Authors: Brian Freeman
The baby monitor squawked from the bookshelf. Stride had heard a child playing happily for half an hour—and the off-key voice of a teenage girl singing Lady Gaga songs—but the baby was crying for her mother now. Anna Bruin put down her cup of tea with a smile and apologized as she left the room.
Seconds later, Stride heard Anna through the speaker as she took her child from the babysitter and comforted her. The baby’s cries immediately quieted.
Stride got up and wandered to the patio doors. The rear of the Bruin house overlooked a snowy back yard and the half-frozen Wolf River. He saw a fishing boat mounted on a trailer and a boat dock waiting for the spring thaw. This was a doctor’s house, large and comfortable, with the best view in the area. The lot was situated on the western riverbank, on a long dead end street lined with similar luxury homes. On the far shore, he saw the industrial section of town, where lumber mill workers could eat their lunches by the river and stare at the waterside mansions.
Shawano was like most Wisconsin small towns. It had a tiny professional upper crust and a much larger population of hourly workers and farmers. Beyond the cluster of city streets on the river, the quiet roads led into vast swaths of rural fields and densely forested land. The town was located on Highway 29 between Wausau and Green Bay, but the expanded four-lane highway no longer crawled through the center of town as it had for decades. The highway diversion had cost Shawano tourist dollars, but the nearby lakes and woods still attracted campers and fishermen during the summer and hunters and snowmobilers during the frozen months. The cold spring, after winter and before summer, was the quiet time.
Stride felt something familiar about the Bruin house. He recognized it with a sense of claustrophobia as a place of sadness and loss. The house was too big for a widow and baby. It was cluttered by memories. He could still feel the missing presence of Tom Bruin. The late doctor had obviously been a sportsman, because the wood paneling on the walls and the deer heads mounted over the field stone fireplace all reflected a man’s touch. He saw a line of framed photographs perched on the mantle. Bruin, who had been only 47 when he died, had full straw-colored hair and beet-red cheeks. He was stocky and tall, with a beer belly and a big smile. The photographs showed him at play, wearing a Packers cheesehead at Lambeau, toasting with a bottle of Leinie’s at a Brewers game, and crouching in head to toe camouflage with a rifle in his hands. It was easy to imagine him bursting in the front door, telling a joke, but all that was left now was a ghost. His own house had felt the same way for a long time after Cindy died.
He saw Percy Andrews in two of the pictures on the Bruin mantle. Percy was younger than Tom by several years, and he looked shyer and quieter than the doctor, who had his arm around the other man like a bear paw. Percy wasn’t frowning, but he wasn’t really smiling. He looked like a man who thought that the world was a serious place.
“I’m so sorry,” Anna Bruin announced as she returned to the living room. “Sophie is wonderful with Mya, but sometimes she needs rescue when the crying starts.”
“Do you have children, Mr. Stride?” she asked him.
“No, my wife and I wanted kids, but it didn’t happen before she passed away.”
Anna nodded in sympathy. It was the unspoken bond between people who had lost their spouses. They were both part of the cancer club. “Mya is a blessing,” she told him. “As hard as it is without Tom, I have her as a reminder. I’m sorry that you weren’t so fortunate.”
“That’s kind of you,” he said.
“Others who haven’t been through it don’t really understand, do they?”
He shook his head. “No, they don’t.”
The two of them sat down again. Anna was tall and bird-like, with thin bones and a long neck. She wore glasses, and her face was narrow and pointed. She had brunette hair cut in a simple style that hung straight down and swished in broad curls at her shoulders. He assumed she had money, but she wasn’t showy about it. Her clothes were plain. She wore no jewelry, other than her wedding ring and a gold chain with a cross around her neck. She was obviously younger than her husband had been, and Stride guessed she was about the same age as Kelli Andrews, in her early thirties.
“I have to tell you, I’m in shock about Percy,” Anna said.
“Kelli must be devastated.”
“I truly can’t understand it. This was so unlike Percy. He was a man of faith, and he was so devoted to Kelli. I simply can’t conceive what would have driven him to something like this. You were there? You saw it?”
“And he gave no clue?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Well, I’m at a loss,” Anna said.
“It sounds like you knew him pretty well.”
