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|The Prey Series|
The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
The August heat was slipping away with the day. A full moon would climb over the horizon at eight o'clock, and the view across Stone Lake should be spectacular.
All trick of the light, McDill thought. Her father taught her that.
A full moon on the horizon was no larger than a full moon overhead, he'd told her, as a small child, as they stood hand-in-hand in the back yard. The larger apparent size was all an optical illusion. She hadn't believed him, so he'd proven it, by taking a Polaroid photograph of a harvest moon on the horizon, the biggest, fattest, yellowest moon of the year, then comparing it to another shot of the moon when it was overhead. And they were the same size.
He took pride in his correctness. He was a scientist, and he knew what he knew.
McDill ran an advertising agency, and she knew her father was both right and wrong. Technically he was correct, but you wouldn't make any money proving it. You could sell a big fat gorgeous moon coming over the horizon, shining its ass off, pouring its golden light on whatever product you wanted to sell, and screw the optical illusion...
McDill slipped across the water in near silence. She was paddling a fourteen-foot Native Watercraft, a canoe-kayak hybrid designed for stability. Good for a city woman, with soft hands, who wasn't all that familiar with boats.
She didn't need the stability this evening, because the lake was glassy-flat, at the tag-end of a heat wave. The forecasters were predicting that the wind would pick up overnight, but nothing serious.
She could hear the double-bladed paddle pulling through the water, first right, then left, and distantly, probably from another lake, either an outboard or a chain saw, but the sound was so distant, so intermittent, so thready, that it was like aural smoke a noise on the edge of nothingness. Aquatic insects were hatching around her: they'd come to the surface, and from there, take off, leaving a dimple in the water.
A half-mile out from the lodge, she paddled toward the creek that drained the lake. The outlet was a crinkle in a wall of aspen, across a lily-pad flat, past a downed tree where five painted turtles lined up to take the sun. The turtles plopped off the log when they spotted her, and she smiled at the sight and sound of them. Another few yards and she headed into the creek, which pinched down to hallway-width for twenty yards or so, and around a turn to an open spot, rimmed with cattails.
The pond, as she called it, was a hundred and fifty yards long, and fifty wide. At the end of it, where the creek narrowed down and got about its real business running downhill a white pine stood like a sentinel among the lower trees. A bald eagle's nest was built high in the tree, and on most evenings, she'd see one or both of the eagle pair, coming or going from the nest.
From down the lake, a few minutes earlier, she'd seen one of them leaving, looking for an evening meal. She idled toward the pine, hoping she'd see the bird coming back, then leaned back in the seat, hung the paddle in the side-mounted paddle holder, spread her legs and let her feet dangle over the side of the boat, in the warm summer water.
Felt the sun on her back. Dug in a polypro bag, found a cigarette and a lighter, lit the cigarette, sucked in a lungful of smoke.
Perfect, if only her mind would stop running.
McDill ran an advertising agency, Ruff-Harcourt-McDill, in Minneapolis. Ruff was dead, Harcourt retired; and Harcourt, two weeks earlier, had agreed to sell his remaining stock to McDill, which would give her seventy-five percent of the outstanding shares.
She'd toyed with the idea of a name change Media/McDill, or McDill Group, but had decided that she would, for the time being, leave well-enough alone. Advertising buyers knew RHM, and the name projected a certain stability. She would need the sense of stability as she went about weeding out the...
Might as well say it: weeds.
The agency, over the years, had accumulated foot-draggers, time-wasters, slow-witted weeds more suited for a job, say, in a newspaper, than in a hot advertising agency. Getting rid of them she had a list of names would generate an immediate twelve percent increase in the bottom line, with virtually no loss in production. Bodies were expensive. Some of them seemed to think that the purpose of the agency was to provide them with jobs. They were wrong, and were about to find that out. When she got the stock, when she nailed that down, she'd move.
The question that plagued her was exactly how to do it. The current creative director, Barney Mann, was smart, witty, hard-working, a guy she wanted to keep but he had all kinds of alliances and friendships among the worker bees. Went out for drinks with them. Played golf with them. Lent some of them money. He was loved, for Christ's sakes. He was the kind of guy who could turn a necessary managerial evolution into a mud-slinging match.
And he'd done an absolutely brilliant job on the Mattocks Motor City campaign, no question about it. Dave Mattocks thought Mann was a genius and the Motor City account brought in nine percent of RHM's billings in the last fiscal year. Nine percent. If you lost an account of that size, you lost more than the account other buyers would wonder why, and what happened, and might think that RHM was losing its edge...
McDill wanted to keep Mann, and wondered how much of a saint he really was. Suppose she took him to dinner, and simply put it on him: a partnership, options on ten percent of the stock, a million bucks up front, and no fuss when the ax came down.
In fact, he might usefully soften the blow to the people who were... remaindered. Maybe he could take charge of an amelioration fund, little tax deductible money gifts to be parceled out as needed, to keep any pathetic tales of woe out of the media. Wouldn't have to be much...
McDill drifted, thinking about it.
And her thoughts eventually drifted away from the agency, to the upcoming evening, about her sneaky date the night before, and about Ruth. She'd outgrown Ruth. Ruth was settling into middle-aged hausfrau mode, her mind going dull as her ass got wider. She was probably at home right now, baking a pumpkin pie or something.
In a way, McDill thought, the takeover of the agency changed everything.
The agency was hot, she was hot.
Time to shine, by god.
The eagle came back.
She saw it coming a half-mile out, unmistakable in its size, a giant bird floating along on unmoving wings.
A thousand feet away, it carved a turn in the crystalline air, like a skier on a downhill, and banked away.
McDill wondered why: the eagles had never been bothered by her presence before. She was further away now than she had been last night, when she coasted right up to the tree trunk.
Huh. Had the eagle sensed something else?
McDill turned and scanned the shoreline, and then, in her last seconds, saw movement, frowned, and sat forward. What was that? A wink of glass…
The killer shot her in the forehead.
Five-thirty in the morning.
The moon was dropping down toward the horizon, the bottom edge touching the wisps of fog that rose off the early morning water. Virgil Flowers was standing in the stern of a seventeen-foot Tuffy, a Thorne Brothers custom musky rod in his hand, looking over the side. Johnson, in the bow of the boat, did a wide figure-eight with an orange-bladed Double Cowgirl, his rod stuck in the lake up to the reel.
"See her?" Virgil asked, doubt in his voice.
"Not any more," Johnson said. He gave up, straightened, pulled the rod out of the water. "Shoot. Too much to ask, anyway. You ain't gonna get one in the first five minutes."
"Hell, I don't know. Flash of white." Johnson looked at the moon, then to the east. The sun wouldn't be up for ten minutes, but the horizon was getting bright. "Need more light on the water."
He plopped down in the bow seat and Virgil threw a noisy top-water bait toward the shore, reeled it in, saw nothing, threw it again.
"With the fog and stuff, the moon looks like one of those fake potato chips," Johnson said.
"What?" Virgil wasn't sure he'd heard it right.
"One of those Pringles," Johnson said.
Virgil paused between casts and said, "I don't want to disagree with you, Johnson, but the moon doesn't look like a Pringle."
"Yes, it does. Exactly like a Pringle," Johnson said.
"It looks like one of those balls of butter you get at Country Kitchen, with the French toast," Virgil said.
"Ball of butter?" Johnson blinked, looked at the moon, then back at Virgil. "You been smokin' that shit again?"
"Looks a hell of a lot more like a butterball than it does like a Pringle," Virgil said. "I'm embarrassed to be in the same boat with a guy that says the moon looks like a Pringle."
