Authors: Craig Larsen
Sara stepped up onto her toes, pushing herself against him, finding his lips once again with her own. “No,” she said. “I want you. I want you like that, too.”
Nick looked around the empty parking lot. They hadn’t driven to the landing, and this late in the year there were no taxis at the stand. “We’ll have to walk.”
“I can’t wait, Nick.”
Sara broke away from him, then took him by the hand. The sound of her pumps on the pavement was nearly drowned out by the guttural roar of the ferry’s huge diesel engine. Nick let himself be led across the dark parking lot. “Over there,” she said. She was peering across the landing, and when the wind blew she reached up to pull a few loose strands of silvery blond hair from her mouth. “At the Two
Club. We’ll go into the restroom.”
Looking back on that night, it wasn’t the thrill of sex with Sara for the first time that Nick would remember. It wasn’t the fear of discovery, either, or the knocking on the locked door after they’d been inside the restroom for ten minutes. It was the music. That’s what Nick remembered. The music playing inside the club, muffled through the metal door. The Police. “I’ll Be Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Bob Marley. “No Woman, No Cry.” The Killers. “Romeo and Juliet.” Sara’s skin was cool and smooth against his. Her hands undressed him. His fingers got tangled in her hair. The music played, and slowly she made love to him. So goddamned slowly. The music played, and there was no one else in the world, nothing else but Sara. Her mouth was on his body. She was naked in front of him. Tall and thin and naked inside the dirty restroom. Kissing him softly. Licking him slowly, so goddamned slowly, until the air turned into snow.
The air was laden with snow.
The small lake near their house in Wisconsin had frozen over. Just after dawn, the morning still dark as night, Nick and Sam stared out the window, trying to read the low, stained sky, listening to the radio for the list of school cancellations. When Braxton Middle School was announced, Nick climbed back into bed and pulled the covers snugly around him.
Sam was three years Nick’s senior, and at thirteen he was substantially older. He rousted his younger brother from bed and threw him his jeans, boots, and a sweater, bundled up in a loose but heavy wad. The buckle from his belt hit Nick sharply on the cheek, and for a couple of seconds he considered getting angry with his brother. At last, surrendering, he followed Sam into the kitchen.
Their parents had left for work already. With the roads covered in snow and ice, their father had had to leave the house at five-thirty to get to his job at the power plant, before the kids were even awake. Their mother had to leave with him if she wanted a ride. They only had the one car, a beaten-up old Chevrolet Impala.
Skating was Sam’s idea. Nick wanted to run out of the house and play, but Sam slowed him down. He jerked him back by the arm and kept him inside while he made sandwiches and packed lunch bags. Then he made sure their skates were tied together by their laces and that Nick remembered his gloves. The two brothers left the house with their skates slung over the handles of their hockey sticks at eight-thirty, the sky still dark, heavy snow still falling, heading determinedly in the direction of Lake Issewa. By car it was a ten-minute drive without snow on the ground. On a day like today, the boys would be walking the better part of an hour.
Tossing their boots next to a tree, they jumped onto the thick, chalky ice, the dull blades of their cheap skates digging deep, powdery tracks into its slightly soft surface. They passed a hockey puck back and forth, shouting excitedly as they raced one another across the lake.
At eleven-thirty, the sun broke through the clouds, turning the day brilliantly, impossibly white. Nick’s skates got caught in an arcing track, and he nearly lost his balance. He squinted in the blinding light, leaning on his hockey stick, raising his eyes upward. The sky hadn’t turned blue. The clouds had simply thinned, and the sun lit them brightly from behind, like the shell of a lightbulb.
When Nick lowered his eyes again, he had the impression that he couldn’t see. The entire landscape had become a two-dimensional plane, a blank piece of paper. Nick felt a spurt of panic. He understood even as it was happening that the emotion was irrational, but he couldn’t control it. He hadn’t been keeping track of time or where he was skating, and he wondered if he had gotten separated from Sam. He scanned the lake for his brother, relieved when he caught sight of him. Dressed in blue jeans and a red sweater, Sam stood starkly out from the desolate background, a solitary figure drawn on an empty canvas.
Nick’s relief was short-lived. Nick noticed that they weren’t alone on the lake. Clothed entirely in black, with a gray muffler wrapped around his neck and a stubbly beard as dense as a smear of charcoal, the stranger could have been a hole in the ice. There was something about him that Nick didn’t like. He felt shivers run down his spine.
The man was standing out on the middle of the frozen lake without skates.
