Authors: Brian Freeman
Stride found his uncle sitting in the middle of the cold garage. His pick-up truck was in the driveway. A utility light hung over his head from the ceiling at the end of an orange extension cord. He had tools and a bottle of beer within arm’s reach, and an old green lawn mower lay mostly disassembled on the concrete floor around him. Richard had Beatles music playing on a boom box. “Blackbird.”
“Looks like an antique,” Stride said, gesturing at the mower.
Richard honed the blades, which were stained green. He didn’t take his eyes away from what he was doing. Metal screeched against metal. “Yeah, antique like its owner. I’ve had this machine for thirty years. I figure it can limp through a few more seasons. I don’t like to give up on things just because they’re old. They’re typically built better than the younger models.”
His uncle pointed at the metal shelves lining the garage walls. “I found a couple things for you. They’re in an envelope over there. I thought you’d want to take them with you.”
Stride opened the envelope. He found two photographs inside. One was a picture of himself and Cindy, taken in front of Richard’s house twenty years earlier. He smiled, seeing his late wife: her tiny hundred-pound figure, her pretty face with its sharp little nose, her straight-as-arrows hair, her teasing smile that always seemed to be laughing at the world. He saw himself, too, from that long-ago time. No gray hair. No deep lines furrowed across his forehead. His dark eyes looked bright and alive.
“That wife of yours was a gem,” Richard said.
“She was.” Stride didn’t want to put the picture down. “It’s funny. Back then, I thought my life was going on a straight line. I knew where it started. I knew where it would end. Nothing was going to change.”
“Seems to me that’s also the definition of inertia,” his uncle pointed out.
Stride looked at the second photograph. This one was of Serena Dial. Richard had taken it when he visited them in Duluth two years ago. Serena was alone on the beach behind his cottage on Park Point, steps from the waves of Lake Superior. She was brooding and beautiful. Tall. Voluptuous. It was hard to imagine this strong woman being jealous of anyone, but he knew that wasn’t true. She’d been jealous of Cindy. She’d constantly felt shadowed by his first wife, who never aged, who never changed, who was always perfect.
Richard watched him from the garage floor. Stride didn’t see much physical resemblance between himself and his uncle, but Cindy and Serena had both disagreed. They said anyone would peg them as family. Heling men carried themselves in a certain way, like strong animals plowing a field. He’d always ascribed most of who he was to his father, but Cindy and Serena had pointed to his mother’s side.
“How come you never got married, Richard?” Stride asked.
His uncle remained focused on the mechanics of the lawn mower. “No woman would ever put up with me.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Smart. Good cook. Handy with small electrics.”
“If you’re planning on writing a personals ad, you can stop there,” Richard said. “You want the truth, Jon? I’ve met some wonderful women. I slept with a few, but not all that many, I’m afraid. Even so, after all that time, I never fell in love. That’s the short answer. It’s a rare gift when a man finds a soul mate, even among those who do get married.” He finally looked away from his project long enough to catch Stride’s eye. “Even rarer when it happens twice.”
Stride said nothing. He stared at the photographs again, one in each hand. At Cindy. At Serena. Finally, he put them back in the envelope. He wandered to the doorway of the garage and stared out into the neighborhood. All the lights were on at Kelli’s house across the street. An expensive Mercedes convertible was parked at the curb. He knew the police would be there soon, with search warrants in hand, to tear her house apart from top to bottom.
“Rumors are flying,” Richard said from the garage floor. “Greg Hamlin? He was murdered?”
“People say it was bad.”
“More than bad,” Stride told him.
His uncle shook his head. “Percy really did that?”
“If Mike Black is telling the truth, then Percy was involved in some way.”
Richard finished his beer, set the bottle on its side on the floor, and spun it. “Jesus. Hard to imagine him as a sadistic killer. He’s not the type.”
“No one’s ever the type,” Stride said. “Neighbors are always surprised to find out they’re living next door to a predator. They go on TV and say, ‘He was just a normal guy.’ No, he wasn’t. He just looked normal.”
“So what are you saying? Are the police going to find bodies in Percy’s basement?”
“They’re sure going to look,” Stride said. “Who knows what they’ll find?”
