Authors: Brian Freeman
Turn to Stone
TURN TO STONE
A Jonathan Stride Novella
New York • London
© 2014 by Brian Freeman
First published in the United States by Quercus in 2014
Jacket design by Jason Chow
Photographs © anneleven / iStockphoto; © dabjola / iStockphoto
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jonathan Stride watched the cemetery filling up with snow. The windless storm deadened every sound as it crusted over the graves and laid a bone-white sheet across the dormant grass. He used a flashlight to guide his footsteps in the darkness. It was only a small country graveyard, tucked among the winter ruins of cornfields, but he didn’t remember exactly where he was going. He had been just once before.
When was that? It must have been twenty years earlier, back when he was still a young man. He and his wife Cindy had made a pilgrimage to visit his mother after the stone had been placed.
His flashlight illuminated the graves, which marked deaths in rural Wisconsin dating back more than a century. Yellow mold had gathered on the older stones, obscuring the names. He saw memorials written in German, reflecting the ethnic heritage of the area.
Der Herr ist unsere hirte uns wird nichts mangeln
. Most headstones were unassuming, but others made an ironic statement with their grand size about the importance of the person buried there.
Ironic, because who remembered them now?
Stride saw rough-hewn edges of granite. Gray, brown, and pink marble. A few dead flowers clung to the grass, reflecting visitors from months earlier, before the winter season. Wet brown leaves swept the ground. The calendar said spring, but it was a bitter April night, as cold as January. A puff of wind snaked through the cemetery, and he heard a bell ringing, no louder than a set of wind chimes. His flashlight lit up a wrought iron heart mounted on top of a stone, with a rusted bell hung in the middle.
He thought: Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls—not in this place.
He wasn’t really sure why he was here. He had miles to go—hours of driving—before he was back in his hometown of Duluth. The federal drug trial in Milwaukee where he’d been testifying had ended in an unexpected plea bargain, and he was heading home earlier than planned. He hadn’t even considered that his return trip—following the northern route, avoiding road construction—would take him past the lake town of Shawano on Highway 29.
Even when he spotted the town name on the highway signs, he hadn’t thought of stopping. And then he was there. The snow flew, the slippery road was empty of traffic, and he wanted nothing more than to keep driving, but he saw the exit sign pointing him to Shawano, and his hands almost of their own accord turned the wheel of the Expedition. He drove over the Wolf River and through the main street of the quiet town, which looked like a Christmas vignette in the storm. Little had changed in two decades. Small Midwestern towns got frozen by the weather and frozen by time.
He remembered that the church was north of town, and he found St. Jakobi on a lonely country road among desolate farms. The church was built of brick, with a slim steeple and narrow stained glass windows—nothing too showy for Lutherans. There were two modest family homes built near the church, but they were dark except for a single light in the nearest house. Otherwise, he was alone, protected by soaring pines, with wide-open fields beginning where the graveyard ended.
Steam clouded in front of his face as he breathed. Dampness trickled into his wavy black-and-gray hair as the snow settled on it and melted. He wore old jeans and an even older leather jacket. He was tall and lean. In his youth, he’d been handsome, with rugged features. Cindy had always said that you couldn’t be handsome without being a little immature. A little unpolished. She’d told him once that he was a man of fire, honor, ego, and stubbornness—all good things, but sometimes not in perfect proportion. Now, nearing half a century, his once-young face had grown more weathered. It was the face of a northern man, an outdoorsman, burnt by sun even in the cold months and hardened and dried by the lake wind. The lines in his forehead had deepened, like canyons. His chin usually needed a shave. His dark eyes—pirate eyes, Cindy called them—carried more wisdom, but also more of the weight of the world. The women who knew him still called him handsome.
Stride picked his way through the rows of tombs, hearing fallen pine cones crack under his boots. In the middle of the cemetery, he found a well-worn dirt path used by hearses to access the graves. Even the dead needed a way in, if not a way out. Standing on the road, he remembered the layout of the headstones and knew where he was going now. His mother was buried fifty yards away below a flat stone on the earth. The one other time he’d been here, Cindy had held his hand as she cried. He hadn’t shed any tears himself.
He walked more quickly, leaving footprints on the spongy ground, but he stopped when his flashlight shined on two gleaming pink eyes. It was a white rat, glaring fiercely at him. He kicked the snow with the heel of his boot, and the rodent swished its tail and ran. Where the rat had hunkered down, he saw the pieces of a gravestone that had been vandalized, as if by repeated blows from a heavy hammer. Broken stone, dusted by snow, littered the grass. Only a fragment of the original headstone remained in place. He could make out the last name:
. Below the name, he saw the year of the person’s death, which was four years earlier.
Red paint marred the smooth stone. One word.
Stride remembered enough of his college German to know that
was the Devil.
