Blood hollow, p.1
ALSO BY WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER
The Devil’s Bed
WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER
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New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2004 by William Kent Krueger
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address Atria Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Krueger, William Kent.
Blood hollow / William Kent Krueger—1st Atria Books hardcover ed.
1. O’Connor, Cork (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Private investigators—Minnesota—Fiction. 3. Minnesota—Fiction. I. Title.
First Atria Books hardcover edition February 2004
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For Diane, of course; and for my children, Seneca and Adam, who cracked my heart wide open and crept inside.
Where the law is concerned, I plead ignorance. So I’m grateful that during the writing of this book I received help from others far more knowledgeable than I. Thanks to the Honorable Kevin Eide of Minnesota’s First Judicial District Court, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Tami McConkey, and former Pine County Sheriff Steve Haavisto for their expert advice and guidance in matters of the law and its enforcement.
In addition to my usual gang of cohorts in Crème de la Crime—Carl Brookins, Julie Fasciana, Michael Kac, Jean Miriam Paul, Charlie Rethwisch, Susan Runholt, Tim Springfield, and Anne B. Webb—I am also indebted to Joci Tilsen for her astute reader’s eye and excellent suggestions.
Good editors are the angels of this art, and I have been blessed with help from two of the best: George Lucas, who saw me through the early chaos; and Emily Bestler, who helped me fill the dark holes at the end.
A special note of thanks to my late agent, Jane Jordan Browne, whose honesty, intelligence, compassion, and grit set her apart and above. God bless you, Jane.
And finally thanks to Jim and Elena Theros and the staff of the St. Clair Broiler for the coffee, the quiet, and that little corner sanctuary we all know as booth #4.
JANUARY, AS USUAL, was meat locker cold, and the girl had already been missing for nearly two days. Corcoran O’Connor couldn’t ignore the first circumstance. The second he tried not to think about.
He stood in snow up to his ass, more than two feet of drifted powder blinding white in the afternoon sun. He lifted his tinted goggles and glanced at the sky, a blue ceiling held up by green walls of pine. He stood on a ridge that overlooked a small oval of ice called Needle Lake, five miles from the nearest maintained road. Aside from the track his snowmobile had pressed into the powder, there was no sign of human life. A rugged vista lay before him—an uplifted ridge, a jagged shoreline, a bare granite pinnacle that jutted from the ice and gave the lake its name—but the recent snowfall had softened the look of the land. In his time, Cork had seen nearly fifty winters come and go. Sometimes the snow fell softly, sometimes it came in a rage. Always it changed the face of whatever it touched. Cork couldn’t help thinking that in this respect, snow was a little like death. Except that death, when it changed a thing, changed it forever.
He took off his mittens, deerskin lined with fleece. He turned back to the Polaris snowmobile that Search and Rescue had provided for him, and he pulled a radio transmitter from the compartment behind the seat. When he spoke through the mouth hole of his ski mask, his words ghosted against the radio in a cloud of white vapor.
“Unit Three to base. Over.”
“This is base. Go ahead, Cork.”
“I’m at Needle Lake. No sign of her. I’m going to head up to Hat Lake. That’ll finish this section.”
“I copy that. Have you seen Bledsoe?”
“That’s a negative.”
“He completed the North Arm trail and was going to swing over to give you a hand. Also, be advised that the National Weather Service has issued a severe weather warning. A blizzard’s coming our way. Sheriff’s thinking of pulling everybody in.”
Cork O’Connor had lived in the Northwoods of Minnesota most of his life. Although at the moment there was only a dark cloud bank building in the western sky, he knew that in no time at all the weather could turn.
“Ten-four, Patsy. I’ll stay in touch. Unit Three out.”
He’d been out since first light, and despite the deerskin mittens, the Sorel boots and thick socks, the quilted snowmobile suit, the down parka, and the ski mask, he was cold to the bone. He put the radio back, lifted a Thermos from the compartment under the seat of the Polaris, and poured a cup of coffee. It was only lukewarm, but it felt great going down his throat. As he sipped, he heard the sound of another machine cutting through the pines to his right. In a minute, a snowmobile broke through a gap in the trees, and shot onto the trail where Cork’s own machine sat idle. Oliver Bledsoe buzzed up beside Cork and killed the engine. He dismounted and pulled off his ski mask.
“Heard you on the radio with Patsy,” Bledsoe said. “Knew I’d catch you here.” He cast a longing look at Cork’s coffee. “Got any left?”
“Couple swallows,” Cork said. He poured the last of the coffee into the cup and offered it to Bledsoe. “All yours.”
Bledsoe was true-blood Iron Lake Ojibwe. He was large, muscular, a hair past fifty, wit
Bledsoe stripped off his gloves and wrapped his hands around the warm cup. He closed his eyes to savor the coffee as it coursed down his throat. “Anything?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Cork said.
