Authors: Brian Freeman
Stride sat in the parking lot of Kroll’s restaurant in Green Bay, which was a diner immediately opposite the Packer shrine of Lambeau Field. Football season was months away. He finished the last bites of a cheeseburger wrapped in wax paper as he watched Ginnie Black cross toward him from the stadium. She wore a winter coat, hands in the pockets, and she had her head tucked against the wind, which swirled strands of her long brown hair. Her lips were turned downward in a perpetual frown. The cold had sucked color from her face.
“I don’t have much time,” she said when she joined him inside his Expedition.
“I appreciate your meeting me. You’re sure I can’t buy you lunch?”
“I’m sure. I need to get back to my desk. The phone never stops ringing.”
“You work hard.”
“I do what I need to do,” she said.
She smoothed the tangles in her hair, using a brush from inside her purse. It seemed to offend her to think that her appearance was at all untidy. She checked herself in the mirror on the sun visor, and then she noted the time on her watch. Her manner was impatient, as if a minute not on the job was a minute wasted.
“What do you want, Mr. Stride?” she asked.
“I think you left out some things when we talked yesterday,” he said.
“Greg Hamlin,” he said.
“What about him? You didn’t ask me about him.”
“You heard that I found Hamlin’s body? He was murdered.”
“Yes, so what?” There was no emotion in her voice. His death didn’t mean anything to her.
“Percy Andrews was investigating Hamlin’s disappearance. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to you. I think you knew about it.”
“Why does that matter?”
“It matters because Percy had a copy of Hamlin’s credit card statement. There was a charge shortly before he disappeared that was made right here at Kroll’s. I also heard from Hope Hamlin that one of her customers saw Greg with a woman in Green Bay. Hope thought that it was Kelli Andrews, but it wasn’t Kelli, was it? Hamlin met you.”
Ginnie pinched her thin lips together. She studied him silently before replying. “Yes, he did. So?”
“It wasn’t an affair.”
“What did Greg Hamlin want with you? I heard he was looking to confess his sins.”
Ginnie let out a hiss of annoyance. “Yes, he said he hoped he could make amends for the damage he caused me because of Jet. I told him if he wanted absolution for what a bastard he was, he should go to church. I’m not a priest.”
“You knew him as a teacher?” Stride asked.
“Sure. He was a first-class prick. Now twenty years later, he sits here crying about how bad he feels about what he did to Jet. Like that changes anything.”
“What exactly did he do to Jet?”
“Hamlin was a gym coach, Mr. Stride. Tall, cocky, arrogant, huge ego. An alpha male. He enjoyed humiliating the kids who weren’t jocks like him. One time Jet missed his goal time on a sprint because he twisted an ankle. Hamlin made him put on a girl’s swimsuit for his next run, because he said only girls complained about injuries. Another time Jet said he needed to go to the bathroom during practice. Hamlin made him stand there until he shit his pants. And what lesson do you think the other kids took away from that, huh? They piled on Jet, too.”
Stride shook his head. “Jet never told anyone? Hamlin would have been fired if someone had known.”
“Back then? In a small town? Dream on. If he’d complained, it would have gotten worse. There was a conspiracy of silence at the school. People knew, but they didn’t care.”
“So what did Hamlin want from you? Forgiveness?”
“Forgiveness. A clear conscience. Things I couldn’t give him. He said he felt responsible, like he made Jet who he was.”
“Do you think that’s true?”
Ginnie shrugged. “Whatever bad blood Jet had in him, Hamlin made it worse. I told you, I felt bad for Jet, but excuses don’t mean anything. You don’t give murderers a free pass because they had crappy childhoods, do you, Mr. Stride?”
“Well, there you go.”
“What about you?” Stride asked. “If Hamlin harmed Jet, he harmed you, too.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said, and I didn’t argue with him. If you’re feeling sorry for what Jet went through, don’t worry. He gave as good as he got. Mike and I paid the price.”
“Did you get angry with Hamlin?”
Ginnie nodded. “Furious. He said he was a different man, and I told him I didn’t care. Seeing him brought back shit I’ve tried to put behind me for years. In case you’re wondering, though, I wasn’t angry enough to kill him.”