He bent down and touched the desecrated stone. The graffiti looked quick and ragged, sprayed with fierce hatred. First you take a hammer to the stone, and then you violate the remains. Behind him, the tiny rusted bell rang again, fast and furiously, as if moved by an unseen hand. He straightened up and shot his light around the graveyard, then toward the cornfield and into the trees and back to the brick wall of the church. He examined the ground and saw no other footprints except his own. No one was here.
Just himself and the bones of Black. The bones of
Stride left the grave behind him. He wanted to pay his respects and be gone. It had been a mistake to leave the highway.
He found the set of three stones where the trees ended. They were nothing more than rectangular outlines on the white ground. He bent down and brushed the snow and pine needles aside with his bare hand, revealing the carved name on the grave. His own name. Stride. Below the surname, he uncovered his mother’s first name and family name: Beatrice Heling. There was an empty space beside her, where a couple could spend eternity together, but his father had never joined her there. Not long after they had purchased the family plot, a freak wave pitched him off the side of an ore boat into Lake Superior. His body was never found.
Stride cleared the two graves beside his mother, which belonged to her parents, Lewis and Greta Heling. They were his grandparents, whom he had met only once as a young boy and didn’t remember at all.
Beatrice Heling had left Shawano as a teenager to go to college in Duluth. After she met and married Stride’s father there, she had rarely returned to her Wisconsin hometown. Even so, she’d always insisted that this was where she wanted to be buried. Stride didn’t understand, and neither did his father, but she wanted to be back with her parents when she was dead. People were funny about things like that.
“Don’t ever put me in the ground,” Cindy had told him, not long before the cancer took her from him as swiftly as another rogue wave. “Scatter me in the lake, Jonny. I don’t ever want you wishing over old bones.” That was what he had done—taken Cindy’s urn in an old fishing boat with his best friend, Steve Garske, and given up his pretty wife to the water.
Now here he was, wishing over old bones. His mother was buried below him in the frozen ground. He wasn’t the kind of man who talked to ghosts, and he didn’t know what he would say. He switched off his flashlight and stood silently with her in the darkness, remembering. She’d been loving and vivacious when he was young, but much of the fire had gone out of her after his father’s loss. She was too consumed with grief to care about anything else. For a while, he’d blamed her for letting his father’s death destroy her own life, but eventually, he understood. When he lost Cindy, he knew what his mother had experienced and how easy it would be to dig a hole for himself and forget how to get out.
Time to go.
He wasn’t sure why his mother had called him back to Shawano from the highway, but he was done and ready to go home to Duluth. He headed for the church and was halfway through the cemetery when he heard the noise of a car engine and squinted into the blinding flash of headlights.
A vehicle turned off the highway onto the dirt road that the hearses used to carry coffins.
Stride was among the fir trees, invisible, as the car came closer. It rolled to a stop thirty feet away. Its engine was still on, its lights hot and white. He could make out the emblem on the side of the sedan; it was a Shawano County Sheriff’s vehicle. He realized that the car was probably here for him. Someone had spotted his flashlight beam crisscrossing the graveyard and called the police.
The door of the cruiser opened, and a policeman got out. He walked in front of the car, bathed in the glow of the headlights, which Stride found odd. When you were investigating a call, even in a small town, you didn’t make yourself a target. The snow got heavier, falling through the white lights, swirling like a dust devil around the cop. The man stopped, staring up at the sky. Stride realized that the policeman couldn’t be far from the vandalized headstone he’d found.
. The Devil.
The policeman was in uniform. The headlights caught him from the side, leaving half his face white and half in shadow. He was about forty years old, which made him younger than Stride by nearly a decade. The two men were about the same height, over six feet. The Shawano policeman had short blond hair, ears that jutted out a little too far from the side of his head, and a bulky physique. He was good-looking in a country boy way. Clean-shaven, with the earnestness of a farmer singing in church on Sunday. He didn’t see Stride in the trees.
As wholesome as he was, there was something alarming in the man’s face. Something stricken and pale. One fierce blue eye was deadened by pain, and the other was lost in the night. Stride didn’t like what he saw there. He took a step toward the policeman, wanting to announce himself, but he stopped in astonishment as the cop unhooked the holster at his belt and slid his service pistol into his hand.
“What the—” Stride murmured.
His first thought was that the policeman was about to point the gun at him, but he was wrong. Suddenly, Stride understood what was happening. He charged through the white drifts, but he was already too late to stop what came next. There was no time.
The wind roared to life. The little bell rang.
The handsome policeman didn’t hesitate, as if he were following through on a decision that had been made long ago. He put the gun to his temple on the dark half of his forehead that was in shadow. The cop’s finger tightened on the trigger. Stride shouted, but the bullet was faster than his voice. In the noise and fire that followed, the snow pouring through the headlights of the squad car turned red.