“Oh, yes, he was like an older brother. Percy and Tom were thick as thieves when I first met Tom ten years ago. I joined the hospital fresh out of nursing school, and Tom and I started dating shortly thereafter. Even then, I knew it was a package deal. Tom and Percy came joined at the hip. They were both sports fanatics. Hunting and fishing, too. Tom has a camper on some land we own near Richmond, and the two of them used to solve all the problems of the world out there.”
“Yes, we cried together when Tom passed away. It was as hard on Percy as it was on me. Honestly, this is like dealing with Tom’s death all over again to lose Percy. I don’t know what I would have done without him this past year. I’ve had Mya to care for, and Tom used to do everything around the house for us. Percy was kind enough to help me whenever he could.” Her face darkened, and her mouth pinched together. “By the way, I know what people say about us. The rumors aren’t true. There was no affair. Percy wasn’t that kind of man, and I’m not that kind of woman.”
Stride waited without saying anything. Anna put down her tea and smoothed her skirt. She got up from the sofa and went and picked up a photograph of her husband. Her mouth bent into a sad smile.
“You look for someone to blame when cancer strikes,” she murmured.
“Yes, I know.”
“God, yourself, the universe.”
“Absolutely,” he said.
“It happened so quickly. In a few months, Tom went from this strong man, full of life, to a skeleton, a fraction of what he was. He was so weak. We had to move him to the first floor, because he couldn’t go up the stairs anymore. I’d listen to him on the baby monitor, and I would hear him labor to breathe. I don’t know if it’s more agonizing on the victim or the survivor.”
“It’s awful for both,” Stride said.
Anna stared at her husband’s smiling face in the photograph. Her voice cracked as she spoke. “Tom thought the cancer was a curse. Like he’d sold his soul or something. Like he was being punished.”
“He wouldn’t say, but I think he felt guilty about his relationship with Percy. There was kind of a shadow between them in the last few years. They still hung out together, but it wasn’t the same. I think when Tom got sick, it helped the two of them get past some things. You know, you get pretty focused on what really matters when you’re staring death in the face.”
“What was the problem between them?” Stride asked.
Anna hesitated. “Kelli.”
“Tom—well, I’m not sure Tom approved of Percy marrying her.”
“Why not?” Stride asked.
“Kelli’s very pretty, very sweet, but Tom wasn’t sure if her feelings for Percy were genuine. A terrible experience can bond people together, but I don’t know if you can build a lifetime on it. Percy and Tom argued, and they agreed to put it aside, but I don’t think Percy ever completely forgave Tom for how he felt.”
“What about you? How did you feel about it?”
“Me? Well, I like Kelli, but I don’t know her very well. We’re not exactly cut from the same cloth. She’s much bolder, more out there, more New Age. I have to say, I’m not keen on the work she does with abusers, either. If it were up to me, we’d string them all up, but I guess we need people like Kelli who can try to help them. Which is frankly amazing to me, after what happened to her. I couldn’t be alone with men like that after what she experienced. Percy didn’t like it, either.”
“Did Percy and Tom reconcile before he died?” Stride asked.
“I think so,” Anna said. “Percy was there on Tom’s last day. I went for a walk and gave them space. Tom seemed more at peace after that. He was gone a few hours later. I was holding his hand right to the end.”
Stride got up from the sofa. The conversation had awakened his own memories of Cindy, and when the flood started, it was hard to hold it back. He knew exactly what Anna had gone through. “Can you think of anything in these past few weeks that might explain why Percy did what he did?”
Anna shook her head. “I can’t. I really can’t.”
“Had you seen a lot of him recently?”
“No, he was here briefly a couple weeks ago to fix a leaking faucet, but that’s all. He looked upset and distracted. I asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t talk about it. I guess I should have pushed him harder. Frankly, I assumed it was something between him and Kelli. Marriages have their ups and downs.”
“Did he mention the disappearance of Greg Hamlin?” Stride asked. “That was the last case he was working on.”
“He didn’t,” Anna told him, “but Percy rarely talked about work. I know Hope and Greg, of course. Everybody does.”
“I met Hope today,” Stride said.
A faint smile crossed Anna’s face. “Enjoy the experience, did you?”
