Authors: Brian Freeman
“Percy Andrews,” the coroner told him.
Stride was distracted and didn’t reply. He watched two twenty-something police officers struggle to push an aluminum gurney through four inches of snow in the church parking lot. The ambulance had its rear door open to accept the body, which was zipped inside a vinyl bag.
“I’m sorry?” Stride said.
“The cop. His name was Percy Andrews. Wasn’t sure if anybody told you that.”
Stride nodded at the man. “You’re right, nobody did. Thanks.”
The coroner wore a clean white jumpsuit. The ID badge clipped to his chest pocket said Neal Gandy. His messy brown hair was squeezed under a Shawano County baseball cap. He was even taller than Stride and as lanky as a newly planted tree. He walked between the ambulance and the coroner’s van with a pronounced limp. He was young, no more than early thirties, with a long, bumpy nose and eyebrows that sprouted wild hairs.
Gandy fiddled with the components of a gunshot residue collection kit. The young man wore blue gloves over big hands, and he used a marker to jot details on an evidence label.
“Sorry about this, Lieutenant,” Gandy said. “Sheriff Weik insisted we do the GSR test to cover our asses.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s good procedure. Nobody knows me here.”
The coroner ripped off the top of a sealed package and struggled with the round adhesive collection disks inside. Stride smiled and held out his hands. “You don’t do this a lot, do you?” he asked.
Gandy awkwardly propped Stride’s arm in the air and pressed the disk to the skin of his left hand. “My first time, in fact. I do the lab work, so Weik wants me to do the collection.”
“Want some help?”
The man gave him a lopsided grin. “That’s funny.”
With some difficulty, Gandy completed the GSR collection on Stride’s hands and on his cheek. He placed the disks in labeled vials and dropped them in an evidence bag, which he sealed.
“Will you be doing the autopsy?” Stride asked.
Gandy shook his head. “I’m not a doc. I’m just an EMT tech. Out here in the rural counties, most of the coroners don’t have MD’s. There’s not much call for it.”
“It sounds refreshing to live in a place where the medical examiner is part-time,” Stride said.
Gandy chuckled. “Yeah, around Shawano, I get more calls for taxidermy than I do for dead bodies. I’ve never actually been on a criminal call, if you want the truth, but I’m pretty new to the job. Most of what I do is pronounce people dead after heart attacks. If we need real forensics, we call somebody over from Green Bay or Milwaukee. I’ll have to talk this one over with the sheriff. I imagine he’ll want an autopsy because a gun was used.”
Stride felt chemical residue on his hands, and he leaned down and wiped them with some of the snow at his feet. His eyes drifted across the parking lot, where he saw Sheriff Karl Weik leaning against the brick wall of the church. The man’s uniform squeezed around his squat body like sausage casing, and the snow looked as if it didn’t dare land on his flat-brimmed hat. His mouth was hidden behind a thick mustache and beard.
Weik’s gaze wasn’t friendly. The sheriff had spent no more than thirty seconds talking to Stride when he arrived at the scene. There was no professional courtesy in his attitude, even when he learned that he was talking to the lieutenant in charge of the Detective Bureau in Duluth, Minnesota. If anything, his demeanor soured from that point, and he directed a uniformed officer to take the rest of Stride’s statement.
The coroner noted the sheriff’s cold stare. “Weik doesn’t want me talking to you,” he concluded.
“That’s fair. I’m a witness to an incident.”
Gandy shrugged. “Not much he can do to me. He acts like I answer to him, but I don’t. Anyway, Weik’s a bully. He figures the badge is like the Pope’s ring when you’re in a small town.”
“Well, cut him some slack,” Stride said. “He lost one of his own tonight. I’ve been there myself. It’s never easy.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Weik gets the job done. People keep electing him, right? But you know how it is. Being the sheriff is about politics as much as law enforcement. You pick your battles, and you’re always thinking about how everything looks, you know?”
“I do know.” Stride smiled. “That’s why I like being the lieutenant, not the chief. I don’t do politics.”
Gandy peeled the gloves off his hands with a snap. He squatted and stripped plastic booties from his sneakers, then shoved everything in the pockets of his jumpsuit. When he stretched, he grimaced as his back cracked. He took another glance at Sheriff Weik and added, “This one is going to have everybody talking.”
“A cop committing suicide? Sure.”
“Yeah, but it’s more than that. Weik and Percy weren’t friends. The rumor around town was that Percy might challenge Weik in the next election. It’s been a while since the Sheriff had a real opponent.”
