Authors: Brian Freeman
“Yeah, I like him. He mostly hangs out by himself, but that’s the way I am, too. I feel bad for him. The other kids at school are pretty awful to him.”
“Why is that?”
“Oh, you know, they figure, like father, like son.”
Stride frowned. “Father?”
Then he remembered. Sophie didn’t need to tell him who Mike Black’s father was, because he already knew the story from the newspapers. Chester Black, who went by the nickname “Jet.” Black was a scrawny auto mechanic and high school dropout who routinely beat up his wife and son when he got drunk on Saturday nights. After one particularly vicious assault, he pled guilty to domestic assault to avoid jail time. He got probation, with the requirement that he get counseling for anger management.
His court-appointed counselor was a young psychologist named Kelli Westmark.
Jet didn’t want anyone putting their fingers inside his troubled mind, particularly not a strong, attractive woman. He had other plans for her. He kidnapped Kelli and imprisoned her inside the ruined Novitiate on the banks of the Red River, where he tortured her for days. That was where Percy Andrews eventually found them.
That was where Percy shot and killed Jet Black.
Sophie watched him. “You know who he is. I figured you would.”
“Percy Andrews killed Mike’s dad,” Stride said.
“How did Mike feel about that?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if he liked Percy or hated him. He was a little obsessed with him, that’s for sure. Followed him everywhere, wouldn’t stop talking about him. That figures, huh? I mean, it sucks when your dad is murdered, even if he deserves it.”
“What happened at the Novitiate wasn’t murder, Sophie,” Stride told her.
“That’s what people say, but tell that to Mike. I mean, he knows who was really in the ruins with his dad that night.”
Sophie slapped a hand over her mouth, as if she wanted to shove the words back inside and lock them away. Secrets were big, scary things, and they were tough to keep. Especially when you’re a young girl and a cute boy tells you something important.
Stride knelt down until they were eye to eye, and he spoke calmly to the girl. The girl who liked to listen.
“Who was in the ruins?” he asked.
Stride waited, saying nothing, staring at Sophie as the girl blinked nervously.
“I mean, nobody
,” she went on.
“What are you talking about?”
Sophie chewed her lip and adjusted her yellow glasses. She looked as if she wanted to dig a hole in the ground and crawl down inside and cover it up. Stride heard a car engine, and he saw a vintage pick-up rattling toward the house. Relieved, Sophie tugged her purse higher on her shoulder. She saw her escape.
“That’s my dad,” she said. “I gotta go.”
“Sophie, who does Mike think killed his father?”
The girl’s eyes flitted everywhere except Stride’s face. She was like any twelve-year-old, bubbly until the world got hard, surrounded by a wall as fragile as an eggshell. He didn’t think she was going to answer, but then she put her cupped her hands around her mouth and her voice croaked like a wind-up doll.
,” she whispered.
No one in the town of Shawano had forgotten Jet Black.
Homegrown monsters lingered like ghosts long after they were dead. Jet had been born and raised here. He’d become what he was right here. In the schools. In the parks and campgrounds. On Main Street and the dirt roads. Nobody liked it. You could blame evil on bad-to-the-bone genes, but somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind was an unwelcome thought: Was it us?
Did we make him who he was?
Stride found the Black house on the west end of Old Highway 29, two miles from town, where land was cheap. The driveway was rutted with mud and snow. The old rambler was dwarfed by soaring trees. Near the street, the mailbox had been knocked off its post and lay on the ground, dented and open. He got out of his car, and he heard a mournful baying, like a wolf pack under a full moon. It was dogs, locked inside the house, howling. From the different pitches, he guessed at least five.
He trudged up the driveway and saw that Jet’s family was still paying the price for his sins. The yard was neat, but vandals came regularly in the night. Windows had been shattered into starbursts by rocks and taped over. Venomous profanity had been spray-painted across the garage door. Frozen chocolate-colored smears clung to the white siding. Feces.
Leaning against the garage, parked in the dirt, was Mike Black’s red moped.
Stride heard the front door open and then the bang of a storm door. A young woman emerged into the sunlight. Behind her, a furry pack of dogs pawed and jumped at the glass, and the howling became a frenzy of barking. He shaded his eyes and saw that the woman held a shotgun cradled in her arms. It was aimed directly at his chest, and her finger was poised near the trigger.
Stride stopped immediately and held up his hands.
“Who are you?” she called.