You need a good line of bullshit when you're musky fishing, because there're never a hell of a lot of fish to talk about. Johnson looked out over the lake, the dark water, the lights scattered through the shoreline pines, the lilacs and purples of the western sky, vibrating against the luminous yellow of the Pringle- or butterball-like moon. "Sure is pretty out here," he said. "God's country, man."
"That's the truth, Johnson."
Vermilion Lake, the Big V, far northern Minnesota. They floated along for a while, not working hard; it'd be a long day on the water. A boat went by in a hurry, two men in it, on the way to a better spot, if there was such a thing.
When the sun came up, a finger of wind arrived, a riffle across the water, enough to set up a slow motorless drift down a weedline at the edge of a drop-off. They were two hours on the water, halfway down the drift, when another boat came up from the east, running fast, then slowed as it passed, the faces of the two men in the boat white ovals, looking at Virgil and Johnson. The boat slowed some more and hooked in toward the weedline.
"Sucker's gonna cut our drift," Johnson said. He had no time for mass murderers, boy-child rapers, or people who cut your drift.
"Looks like Roy," Virgil said. Roy was the tournament chairman.
"Huh." Roy knew better than to cut somebody's drift.
The guy on the tiller of the other boat chopped the motor, and they drifted in a long arc, sliding up next to the Tuffy.
"Morning, Virgil. Johnson." Roy reached out and caught their gunwale, and pulled the boats close.
"Morning, Roy," Johnson said. "Arnie, how you doing?"
Arnie nodded and ejected a steam of tobacco juice into the lake. Roy, who looked like an aging grey-bearded Hell's Angel, in a red-and-black lumberjack shirt, if a Hell's Angel ever wore one of those, said, "Virgil, a guy named Lucas Davenport is trying to get you."
"You tell him to go fuck himself?"
Roy grinned, "I was going to, until he said who he was. He told me to break into your cabin and get your cell phone, since you wouldn't have it with you. He was right about that." He fished Virgil's cell phone out of his shirt pocket and passed it across. "Sorry."
"Goldarnit, Roy," Johnson said.
"Probably got no reception," Virgil said. He punched up the phone and got four bars and Roy waggled his eyebrows at him.
"I tell you what, Virgil, there ain't many things more important to me, than this tournament, so I know how you feel," Roy said. "But Davenport said there's a murdered woman over at Stone Lake and you need to look at her. That seemed more important."
"You know her?" Johnson asked.
"No, I don't," Roy said.
"Then how in the heck could she be more important?" Johnson asked. "People die all the time. You worry about all of them?"
"Kinda wondered about that myself," Arnie said. To Roy: "We're losing a lot of fishing time, man."
Roy and Arnie motored off and Virgil sat down, Johnson bitching and moaning and working his Double Cowgirl as they continued the drift. Virgil stuck a finger in his off-ear and punched Davenport's home number on the speed dial. Davenport answered on the second ring.
"You on the lake?" Davenport asked.
"Yeah. Two hours," Virgil said. "We've seen two fish."
"Perfect." Virgil looked around in the growing light: and he was right. It was perfect. "Party cloudy, enough breeze to keep us cool, not enough to bang us around."
"Virgil, man, I'm sorry."
"A woman got shot by a sniper at Eagle Nest Lodge on Stone Lake, over by Grand Rapids. Her name is was Erica McDill. She's the CEO of Ruff-Harcourt-McDill, the ad agency in Minneapolis."
"I've heard of it," Virgil said.
"So two things she was a big Democrat and the governor would want us to take a look no matter what. Plus, the sheriff up there, Bob Sanders, is asking for help."
"When did they find her?"
"Right at sun-up an hour and a half ago. Sanders is out looking at the body now."
"Where are the Bemidji guys?" Virgil asked.
"They're up in Bigfork, looking for Little Linda," Davenport said. "That's why Sanders needs the help his investigators are all up there, and half his deputies. A woman on the Fox network is screaming her lungs out, they're going nightly with it…"
Blond, blue-eyed Little Linda Pelli had disappeared from her parents' summer home, day before last. She was fifteen, old enough not to get lost on her way to a girlfriend's cabin. There were no hazards along the road, and if her bike had been clipped by a car, they would have found her in a ditch. Nobody had found either Little Linda or her black 18-speed Cannondale.
Then a woman who worked at a local lodge had reported seeing an unshaven man "with silver eyes" and a crew cut, driving slowly along the road in a beat-up pickup. The television people went batshit, because they knew what that meant: somewhere, a silver-eyed demon, who probably had hair growing out of all his bodily orifices, had Little Linda chained in the basement of a backwoods cabin (the rare kind of cabin that had a basement) and was introducing her to the ways of the Cossacks.
"Yeah," Davenport said. "Little Linda. Listen, I feel bad about this. You've been talking about that tournament since June, but what can I tell you? Go fix this thing."
"I don't even have a car," Virgil said.
"Go rent one," Davenport said. "You got your gun?"
"Then you're all set," Davenport said. "Call me when you're done with it."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Virgil said. "I've got no idea where this place is. Gimme some directions, or something. There're about a hundred Stone Lakes up here."
"You get off the water, I'll get directions. Call you back in a bit."
They shot a rooster-tail back to the marina and Virgil showed the dock boy his identification and said, "We need to keep this boat handy. Put it someplace where we can get at it quick."
"Something going on?" the dock boy asked. He weighed about a hundred and six pounds and was fifty years old and had been the dock boy since Virgil had first come up to Vermilion as a teenager, with his father.
"Can't talk about it," Virgil said. "But you keep that boat ready to go. If anybody gives you any shit, you tell them the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension told you so."
"Never heard of that," the dock boy admitted. "The criminal thing."
Virgil took out his wallet, removed one of the three business cards he kept there, and a ten-dollar bill. "Anybody asks, show them the card."
He and Johnson walked across the parking lot to Johnson's truck, carrying their lunch cooler between them, and Johnson said, looking back at the boat, "That's pretty handy we gotta do that more often. It's like having a reserved parking space," and then, "What do you want to do about getting around?"
"If you could run me over to the scene, that'd be good," Virgil said. "I'll figure out something after I see it if it's gonna take a while, I'll go down to Grand Rapids and rent a car."
"Think we'll get back out on the lake?" Johnson asked, looking back again. Everybody in the world who counted, was out on the lake. Everybody.
"Man, I'd like to," Virgil said. "But I got a bad feeling about this. Maybe you could hook up with somebody else."
At the truck, they unhitched the trailer and left it in the parking spot with a lock through the tongue, and loaded the cooler into the back of the crew cab. Johnson tossed Virgil the keys and said, "You drive. I need to get breakfast."
Since the air conditioning was broken, they drove with the windows down, their arms on the sills, headed out to Highway 1. Davenport called when they were halfway out to the highway and gave Johnson instructions on how to reach the Eagle Nest.
Johnson wrote them down on the back of an old gas receipt, said good-bye, gave Virgil's phone back, threw the empty Budweiser breakfast can into a ditch, and dug his Minnesota atlas out from behind the seat. Virgil slowed, stopped, backed up, got out of the truck, retrieved the beer can, and threw it in a waste cooler in the back of the truck.
"Found it," Johnson said, when Virgil got back in the cab. "We're gonna have to cut across country."
He outlined the route on the map, and they took off again. Johnson finished a second beer, and said, "You're starting to annoy the shit out of me, picking up the cans."
"I'm tired of arguing about it, Johnson," Virgil said. "You throw the cans out the window, I stop and pick them up."
"Well, fuck you," Johnson said. He tipped up the second can, making sure he'd gotten every last drop, and this time, stuck the can under the seat. "That make you happy, you fuckin' tree-hugger?"
