Authors: Brian Freeman
They had the back roads to themselves. The forest pushed in from both sides like dense walls. Several times, bridges passed over the bends of the same frozen creek that made a white ribbon in the gully between the trees. Stride lost track of the turns they made, but Mike Black knew where he was going. The boy seemed at home here, and Stride understood the feeling. As a teenager himself, he’d explored the northlands surrounding Duluth until every road was like an old friend.
When the boy turned west on County Road A, Stride almost lost him. He waited for a flatbed truck to pass on its way into town, and when he finally turned, the moped had vanished. He accelerated to catch up, but a mile later, he realized that Mike had left the highway. He did a U-turn and slowly retraced his route, and that was when he spotted the moped parked in the long grass.
Stride pulled onto the shoulder and got out of his truck. He crossed the road and found himself at a rusted gate mounted onto posts made from tree stumps. The gate marked a break in the trees, but there was no road behind it, just matted indentations in the grass that led through a small field and disappeared into the woods.
He looked up. The late afternoon sun was gone, crowded out by dark clouds that shouldered across the sky, making the world gray. He couldn’t see into the trees. He was alone, but Mike’s footprints made a trail through the field. He walked around the fence posts and followed the path through dead thistles that were as high as his hips. The ground was uneven under his feet, and snow got inside his boots. At the fringe of the trees, he stopped, then plunged inside where the boy’s footprints continued.
The trail had been cleared wide enough for a truck, but Stride guessed it had been a long time since a vehicle was driven here. The forest had reclaimed it, sprouting weeds across the path and toppling thick limbs when the storms hit. Low, long branches bent over the trail, making a roof that blocked the sky. At times, Stride had to duck.
Mike Black had stopped where the trail opened into a clearing. Beyond the boy, Stride spotted the white aluminum of a large Wrangler camper that had been towed through the woods and anchored here. Mike stood at the fringe of the clearing, as if unwilling to get close to the trailer. He was smoking. He looked back at the sound of Stride’s footsteps, but he didn’t acknowledge him.
The teenager was at least a foot shorter than Stride. His clothes hung on his skinny frame. Most of his long black hair was shoved inside the collar of his jean jacket. His eyebrows looked oddly dark over his light blue eyes, and his nose and chin were both pointed and narrow. His thick lips were parted, as if he were about to whistle. He looked up and away, frozen, as if listening to music that Stride couldn’t hear.
“Do you feel it?” Mike murmured.
Stride heard wind snaking through the trees. He tasted snow blown like mist off the branches. A crow screeched in the treetops. It had gotten colder. “Feel what?” he asked.
The boy shrugged. “Nothing.”
“My name’s Stride.”
“I know who you are.” His voice sounded older than his age. He wasn’t a kid. “I know what you want, too.”
The camper was twenty yards away. It was a luxury model, white and gray with black stripes, but it had obviously been parked here for several seasons. Dirt crusted over the aluminum. Weeds grew around the tires. The clearing was overgrown, but he could see the remnants of a fire pit and an old charcoal grill.
“What is this place?” Stride asked.
“Percy liked to come here. Sometimes I followed him.”
The boy wiped his nose, which had begun to drip. “I don’t know. I was curious about him. What he did. Why he did it.”
“Did Percy know you followed him?”
“Yeah, he caught me outside the camper once. He knew who I was. He wasn’t mad or anything. We talked for a long time.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Your dad?” Stride asked.
Mike shook his head. “No, we didn’t talk about him. I never talk about him.”
“Did Percy say why he came here?”
“He said the camper belonged to a friend of his. A friend who died. They used to come out here to hunt, but Percy said he didn’t hunt anymore. I liked that. I don’t think you should hunt anything. Anyway, he said he came out here to think about his friend and—”
“And what?” Stride asked.
“To pray.” Mike looked up at him. “Do you pray?”
“Percy said that prayer makes God stronger, but I think he was wrong. Bad usually wins, doesn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” Stride replied. “Not when good people try to stop it.”
“I wish I could believe that, but I don’t.” Mike shook his head and shivered. He crushed his cigarette in the snow. The evergreens stared down at them like giants. “You really don’t feel it, huh?”
“Feel what?” he asked again.
Stride shrugged. “Yeah, it’s cold.”
“Not just that. It’s more than that. I mean, like, just a second ago, didn’t you hear someone laughing?”
“I did. Clear as anything. I told Percy about it once, and he said I should listen really hard, because I could hear things other people didn’t. He said it was a gift, but it doesn’t feel like that to me.”