His uncle got up nimbly from the floor and retrieved a set of wrenches from a peg board on the wall. “Kelli doesn’t believe it.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t. Spouses never do.”
“She’s not just some naïve wife protecting her husband. That’s a woman who knows evil a hell of a lot better than me. Maybe even better than you, Jon. She says Percy wasn’t some psychopath, and he had absolutely no reason to kill Greg Hamlin.”
“The motive may not be obvious, but their lives intersected somewhere.”
“Well, Percy was a cop,” Richard said. “Every cop in Shawano knew the Hamlins. That doesn’t mean Percy killed him.”
“Why was Hamlin so well known to the police?”
His uncle shrugged. “Multiple domestics, as you’d call them.”
“He liked to beat up his wife?” Stride asked.
“Oh, the way I hear it, Hope held up her end, too. They were a violent couple. They’d argue and throw things, and sooner or later, one of them would start throwing punches. It’s been going on their entire marriage. You’re talking about a few decades of warfare. I gather it was usually fueled by a whole lot of vodka and gin.”
“Interesting,” Stride said.
“I’m not a fan of either one of them. I’m not saying Greg deserved what he got out in the woods, but I didn’t like him. I’m sure it was mutual.”
Stride leaned against the garage wall. A cold wind blew dirt and snow onto the concrete floor. The hanging light swung back and forth like a pendulum, making the shadows move. “How did you know Hamlin?”
“We both taught at the school,” Richard said. “I taught science, and Greg was a math teacher and coach. Big personality—loud mouth, partied hard, drank a lot, hell of a temper. He tried to tell me how to teach, and I told him where to shove it. I wasn’t sorry to see him go. Man was better off in real estate. Somebody told me that Hope was pushing him into politics, too, thought he should run for city or county office. Thank God that never happened. He’s not the kind of man you want having power to push people around.”
“Had you talked to him recently?” Stride asked.
“No, we didn’t have any contact at all until a few months ago. That was fine with me. It’s a small town, but you can put blinders on for people you don’t want to see.”
“What happened a few months ago?”
Richard put down his wrench. When he stood up, he wiped his greasy hands on a towel. Despite the cold, his balding head glowed with sweat. “It was kind of strange, actually. I got a note from Greg over the winter. Just a couple sentences. Said he knew he’d been a son of a bitch at times when we worked together. He wanted to know if he could make amends.”
“What prompted it?” Stride asked.
His uncle shook his head. “No idea. Like I said, we hadn’t traded so much as a hello at the County Market in years.”
“Anna Bruin told me that Hamlin changed after his dad died. Like maybe he was reassessing how he lived his life. He wasn’t the same hard-ass.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Richard replied. “If he changed at all, the cynical side of me says he was just smoothing out the rough edges so he could dive into politics. Anyway, for me it was too little, too late. I threw the note away.”
Stride eyed the house across the street again. In the glow of the living room window, he saw a silhouette he recognized as Kelli Andrews. He wanted to talk to her before the police arrived, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. His uncle followed his eyes.
“So what happens now?” Richard asked.
“That’s up to the sheriff.”
“Weik? He’s going to lay this on Percy and then close the book.”
“That may be the right thing to do,” Stride said. “Percy is probably guilty.”
“Except then Kelli will never know what happened. Weik will smear Percy or just let the gossip fly that he was some kind of perverted monster. And yeah, okay, if he was, he was. I don’t believe it, but you’re right, it’s tough to know what goes on in another man’s heart. Even so, Kelli deserves to know who her husband really was. She’s tough. She can handle bad news, but I’m not sure she can handle not knowing.”
“It’s an active criminal investigation,” Stride reminded him. “I have no jurisdiction here. I can’t get involved.”
“Is that what you’re planning to tell Kelli?”
“That’s it,” Stride said.
His uncle made a noise in the back of his throat, as if he were swallowing something that didn’t want to go down. Stride knew what Richard was like. He was an idealist who saw the world the way it was supposed to be, not the way it was. Stride didn’t have that luxury.
“I’ll talk to her,” Stride added.
