he’d promised. Five minutes later Ted was back, saying that Zwilling was on his front porch, gun in hand. I walked back with Ted. I had some silly notion that I could talk him down. As we approached, he started shooting the windows out of the neighboring cottage. That’s when we crawled behind this hill, and I dialed 911.”
The men stood in silence for a long moment and watched the activity below.
“What’s Zwilling’s condition?” asked Grubbs. “Is he in Traverse City?”
“No. He was transported to the burn center in Ann Arbor as soon as he was stabilized. When I checked earlier this morning, he was still in critical condition. Have you had other encounters with him over the years?”
“I can’t say that I have. In a place like this you get to know people over many decades and generations. Granted, it’s only two months of the year, just a slice of their lives. I remember Garr’s grandparents, lovely people. His grandfather was a psychiatrist, a very quiet, thoughtful man. By default, he was our resident physician during the summer, first aid kind of things, cuts, bruises, the occasional stitch or two. Garr’s grandmother was always in the choir, a soprano. She also worked in the costume shop for our annual play and did the flowers for the chapel. They were lovely people. They had children late, after Dr. Zwilling returned from service in WWII.
“But their three kids were rounders of the worst sort. Remember, it was the 60s when they came of age, but they were all about drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll to the exclusion of everything else. Garr is the child of the second son, Jeff, and his hippy girlfriend. As I remember it she went by the name Moonbeam. That first summer they carried him around in a cardboard box with Tide printed on the sides. Then they sort of disappeared. Word was they were living in a commune in California or Arizona. Next time I saw the kid he was in his teens, sent to spend the summers here with his aunt, Regina. She ended up inheriting the cottage after Dr. Zwilling and his wife had passed on. She was the only one of the three children who turned out okay.”
“And she still owns the place?”
“As far as I know. I haven’t seen her around here in years. In fact, the cottage has been standing empty for a number of seasons. That happens sometimes. People vacation in other places, get sick, and sometimes end up in nursing homes or die. No one uses the cottage. So I was surprised when Garr showed up. I hadn’t seen him for years, but he looked just like his dad, long hair and all. Impossible not to recognize.”
“Did you contact Regina about the fire and her nephew?”
“I tried to call her yesterday. The number I had was out of service, and I don’t have an email address for her. We have lots of people dropping their landlines, and they just don’t notify us. Then when there’s a problem, or I need to talk to….”
“Well, I’d like to have any information that you can provide about Regina. We will try to find her. Also, Zwilling’s car, I didn’t see one near the cottage.”
“No,” said Grubbs, “there wasn’t one. He knew he shouldn’t be in here. So if he came by car, he deserted it somewhere in the woods or maybe left it in town and hitched a ride out here. If you follow me down to the office, I’ll give you all the info I have on Regina. And how about some coffee? It will take the chill off.”
ichard Grubbs placed two books in front of Ray, black plastic bindings holding the 8 x 11 pages together. Ray looked at the titles, each from the imprint of a woodblock—The History of Mission Point Summer Colony and The Cottages of Mission Point Summer Colony.
Grubbs pulled the second book back to his side of the desk, briefly looked at the index, thumbed through the large pages for a few moments, and then pushed it back toward Ray. “There’s the Ravenswood Cottage. There are several photos on that page and the next. As you can see, other than the trees getting bigger, not much changed over the years. How do you want your coffee?”
Ray studied the photos and the text carefully, then turned to the next page. The pictures appeared to be at least thirty or forty years old. He quickly paged through the book. The snapshots, grainy and indistinct, were all in black and white. Turning back to Ravenswood Cottage, he looked at the building and the children who had been assembled in front of it, three boys and two girls holding towels and smiling in beachwear from the early part of another century. A United States flag hung from a pole at one end of the porch. Ray looked at it closely, wondering about how many “stars” were included in the folds.
Grubbs set a heavy, thick-walled coffee mug in front of Ray, its ceramic finish dulled by decades of use. He peered over at the page with the Ravenswood Cottage. “Looks about the same.”
“Yes,” said Ray. “I’m guessing from the names listed that four families owned it over the last hundred years.”
“Yes. That’s probably sort of average. I’ve never looked at things quite that way. Maybe this summer I can get one of the kids to make a database for me. I’d like to do that kind of analysis.”
“Pretty easy to set up a….”
“For you, perhaps. My computer skills are limited to hunt and peck typing. I can sort of do e-mail, too. Don’t plan to learn anything else. People will expect me to do things I don’t want to waste time on.
“As you can see,” Grubbs continued, “some of the places are still in the hands of the original families, passed down from one generation to the next. If the kids don’t want the cottage, it often goes to a niece or nephew, or sometimes cousins who summered here. Mission Point Summer Colony is magical. Lots of people with rich childhood memories hope to come back and recapture that magic every summer for the rest of their lives.”