Nick watched him until he realized that the man was looking back at him. Then he turned away.
By noon, the burst of sunlight had dimmed. The boys were sitting on the stone wall edging the southern boundary of the lake, eating the sandwiches that Sam had packed for them that morning. Snow was falling again. Nick’s teeth chattered a little. He had tumbled not far from where they were sitting, where the ice was so thin that he could see through its surface to the murky green water underneath, and when he had gotten up his jeans had been soaked through. He had hardly noticed while continuing to skate, but now that he was sitting unmoving, eating, Nick realized how cold he was. Still, his only thought was to finish his sandwich and to get back out on the lake again. It was Sam who suggested that they head home. He didn’t like how ominous the sky was getting. The wind was whipping up, and with the snow even their shouts had become muffled, as though they were trying to make themselves heard through the fabric of a heavy, wet blanket.
“You boys live around here?”
Neither of them had heard the stranger approach, and they both swiveled their heads toward the man dressed in black at the same time.
“You have any more of them sandwiches?” the stranger asked when neither responded to his first question.
Something was wrong about the man. He was dressed in an elegant coat, and the scarf around his neck was as soft as cashmere. He was wearing black leather gloves, nothing like the nylon and polyester ones men like their father would wear. The man’s face, though, was a ravaged mess. His hair was shaggy and greasy, and his skin was drawn. His eyelids were swollen above his brown, empty eyes. He gave off a strange mixture of scents: the rich smell of expensive wool and leather, then the raw, sour smell of cheap whisky. Nick understood without being able to articulate the observation that the man was wearing stolen clothes.
“We only made enough for ourselves,” Sam said.
“You live around here?” the man asked a second time. He looked up from the boys to survey the landscape, as though he might be looking for a house nearby. Nick realized how menacing the sky had become and how hard the wind was blowing. His legs were all at once icy cold. His lips had become purple, and his teeth chattered loudly.
“Just over there, by that road,” Sam lied.
The man continued looking past the brothers. “I don’t see no road,” he said at last.
“It’s hard to see in the snow,” Sam said.
The stranger’s countenance changed. Nick realized that his eyes had become the eyes of a predator. When he took a step toward them, Sam leapt from the wall onto the ice. The dark sheet cracked beneath his weight.
“Come on, Nick!”
Nick understood that he was supposed to be scared. Still, he held onto the remains of his sandwich in his gloved hand as he pushed off the wall to join his brother. He hadn’t appreciated yet that they were going to have to run. He became aware of the half-eaten pieces of bread and bologna from Sam’s sandwich scattered at his brother’s feet.
“You boys don’t have to be skerred,” the man said. He was moving toward them now, and there was no mistaking the intent in his dead eyes. Nick was too young to put the danger into words, but he understood it nonetheless.
Sam shoved Nick hard. “Go!” His voice was urgent, but Nick didn’t move. “Go!” Sam said again, shouting this time. “Run!”
Nick hesitated a moment longer, but when his brother began to skate, he at last dropped his sandwich and pushed his legs forward on the ice, digging his blades into the soft surface as forcefully as he could. Panic rose in his chest as Sam pulled ahead of him. He could hear the stranger’s slippery footsteps right behind him, and the rasp of his ragged breath. The man was gaining on him.
“Wait, Sam,” he cried. He was choking for air, barely able to make a sound. “Wait up, Sam!”
In seeming slow motion his skate got caught in a deep rut in the ice. His right foot was yanked away from him. His knee torqued, whipping him around and knocking him off balance. He tried his best to catch himself, but even as he struggled he knew that he was going to fall. His hands hit the ice first, then his knees and his elbows and his chin. The metallic scrape of his skates catching the ice and the cacophony of his tumble crashed around him as he skidded to a rough stop on the unforgiving surface of the frozen lake. His mouth was full of snow. “Sam!”
The ice turned red in front of him as he shouted, and his lips felt warm and tasted briny. A bloody stain leached across the ice. The man was just behind him, nearly on top of him. Nick writhed on the ice, preparing himself to resist, certain that the man would catch him and kidnap him and that he would never see his parents again.
Nick’s eyes were squeezed closed when Sam’s hands grasped his shoulders. When he opened them again, the rusty blades of Sam’s skates were glinting just next to his eyes. “Get up!” his brother was saying, yanking his arm. “Come on, Nick. Get up!” When their eyes connected, time stopped for a split second. Nick wasn’t aware of Sam’s hands hoisting him from the ice.
You’re my brother.
The words passed unspoken through his mind.