Virgil was lanky and blond, a surfer-looking dude with hair too long for a cop, and a predilection for t-shirts sold by indie rock bands; today's shirt was by Sebadoh. At a little more than six feet, Virgil looked like a good third baseman, and had been a mediocre one, for a couple of seasons, in college; a good fielder with an excellent arm, he couldn't see a college fastball. He'd drifted through school and got what turned out to be a bullshit degree in ecological science ("It ain't biology, and it ain't botany, and it ain't enough of either one," he'd once been told during a job interview.)
Unable to get an ecological science job after college, he'd volunteered for the Army's Officer Candidate School, figuring they'd put him in intelligence, or one of those black jumping-out-of-airplanes units.
They gave him all the tests and made him a cop.
Out of the Army, he'd spent ten years with the St. Paul police, running up a clearance record that had never been touched, and then had been recruited by Davenport, the BCA's official bad boy. "We'll give you the hard stuff," Davenport had told him, and so far, he had.
On the side, Virgil was building a reputation as an outdoor writer, the stories researched on what Virgil referred to as under-time. He'd sold a two-story non-outdoor sequence to the New York Times Magazine, about a case he'd worked. The sale had given him a big head, and caused him to briefly shop for a Rolex.
Davenport didn't care about the big head or the under-time Virgil gave him his money's worth but did worry about Virgil dragging his boat around behind a state-owned truck. And he worried that Virgil sometimes forgot where he put his gun; and that he had in the past slept with witnesses to the crimes he was investigating.
Still, there was that clearance record, rolling along, solid as ever. Davenport was a pragmatist: if it worked, don't mess with it.
But he worried.
"You know," Johnson said, "In some ways, your job resembles slavery. They tell you get your ass out in the cotton field, and that's what you do. My friend, you have traded your freedom for a paycheck, and not that big a paycheck."
"Good benefits," Virgil said.
"Yeah. If you get shot, they pay to patch you up," Johnson said. "I mean, you could be a big-time writer, have women hanging on you, wear one of those sport coats with patches on the sleeves, smoke a pipe or something. Your time would be your own you could go hang out in Hollywood. Write movies if you felt like it. Fuck Madonna."
"Basically, I like the work," Virgil said. "I just don't like it all the time."
Johnson was an old fishing pal, going back to Virgil's college days. A lean, scarred-up veteran of too many alcohol-related accidents in vehicles ranging from snowmobiles to trucks to Everglades airboats, Johnson had grown up in the timber business. He ran a sawmill in the hardwood hills of southeast Minnesota, cutting hardwood flooring material, with a sideline in custom cutting and curing oversized chunks of maple and cherry for artists. A lifelong fisherman, he knew the Mississippi between Winona and LaCrosse like the back of his hand, and was always good for an outstate musky run.
Johnson wore jeans and a t-shirt. When it got a little cooler, he pulled a sweatshirt over the t-shirt. When it got cooler than that, he pulled on a jean jacket. Cooler than that, a Carhartt. Cooler than that, he said fuck it and went to the Bahamas with a suitcase full of t-shirts and a Speedo bathing suit that he called the slingshot.
Now he directed Virgil across the back roads between Highways 1 and 79, generally south and west, over flat green wet country with not too much to look at, except tamarack trees and marshy fields and here and there, a marginal farm with a couple of horses. As they got closer to the Eagle Nest, the woods got denser and the terrain started to roll, the roads got narrower and lakes glinted blue or black behind the screens of trees.
"Wonder how long it took them to think of the name 'Eagle Nest'?" Johnson wondered. "About three seconds?"
"They could have called it the Porcupine Lodge or the Dun Rovin or Sunset Shores or Musky Point," Virgil said.
"You're getting grumpier," Johnson said. "Back at the V, I was the one who was pissed."
"Well, goddamnit, I've been working like a dog all year," Virgil said.
"Except for the under-time," Johnson said.
"Doesn't count. I was still working, just not for the state."
"You oughta model yourself after me," Johnson said. "I'm a resilient type. I roll with the punches, unlike you fragile pretty boys."
"Fragile. Big word for a guy like you," Virgil said.
Johnson grinned: "Turnoff coming up."
On the way down, Virgil had formed a picture of the Eagle Nest in his mind: a peeled-log lodge with a Rolling Rock sign at one end, at the bar, a fish-cleaning house down by the dock. A dozen little plywood cabins would be scattered through the pines along the shore, a battered aluminum boat for each cabin, a machine shed in the back, the smell of gasoline and oil mixed with dirt and leaf humus; and on calm nights, a hint of septic tank. Exactly how that fit with a rich advertising woman, he didn't know maybe an old family place that she'd been going to for years.
When he turned off the highway, into the lodge's driveway, he began to adjust his mental image. He'd been fishing the north woods for thirty years, ever since he was old enough to hold a fishing pole. He thought he knew most of the great lodges, which generally were found on the bigger lakes.
He'd never heard of an Eagle Nest on a Stone Lake, but the driveway, which was expensively blacktopped, and which swooped in unnecessary curves through a forest dotted with white pines, hinted at something unusual.
They came over a small ridge and the forest opened up, and Johnson said, "Whoa: nice-looking place."
The lodge was set on a grassy hump that looked out over the lake; two stories tall, built of cut stone, logs and glass, it fit in the landscape like a hand in a glove. The cabins scattered down the shoreline were as carefully built and sited as the lodge, each with a screened porch facing the water, and a sundeck above each porch. An expensive architect had been at work, Virgil thought, but not recently: the lodge had a feeling of well-tended age.
There were no cars at the cabins. As they rolled down toward the lodge, the road jogged left and dipped into a hollow, where they found a parking lot, screened from the lodge and the cabins by a fifteen-foot-tall evergreen hedge. Four sheriff's cars were parked in the lot, along with twenty or so civilian vehicles, and a hearse. There were no cops in sight; a lodge employee was loading luggage into a Mercedes-Benz station wagon from a Yahama Rhino.
Deeper in the woods, on the other side of the car park, Virgil saw the corner of a green metal work building, probably the shop. Neither the parking lot nor the shop would be visible from the lodge or the cabins. Nice.
"Where're the boats?" Johnson asked, as Virgil pulled into a parking space.
"I don't know. Must be on the other side of the lodge," Virgil said.
As they climbed out of the truck, the lodge worker, a middle-aged woman in a red-and-blue uniform, stepped over and asked, "Can I help you gentleman?"
"Where's the lodge?" Virgil asked.
"Up the path," she said, and, "Do you know this is ladies only?"
"We're cops," Johnson said.
"Ah. Okay. There are more deputies up there now." To Virgil: "Are you a policeman too?"
Johnson laughed and said, "Yeah. He is," and they walked over to a stairs that led to a flagstone path through the woods, out of the parking lot to the lodge.
The lodge and its grassy knoll sat at the apex of a natural shoreline notch. The notch was filled with docks and a variety of boats, mostly metal outboards, but also a few canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats. A hundred yards down to the right, two women walked hand-in-hand down a narrow sand beach that looked out at a floating swimming dock.
Twenty women in outdoor shirts and jeans were scattered at tables around the deck, with cups of coffee and the remnants of croissants and apple salads, and looked them over as they went to the railing. Down below them, two uniformed sheriff's deputies were standing on the dock, chatting with each other.
A waiter hurried over: a thin, pale boy with dark hair, he had a side-biased haircut that he thought made him look like Johnny Depp. "Can I help you?"
Virgil said, "I'm with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. How do we get down to the dock?"
The waiter said, "Ah. Come along."
He took them inside, down an interior stairway, through double doors under the deck, and pointed at a flagstone walkway. "Follow that."