Stride studied Mike’s face and saw a boy who was lost.
He’s a little weird
, Sophie had said. That was easy to understand. Your father does something terrible and is killed for it. The rest of the world looks at you and wonders if you sprang from the same seed and if you’re bound for the same path. Maybe you start to wonder about it yourself. Stride saw a smart kid, a sensitive kid, who was afraid of what he would become.
“Why did you want me to follow you here, Mike?” Stride asked.
“I needed to tell somebody,” the boy replied, rubbing his blue eyes. “I know why Percy did it.”
“You do? Why?”
Mike swallowed hard and glanced behind them at the empty, overgrown trail. His face twitched. “Two weeks ago, I came out here. I was looking for Percy. I walked down here, and the door to the camper was open, but he wasn’t inside. I thought about shouting his name, but—I don’t know—something made me stop. I didn’t want him to know I was here.”
Stride waited. When a long stretch of silence passed, he said: “What happened next?”
“I heard noises in the woods beyond the camper. There’s no trail there. I didn’t know what it was. It could have been a bear or something. I thought about ducking inside, but I didn’t. I ran back here. Right here where we are now. I squeezed down into the trees where I was invisible, and I watched.”
“What did you see?”
“It was Percy,” Mike said. “He looked—I don’t know how he looked. Destroyed. Empty. Like his life was over. I’ve never seen anyone look like that. I mean, that’s how you look when you put a gun to your head.”
Stride waited. The boy continued.
“Percy went back inside the cabin and closed the door. I don’t even know why I waited. I should have left, but I didn’t. He must have been in there for an hour, but finally, the door opened again, and he left. He walked right by me. He couldn’t have been more than six feet away, but he didn’t see me. He had a big plastic garbage bag in his arms, and his face—he was crying. Sobbing. I saw him. He was—he was—”
“What?” Stride asked softly.
“He was covered in blood,” Mike said.
The camper belonged to Tom Bruin. When Stride went inside, he saw photographs of the late medical examiner taped to the windows, including one with his baby girl, Mya, obviously taken after the man’s illness had grown terminal. The fleshy, jolly doctor he’d seen in the pictures on the mantle at Anna’s house was emaciated in this photograph, but his eyes shone with love for the child in his arms.
The paneled interior was narrow, but every square foot was used efficiently. The kitchen and eating areas were immediately next to the door on his left and included a stove, sink, and a square acrylic table attached to the camper wall. On his right, two built-in sofas faced each other, and an elevated twin bed provided guest sleeping quarters, including a curtain that could be closed for privacy. Most of the surfaces were freshly cleaned. He smelled ammonia and saw empty bottles of Lysol in the sink. Everything here was clean. Too clean.
With gloved hands, he checked the refrigerator, which was stocked with a six-pack of Leinie and a half-eaten brick of moldy cheddar. Inside the storage cabinets, he found clothes and hunting gear, along with evidence of mice and dozens of dead flies. He saw a toolbox and flipped up the lid. The smell from the tools wasn’t dingy metal, but bleach.
He continued down a corridor that was barely wide enough for an adult to squeeze through. The master bedroom on the far end of the camper was plush, with mirrored closets and soft lighting. The large bed itself had been stripped to the metal frame. The pillows, blankets, sheets, and mattress were all gone. On the wall behind the bed, he saw a discoloration in the wood in a distinctive shape. A cross had been hung there, but someone had removed it.
Stride crouched near the bed casters. He saw frayed white threads buried in the shag carpet, and he knew what they were. Fragments of rope. Someone had been tied to the bed. He began to suspect what Percy had removed from the camper in the large garbage bag. Evidence.
Evidence of a crime that had been committed here.
He left the camper. Mike Black hadn’t moved. Darkness had begun to close around the boy. Stride gestured at the forest.
“Which way?” he asked. “Where did Percy come from?”
Mike pointed to Stride’s right.
It wasn’t hard to see the path he needed to follow. The trees were as dense as matchsticks in a box, but someone had forced a rough trail, breaking off branches and trampling the saplings. Virgin snow clung to the ground, but where it hadn’t pushed through the crown of trees, the ground was wet and muddy and littered with dead leaves. Intermittently, he could see heel marks denting the earth. Percy’s boots.
