Authors: Brian Freeman
They walked by the Wolf River.
The morning was cold but bright. Low sunshine over the trees had replaced the snow. Kuckuck Park followed the ribbon of the water, which Stride could see through a gnarled web of branches and brush. Much of the river was still frozen, but he saw places where the current had worn away the ice, leaving open patches of water near the wooded banks. Spring waged a slow battle against the paralysis of winter.
The sloping parkland was covered with the overnight snow, but the asphalt trail had already been cleared by the town. Kelli said little as they walked. She had her hands shoved in the pockets of her sleeveless down vest, and under the vest, she wore a long-sleeved navy top and gray jeans studded with bangles. She was tall—not quite six feet—and her arms and legs were full-figured and strong. Her ears and eyebrows were a pincushion of multiple piercings, and she wore earrings dotted with cheap amber stones. She had a stylized
tattooed on the side of her neck, which was formed by two intertwined green serpents. There was a little bit of the biker chick about her, which Stride found an unusual fit with the conservative cop she’d married. As tough as she was, she also wore a delicate floral perfume that wafted over the cold air. It was a pretty scent that made him think of warmer days.
She noticed him staring at her. “I stand out in Shawano,” she said.
“I imagine you do.” He pointed at her tattoo. “M?”
“Marina,” she replied. “My cousin. We were very close growing up. She died when I was twelve. Suicide. She was bullied by other girls at school, and it got so bad she hung herself.”
“Marina and now Percy. What does it say about a person who loses two loved ones to suicide?” she asked.
“I don’t think it says anything at all,” Stride replied.
“That’s kind of you to say, but I’m not sure I believe that. Marina is the reason I went into counseling. I specialize in abuse issues on both sides. I work with those who have been abused and those who do the abusing.” She stopped on the trail, and her red lips pressed into a thin line. “I assume you know about me. About the Novitiate.”
“People can’t believe I stayed in the profession after that. God knows Percy wanted me to quit. I guess I’m naïve enough to believe that what I do matters. I focus on the success stories and try not to dwell on my failures.”
“That sounds admirable.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Most counselors are simply in the business to find people who are more screwed up than they are.”
He smiled. “Did you grow up around here?”
“No, I followed a boyfriend here after college. Eventually, he left, and I stayed around. I like the small town life. I have to travel a lot for my job—Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau—but this gives me somewhere to come home to. Of course, it was easier when I was anonymous. The Novitiate changed everything.”
Stride thought it interesting that she identified her kidnapping and torture with the place where it had occurred, rather than the man who had assaulted her. To her, the incident was simply
. He wondered if it gave her some kind of emotional distance from what went on inside the walls. Victims found different ways to cope.
“It’s a bizarre kind of celebrity,” Kelli went on. “People are still uncomfortable around me, even after four years. They don’t know what to say. When Percy and I moved in here, your uncle was the only one who really welcomed us.”
“Richard is good that way,” Stride said. “He takes people as they are.”
“Well, I don’t blame the neighbors. We made their lives difficult simply by being here. Reporters would show up around town. Total strangers would drive by. Creepy. Percy and I didn’t want the magazine covers and the morning shows. We wanted to be left alone.”
“America loves a fairy tale romance,” Stride said.
Kelli frowned. “Fairy tales are just that. Fairy tales.”
She didn’t elaborate. She bowed her head, letting her dirty hair fall across her face. Stride wasn’t sure whether her anger or her grief held the upper hand. He’d seen it many times before. Suicide crashed through those left behind like a tidal wave of guilt and fury.
“Kelli, I realize how difficult this is for you,” he told her, “but I have to be honest. I don’t think I can help. You know as well as I do that there aren’t any easy answers when someone makes this choice. Everybody wants to know why, but most of the time, there really is no why. I’m sorry, but you probably need a minister or another therapist, not a cop.”
She took a deep breath. With both hands, she brushed the bangs away from her eyes. “Richard tells me you’ve lost people. Your wife died.”
He didn’t acknowledge that she was right, because his uncle had no right to share his personal life with a stranger. His annoyance showed in his face, and she didn’t miss it.