The flagstone path curled around the stone ledge, right at the waterside, and emerged at the dock. Two women, who'd been out of sight from the deck, were standing at the end of the path, arms crossed, talking and watching the deputies. Johnson muttered, "I've only been detecting for ten minutes, but check out the short one. And she's wearing a fishing shirt."
Virgil said, quietly as he could, "Johnson, try to stay out of the way for a few minutes, okay?"
"You didn't talk that way when you needed my truck, you bitch."
The women turned and looked at them as they came along, and Virgil nodded and said, "Hi. I'm Virgil Flowers, with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I'm looking for Sheriff Sanders."
"He's out at the pond," said the older of the two. A bluff, no-nonsense, heavy-set woman with tired eyes, she stuck out a hand and said, "I'm Margery Stanhope. I own the lodge."
"I need to talk to you when I get back," Virgil said. "I noticed that somebody was checking out when we were coming a lady was loading luggage. I'll have to know who has left since the... incident."
"Not a problem," she said. "Anything we can do."
The younger woman was a small, auburn-haired thirty-something, pretty, with a sprinkling of freckles on her tidy nose; the kind of woman that might cause Johnson to get drunk and recite poetry, including the complete Cremation of Sam McGee. Virgil had seen it happen.
And she was pretty enough to cause Virgil's heart to hum, if not yet actually sing, until she asked, "Are you the Virgil Flowers who was involved in that massacre up in International Falls?"
His heart stopped humming. "Wasn't exactly a massacre," Virgil said.
"Sounded like a massacre," she said.
Stanhope said, "Zoe, shut up."
"I feel that we have to take a stance," Zoe said to her.
"Take it someplace else," Stanhope said. She looked past Virgil at Johnson: "You're also a police officer?"
Virgil jumped in: "Actually, he's my friend, Johnson. We were in the fishing tournament up at Vermilion and I got pulled to look at this case. The guys who'd normally do it are on that Little Linda thing. Johnson's not a police officer."
"Pleased to meet you," Stanhope said, and shook with Johnson. "What's your first name, again?"
"Johnson," Johnson said.
She said, "Oh." Not sure if her leg was being pulled. "What's your last name?"
"Johnson," Virgil said. When Stanhope looked skeptical, he said, "Really. Johnson Johnson. His old man named him after an outboard. Everybody calls him Johnson."
Zoe was pleased, either with the double name, or the concept of a name based on an outboard motor. "You get teased when you were a kid?" she asked.
"Not as much as my brother, Mercury," Johnson said.
Stanhope said, "Now I know you're lying."
"Believe it," Virgil said. "Mercury Johnson. He suffers from clinical depression."
"Thank God mom decided to quit after two," Johnson said. "Dad wanted to go for a daughter and he'd just bought a twenty-five horse Evinrude."
"I don't know," Zoe said. "Evvie's kind of a nice name."
That made Johnson laugh, and, since she was pretty, laugh too hard; Virgil said, "I'll talk to you ladies later. I gotta go see the deputies."
Stanhope said, blank-faced, to Johnson, "This isn't a laughing matter. This is a terrible tragedy."
Virgil nodded and said, "Of course it is."
Virgil and Johnson turned toward the dock, and Zoe asked, "She's dead, isn't she? Little Linda?"
"I don't know," Virgil said, over his shoulder, still miffed about the massacre question. "I don't know anything about it."
"I wonder if it's connected to this death?"
Virgil paused. "Do you have any reason think so?"
"Nope. Except that they happened only two days apart," Zoe said.
"And about forty miles," Virgil said.
"Don't you suspect it, though?" She had warm brown eyes, almost gold, and he forgave her.
"No. I don't. Too many other possibilities," he said.
She nodded. "Okay. I see that. Kind of a stupid question, wasn't it?"
Stanhope answered for Virgil. "Yes. It was."
Walking out to the dock, Johnson said, "The old bag kinda climbed my tree."
"One rule when you're dealing with people close to a murder victim," Virgil said. "Try not to laugh."
Virgil introduced himself and Johnson to the deputies and one of them said, "You're the guy who was in that shootout in International Falls."
Virgil bobbed his head and said, "Yeah, I was there. I understand that the body is at a place called the pond?"
"Boy, I wish I coulda been there," the cop said, ignoring Virgil's question. "That must've been something. My dad was in Vietnam and he must've read that story about a hundred times, about the shootout. I bet he'd like to meet you."
The other cop said, "Sheriff's been looking for you. He's out at the pond now. They haven't done anything but look at the body, try to keep it from floating away. Don't want to mess with the scene. One of your crime-scene crews from Bemidji is on the way... I could run you out there."
"Floating away? She's in the water?" Virgil asked.
"Yeah. She got shot right in the forehead, bullet exited the back of her head." The cop touched himself in the middle of the forehead, two inches above the top of his nose. "Really made a mess. She fell backwards out of the boat it's kinda like a kayak but her foot got twisted under the seat and that held her up on the surface. She was still floating there, last time I was out."
"Doesn't sound like there'll be much of a crime scene," Virgil said.
"Not much," the cop said.
"Who found her?" Johnson asked.
"Guide. From the lodge. George Rainy, he's out there, too."
"Then let's go," Virgil said.
Johnson asked, "Am I coming?"
"You can," Virgil said. "Or you could wait at the lodge with Miz Stanhope."
"I'll go," he said.
They took one of the Lunds, the standard Minnesota lodge boat, Virgil and Johnson in the front, the second deputy, whose name was Don, at the tiller of the twenty-five-horse Yamaha. The run was short, no more than a half-mile. There were no cabins along the way; Virgil could see cabins and boathouses on the other side of the lake, and down at the far end of it, but the shore elevation west of the lodge dropped quickly, and became low and marshy around the outlet creek. They passed the mouth of a shallow backwater, and a line of beaver lodges, like haystacks made of small logs and sticks, turned around a point into the outlet, dodged a snag, went down a narrow channel, and emerged into the pond.
Four more boats, with seven people, were floating along the eastern shore, and Don took them that way. "The guy in the white ballcap is the sheriff," Don said. "The guy in the boat by himself is George, the guide. The two guys in the green emergency vests are from the funeral home, they're here to pick up the body. The other three are deputies."
"How'd George happen to find her?" Virgil asked. "Anybody know?"
"Nobody saw her at dinner last night, but sometimes, people will cook something up in their cabin, though Miz McDill usually didn't do that," Don said. "Anyway, nobody really looked, but then early this morning, some of the women were going on a paddling trip and one of the boats was missing. One of them said, 'My gosh, didn't Miz McDill take one out last night?' So they went and looked at her cabin, and she wasn't there, and they knew she liked to paddle down and look at the eagle's nest..." He pointed at a white pine that stood over the end of the pond, with an eagle's nest a hundred feet up. "... so George jumped in a boat and he came down here and says, 'There she was.' He came back and they called us."
Don killed the motor and they coasted down on the cluster of boats. As they came up, Virgil stood and looked over the bow, saw an upside-down olive-drab plastic boat, with a body in a white shirt bobbing in the water next to it. The sheriff stood up and asked, "You Virgil?"
"Yeah, I am," Virgil said, and they bumped gunwales and shook hands. The sheriff was a tall, fleshy man with a hound-dog face, wrinkled like yesterday's tan shirt; and he was wearing a tan uniform shirt, and brown uniform slacks, along with heavy uniform shoes that weren't right in a boat.
"I read those stories you wrote for the New York Times," he said. "Pretty interesting."
"Couldn't miss it was an interesting case," Virgil said.