“Does your son know about Hamlin?” Stride asked. “About what Hamlin did to his father?”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“I told you, I don’t make excuses for Jet. If you want to blame somebody for where you are in life, look in the mirror. That’s what I teach my son. Believe me, I know that Mike has a tough time at school, and I am
quiet about it. Someone bullies my boy, I raise holy hell. Even so, I make clear to Mike that he’s responsible for his own behavior. Nobody else.”
“That sounds like good advice,” Stride said.
“Yes, it is, and that’s why I want you to stay away from him. He has nothing to do with any of this. You think I can’t figure out what’s in the back of your head? You think I don’t know what questions the cops are going to be asking? It sure would be nice to blame Hamlin’s murder on the bad seed of a bad seed. Not on the local hero. Not on a cop. Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Stride, but if Mike says Percy Andrews hid that body, then that’s what happened.”
“Percy asked you about Greg Hamlin, didn’t he? He highlighted the charge at Kroll’s. He must have connected the dots.”
“Okay, he did. He showed Hamlin’s photograph at the restaurant. Someone remembered me being with him. They know me here. So what?”
“Did Percy know about Hamlin going to AA?”
“Yes, he did.”
“And did you tell him what Hamlin wanted with you?” Stride asked. “Did you tell him about Hamlin and Jet?”
She checked her watch again. Her impatience was growing.
“Yes, I did,” she replied. “I told him exactly what I told you. I assumed he already knew about Jet, but—that was a surprise to him . . .”
“What did Percy say?”
Ginnie remained silent. He leaned across the truck and lowered his voice.
“I wish I could let it go, but you know I can’t,” he told her. “The sheriff isn’t going to let it go, either.”
“Fuck the sheriff.”
“I understand, but sooner or later, you’re going to have tell him what you don’t want to tell me.”
“There’s nothing else. That’s all there is.”
Stride shook his head. “No, there’s more. Percy was following leads on Greg Hamlin’s disappearance. Standard police procedure. Except then he found out something personal. He found out that Hamlin blamed himself for turning
into a monster. The very man that Percy killed. The man who tortured his wife. So we both know what Percy asked you next. He didn’t want to do it, but he had to know. Percy asked if Hamlin said anything about
Ginnie cursed under her breath.
“Did he, Ms. Black?” Stride asked. “Did Hamlin say he was going to talk to Kelli Andrews?”
“No,” she murmured. “I said it to him.”
“You? What did you say?”
Ginnie put her palms together in front of her face and closed her eyes. “I was angry. I simply wanted Hamlin to go away. I told him he was wasting his time talking to me. I said if he wanted to make amends for Jet, he better start with the woman that Jet nearly killed. I said he should go find Kelli Andrews and tell her what he did. And then—oh, hell . . .”
“I told Hamlin he better pray that Kelli didn’t stick a knife in his chest.”
Stride returned to Shawano in time to see the Andrews house overrun with county and city police. Two local news crews shot video and photographs from a discreet distance outside the property. Sheriff Weik stood in the middle of the snowy lawn. He barked at one of his younger cops who was carrying a sealed evidence bag out of the house. The entire search looked more focused and efficient than Stride had seen in the woods the previous day. The stakes were higher. The target of the investigation had changed, from a dead cop to a woman who had disappeared.
Weik’s flat-brimmed brown hat was perfectly level, not even tipped a degree off center. An unlit cigar was clamped between his teeth under the fur of his mustache. He looked like a pit bull who didn’t let go once his jaws bit into something. That was the image he wanted to convey to the voting public. In control. In charge.
The sheriff spotted Stride on the street near Kuckuck Park. He jabbed a finger, beckoning Stride closer. It wasn’t a request. Stride turned up the collar of his leather jacket against the wind and wandered onto the lawn.
“Where is Kelli Andrews?” Weik demanded.
“I have no idea.”
“No idea? You were here last night.”
Stride nodded. “Yes, I was. Hope Hamlin fired a shot at Kelli. I intervened.”
“You were the last person to see her,” Weik said. “Why did she run?”
“I don’t know. We were talking about the discovery of Greg Hamlin’s body. Kelli became agitated, and she left through the bathroom window. She didn’t tell me where she was going.”
“Have you been in contact with her since then?”
“You better not be protecting her. Hiding her from us.”
“I’m not, Sheriff,” Stride replied.