“I’m not asking you to share the details of your loss with me,” she went on. “It just helps me to know that you
. You know who to blame for losing your wife, Mr. Stride. You can blame a heartless, horrible thing called cancer.” She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they were aflame, and her voice hardened like the river ice. “Me, I want to know who to blame, too. Maybe most of the time with suicide, there’s no why, but this time, there
. I know my husband. I know the man he was. Something
. There is a reason he did this, and I want to find it, and no one else is going to help me. I know it’s not a crime to kill yourself, Mr. Stride. Sheriff Weik made it very clear that there’s nothing to investigate. A thorn in his side just got plucked, and he’s ready to close the book. ‘I’m very sorry, ma’am, but that’s the way it is.’ Right now, nobody cares but me, and nobody ever will.”
She stopped on the trail and took his arm. “Except you know what? I said that to Richard last night, and he said I was wrong. He said, you don’t know my nephew. He told me that the man who stood in that cemetery and watched a fellow cop put a gun to his head is not going to rest until he knows why. So I’m asking you if that’s true, Mr. Stride. You saw a good man kill himself right in front of you. Can you walk away and never know what really happened to him?”
Kelli wasn’t shy about what she wanted. Stride respected women like that. Women who wore their toughness on their sleeves. Cindy had been that way. So was Serena. His uncle was right about him, too, because he couldn’t let it go. Walking away wasn’t an option. The scars he wore were all from people he’d failed, and he didn’t want to add Percy Andrews to that list. If he had any faith that things happened for a reason, then he had to believe he was meant to be in that graveyard at that moment on that night. He was destined to be a witness.
“Tell me more about Percy,” he said.
Satisfaction rose like a cold red flush in her cheeks. A smile of relief flitted on and off her face. He hadn’t said yes, but he hadn’t said no—and that meant yes. They brushed snow off a park bench and sat down next to each other. She pulled her long legs underneath her.
“We were very different,” she told him. “That was hard. Percy was conservative. Never missed church. Me—well, you can look at me and figure out I’m not like that. The age difference was a thing, too. He was ten years older, and it made him insecure. I don’t know, I think what really bothered him was wondering if I loved him or if it was just—gratitude. You know, that I felt obligated to be with him because of what he did. Because he saved me.”
“Did you love him?” Stride asked.
Kelli nodded fiercely. “I did. I really did. Age, temperament, religion, none of those things mattered to me at all. I fell in love with Percy because he was decent to his core, and there are so few decent people in this world. I’m not saying it was always easy. Relationships are never easy, but I loved him, and he loved me.”
“You said something changed about him.”
“Yes, but I don’t know what it was. The last few weeks, he was acting strangely. Distant. Afraid. I asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. He seemed to be avoiding me.”
“You couldn’t trace it to anything specific?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“What was going on in his life?” Stride asked. “I heard he lost a good friend.”
“Tom Bruin? Yes, that was awful. It was really hard on Percy. They’d been best friends for twenty years. They would have done anything for each other. It’s been lonely for Percy since then. There are things that friends share that spouses don’t. Ever since Tom died, he’s been there for Tom’s wife Anna and for their little girl. I called Anna overnight to tell her what happened. She was a wreck.”
“When did Tom Bruin pass away?”
Stride knew from his own experience that it was hard to lose friends, but he didn’t think that was enough to drive Percy Andrews to suicide months later. “What about at work? Did he have problems on the job? I heard he and the sheriff didn’t get along.”
“Yes, Percy and Sheriff Weik didn’t like each other. There’s no secret about that. Percy made noises about running against him in the next election, but that was just talk. He hated politics.”
“What about his case load? What was he working on?”
“Well, it’s not like this is the big city. Percy was a small town cop. Most of his calls were the usual thing. Kids stealing cars. Drunks getting into bar fights. Domestic violence. He’d been spending a lot of time on one particular case, though. He seemed obsessed with it.”
“What was the case?”