He explained, but it took another minute—and the sight of his police shield—before she tilted the shotgun toward the ground.
“Sorry,” she said, but the apology didn’t sound sincere. “I have to be careful about strangers. Usually, they’re not here for anything good.”
“I can see that,” he told her.
“It’s mostly drunk kids who do this shit, but you never know.”
Stride approached the porch. “And you are—?”
“Jet was your husband?”
“Do you mind if I ask you few questions?” He added: “Preferably not at gunpoint.”
“If you like.” She disarmed the weapon, looking like someone who had done it many times before. “I don’t have much time,” she told him. “I have the middle shift today. Come on, we can talk inside.”
Dogs surrounded Stride as he followed the woman into the house. He’d undercounted. He saw two Rottweilers, a golden retriever, two black labs, a white standard poodle, a sheltie, and a miniature schnauzer who appeared to be the meanest and toughest of the lot. The cacophony of barking was deafening, but when Ginnie snapped her fingers, the dogs fell silent.
“They’re well trained,” Stride said.
Ginnie shrugged. “That’s my son Mike. He’s like a whisperer or something with animals.”
“Is he around?”
He thought of the moped outside and knew she was lying.
Stride studied the living room of the small house. The dogs were only part of the menagerie. He counted seven cats sprawled on furniture, four rabbits sleeping in a cage, and one iguana enjoying the sunshine on a coffee table. Despite the animals, the house was impeccably clean. He saw no dust or clutter on the surfaces, and fur hadn’t gathered on the sofa cushions. The carpet smelled freshly washed, and there was no hint of urine or vomit lingering in the closed-up space. Nothing in the house was new, but Ginnie Black kept her surroundings organized and neat.
Like her house, Ginnie was neatly but cheaply put together. She wore Wal-Mart fashions—simple checked top, dark skirt, practical shoes—but everything fit, and she clearly ironed whatever came out of the drier. Her brown hair was long and straight, and it was tied in a tight ponytail behind her head that gave her a high white forehead. She wore makeup, but her face was severe and plain. She didn’t smile. She looked beaten down by life, but she didn’t look like someone who quit.
“I have to keep the animals inside,” Ginnie told him. “We used to let them out, but I lost a dog and a cat that way. Killed. Dropped on our doorstep with their heads cut off. Fucking savages.”
As harsh as her words were, her voice was calm.
Stride sat down on a sofa. A black-and-white cat lazily re-located to his lap, purring loudly. “Have you talked to the police about it?” he asked.
“Nobody cares. I’m Jet’s wife. Sheriff Weik sends a cop out so they can put it in their files that they responded, but they don’t try to stop it. Most of the time, I don’t call anymore.”
“You had nothing to do with what your husband did.”
“You think that matters? They want me out, that’s the bottom line. I remind them of Jet. Nobody’s looking for reminders, believe me. Nobody wants to see my face in town. I had to go to Green Bay to get a job.”
“What do you do?” Stride asked.
“I work at Lambeau. It’s a good job, lots of overtime. I need the money. Jet left me a pile of debt.”
Stride noticed her left knee twitching to a beat he couldn’t hear. That was the only glimmer of the emotions churning inside Ginnie Black. She kept everything else locked away. Nothing made it onto her face.
“You heard about Percy Andrews?” he asked.
“Yes, I did. That’s a terrible thing.”
“He killed your husband,” Stride said.
“So? I wish I’d thanked him for it. I hope that doesn’t shock you.”
“What I feel bad about is that I didn’t kill Jet myself years ago. Other people suffered because I was a coward. Not that I didn’t think about it. I kept a knife under my pillow. I would lie there and listen to him breathe and think about slitting his throat.”
“I can imagine what you went through with Jet.”
“Can you? I doubt it.”
“I knew a woman about your age in Duluth. Her name was Michaela. She had a husband very much like Jet. Michaela needed protection.”
“And did you protect her?” Ginnie asked.
“I tried, but he killed her anyway.”
Her face froze in an instant of compassion. Then it drained away. “Well, I guess she should have kept a knife under her pillow, too.”
“The point is, none of this is your fault.”
Ginnie shrugged. “Then whose fault is it?”
Stride didn’t answer her. He thought about Anna Bruin.
You look for someone to blame
. Even when there was nothing and no one. Even when God stood aside as evil things happened.
“Sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for who you are,” Ginnie went on. “Jet wasn’t some dumb-ass slacker. He was smart. Clever. Athletic for a small kid. Track, tennis, swimming. Yes, he was bullied. Humiliated. He had things done to him I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But you know what? Bad things happen to everybody. Jet could’ve gotten past it, but instead, he decided that he was going to pay back every hurt, and he did. Starting with me and Mike, and ending with Kelli. He became worse than any of the people who tormented him. So you tell me, Mr. Stride. When does the victim become guilty himself?”
He knew she was right. There was no line in the sand between guilt and innocence. It kept getting washed away. He’d put hundreds of abused children in jail after they grew up and became molesters, rapists, and killers. He could have said many things to her, but he said: “Why did you marry him?”
Ginnie cast her eyes around at the neat, clean, organized space in which she lived. He had a sense that she was a woman who liked to bring order to chaos. Jet Black was chaos. “At first, I felt sorry for him,” she said. “Later, by the time I knew who he really was, it was too late. I thought he would change. I thought I could change him if I loved him enough. Stupid.”
“Not stupid. Naïve maybe. But you’re not alone in that. It’s a big club.”
She shrugged. In the silence that followed, the cat on his lap hopped down and strolled over to Ginnie, where it stretched across her feet. One of the dogs began to howl, but she snapped her fingers again, and the quiet returned. He watched her compulsively smoothing her skirt, and he knew she was anxious for him to be gone.
“About Percy Andrews,” he said.
“What can I tell you? I didn’t know him.”
“What about his wife?”
“Kelli? No, of course not. I’ve never met her. I should have talked to her years ago, but I didn’t have the stomach for it. I doubt she’d have any interest in talking to me.”
“I gather you don’t hold any ill will toward either of them for what happened.”
“Not in the least.”
“What about your son?” Stride asked. “Does Mike blame Percy for killing his father?”
like Jet,” Ginnie snapped.
“I didn’t say he was, but he’s a boy. Losing his father couldn’t have been easy, especially under those circumstances.”
“Jet was no father to Mike, just like he was no husband to me. Mike knows exactly what kind of man Jet was. I made sure he understood that Percy was a
for what he did. I told him that Jet turned his back on God when he went inside the Novitiate, and after that, he deserved whatever happened to him. I believe that. It was a dirty, wicked place inside those walls. I wish they would tear it down.”
“Percy’s death must be a shock to Mike,” he said.
“Yes, it is. I don’t want anyone bothering him.”
“I heard that Mike liked to follow Percy around town. Is that true?”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Is he here now?” Stride asked.
“I already told you he’s not,” she said. “Why do you want to talk to him?”
“I’m trying to find out what was going on in Percy’s life. If Mike spent time around Percy, maybe he saw something. Maybe he knows something that would make sense of this. That’s all I want, Ms. Black. I want to help Percy’s wife make sense of this.”
“Mike knows nothing about what happened. Percy Andrews committed suicide. It’s a tragedy. I feel bad for Kelli, but it has nothing to do with my son or with me. We’re not interested in getting involved.” Ginnie stood up. “I think it would be better if you leave now, Mr. Stride.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
As he got to his feet, something shifted in the small house. A window slamming. A door closing. Ginnie ignored it, as if she could pretend it hadn’t happened at all. Outside the house, he heard the whine of the moped engine firing up. Ginnie bit her lip and folded her arms tightly across her chest. She looked unabashed by her lies. Mike Black had been in the house. He’d heard everything between them, and now he was gone. Escaping again.
“He hates death,” Ginnie murmured.
Stride looked at her. “I’m sorry?”
“Jet was a hunter. He hunted everything. He never even took the bodies home. He just liked killing things. He used to take Mike with him. Like a prisoner. Ever since then, Mike has hated death. He won’t kill a living thing. Nothing. Not even a mosquito or a spider. He’s scared of death, because it reminds him of Jet.”
Stride said nothing else to Ginnie Black as he left the house.
Outside, he saw a single tire track cutting through the snow of the driveway. The moped.
He backed onto the two-lane highway in his truck. There was no other traffic. Before he turned toward town, he looked down the road where it headed west away from Shawano into the open lands. Two hundred yards along the arrow-straight road, he saw the red moped. Mike Black was looking over his shoulder. He was looking right at Stride, waiting for him. The teenager cocked his arm and crooked his finger to beckon Stride closer, and then he drove off, making a right turn onto a lonely rural road.
Stride did what the boy wanted.