Thank God you’re my brother.
“Come on. Run, Nick. You’re going to have to run.”
Nick rose to his knees, then, scrambling, was back up on his skates. The left lace had come loose and the skate wobbled on his foot, but he pushed off anyway, propelling himself forward. He imagined that Sam was next to him. A few moments later, though, the sounds of flight resolved into nothing more than his own panicked breathing and slicing strokes. He realized that he was fleeing alone. He shifted his skates sharply to the left and, with a fizz of shaved ice, slid to a short, controlled stop. He was dizzy, so nauseous that he thought he would throw up. Sam was still standing in the same place where he had fallen, waiting for the man to catch up to him. He glanced over his shoulder at Nick. “Run, Nick,” he shouted. “Run!”
“Come with me,” Nick replied weakly. He couldn’t understand what his brother was doing. He couldn’t fathom the sacrifice. The man reached Sam before Nick could think what to do next. He felt himself burst into frightened tears, powerless to protect his brother from the approaching violence.
Just as the man reached Sam, the ice broke. The two of them plummeted into the water together. Sam had time to shout for help before his head went under the water. “Nick!”
His brother’s voice ripped through Nick’s body with the force of lightning, and Nick skated as fast as he could, back in the direction he had come, back toward Sam.
Nick didn’t remember much after that. Sam told him, though, that he had skated right to the edge of the hole in the ice and, lying down, had pulled his older brother out of the water. The next thing that Nick remembered was stopping at the side of the lake to lace his boots back on.
Shaking uncontrollably, Sam was peeling off his wet jacket and shirt. Nick took in his brother’s bluish skin, then quickly tore off his own jacket and sweater and gave them to his brother to wear. Nick noticed that Sam’s face was twisted with fear. “We’ve got to go, Nick,” he said. Nick had the impression that his brother was barely seeing him. He watched as a wad of mucus stretched from his nostrils, then slid down his face.
Collecting his things into his arms, Sam took a few halting steps away from the lake. Nick held his elbow, keeping his brother from losing his footing in the slippery snow as they climbed the embankment. Once they reached the road, the two brothers ran the rest of the way home, their skates digging into their ribs, their hockey sticks gripped in their frozen hands.
Nick woke Sam late that night, holding the lens of a flashlight against Sam’s mattress, shaking him on his arm. Sam awoke in a cold sweat and yelped, then saw his brother’s face in the eerie reddish glow emanating from the flashlight. “What?” he said. “What is it?”
“I know,” Sam said. “But don’t worry. No one’s going to find out. No one knows where we were today.”
“It’s not that,” Nick said.
“What if that man followed us home?” Nick asked.
“What are you talking about?” Sam asked him. His face was a collage of shadows in the dimming light of the weak flashlight, gradually darkening as the batteries died. “He didn’t follow us anywhere. Don’t you remember what happened?”
Nick felt stunned. He wasn’t sure what his brother was asking him.
“You really don’t remember what we did?”
Nick shook his head.
“You can get in bed with me if you want.” Sam lifted the covers to let his younger brother climb into the narrow bed next to him.
“I’m scared,” Nick said. The batteries gave out before he switched the flashlight off, and Nick was still awake when the room went black.
A few nights after Sam’s murder, Nick woke up in a panic, certain that Sam’s mutilated body was lying in bed next to him. The room was pitch black. The dim green numerals on the old digital clock on his nightstand cast the only light in the thick, musty darkness. 4:02
The shades were pulled closed, but it would hardly have mattered had they been open. Outside the nighttime sky was heavy with storm clouds. Nick became aware of the windswept patter of rain being blown against the window glass. He reached a hand out, blindly searching beneath the covers for the corpse next to him. His heart leapt in his chest when he felt the smooth skin of Sara’s slender shoulder instead. Nick thought that it felt like ivory.
“Are you awake?” Her voice shattered the night with the intensity of a china cup dropped onto a tile floor.
“I don’t know.”
Nick was aware of the perspiration on his face before he was able to comprehend the passage of time. A light had been switched on next to the bed, revealing the dinginess of his cramped one-room apartment. Sara was sitting on the edge of the mattress next to him, peering down at him with a glass of water in her hand, concern evident on her face. Nick glanced at the clock. 4:50. Forty-five minutes had somehow disappeared.
“I was dreaming,” Nick said. “A terrible dream.”
“Here.” Nick realized that Sara was holding something toward him. A small orange tablet, barely the size of the head of a pin.
Nick shook his head. “I took one already.”