“A local man disappeared last month. Greg Hamlin. He’s kind of a big shot in town, both him and his wife. They’d be the first to tell you how important they are. He runs a real estate office, and she’s a bank manager, so around here, that means some serious influence.”
Stride nodded. The size of the town didn’t matter. Money and land always talked. “What happened to Hamlin?”
“Nobody knows,” Kelli replied. “He vanished. So did his car. Percy was spending day and night on the case, but I don’t think he’d found anything. He wouldn’t talk to me about it, but he didn’t seem to be working on anything else. I figured he was getting pressure from Sheriff Weik to figure out what happened.”
“That’s it,” she said.
Stride chose his words carefully. “Suicide is usually personal, Kelli. It’s not work or friends. If there’s a motive, it’s closer to home. It’s rooted in depression.”
“I know that,” Kelli insisted. “Percy wasn’t depressed. Something was bothering him, but he wasn’t depressed. I know the difference.”
“I have to ask. How were things between the two of you?”
She answered too quickly.
“In other words, not fine,” he said calmly.
Kelli tilted her head back and stared at the blue sky. “Yes, okay, it was difficult between us.”
“In what way?”
“Every couple struggles,” she replied. “When you’ve been through what I went through, you don’t necessarily embrace intimacy too well. Add in a straitlaced Lutheran husband, and let’s face it, you don’t have a recipe for a couple that’s going to talk out their emotional problems.”
“Were you faithful to him?” Stride asked.
“Yes,” she snapped.
“Was he faithful to you?”
“Percy would never cheat on me.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” she insisted. She read the look on his face and added: “I know where you’re going with this, Mr. Stride. You think I should open up my Psychology 101 textbook. Intimacy issues, emotional struggles, loneliness. Percy couldn’t deal with his problems, and he wound up with a gun to his head.”
Stride frowned. “Sometimes it happens exactly like that, Kelli.”
“I know it does, but not this time. This was something different. If I never find out what it was, then I’ll spend the rest of my life seeing the same look in people’s faces that I’m seeing in yours right now. Everyone will think my husband killed himself because of me.”
Standing in the corridor outside Sheriff Weik’s office, Stride heard shouting. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was a woman’s voice, angry and shrill. The heavy oak door flew open, and a petite blond charged into the hallway like a racehorse out of the gate. He didn’t have time to dodge her, and she barreled headlong into him, bouncing off his chest and spilling the contents of her clutch purse on the marble floor.
“Watch where you’re going!” she shrieked.
Stride smiled patiently. “Actually, I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The woman huffed in exasperation. She squatted awkwardly in her dress and began to retrieve items from her purse: coins, lipstick, pocket mirror, ballpoint pens, and dozens of business cards. Stride bent down to help her, but she interrupted him sharply.
“I can do this myself!”
She gathered most of what she’d lost and stuffed items haphazardly into her purse. Loose change littered the floor, but she left it where it was. When she stood up, she smoothed the lines of her peach dress and patted her poufy helmet hair. She was small, no more than five-foot-four even in pumps, and probably a size zero. Her face was buried under makeup, with lips as red as Door County cherries. Tiny wrinkles surrounded her blue eyes. The perfect color of her yellow hair didn’t match her age, which he guessed was late fifties.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Are you a cop, too? I don’t know you.”
It sounded like an accusation, as if she knew everybody in town and everybody should know her.
“I am a cop,” he acknowledged, “but not in Shawano.”
She opened her mouth to bark at him and then snapped it shut. She let loose with another irritated yip and clicked away on top of her high heels. Stride had one of her business cards in his hand, and he glanced at the name: Hope Hamlin. She was a loan manager at the Shawano Bank.
“Stride,” said a gravelly voice from the office doorway. Sheriff Weik, his uniform crisp and pressed, stood with his beefy hands on his hips.
“I thought you’d be heading north on Highway 53 by now. Didn’t you say you were on your way back to Duluth?”
“Change of plans,” Stride said.
Weik didn’t look happy, but he waved Stride into the office and closed the door. The sheriff sat down and folded his hands in front of him. His brown beard made a trimmed line along his neck, which was pinched by the collar of a white uniform shirt. A mustache hid his upper lip. His hair was cut so short that it was mostly a shadow on his balding skull.