Sanders mentioned the names of the other cops and Rainy, and said, nodding at the two men from the funeral home, "These guys are here to pick up the body."
"What do you think?" Virgil asked.
"It seems to me like a murder, but it could be suicide, I suppose," Sanders said, looking back at the body. "But you don't see women like this one, shooting themselves in the head. Too messy. So... somebody got close and shot her. Might possibly be an accident, I guess."
"Murder," Virgil said. "Small chance it could be a suicide, but not an accident," Virgil said, looking around.
"Why's it not an accident?" Johnson asked.
"Too many trees," Virgil said. "It's too thick in here. To get a slug through the trees, you'd have to be right on the edge of them. Then you could see her. So it wasn't like somebody fired a gun a half-mile away, and she happened to be in front of it. And if it was somebody in a boat, who met her here, and they were both bobbing a little bit, they had to be really close to hit her."
Johnson nodded, looked at the white shirt floating around the body, like a veil, and turned away.
Virgil asked the sheriff, "Is there a time of death? Did anybody hear any shots?"
"Not that we've been able to find."
Virgil nodded and said, "Don, push us off the sheriff's boat, there, get me a little closer..."
They got close, and Virgil hung over the boat, getting a good look at the body. He couldn't see her face, but he could see massive damage to the back of her head, and looked back over his shoulder and said, "If you don't find a large caliber pistol at the bottom of the pond, then it was a rifle..."
The sheriff nodded. "Thought it might be."
"Gotta have the crime-scene guys look for a pistol, though. If the shooter was in a boat, he might have dumped it over the side; or if it's a suicide." No other signs of violence. One shot, and the woman was gone. Virgil pushed himself upright, and asked, "Where's the nearest road?"
The cops looked around, then one of them pointed, "I guess it'd be... over there."
"Probably... a quarter mile? There's a town road around the lake, and it crosses this creek about, mmm, a half-mile down, then hooks up a little closer to the lake and then goes on around to a cluster of cabins right on the west point of the lake. You probably saw them when you were coming in."
"Could you paddle up the creek?" Virgil asked.
"Naw. It's all choked north of the culvert," the cop said. "Be easier to walk, cause the creek's not that deep, but it's got a muck bottom... I don't know. I don't think you could walk it, either. Not easy, anyway."
They floated and talked for a couple of minutes. They hadn't taken the body in, the sheriff said, because they wanted the BCA agent, whoever he was, to take a look and say it was okay: "We don't have a hell of a lot of murders up here."
Virgil said, "You can take her. There's enough current here to drift her a bit, and if there was any wind at all... no way to tell exactly where she was hit, unless we find some blood spatter." He looked around, and then said, "You might have a couple guys slowly... slowly... cruise the waterline, all the way from the channel to the far end of the pond, look at the edge of the weeds and the lily pads, see if there's any blood on the foliage. If she'd been right up against the weeds, there should be some."
The sheriff pointed at the cops in one of the boats, and they pushed off.
While they were talking, the two funeral home guys had moved over to the body. They had a black body bag with them, and were discussing the best way to hoist the body into the boat without hurting their backs. Virgil noticed that Johnson wouldn't look at the body.
Sanders said, "I'm gonna really have to lean on you and the other guys from the BCA on this thing all my guys are up working on the Little Linda case. That thing is turning into a nightmare. Linda's mom is some kind of PR demon, she's holding press conferences, she hired a psychic. It's driving us crazy."
"No sign of Little Linda?"
"No, but the psychic says that she's still alive. She's in a dark place with large stones around her, and she's cold. He sees moss."
"That's what he says," Sanders said.
"You're investigating moss?"
Then one of the cops who'd gone looking for blood, called from fifty yards up the pond, toward the lake: "Got some cigarettes, here..." And then the other one said, "There's a lighter..."
Virgil nodded at Don, and the sheriff told the rest of them to stay where they were, and Don started the motor and Virgil's boat and the sheriff's drifted up the pond. There, they could see what appeared to be a nearly-full pack of Salem cigarettes floating on the surface, and a little beyond it, the bottom end of a red plastic Bic cigarette lighter.
"She a smoker?" Virgil asked.
"Don't know," the sheriff said.
"We need to mark this this may be close to where she was killed..." He called back to the guide, who motored over. "You got any marker buoys?" Virgil asked.
Rainy dug in the back of the boat, and came up with a yellow-plastic dumbbell-shaped buoy wrapped with string, the string ending in a lead weight. "Toss it right about there..." Virgil said.
Rainy tossed it in, the weight dropped to the bottom, marking the spot for the crime-scene crew.
"Leave the cigarette pack and lighter. Maybe crime scene can get something off them," Virgil said. To the cops: "Keep looking for blood..."
Back down the pond, the funeral home guys were hoisting the body into the boat, with some trouble. The sheriff said to the cop on the tiller, "Get me back there."
Virgil said, "I want to take a look at that other shore where somebody might walk in. Cruise the shoreline."
"I'll be here," the sheriff said.
They started where the creek drained out of the pond, moving at a walking pace. Virgil looked down the creek, and as the cop had said, it was choked with dead trees, sweepers, branches. He doubted that you could walk along it, and a boat would be impossible. They moved out, along the edge of the pond, scanning the shoreline until Johnson said, "There you go."
"See that dead birch, the one with the dead crown?" He was pointing across the weed flat at the wall of aspens and birch trees. "Now look about one inch to the left, you see that dark hole in the weeds? I see that all the time, in the backwaters on the river somebody walked out there... over toward that beaver lodge."
"Okay." Virgil looked back at the boats around the body. "Could have set up on the lodge."
"Eighty-yard shot. Maybe ninety," Johnson said. "Looks about like a good sand wedge."
"Could be fifty, depending on how she drifted," Virgil said. "Good shooting, though."
Don said, "Not that great. Eighty, ninety yards. That's nothing, up here."
"I'll tell you what," Virgil said. "He had one shot, no warm-ups, and he put it dead in her forehead. She was probably moving, at least a little bit. And he was shooting a human being and had to worry about being caught, about being seen, about getting out of there. With all that stress, that's damn good shooting. He knew what he was doing."
Don looked from the shore back to the boats, back to the shore, then nodded, and said, "When you're right, you're right."
Looking at the beaver lodge, a low hump of bare logs, twigs and mud just off the shoreline, Johnson said, "About impossible to get there from here. Might push a boat through to the beaver lodge, but even then..."
Virgil shook his head: "Better to come in from the same side the shooter did. Have to do that anyway." To Don: "Let's go see the sheriff."
The funeral home guys had McDill in a body bag and were zipping it up when they got back. The sheriff looked at their faces and asked, "What?"
Virgil said, "I think we got ourselves a crime scene."
With the body out of the water, the sheriff talked to the two deputies who were looking for bloodstained lily pads, and told them to wait at the pond until he called them, or until the crime-scene crew arrived and sent them back. Then the rest of them pulled out, led by the sheriff in his boat, Virgil, Johnson and Don in theirs, George Rainy, the guide, by himself, and the boat with the body.
At the pond, Virgil only had one flickering bar on his cell phone, but he had a solid four when they got back. As soon as Don cut the motor and started cutting a curve into the dock, he called the Bemidji office and talked to the duty officer.
"You got a crime-scene crew headed my way?"
"Should be there," the duty officer said. "Let me give them a call..." He was back a minute later. "They ran into a closed bridge. They should be there in ten or fifteen minutes. They gotta go around."
"You still got guys up in Bigfork?"