“What was Percy’s problem with Weik?” Stride asked.
Gandy made sure no one was within earshot. “Like I said, it’s all about small-town politics. You have to make compromises, keep important people happy, crap like that. Percy didn’t understand that side of things. He was a boy scout, thought the town should be run a certain way, even if it ruffled feathers. He said Weik should stand up to the County Board more, and he did it in the local paper, which made the Sheriff blow a gasket. Weik figures his cops should be loyal to him, end of story. You got a problem, you go to him first.”
“That’s not unreasonable,” Stride said.
Gandy took off his cap, wiped sweat from his brow, and re-positioned it over his flat hair. “Well, Weik’s real policy is that his cops better shut up and do what he says. Percy wasn’t wired that way. Plus, I think Percy felt free to speak his mind the last few years. He figured Weik wouldn’t do anything to him. You don’t fire the local hero.”
“Hero?” Stride asked.
“Sure. Four years ago? The abduction at the old Novitiate building? That had to make the papers in Duluth.”
Stride’s eyebrows rose. He remembered the case. “That was Percy?”
“That was Percy.”
Four years earlier, a young psychologist named Kelli Westmark had gone missing in Shawano, prompting a massive search. For a week, not a trace of evidence pointed to where she was or why she’d disappeared. Then a cop—Percy Andrews—overheard two local kids talking about ghosts haunting the ruins of an abandoned monastic estate on the shore of the Red River. Percy investigated and discovered that the missing woman had been held there by a local man who’d gone to her for court-ordered anger management counseling. The man engaged Percy in gunfire, and Percy shot and killed him, rescuing the woman.
A year later, adding romance to the story, Percy married her.
And now, three years later, he’d put a gun to his head.
“People are strange,” Gandy said. “You never know, huh?”
“No, you don’t.”
Stride folded his strong arms across his chest and kicked through the snow. He was frustrated by what Percy had done, even though he made it a point not to judge other cops. He knew what it was like to descend into valleys in your life, and he counted himself fortunate that he had people who’d been there to help him. He was in a valley of his own now, bitter about recent mistakes he’d made. However, some valleys were deeper than others, and Percy Andrews had somehow found himself in a place from which there was no escape.
He wondered exactly what had driven Percy there. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Not for a cop. Not for a hero.
“Lieutenant?” Neal Gandy was next to him. “You okay?”
Stride’s dark eyes stared into the night. The parking lot behind him was a hive of light and activity, but across the highway, the cornfields took over, and the empty lands were black. The snow had tapered to flurries. On the county road, a car passed slowly as the driver rubbernecked the police cars and medical vehicles near the church. Where the car headlights lit up the dirt shoulder twenty yards away, Stride saw a teenage boy near the border of the cornfield, astride a red moped. He was about fifteen years old. He had long black hair and a narrow face that was mostly in shadow. His skin glistened with wet snow. The boy stared at Stride with dark, intense eyes, and Stride stared back. Cigarette smoke drifted across the road.
“Lieutenant?” the coroner repeated.
“Sorry, something like this always hits hard,” Stride said. “Did you know Percy?”
Gandy shoved his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, I did, but I guess you never really know people. I mean, from the outside, he looked like he had everything. Pretty wife. Famous around here for what he did. Good guy. Everybody loved him.”
“Things can go south on you fast,” Stride said.
“Tell me about it. Me, I was a tennis phenom up until seventh grade. Next Sampras or Becker. Except my dad left his old revolver on a shelf in his closet, and I found it and managed to shoot off two of my toes. Ouch. Things change, but you never see it coming. I don’t suppose Percy had any idea when he got out of his squad car at the Novitiate that his life would never be the same.”
“No. It just happens.”
“Yeah, I think about that whenever we deal with a traffic fatality. Somebody woke up that morning and had no idea it was the last day of their life.”
Another car passed on the rural highway. Not far behind, a pick-up truck slowed near the church. For Shawano, this was a traffic jam. It wasn’t an accident; word had begun to spread. Gossip spread like a virus in a small town. The high beams of the pick-up illuminated the boy on the moped again. Something about the teenager’s solemn face made Stride want to cross the street and talk to him, but as if the boy knew what Stride was thinking, he shot away, his engine whining and his tires slipping in the snow. Stride watched him go.
“Everyone’s curious,” he said.
“Sure. We’ll get the tabloids in here, too. They all covered the story when Percy and Kelli got married.”
“Do you know her?” Stride asked the coroner.