Richard didn’t answer. He’d already sat down at the dismantled lawn mower again, putting pieces back together. It was as if Stride wasn’t there. Life had happened before he arrived, and life would go on after he left in the morning. With malicious irony, the Beatles sang, “Get Back,” as if they were sending him away to where he belonged.
Stride headed down the driveway. The melted snow had frozen over into ice with the night, making the ground slick. He crossed the street. The luxury Mercedes was still parked at the curb. He didn’t think it was the kind of car that Kelli or Percy would own. As he walked toward the front door, he still saw Kelli’s silhouette framed by the window, her back to the street. He heard voices, too, loud and unhappy.
He was listening to the voices when a gun fired.
The living room window shattered with the explosion. Glass flew. Stride threw himself to the snowy lawn. From inside the house, he heard a woman screaming.
I’ll kill you!
Stride went in with his own gun drawn. The front door was open. He saw Kelli Andrews in front of the shattered window. Gusts blew through the hole, mussing her dirty hair. She looked unfazed. Her face had no expression, and the coiled serpents that made up the tattoo on her neck were frozen with their mouths open, their fangs exposed. Her strong arms were folded across her chest, and her feet were rooted to the carpet.
Ten feet away, Hope Hamlin pointed a gun at Kelli’s head.
Hope’s face was a death mask. Her skin was paper-white and streaked with ribbons of black mascara. The bloom on her cheeks was scarlet. She held a huge revolver with rock-steady hands.
“Admit what you did!” Hope shouted.
Kelli said nothing at all. Her calm defiance in the face of the gun fed Hope’s fury. The older woman’s nostrils flared as she sucked in quick breaths.
“Mrs. Hamlin, put that gun down,” Stride told her.
Hope’s bloodshot blue eyes flicked to Stride and then back to Kelli. “I’m going to kill this fucking slut,” she hissed. “This is her fault.”
Even from across the room, Hope reeked of alcohol. Unfortunately, she was a functional drunk, perfectly capable of putting a bullet between Kelli’s eyes. One red fingernail curled around the trigger.
,” Stride repeated sharply. “Stop. Put the gun down now.”
“Not until she admits what she did!”
Kelli finally spoke. Her voice was soft over the whistle of the wind. “I can’t admit what I didn’t do.”
“Liar! You bitch!”
Hope Hamlin’s tiny body quivered with fury. Her lip curled like the bulge of a fishhook. Her arms twitched, and Stride was an instant away from firing his own gun when Hope flung the revolver against the wall with a frustrated shout. He holstered his weapon and went to collect the gun, but he stopped as a howl rose out of Hope’s chest. The older woman lunged across the living room, throwing herself against Kelli Andrews. Hope was small next to Kelli, but she toppled the two of them to the floor and wrapped her spindly fingers around Kelli’s neck. She cursed repeatedly, pressing her thumbs into Kelli’s windpipe, and Kelli, caught unaware, was choking before she began to fight back.
Stride grabbed Hope under both arms and dragged her off Kelli, which was like wrestling a feral cat. The older woman’s legs kicked wildly, her heels flying off. She shrieked and flailed as Stride carried her in mid-air out the front door, nearly colliding with his uncle, who was running up the Andrews driveway.
“What the hell is going on?” Richard bellowed. “Was that a shot?”
“Get inside,” Stride told him. “There’s a gun on the floor. Make sure it’s not touched. Help Kelli, okay?”
His uncle disappeared, and Stride dropped Hope Hamlin into a snow bank on the lawn and braced her to the wet ground. She squirmed against him, but the cold, dampness, and alcohol bled the fight from her quickly. When she finally lay still, he felt confident enough to let go. Hope lay on her back, staring at the sky. Her elegant bankers’ clothes were grimy with snow and mud. Her helmet hair had sprouted messy wings. She looked every year of her age now, and her anger had bled into grief. She sobbed, unable to talk. Tears poured down her contorted face, glistening under the moon. When she could finally speak, she mumbled her husband’s name over and over with each stuttered breath: “Greg, Greg, Greg.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said.
Hope’s head slipped sideways. Her cheek was in the snow. She seemed to realize who he was for the first time. “He’s really dead? You saw him?”
“I’m sorry,” Stride repeated.
She closed her eyes. Flurries off the trees landed in white flecks on her skin.