“And I see here that Regina Zwilling is the owner of record. I need her contact information.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Grubbs pulled open a battered wooden file box and flipped through the 5 by 8 cards. “I must not have put it back.” He crossed the room to another desk, one with a computer and phone. “Here it is.”
Sliding it across the desk to Ray, he said, “Sorry I can’t make you a copy. The toner cartridge died last week, and I haven’t had time to run to town and get a replacement.”
Ray opened a small notebook and copied the information, then took a picture of the card with his iPhone. “Just in case I can’t read my writing,” he explained. “I need to go over some of the things you told me earlier. First, this is the number you called?”
“Yes. I dialed it, and I got one of those out of service recordings.”
“When was the last time you had contact with Regina Zwilling?”
Grubbs looked thoughtful and pulled at the skin on his Adam’s apple. “I’m not quite sure. People come and go all summer. Some are very social, stopping when they arrive for the summer, taking part in the colony’s activities, visiting me here in the office for coffee and conversation, and always coming in at the end of the season to say goodbye. Then there are others. If I see them at all, it’s just a chance event.”
“But how about Regina?” Ray pressed.
“Like I said, I’m not sure. I don’t think I saw her last summer, perhaps the summer before.”
“And the nephew?”
“Garr, I haven’t seen him in years, not until yesterday, or I guess it was the day before wasn’t it. Hard not to recognize him, though. As I think I told you, he looks just like his father. And I’m about his father’s age, a few years older. We were teenagers here at the same time.”
“Were you friends?”
“No,” said Grubbs. “We were just different enough in age that we didn’t hang out together. You remember how much two or three years seems to matter when you’re fourteen or fifteen. I do remember he was wild, even in high school. Like I was telling you before, Jeff became a real hippie his freshman year in Ann Arbor. Next time I saw him he was in bells, with beads, long hair, and tie-dyed shirts. He and his girlfriend were around for a year or two, Garr arriving along the way, and then they headed west.”
“Have you seen Jeff in recent years?”
“No. I don’t know anything about him. The only member of the family that I’ve had contact with over the years is Regina.”
“For the record, what is your title here?”
“I’m the Executive Director for the Mission Point Summer Colony. That’s a new position. We never had anything like that before. But after I retired from my college teaching position, the board members decided to get this place more organized. So they created this position. They also wanted me to write a history of the colony. They tied those two things together, paying me a pretty good salary and turning the old caretaker’s cottage into a year-round residence so I would have easy access to the county road. Before that, I had been the mayor of the summer colony.”
“Mayor?” said Ray, some amusement in his voice.
“The summer colony has been run as a cooperative corporation through the years. There were no officials, policy was set by an elected board. But about 30 years ago major serious rifts began to develop between some of the summer residents.”
“In a nutshell, one group was against any changes in the colony. The other group was interested in modernizing things a bit. Like we had that big incident over cutting some trees a while back. We had to call your department to keep people from coming to blows.”
“When was that?”
“Oh, maybe 20 years ago, perhaps a
“Before my tenure. What was going on?”
“The township fire department came in with their new pumper truck. They wanted to make sure that they could get it through the colony roads and down to the lake. There were several places where trees had to be removed to make the road wide enough for the truck. We had some people who surrounded the trees with their bodies, the human chain thing. We had other people who stood around and heckled them. It got pretty nasty. Finally, we had a meeting and talked the whole thing through. Calmer heads prevailed, and trees were removed with the stipulation that the road would be widened with extraordinary care taken to avoid any unnecessary cutting or trimming. After that incident someone suggested that I serve as the mediator when there were major disputes between members of the colony. Someone gave me the title of mayor, in jest at first, but it sort of stuck. Then the board formalized the title, making it an appointed position.”
“And this book,” said Ray, “is the history that you wrote?”
“Yes, that’s the current working draft. I’ve made draft copies available to members of the colony since late last summer, hoping to get corrections and additions before we do our first edition. Then it will look like a real book. It will be in hardcover with high-quality paper and lots of photographs, some of them in color. I’ve spent years on it. I’m looking forward to holding the finished product.”
He pushed the book in Ray’s direction. “You’re welcome to take this with you. It will give you a complete background about the colony.”
“I would like that, thank you. I have become a student of the history of this region. My memory is that this was first an Indian mission.”
“That’s correct. The first few chapters of the book cover that period, and to my way of thinking, probably as a historian, they are the most interesting chapters in the book. Geoffrey Mather came out from New England in the 1830s to minister to the Indians. His first mission was south of here down around Saugatuck. Apparently he made a poor choice of terrain, the mosquitoes drove them out by the end of his first summer.”
“How do you know this?”