“Kelli? I’d know her if I passed her on the street. Everybody does. Other than that, no.”
“Does Percy have other family in town?”
“Not that I know of. He’s not native. Me, I was born here, but Percy moved to Shawano in his twenties. He was a popular cop. People liked him. A lot of newcomers feel like they’re never accepted, but folks around here took to Percy, even before the hero business. It was probably because he and Tom became best friends. If Tom said he was okay, then locals figured they could trust him.”
“Tom?” Stride asked.
“Tom Bruin. He was the coroner before me. Tom was a real doc. If you were born in Shawano in the last 20 years, Tom probably gave your ass the first slap. The whole town took it hard when we lost him last fall.” Gandy shook his head and spat on the ground.
“What happened?” Stride asked.
Gandy made the letter C with his right hand.
“Sorry,” Stride said.
“Yeah, it’s a bitch. Tom was a good guy.” The coroner winced and took pressure off his bad leg. “I told him once that it sucked to have my foot ache all these years later.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Then why the hell did you shoot off your toes, you moron?’” Gandy chuckled. “That was Tom. I miss him. Sucks, too, because he and Anna had been trying to have a kid forever, and he was diagnosed just after she finally got pregnant. Baby wasn’t even six months old when he died. It’s been rough on her, being alone. My daughter babysits for her a lot. Percy was over there all the time, too. This is going to be as hard on Anna as it is on Kelli.”
Stride nodded. Death was messy, no matter how or when it happened. It knocked around people’s lives like bowling pins. Cancer especially. His instinct in this case was to do what he always did. Investigate. Ask questions. He wanted to know more about Percy Andrews, the man whose life had intersected with his own at that one pivotal moment. Then he remembered that he was far from home, in someone else’s town.
He shook the snow from his hair again and zipped up his leather jacket. He extended a hand to Neal Gandy. “Well, good luck,” he said. He added with a smile: “If that GSR test comes back positive, you know how to find me.”
“Are you headed back to Duluth tonight?”
“It’s a little late for that,” Stride said.
“If you need a place to stay, I’ve got a hobby farm over on County CC. It’s just my daughter and me. We can fit you in.”
“That’s kind of you, Neal, but I’ll be fine. There’s somebody in town I need to look up, anyway.”
Gandy nodded. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Lieutenant, you seem pretty interested in Percy’s death. I get it, it’s not every day somebody kills himself in front of you. Fair warning, though, Sheriff Weik wouldn’t be too happy about you poking around. This is his turf. He’s pretty possessive about it.”
“I appreciate it,” Stride told him. “No, I’m not here to interfere. I’m heading home in the morning. This mystery has nothing to do with me.”
Stride had already decided that if the house was dark, he wouldn’t stop. Instead, he’d backtrack to the Comfort Inn near the highway and head out for Duluth at first light. When he followed the river past Kuckuck Park, however, he saw the downstairs lights of the tiny house ablaze. He had the feeling that he was expected.
He parked in the weedy gravel driveway near the detached garage. He’d only been here once before, on that same trip with Cindy twenty years earlier. Oak trees that had grown on the street for decades towered over the neighborhood with barren winter arms. The World War II-era single-story houses were holdovers from a time when people were content to live in small rooms. Little bedrooms. Little kitchens. Simpler lives.
Stride didn’t have to ring the bell. Richard Heling opened the door and waited on the front stoop as his nephew tramped through the snow.
“I wondered if you’d stop by,” the man told him. “I gave it about fifty-fifty odds.”
“Hello, Uncle Richard,” Stride said.
“We’re both pretty old now, Jon. I think you can drop the ‘uncle’ part. Call me Richard. Or Dick, if you’d like. That’s what most of my students called me, and they didn’t even know my first name.”
Stride smiled. Do you hug a man you’ve only met a few times in your life, even if he’s your mother’s brother? Stride extended a hand, and so did his uncle. They shook. Then, after an awkward pause, they embraced, too. He could see an echo of his mother in the man’s face. Richard would have to be 75 now. He’d outlived his older sibling by two decades.
“News travels fast,” Stride said.
“Well, you talked to Sheriff Weik, right? He called me. Wanted to know if I really had a nephew who was a Duluth cop.”
“I appreciate your vouching for me.”
“Actually, I told him you were a fraud and to clap on the leg irons,” Richard replied, winking. “That’ll teach you to get you out here for the occasional Thanksgiving.”