"Oh, yeah. It's getting worse. You heard about Fox…"
A dozen women were standing on the dock, watching with the combination of curiosity and dread that you got at murders. Virgil tossed a line around a cleat and snugged the boat up to the dock and climbed out, holding it for Johnson and Don. When the sheriff had clambered out of his boat, Virgil relayed the news about the crime-scene crew and said, "Let's go see if we can spot the trail in where the killer left the road."
To Johnson: "Why don't you go up the lodge and see if you can get us some sandwiches; I'm starving to death."
"What're you doing?"
"I'm going to take a look at the body," Virgil said.
Johnson nodded and headed up the dock. Virgil walked over to Rainy, who was tying up his boat, and asked him to stick around until they could talk. The guide nodded and said, "Yessir," and followed Johnson into the lodge.
The funeral home guys hoisted the body-bag out of the boat and Virgil had them unzip it. McDill was lying face up, the front of her face stained red by hypostasis, the settling of blood in a dead body, under the influence of gravity. She'd gone into the water face-down, and apparently had stayed that way overnight.
The entry wound in her forehead was the size of Virgil's little fingernail, but the bone was pulped, as though the slug had exploded. The exit wound had knocked out the back left part of her skull, exposing some brain matter, which, washed overnight by the lake water, resembled gray cheese. To Virgil, it looked like she'd been shot with a small-caliber rifle, maybe a .223, or possibly a .243, with hollow-point bullets. She was wearing jeans, and he reached around to feel her back pockets, where she might be carrying a wallet, but she wasn't.
"You see any other wounds?" Virgil asked.
The funeral home guys shook their heads. "Not a thing," one of them said. "We'll check at the office, before we pack her up for the medical examiner. Let you know."
The body would be sent to Ramsey County, in the Twin Cities, for the autopsy.
"Zip it up," Virgil said. He duck-walked over to the edge of the dock, reached down, and washed his hands in the lake water.
Stanhope had seen them coming in and now edged out on the dock, and when Virgil stood up, she cringed away, unable to look, and asked, "Is that her?"
Virgil nodded, and said, "You really don't have to be here. Why don't we go inside?"
She stepped away, still looking at the bag, and shuddered, and led the way along the path to the lodge door and up the interior stairs. Virgil asked, "You got the Internet here?"
"Oh, sure; every cabin, and wireless all over the lodge."
The Eagle Nest office was a quiet suite of three rooms with two clerks at wooden desks with modern flat-screen computers and a bunch of file cabinets. Two fish replicas, framed photos of well-known guests, and a set of moose antlers hung on the knotty-pine walls. A Scots-plaid woman's beret dangled from one of the antlers. Virgil used Stanhope's computer to download and then call up Google Earth, focus on the lake, and then spot exactly where the body was, and the shortest land-route into the pond from the loop road.
"Pretty good tool," the sheriff said, looking over his shoulder.
"Not only that, it's free," Virgil said. He grabbed the screen and printed it out.
The sheriff led the way in his Tahoe, Johnson driving his truck while Virgil ate a cheese-and-bologna sandwich. Between bites, Virgil said to Johnson, "You looked a little green out there. At the body."
Johnson bobbed his head and looked out the window into the forest. "I told you about that body I found on the river."
"About a hundred thousand times," Virgil said.
"So after I found it, I called the cops. This Wisconsin river cop came over, and he knew who it was. Some guy from Lake City who fell out of his boat..."
"Yeah, yeah, you told me..." He spit a piece of pimento out the window.
"What I didn't tell you was, this cop wanted to anchor the body until we could get a bigger boat out there to do the recovery," Johnson said. "So, he tied a line around it, so he could pull it over closer to the shore and tie if off to a tree. But the thing is, it'd been in the river for a week, and was all bloated and full of gas, and when he pulled on the line, the body came apart and the gas came out and rolled right over me."
"Ah, jeez," Virgil said. "You know what you do in a situation like that? Course, I don't suppose you had any Vicks..."
"Hang on a minute," Johnson said. "Anyway, I started barfing. I barfed up everything I had and then I kept barfing. Nothing was coming up, but some spit, but I couldn't stop. The cop was barfing, too, and I got out of there, and went back to the cabin, and I kept... trying to barf. I couldn't get the smell off me. I took a shower and washed my hair and I even burned the clothes, and I could still smell it and I'd start barfing again. That went on for a week, and then, like three weeks later, it started again, and went on for another couple of days. So, you know, this morning, I thought a murder scene might be interesting, but when I saw her in the water... I smelled that gas again."
"I didn't smell much of anything, except lake water," Virgil said.
"It's not real," Johnson said. "It's stuck in my brain. That smell."
"I've heard of that," Virgil said. "People getting stuck with a smell or a mental image."
"The image doesn't bother me never saw that much of the guy's body," Johnson said. "But when I saw you get your face right down on top of her, and her hair floating out like that, I about blew my cookies. I don't see how you do it."
"Job," Virgil said.
"Yeah, well..."Johnson sighed, turned around, dug a Budweiser out of the cooler, popped it open. "Think you better find yourself a ride, Virgil. I'm going back up to the V. This murder shit I'm done with it. I thought it would be interesting, but it's just nasty."
At the closest approach to the pond, they pulled off on the shoulder of the road, and the sheriff and Virgil walked one way, and Johnson the other, because Virgil knew that he'd spot the trail, and so would Johnson, but he wasn't sure about the sheriff. He and the sheriff had walked thirty yards along the gravel road when he saw it: "There." He turned and shouted, "Johnson!"
Johnson jogged over and Virgil said, "Stay back from it we'll want the crime-scene guys to walk it..."
There'd been no way the killer could have gotten in without leaving a trail: the soil was firm enough underfoot, but damp, and the plants were the soft, leafy, easily-broken kind that you saw in the shade, on the edges of wetlands.
"The question is, where'd he leave his car?" Virgil asked. The road was narrow, and there were no obvious turnoffs. "Couldn't park it here; too many people would have seen it."
The sheriff said, "There's some empty cabins up the way. He could park back there, and not get seen. But what if he dropped off a gun, then parked up at the lodge? You could walk down here in fifteen or twenty minutes. Gravel road like this, you could hear a car coming. A little care, you could just step into the woods before it went by."
"A guy would be noticed at the lodge, a stranger," Virgil said. "Maybe a woman?"
Johnson said, "If it was a woman, especially if it was one who was staying at the lodge, she'd see McDill going out in the boat. She might even have asked here where she was going... Run down here, boom."
Virgil looked into the woods. "If that's right, the gun might still be in there. Unless she came down last night and picked it up, but that'd really be taking a chance. If they saw her, people would remember."
"We'll check everybody on this road," the sheriff said. "Every swinging dick."
Car coming; they heard it before they could see it, and when they saw it, it was an over-sized white van. "Crime scene," Virgil said.
There were four guys with the crime-scene crew, led by Ron Mapes, who'd last run into Virgil while they were looking at the murder of an Indian cop from the Red Lake Chippewa reservation.
Virgil ran them through what had been done, including the marker buoy out on the lake, and all four of them looked down the track toward the lake. "We're gonna need head nets, metal detectors..." Mapes began.
Virgil said to Mapes, "Could you guys go in there right now, take a quick look at the track? See if anything pops up? At Red Lake, you told me the killer was a small guy, and that got me started in the right direction…"
"We can look," Mapes said.
The crew all had 15-inch rubber boots and head nets and cotton gloves to protect against the mosquitoes, and they took it slow, pushing down the track, looking for anything along the way, checking for metal. While they were doing that, Virgil, the sheriff and Johnson walked further down the road, looking at the driveways branching off to the sides. The driveways were gravel and dirt tracks leading uphill, away from the lake: hunting cabins, the sheriff said, usually empty until the fall.