The sheriff’s desk was neatly organized. The folders in his inbox made corners as sharp as an army bed, and he kept four matching pens and four matching pencils in a coffee mug. His walls were adorned with community-oriented anti-drug posters and local historical photos dating back to the 1970s. The only personal items in the room were a handful of framed photos on the credenza behind his desk. Stride saw a wife, as stern and round as Weik himself, three teenage boys, and a collage of fishing and hunting pictures.
That was life for a rural county sheriff.
“What can I do for you?” Weik asked.
“I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about Percy Andrews.”
Stride ran a hand back through his own wavy hair. “Well, his wife Kelli is a good friend of my uncle’s. They’re neighbors. Naturally, she’s distraught about Percy’s death. She doesn’t understand why this happened.”
“I agree, blowing your head off is not what you’d expect a hero to do,” Weik acknowledged, with a hint of cynical emphasis on the word
. “I’m still not sure how this involves you.”
“Kelli asked me to talk to some of the people who knew Percy. She doesn’t feel comfortable doing so herself. She wants to know if he said or did anything that might give her a clue as to why he did this. According to her, it was completely unexpected.” He paused and then added: “I have to admit, I’m curious about it myself. I was there. I feel like I have a personal stake in this.”
Weik combed his mustache with his finger. “Don’t you have a job elsewhere, Lieutenant?”
“I told Kelli I would take a day, maybe two. No more. I don’t want to get in your way, but this isn’t a criminal investigation anyway. I just want to give his wife a place to start to make sense of this.”
He could see that Weik looking for a way to object. The man’s eyes were droopy but focused, like the stare of a bloodhound. He was a smart, serious man, but he was a politician, just as Neal Gandy had said. In this case, one of his cops had committed suicide. That looked bad to the public. And a stranger asking questions about it was a wrinkle he didn’t need.
“I’ll be discreet,” Stride added.
Weik nodded. “No press. You don’t talk to any reporters. This place will be crawling with media as soon as word gets out.”
“You have no official capacity here whatsoever. You’re a private citizen. Someone doesn’t want to talk to you, you leave.”
“Don’t prolong this, Lieutenant.”
“I won’t.” Stride leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Do
have any idea why Percy killed himself, Sheriff?”
“You were his boss,” Stride said.
“That’s right, I was his boss, not his shrink or his priest. Our relationship was professional. That’s all.”
“I gather you didn’t like him.”
“I neither liked nor disliked him,” Weik retorted. “I don’t know how you run things, but I make it a point not to get chummy with my officers. They’re my employees, not my friends.”
“I get it. I just wondered if you’d had any feedback from colleagues about his performance lately. Or if you’d noticed changes in his behavior. Cops face a lot of stress. They don’t always deal with it well.”
Weik shrugged. “If Percy had something on his mind, he didn’t tell me about it. This is a rural county, Lieutenant. My officers don’t have easy jobs, but they don’t face the extremes you’d find in an urban environment.”
“Percy killed a man,” Stride pointed out. “That’s always traumatic for a cop.”
“It was four years ago. He was doing his job. It put his face on the cover of national magazines, and he wound up with a pretty young wife as a result. He became our local hero and celebrity rolled into one. All in all, I’d say he came through the experience unscathed.”
“There can still be guilt under the surface.”
“If there was, I didn’t see it.”
“What was Percy working on recently?” Stride asked. “Kelli mentioned a disappearance.”
“Greg Hamlin,” Weik told him. His mustache twitched into something approximating a smile. “That was his wife in my office just now. Hope Hamlin. She figures if you have enough money, and you screech loudly enough, you can get whatever you want.”
“Is there anything unusual about the case?”
“A wealthy man in his late fifties vanishes in a small town. That’s uncommon, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say unusual. He’s gone. His car’s gone. His credit cards and accounts haven’t been touched. Percy had two theories. Either Greg drove into a lake one night, in which case we’ll find him sooner or later. Or he got tired of listening to Hope jabber into his ear, and he ran away for good. In which case he’s probably on some beach in Mexico, where he never wants to be found. Either way, our
didn’t make headway solving the case, but I don’t imagine that’s enough to make a cop decide to kill himself.”