His uncle waved him inside. The house hadn’t changed. The heavy furniture looked the same. Some of the wallpaper corners were peeling near the ceiling. A wood fire gave heat to the living room, and the house smelled of tuna casserole that had baked in the oven. A dirty dinner plate sat on a coffee table, and the old square television was muted. It looked lonely, but maybe that was because it reminded Stride of his own matchbox house on a spit of Duluth land that jutted into Lake Superior.
Two beers had been opened.
“You really were expecting me,” Stride said.
Richard shrugged. “Okay, maybe I thought it was 60–40 in your favor.”
The two men sat down. Richard took the sofa, and Stride sat in an armchair near the fireplace. They were both big men. His uncle looked like an unreformed 1960s radical, with a crown of gray hair around his balding skull and a professorial beard. Richard wore a red flannel shirt, cargo shorts despite the cold, and leather sandals. Physically, he reminded Stride of his mother, but the two siblings had never shared much in common and had never really been close. His mother had always been a devout Lutheran and an introvert, even before life gutted her with the death of Stride’s father. Richard, by contrast, had spent his career as an atheist science teacher who used his summers to travel all over the world. There was no such thing as a stranger to his uncle. He wanted to know everyone.
Stride, like his mother, had little interest in travel. He loved Duluth, every bitter, beautiful day that he lived there. He was an introvert, too, even more so since he’d lost Cindy.
The room was warm, and Stride slipped out of his old jacket. His boots were wet, but judging by the carpet, Richard wasn’t fussy about such things. He caught a glimpse of an antique mirror, and the tiredness showed in his face.
“You heard?” Stride asked.
“I did. Was it really Percy? What happened?”
“He shot himself, that’s what happened.”
Richard shook his head. “Hard to believe.”
“You knew him?”
His uncle nodded toward a small living room window facing the street. “That’s his house across the way.”
Stride glanced across the street, where he saw the flashing lights of a patrol car that had pulled to the curb. They were with Percy’s wife, breaking the news, consoling her. He’d been in their shoes more times than he could count; it was the worst responsibility of the job. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Percy was a good man. Good men don’t do that.”
Stride shrugged. “Life looks different from the inside.”
“Well, we all have our days, but we don’t do anything about it.” He eyed Stride. “Right?”
Richard drank beer from the bottle. He looked angry, but for him, anger was a way of covering up his sadness.
Stride picked up the bottle from the table next to him and did the same. It was a Sierra Nevada Hoptimum IPA, heavy on the alcohol. They drank, and sat in silence, and then his uncle said, “So.”
“So,” Stride replied.
“You out there visiting Bea?” he asked.
“Good for you. I was surprised she wanted to be buried next to our folks, but she was closer to them than I was. Which is funny, given that I stayed in town, and she was the one who moved away. I don’t really understand the whole cemetery thing. I’d rather go like a country song. Get Neal Gandy to stuff me like a buck’s head and stick me next to the jukebox at Tom’s Tap.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stride said, smiling.
Richard eased back into the threadbare sofa and scratched his beard. “You look like crap, Jon.”
“I heard you took that fall last summer. You doing better?”
“My leg still bothers me sometimes. It’s been a long road. The whole thing was harder on me than I realized.”
“You almost die, that’s going to happen.” Richard’s eyes, which were pirate eyes like his own, peered at him the way a fortune-teller would at a county fair. Relatives could read your mind, even distant ones. “So what’s going on? Last time I saw you in Duluth, you were living with Serena. Beautiful girl. You two looked pretty happy. I was glad you’d found someone again after Cindy.”
“Serena moved out last fall.”
“You screw something up?” Richard asked.
“I did,” he acknowledged.
“I’m not sure. We haven’t talked.”
He didn’t go into details. The pain of the breakup was still fresh. After a fall from a highway bridge that almost killed him, he’d spent several months getting better physically while he deteriorated emotionally. The doctors called it a kind of PTSD. He pushed Serena away, and Serena, who had emotional issues of her own, didn’t push back. At the lowest point of his life, he’d found himself in the arms of his partner in the Detective Bureau, Maggie Bei. The affair cost him his life with Serena. His relationship with Maggie had proved short-lived, which wasn’t a surprise to either of them.
For now, Stride was on his own.
“It’s a shame relationships have to involve human beings,” Richard said.
“Meaning if my name was Jonathan Stride, I’d be trying to get that girl back. You may be far from perfect, but anyone who knows you understands the man you are.”
Stride didn’t reply. He appreciated the pep talk, but he didn’t believe he deserved forgiveness. He got up from the chair, took his beer, and wandered to the window. Across the street, he could see silhouettes at the Andrews house. The police were breaking the news.