“You need to sleep, darling.” Sara set the glass down on the dresser, then placed the tranquillizer next to it. When she faced Nick again, her eyes had turned to glass. It took Nick a few beats to understand that she was crying. When she blinked, a tear tumbled down her cheek, then crystallized into a diamond on the cusp of her chin before freefalling toward the bed.
“I don’t know what’s real,” Nick said.
“The doctor said you were going to have trouble accepting Sam’s death, Nick.” Sara didn’t mean to touch his face. But she did. Her fingers were as cold as ice on his forehead, then gently gliding through his hair. “And I don’t blame you, sweetheart. It’s only been a few days. You’ve barely slept.”
Nick shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t mean that. I know that Sam’s dead.”
Sara waited for her lover to continue.
“I meant about my dream. The last few weeks, I keep having the same dream. I’m back in Madison. In Wisconsin. Sam and I are kids.”
“Shhh.” Sara was settling back into bed next to him.
“Leave the light on,” Nick said.
“I will.” Again, Sara waited for Nick to continue.
“I’m just not sure I’m dreaming.”
In his arms Nick felt Sara shiver. “What do you mean, Nick?”
“I feel like—I mean, maybe I’ve been awake. Maybe it’s not a dream.” Nick grasped the profundity of his own terror. “I can remember bits and pieces of the day. Waking up. Listening to the radio with Sam. Then walking to the lake with our skates. We played hockey for a while, and then I remember sitting on this wall to eat. I was cold. Really cold. After that, though, it’s like there’s nothing there. Except in my dream, a man approaches us. A homeless man, dressed in a long black coat. He chases us. He wants to hurt us, I think. I’m just not sure—I can’t hang on to it all at once. But maybe it’s something that really happened to me. You know, something I forgot somehow. Something I’m remembering.”
Seated on a black fiberglass chair in a precinct hallway the next morning, opposite a utilitarian, fluorescent-lit office, Nick was still turning the nightmare over in his mind. His elbows were on his knees. Detective Adam Stolie had closed the door and partially covered the glass partition separating them with a miniblind, but Nick could see the figures of the two men inside. He was barely aware of the detective, though, or of his bleak surroundings or the policemen scattered through the busy station house. In the days since his brother was killed, his mind had continued to find its way back to the snow day in Wisconsin nearly two decades before, trying to get used to this new memory. He couldn’t understand how he had been able to forget such a distinct moment in time.
Detective Stolie had brought Nick in for questioning a couple of hours before. He hadn’t arrested Nick. He had told Nick, though, that he didn’t really have a choice except to come downtown. If Nick refused, he had orders to take him into custody. Five days had passed since Sam was found murdered in the parking lot. As yet the police didn’t have leads on anyone. They had found no evidence supporting Nick’s statement that the brothers had been attacked by a vagrant man.
Stolie was speaking to his lieutenant, a silver-haired man with piercing eyes whose name Nick had failed to get when they were introduced. The lieutenant had examined Nick as they shook hands. Nick read his skepticism. The middle-aged lieutenant wasn’t buying his story. There was no vagrant. There was no group of college students getting into another car a block or two away who might vouch for Nick’s story. Nick had killed his brother, simple as that. It didn’t matter that he had been badly beaten himself. That only proved that Sam had put up a good fight. Nick had returned barefoot to the scene with blood on his hands, and the lieutenant was ready to close the investigation and bring the case to the district attorney. Every now and again, Stolie or the lieutenant would raise their voices, and Nick was able to hear bits and pieces of their conversation through the closed door.
“His fingerprints were on the knife,” the lieutenant said for the third or fourth time.
“I’m not arguing with you,” Stolie said. “I know it doesn’t look good.”
“It’s not how it
, Stolie,” the lieutenant retorted, interrupting him. “His fingerprints were on the knife.”
“I was there. You weren’t. I saw his face. He didn’t kill his brother.”
“Since when did you become a shrink? It’s not just his brother we’re talking about here, and you know it. A month ago, it was that prostitute—Claire Scott.” Claire Scott had last been seen alive working the streets on First Avenue two days before her body had been found. “Our boy Nick was the first one there at the crime scene that day, too. Down on the Green River, right where Ridgway used to dump his victims, rocks shoved up their vaginas. Am I right? And then last week it was that bum behind the Safeway. You’re the investigating officer. Still no leads, I take it.”
“Dickenson, yeah,” Stolie said. “The guy was homeless.” He shook his head. “It’s pretty hard to follow his tracks.”