“Fortunately, Mather kept a detailed diary, day by day, of his adventures from the time he left Vermont until almost the day he died. So to continue my story, he loaded his wife and two small children and all their possessions in a small sailing craft and they headed north. Some of his Indian converts followed along with their families in canoes. There is a shoal just off the end of the colony’s beach area, not much really, just some big boulders one of the glaciers dropped off on its way north. Mather was coming up the coast close to shore with a good wind at his back. He managed to hit the rocks at a good clip and take the bottom out of his little boat. The family made it to shore, their meager possessions floating in after them. Mather records in his diary that his wife thought this was a message from God directing them to build the mission here. In the next sentence he opines that their landing at that location had more to do with his lack of seamanship than any message from the Almighty.” Grubbs chuckled, then continued, “Having studied Mather’s diary closely over several years, I think he was very much a believer, but there was always a bit of skepticism over what was God’s will and what should be attributed to human error or incompetence.”
“So how long did the mission continue?”
“Mather was able to buy a large tract of land, the money coming from a missionary organization back east. And he spent decades ministering to and looking after the spiritual and political interests of native people. Over the course of several decades Mather could see that the federal government was routinely robbing the Indians of the property and rights that had been promised to them in a number of treaties. He did his best to protect them, but his diary suggests that he could see it was a lost cause. While his faith in the Almighty remained steadfast to the end of his life, he totally lost faith in the federal government.
“His eldest son, John, followed him into the ministry and kept the mission going after Geoffrey’s death in 1881. By 1900 the area had been lumbered and settlers were building farms on the best land. Most of the Indians, the ones who survived smallpox and measles and the other diseases brought by the white settlers, had moved from the region.
“John Mather was rather entrepreneurial, but he still had his father’s sense of a Christian mission. By then the resorters, the first wave of summer people, had started to arrive from Chicago and St. Louis and points south and east, initially by lake steamer, and then increasingly by rail. So John created a Protestant resort without the strict denominational ties found in summer colonies like Bayview and Epworth. He did follow the Chautauqua model, creating a summer community for interfaith worship, recreational activities, cultural activities, and intellectual engagement. In the last years of his life he turned the whole enterprise over to a public corporation so it would continue on in perpetuity.” He pushed the book toward Ray. “It’s all here, and I think it’s a pretty good read.”
The sound of heavy footfalls pulled Grubbs’ gaze toward the screen door, interrupting the conversation. Ray watched a tall, stout, red-faced man march into the room, his voice thundering in Grubbs’ direction as soon as he crossed the threshold.
“I want you to get a contractor in here today, Grubby. I want that site bulldozed and cleaned up. Get the landscape restored, make it look like the building never existed. I don’t want a trace left, not a goddam trace. You hear.”
Without responding directly, Grubbs said, “This is Sheriff Ray Elkins. And Malcolm, I don’t think we can go forward until his people have completed their investigation.”
“What’s to investigate,” said the man in a scoffing tone.
“It’s a crime scene,” answered Ray, coming to his feet and looking directly into the eyes of the intruder.
“Crime scene my ass, there’s nothing there.”
“Sheriff, this is Malcolm Wudbine, he is the president of the board of the Mission Point Summer Colony,” said Grubbs, now standing also.
“Well, get your people to chop-chop,” Wudbine said directing his comments to Grubbs. “I know we are up north, and these folks have a way of doing everything in their time, but this needs to be done now. Don’t go native on us, Grubby. The property owners will start arriving in a week or so, and they expect to have things ready.”
“When can we have access to the area?” asked Grubbs, looking over at Ray.
“Right now we’re waiting for the state police arson investigator. He’s working on a case in Mecosta County. He hopes to be here sometime late this afternoon.” Ray remembered seeing Wudbine before. He was trying to remember where.
“Again, I ask, what’s to investigate?” said Wudbine, his words now directed at Ray. “Known crazy shows up, shoots up his place and one that I own, also. Then he blows himself up. And now that indigent SOB is in the hospital at taxpayers’ expense. I told him yesterday morning that he didn’t belong here. Too bad I didn’t grab him by the scruff of the neck and toss his sorry ass off the property.”
“About what time did you have this conversation with Mr. Zwilling?” asked Ray.
A look of surprise crossed Wudbine’s face. It took him several seconds to adjust to the fact that he was being questioned. “I think it was about nine. I had gone over to Dune Side Cottage with one of my workmen. I wanted to give him precise instructions on how the job was to be done. Zwilling was on his front porch smoking. I went over to talk to him. He looked drunk, probably doped up, too. I told him I was interested in buying the place. Told him I wanted to contact the current owner. That’s when he started swearing at me. Foul stuff, an unending stream of obscenities.”
“How did you respond?” asked Ray.
“Can’t remember exactly. I probably told him he was just a piece of garbage. It seems to run in the family. They were all trash, the lot of them.”
“You said he was out on the porch smoking?”