“Did you know Percy well?” he asked.
“No, not too well. He was a closed-off guy. Quiet. Religious. He and Kelli moved in after they got married, and I had them over for barbecues a couple times. That’s it. I know her better. Tough kid. She had to be tough to go through what she did and come out the other side. The guy who abducted her was one of her patients. You’d think she’d give up the biz after something like that, but she didn’t. I like her. I’d almost say she’s a little like you, Jon. She doesn’t give up, and there’s a lot bubbling under the surface.”
Stride saw a light go on in the Andrews house, and for a moment, he had a view through the picture window of a young woman with dark hair. Without knowing her, he guessed that it was Percy’s wife. She was too far away for him to see her clearly, but something in the way she carried herself made him think that his uncle was right. He’d spent most of his life around victims. Some caved in on themselves, and some held strong against the hurricane. In that single glimpse across the street, he thought that Kelli Andrews looked like a survivor.
“I’m pretty tired, Richard,” Stride said. “Long day.”
“Stay here. There’s a spare bed in the attic.”
“I appreciate it. I’ll head out in the morning.”
Richard shrugged. “Stay as long as you want. It wouldn’t kill you to take a day, would it?”
“And do what?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” his uncle replied. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a day that takes you by surprise, isn’t it? Although I guess cops don’t much like surprises.”
“Not much,” Stride agreed.
“Stay for breakfast anyway.”
He put a hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “That I’ll do.”
Half an hour later, Stride lay on an old twin bed in the musty darkness of Richard’s attic. An open window let in cold air. Richard was something of a hoarder, and the small attic space with the peaked roof was cluttered with decades of broken furniture, old clothes stuffed into moving boxes, and a teaching career’s worth of schoolbooks and yearbooks. Before turning out the light, he’d explored the room and discovered stacks of yellowing postcards and photographs on a walnut bureau. He found a picture of his mother, Beatrice, as a teenager in Shawano. She was a pretty girl. Happy. A shy smile. Frozen in youth.
He thought about her face as he stared at the ceiling. Hours earlier, he’d been standing over her remains in the earth. The girl in the photograph. The woman in the ground. The journey didn’t seem very long.
He drifted to sleep, and he had bad dreams. He was back in the cold cemetery, and his mother was there, and Cindy was there, and he heard laughter that had a weird, wicked childishness to it. He asked Cindy, “Who’s that?”—but she just shook her head, as if it were the silliest question in the world, and told him, “You know who it is, Jonny.”
He did know. He recognized the laughter haunting the hallowed ground. It was
Then a cop drove up in a black Ford Expedition, but the cop was not Percy Andrews but himself. He stood there, watching himself draw his own weapon. His mother and his late wife looked on with sadness, and just like Percy, he didn’t hesitate to do what needed to be done. Stride watched himself put the gun to his own head and pull the trigger.
He started awake. Light streamed through the tattered curtain, and the dream slipped into dust. He was disoriented, but then he remembered where he was. The sweet smell of cinnamon drifted through the house.
Stride changed and went downstairs, and in the kitchen, he found his uncle, wearing an apron, using a knife to spread a sweet white glaze on his freshly baked rolls. Richard wasn’t alone.
A young woman stood near him, reddened eyes focused outside onto the street, pretty face streaked with dried tears. Her chocolate hair was a mess, knotted into dirty, spiky bangs. She wore what had to be yesterday’s clothes. She hadn’t slept. Looking at his uncle, Stride didn’t think Richard had slept either. He’d gone right across the street to his neighbor to comfort her, and that was where he had been all night.
His uncle met his eyes and nodded. “Kelli Andrews,” Richard said, “meet my nephew, Jonathan Stride.”
She turned slowly. Her eyes searched his face and sized him up. He remembered that she was a psychologist, and he could feel her brain taking the measure of all the non-verbal signals he sent. He wondered if she was waiting for him to talk about what she’d been through.
I’m sorry for your loss
. The usual platitude. Somehow, he sensed that she was beyond that and that the words wouldn’t have meant anything to her at all.
“You were there,” she said finally. “You saw it happen.”
“Yes, I did.”
Kelli nodded. There was a link between them because of what he’d seen. An indelible bond. Stride was the last thread tying Percy and Kelli together. He’d been there at the end. He knew things she could never know.
“Richard says you’re a detective,” she murmured.
“A detective is what I need, Mr. Stride,” Kelli told him. “I need to know why my husband killed himself.”