The bags under Weik’s eyes were deep and dark. He hadn’t slept. “Go home, Stride. You’re done here. You were sticking around to figure out why Percy killed himself. One way or another, we know that now. Either Percy murdered Hamlin or his wife did. Whichever way it came down, he couldn’t deal with it.”
“And which way do you think it came down?” Stride asked.
“I think you know the answer. Did you tell Kelli Andrews that she was a suspect in Hamlin’s murder? Is that why she ran?”
Stride didn’t answer yes or no. Someday, on a witness stand, he would have to say yes. He’d warned her. At the time, he’d been convinced she was innocent and that she wasn’t lying when she said she didn’t know Greg Hamlin. Things were different now.
One of the Shawano cops approached the sheriff with a nervous twitch in his face. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. “We’re almost done inside,” the kid told Weik. “You want us to start a search on the Hyundai in the garage?”
Weik belched out fire like a dragon. “Hell, yes, I want you to search it. What did you think, we were going to take it to the car wash for her? Dust every last inch of it for prints, and vacuum up every booger and dead fly on the seats and mats. I want to know if Greg Hamlin was ever inside that vehicle. You understand me?”
The kid had the look of a cop who’d been bullied by Weik before. He nodded in earnest silence and retreated up the lawn.
“You may find this hard to believe, Stride,” Weik snapped, “but we’ve spent the last 18 hours gathering evidence. Out in the woods, inside the camper, and here at the house. Even in the country, we manage to do our jobs.”
“I’m sure that’s true.”
Weik’s tired eyes were hard with suspicion. He thought that Stride was patronizing him. “Is Duluth your town?” he asked. “Did you grow up there?”
“Same here. This is my town. I know everybody. I’ve been the sheriff for ten years, and my plan is to be sheriff for twenty more. A lot of people don’t especially like the way I do things, and you know what? I don’t care. My town, my rules. My job is to keep this place safe, period. You can do things however you like in Duluth, but when you’re inside my jurisdiction, you keep your nose out of my department and my investigation. Right now, your only role here is as a witness.”
“That couldn’t be clearer,” Stride replied.
“What else did Kelli Andrews tell you last night?” Weik asked.
“She claimed that she’d never met Greg Hamlin.”
“I suppose you believed her.”
“She may be a good liar,” Stride said, “but my instincts said she was telling the truth.”
“Yeah? What did she say about Hamlin’s phone call? How did she explain that?”
Weik had a self-satisfied look of triumph behind his beard. “Well, far be it from me to question your instincts, Stride, but the
makes me think that the lady is not only a liar, she’s a murderer. We’re still waiting on the pathologist from Milwaukee, but Neal and I eyeballed the body when we got it on ice. Guess what we saw? A partial strand of brown hair poking out of one of the wounds in Hamlin’s chest. Definitely not blond hair like Percy’s. We’ll be able to compare the DNA to Kelli’s. She knew all about the camper, too. Anna Bruin confirmed that Percy and Kelli both used it.”
Stride saw the window of suspicion closing around Kelli Andrews.
As word leaked out, there would be a media frenzy. The tabloids would be all over the case. Fairy tale marriage goes horribly wrong. Cop kills himself to cover up his wife’s crime. Everyone would be asking the same questions: What happened inside Kelli’s head? What made her snap?
“Percy suspected Kelli all along,” Weik went on. “He pulled her phone records. Interesting, huh? A cop starts spying on his own wife?”
“What did the records show?”
“Nothing. She didn’t call Hamlin on her cell, but she’s not stupid. We’ll probably find she’s got a pay-as-you-go phone that Percy didn’t know about. Something was going on between Kelli and Hamlin. We’ll figure out what it was soon enough.”
Stride said nothing. He could have handed Weik a motive for Kelli Andrews to murder Greg Hamlin, but he didn’t tell Weik what he’d found. Not yet. It wouldn’t take long for the sheriff to head down the same road that Stride did. In the meantime, Stride wanted to find Kelli before the Shawano police. He had questions of his own.
“Percy thought his wife was nuts,” Weik added. “Psycho nuts. The kind of nuts you need if you’re going to do what was done to Greg Hamlin.”
“Based on what?” Stride asked.
“Percy downloaded an article on demonic possession.”