“Did Percy have close friends on the force?” Stride asked.
“Not that I know of. His best friend was Tom Bruin, but Tom’s dead.”
“Bruin was the last coroner?”
“That’s right. You could talk to his wife Anna. Percy spent a lot of time with her after Tom died. A lot of time.”
Stride heard something in the sheriff’s voice. “Do you think there was something more between them?”
“I’m the sheriff, not the gossip columnist,” Weik replied dismissively. “People talk in small towns. Rumors spread. Who knows whether any of it is true?”
Stride knew all about small towns. If there was a businessman with dirty laundry, or a marriage on the rocks, the local police were typically the first to hear about it. And if it involved a potential rival, he was sure that a shrewd politician like Weik would find a way to make sure that tongues kept wagging.
He stood up and extended a hand. “Well, I appreciate your time, Sheriff.”
Weik shook his hand, and his grip was like a bear’s. “Remember the boundaries, Lieutenant. This is personal, not professional. Wrap it up fast and go home. Nothing good comes from a tragedy like this.”
“You’re right about that,” Stride replied.
He didn’t make it back to his Ford Expedition, which was parked on Main Street, before Hope Hamlin pounced on him. The feisty blond woman got between him and his truck and jabbed a ruby-nailed finger at his chest. It was like having a hawk plummet from the sky with claws extended.
“I know who you are!” she snapped.
“I asked around. You’re Richard Heling’s nephew. You’re an investigator from Duluth.”
“That’s true,” Stride replied. “I know who you are, too, Mrs. Hamlin. I’m very sorry about your husband.”
Hope unfolded a newspaper article and shoved it in his face. The cold breeze caught it and made the paper flap. “See? This is Greg. He’s been missing for weeks, but the police here couldn’t care less.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“Like hell it’s not! I want to hire you. I need somebody to
something. You investigate things. Investigate this!”
Stride smiled politely. “I’m really sorry. I can’t help you.”
“I’ve got money. I’ll pay whatever it takes.”
“It’s not about money.”
Hope crumpled the paper into a tight ball and shoved it inside her purse. Her face was flushed, which matched her lipstick. “Sure, you cops all stick together. I get it. Brush it under a rug. Percy Andrews didn’t care. He didn’t spend ten minutes finding out what happened to Greg. He practically hung up on me whenever I called. Now Weik is doing the same thing.”
“I sympathize with you,” Stride told her. “Investigations often don’t move as fast as families want. That doesn’t mean nothing’s happening.”
“You think I don’t know what people are saying? Everybody says Greg left me. He disappeared because he wanted to get away from me. Well, trust me, my husband would never do that.”
Stride slid his sunglasses over his face and unzipped his leather jacket as he swung open the door of his truck. His breath made a fog. “I really hope you find him, Mrs. Hamlin. Believe me, I do.”
“Then help me figure out where he is. I already told you I’d pay. I’m sure it’s more than a cop like you makes.”
“I’m sorry, that’s a job for the local police, not an outsider like me. If you do want to hire your own investigator, you can find a list of state-licensed private detectives online. I’m sure one of them would be happy to work for you.”
Hope Hamlin, who wasn’t even wearing a coat to battle the cold morning, turned on her high heels and stamped away toward the county courthouse building with her elbows flying. Stride watched her go. He understood her frustration, no matter how annoying she was. People who had lost loved ones didn’t want to be patient. They wanted answers. Now.
Just like Kelli Andrews.
He also realized that something was bothering him. Hope Hamlin had said that Percy Andrews could barely find time in his day to search for her missing husband. He didn’t care about the case. He’d brushed it under a rug. He’d ducked her calls. Maybe it was just his way of dealing with a difficult, demanding crime victim, but it still didn’t make sense.
Kelli Andrews had said the opposite was true.
She’d said Percy was obsessed with finding out what happened to Greg Hamlin.