“Our boy Nicholas was right on top of that one, too. Wasn’t he?”
Stolie straightened and looked the lieutenant in the eye. “He’s a photographer. That’s what he gets paid for, to get to crime scenes before we rope them off.”
“All I’m saying is, keep your guard up. Think about it. He’s been a thorn in our side for the last couple of years. Someone gets killed, and he’s there with his camera ten minutes later. Like magic.” Shifting on the edge of his desk, the lieutenant folded his arms across his chest and nodded toward Nick. “For all we know at this point, we’ve got the Street Butcher sitting out there in the hallway. Under our noses.”
Stolie’s voice remained patient. “All we’ve got right now are three unrelated homicides. A prostitute, a bum, and Nick’s brother.”
“What we have, my friend, are the makings of a serial murder spree. What we have is a city that’s starting to get scared.”
“You really see a connection between the crimes?”
“You don’t? Three people stabbed multiple times. Not murdered—butchered. Three ugly homicides with a link to street people.” The lieutenant assessed his subordinate with a long look. “You’ve got a hunch this boy’s telling the truth, okay. But why stick your neck out? Because it’s your neck you’re sticking out, Stolie, and mine with it.”
Stolie stood up straight. “Listen, you take what we’ve got to the DA, and he’s not going to be able to get the charge to stick. Nick got pretty badly banged up. We’ve got nothing at this point. About all we’ve got are his fingerprints.”
“On the knife.”
“He could have grabbed the knife.” Stolie waved his hands in disgust. “Maybe he tried to pull it out of his brother’s chest. The DA will throw an arrest right back into our faces. We don’t even know what we’ve got here ourselves yet.”
The lieutenant let the detective’s objections hang in the air, listening with a cynical smile.
“All I’m saying is give it a few days.” Stolie refused to accede to the lieutenant’s rank. “Let’s see what we can turn up first. There’s Sam Wilder’s partner—Blake Werner—for one thing. The guy seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. We can’t even find him. Coincidence? I don’t think so, and the DA’s office is not going to think so, either. They’re going to want to know we’ve questioned him. Our case isn’t complete until we bring him in.”
The lieutenant pushed away from his desk. “You’ve got two days, Detective. Two days, that’s it. And then we arrest the brother.”
Stolie walked briskly to the door and whipped it open. His eyes connected with Nick’s as he stopped to pull the door closed behind him, and Nick wondered why this man believed him. It was clear that he didn’t like the heat he was taking from the lieutenant.
“I don’t have enough to book you,” the detective said, his agitation rupturing his reserve. He eyed Nick as he stood up from the chair. “I’m going to let you go. You stay close, though, you hear?”
Nick nodded his agreement.
“I’m on a short leash with this, understand? That means you’re on an even shorter one.” The detective’s nostrils flared. “I know how crazy this all must seem to you right now. Your brother hasn’t even been buried yet, and here we are putting you through this. But you’re in serious trouble, okay?” He took a breath, then went on more slowly. “You got anywhere you can go? Someone you can go to for help, I mean.”
Nick thought about the question. He hadn’t put it into words before:
He was by himself now
. “My parents died when I was seventeen. In a car accident.” His father had driven their Chevy Impala head-on into a sixteen-wheel truck. His parents’ remains had been unrecognizable. “Sam and I were alone. He was all I had left.”
Stolie looked away from him, then turned back and placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder. He took another deep breath, and when he next spoke, his voice had softened noticeably. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Now get yourself out of here. Go on home. There’s nothing for you to do here, and I’ve got to get to work or we’ll both be in trouble.”
Nick was exiting the station house when a thought occurred to him, and he retraced his steps. He had to ask one of the officers where Stolie had gone. He found him at a desk, about to make a phone call. “What about my shoes?” he said.
Stolie hadn’t seen him approach, and he looked up at Nick in surprise. “What’s that?”
“My shoes,” Nick said again. “I was wearing a pair of black and orange Nike running shoes. Did you ever find them?”
The detective didn’t respond.
“Did you search for them?”
“Not specifically,” the detective said. “But we combed the area pretty thoroughly, all the way to Elliott Bay Park—where you said you woke up. Next to the gravel dock.” He looked pensively at Nick. “Why?”
“You don’t think it’s weird?”
Stolie shrugged. “Maybe this guy you say attacked you tossed them into the bay. Maybe they sank.”
Nick considered the thought. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. Then he headed back out into the corridor.
“Listen,” Stolie called out after him. “You remember anything, you let me know. As fast as possible. Understand?”