The crime-scene crew had been in for ten minutes, out of sight, when they got back, and the sheriff called the Grand Rapids airport Avis and reserved an SUV for Virgil. He'd just rung off when they heard somebody coming in, and then Mapes pushed delicately through the brush beside the killer's track, still searching it with his eyes. When he got out on the road, he pulled off his head net and said, "The mosquitoes are thick in there... gets wet about a hundred yards in."
"I can't promise you that she's the killer, but I can tell you that whoever walked back there is a woman," Mapes said. "She maybe went in more than once, or maybe there were a couple of them, because it's tracked up."
"Scouting tracks," Virgil said.
"Anyway, we got three partial footprints so far, the instep of a woman's boot or shoe. Maybe a shoe, because there's a low heel," Mapes said. "We won't be able to give you an exact size because we're mostly seeing that instep, but it also looks to me like there's a capital 'M' in the instep, a logo. One of the guys thinks it's for Mephisto shoes. He said Mephisto shoes run about three hundred bucks a pair."
"Not something you'd see every day," Virgil said.
"Heck, I don't even know if you could buy any locally, I mean, closer than the Cities," Mapes said. "Though you could order them on the Internet."
"What else?" Virgil asked.
"Well... nothing. But I thought that was quite a bit," Mapes said.
"Nothing on the beaver lodge?"
"Not there yet. I'm going back in."
"Done good, Ron," Virgil said.
The sheriff looked at Virgil and said, "Gotta be somebody at the lodge. A woman, shoes from the Cities." Sanders had relaxed a notch: this was more of a Cities problem than a local deal, and he was happy to have it that way.
"Let's go back and talk to Stanhope," Virgil said. "Then if you could have one of your guys give me a lift down to Grand Rapids, we could let Johnson go."
"I can do that," the sheriff said.
On the way back to the lodge, Johnson said, "I feel like I'm ditching you."
"You're not. This isn't your job. Catch a fish for me, up there," Virgil said.
"Not gonna catch any fish," Johnson said gloomily. He ducked his head over the steering wheel, looking up at the bright sky. "This trip is cursed."
At the lodge, Virgil hopped out, got his duffle bag, walked around to the driver's side and said, "You stay off that Budweiser when you're driving."
"I mean it, Johnson. I got enough goddamn dead people on my hands."
Johnson cracked a smile: "First turn I get around, I'm gonna throw a beer can out the window. I'll call it the Virgil Flowers memorial beer can. It'll still be there when the next glacier comes through."
And he was gone.
Virgil told Sanders that he needed to talk to Rainy, the guide, and then to Stanhope, and then to anyone that they might suggest. "Gonna be a while," he said.
The sheriff shrugged, "Well it's a murder, so I guess that takes a while," and a couple of seconds later, "You're not gonna get much from George."
"George is a drunk," Sanders said. "Every day that he works, he stops at the liquor store and picks up a fifth and he takes it homes and drinks it. He's trying to drink himself to death. He did that last night. He was in no shape to ambush anybody."
"Any particular reason he's doing that?" Virgil asked.
"Not as far as I know. I think he's tired of being here," Sanders said.
They found Rainy and interviewed him in a room called "the library," a cube with three soft chairs and few hundred hardbacks with sun-faded covers, and six geraniums in the window, in terra-cotta pots. Rainy lived fifteen minutes away, toward Grand Rapids, but outside of town. He worked a half-dozen lakes in the area, guiding fishermen in the summer, deer and bear hunters in the fall. He got a hundred dollars a day plus tips, had worked on another lake the day before the killing, and had been scheduled to take out a couple of women in the morning, and teach them how to fish for walleye.
"Got down to the dock, and they was runnin' around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. They thought Miz McDill might of gone down toward that pond. So I says, 'Well, why don't I go take a look?' So I jumps in a boat and runs down there, and there she was. Wasn't like I investigated I come out the pipe and there she was. I spotted her as soon as I come out, the boat and her shirt."
"You touch her?" Virgil asked.
"Shit no. I watch TV," the guide said.
Virgil nodded. "Okay. No ideas?"
Rainy shook his head: "Nope. Well... one. Don't mention it to Miz Stanhope; I need to work here."
"I can keep my mouth shut," Virgil said, and the sheriff nodded.
"The women here, you know, a lot of them are singing on our side of the choir," Rainy said.
Virgil looked at the sheriff, who did a little head bob, that suggested that he agreed, but hadn't mentioned it out of politeness.
Rainy nodded. "Rug munchers," he said. "The thing is, you know, they'd go on down to the bars the Goose in particular and you'd hear that there were some fights when they got the liquor in them. I don't mean like, out in the parking lot, but you know, screaming at each other. Fighting over who was munchin' who. So... it could be a sex thing."
Virgil asked the sheriff, "Miss McDill...?"
"Don't know. I do know that a lot of the women who come up here aren't gay," Sanders said. "Margery told me once that a lot of them want to come up here without having to put up with macho North Woods bullshit. Don't mind men, they just want to get away for a while, get back to nature on their own."
"How'd that come up?" Virgil asked. "About who was gay?"
"Somebody made a comment at the Chamber of Commerce, and she was steamed about it," the sheriff said. "I bumped into her, purely by accident, and she let it out. We've known each other since grade school."
The sheriff chuckled. "You just said, 'Huh,' like a cop."
"No, no... but you wonder, if this was done by an outsider, from somebody who was staying here at the lodge, how'd they know exactly how to walk in there? To the pond?" Virgil asked.
"Could have looked on Google Earth, like we did," Sanders suggested.
"One possibility," Virgil admitted.
"Could have scouted it," Sanders added.
"Or it could be a local," Virgil said.
"Look, if you'd asked me how to get in there, to the pond, off the road, I'd have to take a long look at a map and maybe get a compass, and I've lived here all my life," Sanders said. "The killer either knows this exact area a lot better than I do, or she looked at Google Earth. Or a map. Maybe used a GPS. And probably scouted it. So it's just as likely to be an outsider as a local. Either way, they'd have to scout it."
"Or was a deer hunter," Rainy chipped in. Virgil and the sheriff turned back to him. "After it freezes up, it's not so bad back there. No bugs, no mud. You go a couple hundred yards back, and you can see the pond. John Mack has a couple of tree stands maybe a five minute walk west of there. Guys around here'll push that piece of woods, from the road over to the lake, up toward Mack's place."
"Must take a lot of guys to push it," Virgil said.
"Naw, it's not so bad. Like I said, you can see better. You get six, eight guys, across that neck, about noon on opening day, and push 'em west, the deer'll funnel between two little ponds," Rainy said. "The kids on the stands will usually take one or two. The guys put their kids up on the stands, to give them a crack at a good one."
"I'll keep that in mind," Virgil said. "Thank you."
As they were leaving the library, the sheriff leaned close to the guide and said, "Long as you're working here, I'd go easy on that 'rug muncher' business."
Rainy's Adam's apple bobbed a couple of times. "I'll do that. I will."
Out in the main lodge, Sanders said to Virgil, "I don't want you to get the idea that people up here are anti-gay. Some of the women at the lodge might be gay, but it doesn't bother anyone. We want them to come into town, shop, go to the restaurants these women have money. This resort's gonna cost them two thousand dollars a week, and some of them come up for a month. It's not like they buy a bucket of minnows and sleep in the back of the truck."
Virgil smiled. "You mean like me and Johnson?"
"Well you know, they hang out at the Wild Goose, like George said. Tom Mortensen, he's the owner, if you told him he was going to lose his gay business, he'd have a heart attack," Sanders said. "They keep him going. He likes having them, and they like being there. Hell of a lot less trouble than a bunch of cowboys."