“Yeah, that’s right. It was an article on sick bastards who blamed the Devil for what they did. Murders. Rape. Suicide attempts. The author highlighted a dozen different cases where the perps all used the same language to describe what happened. Creepy stuff. Like a horror flick. They said something cold inhabited their bodies, some kind of physical presence. They lost empathy. Their moral compass went haywire, like they couldn’t understand right or wrong. They turned to stone.”
“You don’t believe that, Sheriff,” Stride said.
“Me? Hell, no. Load of crap. Percy believed it, though. He highlighted the summary. Wrote the word ‘
’ in the margin in red letters. That ring any bells with you? You can imagine what was going through his head when he saw Hamlin’s body.”
“That doesn’t mean Percy thought the Devil took over his wife,” Stride said.
Weik had the same smug look of satisfaction on his face. “No? Guess who wrote the article, Stride. It was Kelli Andrews.”
Stride’s uncle waited at the door. He didn’t look surprised to see his nephew. He let Stride inside without a word, and the two men went into the living room. The house was warm, coming from the cold. Stride sat in the armchair with his hands on his knees, staring at the old, thin carpet.
“Got your note,” Richard said.
“Sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“I was up. I heard you go. I was pretty sure you’d be back, anyway. I had faith in you.”
Richard smiled. “Figure of speech. You’re already in this thing too deep. You’re not going to let it go.”
“Well, it’s not good,” Stride said. “None of this is good.”
“So I gather.”
“Greg Hamlin was in AA. He was trying to make amends for his sins.”
“Hence his heartfelt note to me,” Richard said with a cynical smile.
“Right. Unfortunately, his sins went a lot deeper than that. He bullied Jet Black as a teacher. Extreme stuff. Sounds like Hamlin realized that he bore some responsibility for making Jet who he was.”
“And for what Jet did to Kelli at the Novitiate?” Richard speculated.
“That is definitely not good.”
“You knew Hamlin back then,” Stride said. “What do you remember about him?”
His uncle laced his fingers on top of his balding head. “People talked about cruel behavior, but you never knew what to believe. It was the bad old days. These days, the balance of power has shifted more to the student. Not always in a healthy way. So-called innocent kids figure out pretty quickly that a false accusation against a teacher carries tremendous power. However, the reason that’s true is that abuse by teachers went largely unreported in the past. If an administrator heard about it, it got swept under the rug, if it was believed at all. Everyone knew Hamlin didn’t have the temperament for teaching, but I’m sure he was more careful around adults. It was probably only the students who knew how bad it was.”
“Yes, Ginnie Black says most of the kids knew.”
“I wish she’d told me. I’m not saying I could have changed anything, but I’d like to believe I wouldn’t have let it go.”
“Hamlin came to her to make amends. She says she told him to talk to Kelli instead.”
“Hamlin called her,” Stride said. “It was the last call he made before he disappeared.”
“And then what?” Richard scoffed. “Hamlin met Kelli in the woods, and she proceeded to torture and kill him? And when Percy came to suspect his wife of the crime, he covered up the evidence and killed himself out of guilt?”
“That’s what Weik thinks.”
“What do you think?” his uncle asked.
“I wish I could trust her, but I’m not sure I do,” Stride said. “She’s hiding something. And she ran away. Guilty people run away.”
“She didn’t do this, Jon. Talk to her. Hear her side of the story.”
“Exactly how do I do that?”
Richard picked up his cell phone from the coffee table and tossed it to Stride. “Push redial.”
Stride looked at the phone in his hand. “If you know where she is—”
“I don’t. She called here looking for you. I called her back and said I’d pass along a message. I knew I’d see you again.”
He knew what he should do. As a cop. He should take the phone to Weik and let him listen in on the call. Find a place to meet Kelli, and bring along the county police to arrest her when he did. In Duluth, that was what he would do, but this wasn’t Duluth. Weik had already reminded him that this wasn’t his town.
Stride made the call.
Kelli Andrews answered immediately. “Mr. Stride? Is that you?”
“I need to see you.”
He exhaled, long and slow. “Kelli, the best thing for you to do now is turn yourself in and get a lawyer.”
“I can’t. Not yet. I’m scared.”
“Something is going on,” she told him. “I don’t understand it. Please, I need to see you. I need to tell you what really happened. If you hear it and you still think I should turn myself in, I’ll do it.”
Stride tried to decide whether to believe her.
Evidence or instinct.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m where all of this started,” she said. “I’m at the Novitiate.”