Stride forced his way deeper into the forest. Sharp twigs bit at his face. He followed Percy’s trail from two weeks earlier and could almost hear the man breathing heavily and smell his sweat. The path was haphazard and desperate. He saw threads of torn fabric where branches had grabbed the cop’s clothes. Some of the tree bark held stains of dried blood.
He didn’t know how far he’d gone. A hundred yards. Maybe more. It was far enough into the impenetrable woods that no one ever came here, not hikers, not hunters. He stood on land that only one human being had probably ever trod upon in decades. Percy Andrews. Stride could imagine the man thinking: This was far enough. This was safe. No one would ever find this place.
Where the ragged progress through the forest stopped, Stride discovered the body.
It had been simply dropped there on its back. The ground, still frozen, couldn’t be dug up for a grave. Animals hadn’t found it yet. Snow had leached from the brush, but most of the corpse was visible. Naked. Cold and hard as stone.
Stride checked the face first, and it was the face he’d expected to find, although he had no idea why. Despite the open mouth, the wild eyes, the twisted agony in his expression, he recognized the man in the newspaper photograph that had been waved in his face earlier in the day.
The man at his feet was Greg Hamlin. The missing realtor that Percy Andrews had been trying to find.
He’d seen awful crime scenes in his time, enough to be immune to their effects, but this was no ordinary murder. This was a crime of unbelievable savagery, of hatred and madness. Hamlin had died an excruciating death. His body had been desecrated, his skin cut and burned, his bones broken, his incisors pulled, his genitals severed. Based on the blood, most of the torture had been inflicted while the man was alive.
Stride noted a single messy word that had been carved like a sculptor working in marble into the man’s torso. Carved, like the other wounds, while the man was awake and suffering unthinkable pain. A word thick with red blood. An accusation. A punishment.
It was a German word he had already seen once before in a Shawano cemetery.
“Two bodies in two days,” Neal Gandy told Stride, chuckling. “Congratulations, that is definitely some kind of record around here.”
Stride didn’t smile at the joke, because nothing was funny. He felt a heaviness weighing on his chest. In three hours, the revulsion of the crime hadn’t dimmed. No living creature deserved what had been done to Greg Hamlin. The hours the man had spent tied to the bed in Tom Bruin’s camper must have felt like eternal damnation.
“Anyway, there’s no question about an autopsy,” the coroner went on. “The guy I usually use in Green Bay didn’t want to touch it, so we’ll get a forensic specialist in here from Milwaukee tomorrow. I thought we should leave the body where it is until then, but Weik said we had to get it out of here. Disrespectful to leave it.”
Stride eyed the police activity across the road, and he was unimpressed. There were too many cops, too many footprints, too much contamination of the scene. He’d seen it before in small towns, where the police rarely dealt with serious crimes but didn’t ask for help. To them, this was the drama of a lifetime, and they didn’t want to pass the glory to anyone else. The result was that the crime either didn’t get solved, or a smart defense attorney was able to get much of the incriminating evidence thrown out.
“You’re right,” Stride said. “Moving the body was a mistake.”
Gandy shrugged in resignation, as if to say:
Talk to the Sheriff
. The two men stood on the asphalt of the highway, which had been closed in both directions. It was nearly dark. “Between you and me, I think Weik figures there’s not going to be a trial on this one. Percy killed Hamlin, then killed himself.”
“Is that what you think?” Stride asked.
The young man’s bushy eyebrows arched. “I’m sorry, don’t you? Percy’s suicide smells like a confession. And then there’s the whole Devil thing. The carving on the body. Sounds like he was messed up, you know?”
Stride knew that Gandy and the Sheriff were probably right. If you believed Mike Black, then Percy put Hamlin’s body in the woods. Stride himself had seen the next step, when Percy placed a gun against his own head. That was what a guilty man did. A man who couldn’t live with what he’d done. The murder case felt open and shut—but it didn’t answer the question of why. Something had led to the bloody intersection of Percy Andrews and Greg Hamlin. Something had triggered the violent rage inside the camper.
“Why German?” Stride said.
Gandy looked at him. “Huh?”
in German? Percy wasn’t German, was he?”
“I don’t think so, but there’s a lot of German influences around here. Kids grew up in Shawano hearing the fairy tale of
Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren
. Half the old people around the county probably shout curses about
when they drop something on their foot.”
“Except Percy didn’t grow up around here,” Stride pointed out.
“Well, you live here for 20 years, you’re bound to hear it. Somehow the Devil is scarier in German, don’t you think? He lives in
, eating children and spitting out the bones.” Gandy laughed.