They went by the office to find Stanhope. Zoe, the woman who thought Virgil had perpetrated a massacre, was sitting at a computer, wearing a pair of black librarian glasses, which meant that Virgil would almost certainly fall in love with her; the near-sighted intellectual look did him in every time. If she'd had an overbite, he would have proposed.
Stanhope was standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, and at a piece of paper in her own hand, and said, "I'm sure we paid him off before July 1. The fourth of July fell on a Friday, payday, and I remember that he wasn't here for the fireworks, because he usually helps set them up..."
"You see the problem, though," Zoe said, tapping the computer screen. "If he slopped over into July, then he has to go on the third quarter numbers, too."
Stanhope sensed them at the doorway, turned and said, "Hi. We're trying to figure out an accounting problem."
"When you got a minute," Virgil said, "I'd like you to walk me over to Miss McDill's cabin, talk a bit about her."
"Go right now," Stanhope said.
The sheriff said, "I'll leave you to it, Virgil. I gotta go talk to the TV people."
Virgil nodded: "Go. I would like to fix a ride down to the Avis dealer, though."
Zoe said, "My office is in town I could ride you down there. I'll be another half-hour here."
"That'd be great," Virgil said.
All the cabins had names: McDill had been in the 'Common Loon,' one bedroom, with extra sleeping space up a ladder in a second-story loft. The loft also had a doorway out to the sundeck.
In addition to the bedroom, the cabin had a segregated space, like a den, with a computer desk compete with an Ethernet cable and a wall notice about wireless connections, a Xerox laser printer, a high-end business chair and a two-line phone; a small, efficient kitchen; and a living/sitting room with a fieldstone fireplace. McDill's Macintosh laptop was hooked to an ethernet cable.
"No television," Virgil said.
"We've got a thing about that. If you want to watch television, you've got to come up to the theater at the lodge. But the basic idea here, is you get away from TV and all that," Stanhope said.
"But you've got..."
"We found out that most the people who come here want to get away from the absolute crap TV but a lot of them can't afford to completely isolate themselves. They're business-women and they need to stay in touch. You'll notice that your cell phone works here..."
"I did," Virgil said.
"Because we've got a low-power repeater in the lodge, which goes to our antenna it's out by the shop, you can't see if from here that is line-of-sight to a cell out on the highway," Stanhope said. "So we're all hooked up, we have all the conveniences, but you can't see it. We're looking for feel that's a little more rustic."
Virgil dropped into an easy chair, and pointed her at the couch next to it. "I've got some questions that you can probably answer..."
McDill hadn't been seen the night before, but that wasn't unusual, Stanhope said. Some of the women put in strenuous days on the lake, and with a lot of sun, many of them were pooped by the end of the day, and went to bed early. Others went into town, and to a bar called the Wild Goose. So exactly who was where, and when, was not an easy thing to pin down.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't even know that nobody saw her last night, until we were talking about it this morning," Stanhope said.
"Was she pretty social?"
"Oh, I'd say average. A little more aggressive about it when she was being social. She liked to dominate the talk, but there are other women up here who are no cream-puffs. So, I'd say, she fit in."
McDill did like to go to the Wild Goose.
"Was she gay?"
"Mmm-hmm," Stanhope said, nodding. "She was, but she really didn't come up here for romance. She has a life partner down in the Cities she's been notified, she should be coming up but Erica really came up here to get away. To think. To relax a little bit. She was one of the girls who sometimes drank too much. I mean, not crazy, but she wouldn't be your designated driver down to the Goose."
"I want you to believe that I don't have a problem with gay women," Virgil said, "But I've got to ask: as far as you know, was she involved in any kind of stressful sexual entanglement?"
Stanhope shook her head: "Not as far as I know."
"No kind of sexual competition with another woman up here?"
"I don't think so. She'd been up here for a week, she was going to be here for one more week. She was participating, yoga in the morning, nature hikes and boating in the morning and afternoon, but I didn't see her pairing off with anyone." She put her hands to her temples, pressing. "I can't figure it out. Believe me, if I had any idea of what happened, I would tell you in an instant. But I didn't see anything."
"Okay. Have you ever had anybody die here?"
She nodded. "Twice. One woman actually came here to die she loved nature, she loved the place. It was in the fall, after we were pretty much closed down, and we'd wheel her out on the deck so she could see the lake. Then she died, from pancreatic cancer. We had another woman who had a heart attack, this was four or five years ago. We actually got her to the hospital alive, but she died there."
They talked for a few more minutes, but Stanhope seemed befuddled by the killing. Her confusion was genuine, Virgil thought: it was too muddled to be faked.
Last question: "Who was that checking out when I was coming in?"
"Dorothy Killian from Rochester," Stanhope said. "She was scheduled to leave... I don't think you'd be interested in her, but, what do I know? She's seventy-four. She's on some kind of art board down in Rochester and they have a meeting tomorrow afternoon, so she had to go."
"Okay. Well: let me spend a few minutes here in the cabin, and then we'll need to lock it up again, until the crime-scene crew can go through it," Virgil said.
Stanhope stood up, sighed, and said, "What a tragedy. She was so young, and active. Smart."
Stanhope smiled, and said, "Well, she was well-liked by the kind of people who'd like her, if you know what I mean. She didn't take any prisoners. So, she put some people off. But anybody who's successful is going to get that."
Virgil spent ten minutes in the cabin, giving it a quick but thorough going over.
McDill had brought up two large suitcases. One was empty, with the clothing distributed between a closet and a chest of drawers. The other was still partly full a plastic bag with dirty clothes, and other bags and cases with personal items, perfume, grooming equipment. None of the clothes, either clean or dirty, had paper in the pockets.
Her purse contained a thin wallet, with a bit more than eight hundred dollars in cash. A Wells Fargo envelope hidden in a concealed compartment had another three thousand. He went through the wallet paper a new Minnesota fishing license, bought just before she came up to the lodge, insurance cards, frequent flyer card from Northwest, five credit cards he made a note to check her balances, and her finances in general a card from Mercedes-Benz for roadside emergency service, and membership cards from a bunch of art museums, including the Minneapolis Institute, the Walker Center, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Chicago Institute of Art.
An art lover.
Tucked in with the other cards, he found a folded-over paper, and when he opened, a lipstick impression of a woman's lips... nothing else. He put the card on the dresser. Interesting.
She had a digital camera; he turned it on and paged through two dozen photos. Most were shots around the lake, but a half-dozen had been taken in a bar, women having a good time, getting loud, like women do when they're loose and safe in a group of friends.
He took the SD card: he'd read the card into his own computer. He put the camera back on the dresser, next to the card. Picked up her keys, including a big black electronic key with a Mercedes-Benz emblem, and dropped them in his pocket.
The computer was password-protected. He tried a few easy work-arounds, then decided to leave it to the crime-scene guys.
McDill's cell phone was sitting on the desk next to the computer. He brought it up, and found three-dozen calls made in the past week, the week she was at the lodge, mostly to one number in the Cities, a 612 area code, which was downtown Minneapolis the agency? and several others, both in-coming and out-going, to a separate number with a 952 area code.
He checked her driver's license. She lived in Edina, which would be right for 952, Virgil thought. So, home and office. He took out his pad and jotted down all the numbers she'd called while at the lodge, and all the incoming calls. Nothing local.
Thought about local and picked up the phone on the desk and got a dial-tone. All right; she had a direct dial phone. He would have to get those calls from the phone company...
After a last look-around, he wrote a quick note to crime-scene, explaining the lipstick card and the cardless camera, and left it on the chest of drawers.
He wrote, "DNA on the lipstick? What do you think?"
24 February 2019
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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