“No, Hope is hard-boiled. They both are. She’s smart, I’ll give her that, but some people will bank in Green Bay just so they don’t have to deal with her. Greg can be just as difficult. Your uncle probably knows him. Greg was a teacher and coach at the middle school for a long time, but I think the school board got tired of his temper and encouraged him to move on. He became a realtor, and he’s done very well with commercial properties. He and Hope make a lot of money, but their battles are legendary in town. Although I have to say, it seemed to me that Greg had softened a bit lately. His dad died last fall, and that kind of thing can make you reassess how you live your life.”
Stride nodded. He spotted a teenage girl in the doorway of the living room with a one-year-old baby in her arms. The baby’s face mimicked Tom Bruin’s plump red cheeks and bright eyes, like a reminder of her father. Anna bloomed with happiness, seeing her child, and the bond of mother and daughter made Stride conscious of what he’d missed by never becoming a parent.
“Well, Mya and I have some errands to run in town,” Anna told him.
“Yes, of course. I appreciate your time.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. I’d like to know what happened to Percy, too, as much as Kelli does.”
“I’m afraid these things rarely have easy answers,” Stride said.
“I suppose you’re right.”
They shook hands. Her grip was limp. He left the house and made his way down the icy driveway to his truck, which was parked facing the river. The road ended at a boat launch. Slushy water slapped at the asphalt, but the milky blanket of ice began again just offshore. He unlocked the door and was about to climb inside when he smelled cigarette smoke behind him.
When he looked up the road, he saw the same teenage boy who had been watching the activity at the graveyard the previous night.
The boy sat astride a red moped in the middle of the country intersection. A hand-rolled cigarette drooped from his lips. His black hair was long and greasy. He wasn’t tall, and he had to stretch his legs to graze the ground with the toes of his sneakers. In the daylight, he looked younger, because he was skinny and the sleeves of his jean jacket hung almost to the ends of his fingers. Stride dropped his keys in his pocket and walked up the road toward the boy. Getting closer, he saw that the teenager had pale blue eyes, which were trained on him with curiosity and a hint of fear, like someone outside the lion’s cage at the zoo. The boy’s face wasn’t sullen or mean; he didn’t have the typical teenage arrogance. He looked smart, but he looked like a loner. Those were qualities Stride recognized from his own teenage years.
The moped engine sputtered to life. The boy swung the handlebars and headed down Wolf River Road. His long hair flew into tangles. Rocks and spray spattered the red metal frame. Stride watched him go.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?”
Stride glanced at the driveway, where Anna Bruin’s teenage babysitter stood at the curb. He figured she was about the same age as the boy on the bike. She wore a cream-colored dress that fell to her knees and neon yellow sneakers. Her unzipped down coat had a fur hood. She had scraggly brown hair with a headband and bow and wore yellow glasses that matched her shoes. A knit purse, heavy with sequins, swung from her fingers. She was tall and skinny.
“You know him?” Stride asked.
“Oh, sure, that’s Mike Black.”
It took Stride a moment, and then he made the connection.
. That was the name on the grave that had been vandalized. The grave only steps away from where Percy shot himself. He didn’t like coincidences.
“Anna called you Sophie, is that right?” he asked the girl.
“Yep, that’s me.” She pointed a finger at him playfully. “And
are Jonathan Stride of the Duluth Police, and that policeman’s wife asked you to find out why he killed himself, right?”
“You know a lot,” he told her.
“I like to listen. You learn a lot when you listen. No one pays attention to kids, because they think we’re stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid.” He added: “No school today?”
“Nope. A pipe burst. The place is flooded. Bummer, huh?” She grinned.
“Yeah, I used to be glued to the news after snow storms to see if they closed the Duluth schools,” Stride said. “It’s nice of you to help out Mrs. Bruin on a day off.”
“Oh, sure. I like kids, and Mya’s great. I mean, Mrs. Bruin pays me, but it’s fun.”
“Let me ask you something, Sophie. What’s the deal with Mike Black?”
“Mike? I don’t know, he’s a little weird, but that’s okay. I’m weird, too. He loves animals, which I think is cool. Him and his mom, they’ve got dogs and cats and rabbits and stuff. Mike rescued most of them.”