“I thought he ran away,” she murmured. “I didn’t tell anyone, but that’s what I really thought. I thought he finally got sick of me. But this—”
He said nothing. Her eyes opened again, and they were empty.
“Greg was the first person I ever met who was like me. Someone who didn’t want to lead a small, weakling life. We knew people hated us. We didn’t care. If you let people push you around, that’s your problem. You don’t survive if you’re not strong.”
Stride still said nothing. He knew too many people like Hope and Greg Hamlin who thought life was a sport to be won. As if there were some special prize at the finish line for coming out ahead. He’d seen for himself that winner and losers died the same way.
“He was so handsome,” Hope went on. “I remember when I met him. Tall. Chiseled. Lean. Tight mustache. No time for fools. When we played tennis, he crushed me. Most men would let me win, and he said if I wanted to win, I needed to beat him. I was so turned on.”
Her eyes focused, and she stared at Stride, suddenly sober. “I told that cop about it,” she snapped. “He knew the truth.”
“Percy?” Stride asked. “Told him what?”
Hope propped herself on her hands. “Greg was having an affair. That bastard. You may think I’m the world’s biggest bitch, but I never cheated on him. Never.”
“Are you sure about the affair?”
“Do you think I don’t know my husband?” Hope snapped. “For months, he’s been disappearing on Tuesday evenings. He told me it was to play tennis at the gym, but that was a lie. I went to find him there, but they said he hadn’t been there in months. I knew what was going on. I knew it was another woman. One of the customers in the bank, she told me she saw Greg in Green Bay. Little bitch, she was all sweet and innocent. ‘Oh, he had a woman in the car with him, but I’m sure it was all above-board.’ All the while smirking at me.”
“Did you talk to Greg?” Stride asked.
Hope’s eyes flashed with violence again. “Of course, I talked to him! I broke a wine bottle over the hood of his car, and I talked to him. Screamed at him is more like it. Lying bastard denied it, but I didn’t believe him. And then do you know what he said to me?”
“He said he wanted a divorce. He said he couldn’t live with me anymore. I was too
for him. Thirty years of marriage to a man with a backbone, and he turns into a fucking pussy when his daddy dies. Going to church. Never raising his voice. Finding some young chick to stick his dick into. Throw the angry old wife into the trash. Bastard.”
She cursed him, but she began to cry again. He gave her a minute as her emotions rose and fell. She wiped her pert nose on her sleeve.
“You told Percy what you suspected?” he asked.
“I told him
. Greg’s little Tuesday getaways. The woman in Green Bay. If Greg ran off, I wanted to know the truth, because I was going to track him down and shake his body upside-down until I had every penny he’d ever earned in his whole fucking worthless life.”
Phlegm caught in her throat, and she spat in the snow.
“What did Percy say?” Stride asked.
“He said he couldn’t find Greg. Not a clue. He was gone. No idea where he was. I was just going to have to live with that. ‘Sorry, ma’am, but people who don’t want to be found usually don’t get found.’ And all the while, the son of a bitch figured out what was really going on.”
Stride eyed the shattered window in the Andrews house. He thought about Hope threatening Kelli with the revolver. “What do you think Percy discovered?”
“He found out it was his own wife!” she screamed. “My husband was fucking his wife, and so the cop went and
. And then the little pussy-coward killed himself.”
Stride watched her face, which was contorted with fury. He had dealt with his share of difficult victims, but Hope Hamlin was among the most hateful women he’d run across. He had to remind himself that she’d lost her husband in a terrible way.
“Mrs. Hamlin, even if your husband was having an affair, why are you so sure it was with Kelli Andrews?”
She took hold of his wrist. Her grip was tight, and her nails bit into his skin. “Because Percy lied to me! He lied to my face! He knew!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Percy had all of Greg’s records!” Hope snapped. “Cell phone records! Credit cards! He told me there was nothing in any of it. That was bullshit. I checked! I dug up Greg’s last cell phone bill, and I checked it myself. The night he disappeared—the last call my husband ever made. Guess who he called?”
Hope’s face turned wolfish. Stride didn’t like it.
,” she told him. “That bitch. Greg called Kelli Andrews. And Percy knew all about it.”