“Not too far from the truth in this case,” Stride said, which wiped the smile off the coroner’s face. “Did you know Hamlin?” he added.
“I knew who he was, sure,” Gandy said, “but I don’t think I’ve said a word to Mr. Hamlin in twenty years.”
“What about Percy? Did he have any kind of relationship with him?”
“If he did, Percy never mentioned it. Hamlin was a real estate guy. I don’t think Percy ran in those circles. Now Hamlin’s wife, that’s another story. Most people bump into Hope at the bank. If you’re looking for money, you’ll end up talking to her.”
“The disappearance of Greg Hamlin landed on Percy’s desk,” Stride said. “That’s quite a coincidence if he was the one who killed him.”
“Not really,” Gandy replied. “Percy was the senior general investigator. A case like that—a guy goes missing—that would always wind up with him. You could count on it.”
Stride frowned. He didn’t know if it was an important fact or not, but he thought that was interesting. Anyone who knew the local police—and that was probably most of the people in Shawano—knew that a missing persons investigation would end up on the desk of Percy Andrews.
He realized he was looking for excuses. Alternate explanations for Hamlin’s death and Percy’s role in it. That wasn’t his usual approach, and it went against all his instincts. Any seasoned police officer knew that the most likely solution was almost always the right one. Percy killed Hamlin. Percy killed himself. End of story.
Even so, something didn’t fit.
“Hamlin vanished a month ago, but Mike Black said he saw Percy coming out of the woods only two weeks ago. Why the gap?”
Gandy shrugged. “You saw the state of the body. Must have been a long two weeks for Hamlin.”
“Maybe. Or maybe Hamlin was already dead when Percy found him.”
“Well, we’ll know more when we fix the time of death, but having the body outdoors in the cold for so long is going to make that difficult. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to say for sure.”
“If you think Percy didn’t kill him, Lieutenant, then who did? And if he was innocent, why would Percy bother to hide the body?”
“I don’t know,” Stride said. “You’re assuming that’s what he did.”
“What, you think Mike Black made it up? He didn’t really see Percy here?”
“It’s possible. Maybe not likely, but possible. Mike’s the only witness tying Percy to Hamlin’s body. There’s no other evidence that Percy was involved with Hamlin at all.”
Gandy cocked his fingers like a gun and put it to his head. “Bang.”
“Yes, I know, the suicide,” Stride said, “but suicide isn’t murder.”
“Fair enough. I see your point. Look, I don’t know Mike Black, but my daughter Sophie does. She likes him, and that goes a long way with me. Still, no way around it, the kid’s been through a lot. Your dad does something terrible and gets killed? You carry that with you forever. Plus, small towns can be cruel. Sophie says Mike still gets bullied. Sometimes kids grow out of it, sometimes you get Columbine, know what I mean?”
Stride nodded. “Ginnie Black says it started that way with Jet, too.”
“Sure. Back in the old days, Jet was a decent enough kid. Good athlete. Everybody starts out innocent, right? Then shit happens. You just never know.”
“Childhood screws us up,” Stride said, “and we spend the rest of our lives trying to fix it.”
“Damn straight,” Gandy said. “I worry about this kind of stuff. When my wife and I got divorced, it was hard on Sophie. I’d like to tell you we were mature about it, but we weren’t. I said bad things about my ex. She said even worse things about me. Sophie was in the middle. You overcompensate, and you get them counseling, and you give them smartphones and XBoxes, and you tell them over and over it’s not their fault. Even so, you hold your breath and worry about how it will turn out for them.”
“I met Sophie today. She’s sweet. Bright, too.”
Gandy nodded. “Kids grow up okay in spite of their parents.”
“Sophie did tell me something odd,” Stride added. “She said that Mike Black blamed the Devil for killing his father, not Percy. Like the Devil was in the ruins at the time. I didn’t have a chance to ask Mike about it. Did Sophie say anything about that to you? Do you have any idea what it means?”
The coroner shook his head. “Not a clue.”
“The Devil keeps showing up around here,” Stride said.
“Well, people take sin pretty seriously out in the country,” Gandy replied. “Good and evil aren’t abstractions here. You have to pick a side. But the Novitiate? Percy was the good guy there. Tom always said so. Without him, Kelli would have wound up just like Mr. Hamlin. Somebody would have found her eventually, or what was left of her. It wasn’t pretty. No, if there really was a devil in that place, it was Jet Black. Just like it said on the grave.”