“Lot of ground to cover.” Bledsoe handed the cup back and glanced north where the wilderness stretched all the way to Canada. “It’s a shame, nice girl like her, something like this.” He dug beneath his parka and brought out a pack of Chesterfields and Zippo lighter. He offered a cigarette to Cork, who declined. He lit up, took a deep breath, and exhaled a great white cloud of smoke and wet breath. He put his gloves back on and let the cigarette dangle from the corner of his mouth. Nodding toward the sky in the west, he said, “You hear what’s coming in? If that girl didn’t have bad luck, she’d have no luck at all.”
Cork heard the squawk of his radio and picked it up.
“Base to all units. It’s official. We’ve got us a blizzard on the doorstep. A real ass kicker, looks like. Come on in. Sheriff says he doesn’t want anyone else lost out there.”
Cork listened as one by one the other units acknowledged.
“Unit Three. Unit Four. Did you copy? Over.”
“This is Unit Three. Bledsoe’s with me. We copy, Patsy. But listen. I still haven’t checked Hat Lake. I’d like to have a quick look before I head back.”
“Negative, Cork. Sheriff says turn around now. He’s pulling in the dogs and air search, too. Weather service says it’s not a storm to mess with.”
“Is Wally there?”
“He won’t tell you anything different.”
“Put him on.”
“Schanno, here. This better be good.”
Cork could see him, Sheriff Wally Schanno. Grim, harried. With a missing girl, a whale of a blizzard, and a recalcitrant ex-sheriff on his hands.
“I’m just shy of Hat Lake, Wally. I’m going to check it out before I turn back.”
“The hell you are. Have you taken a good look behind you?”
Glancing back to the west, toward the cloud bank that was now looming high above the tree line, Cork knew time was short.
“It would be a shame to come this far and not make it that last mile.”
“Bring yourself in. That’s an order.”
“What are you going to do if I don’t? Fire me? I’m a volunteer.”
“You want to stay on Search and Rescue, you’ll come back now. You read me, Unit Three?”
“Loud and clear, Sheriff.”
“Good. I expect to see you shortly. Base out.”
Schanno sounded weary deep down in his soul. Cork knew that the sheriff would turn away from the radio to face the family of the missing girl, having just reduced significantly the chances of finding her alive. For Cork, being out there in the cold and the snow with a blizzard at his back was infinitely preferable to what Sheriff Wally Schanno had to deal with. Once again, he was exceedingly glad that the badge he himself had once worn was now pinned to the chest of another man.
“Guess that about does it,” Oliver Bledsoe said.
“I’m going to check Hat Lake.”
“You heard the sheriff.”
“I’ve got to know, Ollie.”
Bledsoe nodded. “You want a hand?”
“No. You go on back. I won’t be more than half an hour behind you.”
“Schanno’ll skin you alive.”
“I’ll take my chances with Wally.”
Cork climbed onto the seat, kicked the engine over, and shot east in a roar of sparkling powder.
He hated snowmobiles. Hated the noise, a desecration of the silence of the deep woods that was to him a beauty so profound it felt sacred. Hated the kind of people snowmobiling brought, people who looked at the woods as they would an amusement park, just another diversion in the never-ending battle against boredom. Hated the ease with which the machines allowed access to a wilderness that could swallow the ignorant and unwary without a trace. The only value he could see in a snowmobile was that it allowed him, in a situation like this, to cover a large area quickly.
By the time he reached Hat Lake, the dark wall of cloud behind him stretched north and south from horizon to horizon, completely blotting out the late afternoon sun. The sight gave Cork chills that had nothing to do with the temperature. He found no sign of a snowmobile on the trail that circled the lake. Exactly what he’d suspected, but he wanted to be certain. The wind rose at his back. He watched ghosts of snow swirl up and pirouette across the lake ice. Except for the dancing snow and the trees as they bent to the rising wind, nothing moved. Not one flicker of life across the whole, frigid face of that land.
HE DIDN’T BEAT the blizzard.
The trail climbed gradually over a ridge that roughly paralleled the Laurentian Divide, the spine of upper Minnesota, determining whether creeks and rivers ran north toward Hudson Bay or south toward the watershed of the Mississippi River. When Cork finally topped the ridge, he met the storm in a blast of wind. The machine he straddled shuddered under him like a frightened pony, and he plunged into blinding white, unable to see more than a few feet ahead.
Using the trees that lined the corridor as guides, he kept to the trail. Most of the time he rode due west, battling the wind head-on. Whenever his way turned to the north or to the south, the trees provided a little shelter and gave him some relief. Dressed for bitter cold, he could, if he had to, simply hunker down and wait out the storm. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would be possible. He knew the area, knew that if he felt in grave danger, he could easily radio his position and a Sno-Cat would probably be dispatched. In all this, he understood he was more fortunate than the missing girl.
At last, he drew alongside a huge open area where the blowing snow was a maelstrom, a blinding swirl across the frozen expanse of Fisheye Lake. The trail circled the lake, but snow-mobilers often cut a straight path across rather than follow the parabola of the shoreline. Cork knew if he did the same, he’d save himself a good twenty minutes, which at the moment seemed like a long time. He checked his compass, took a bearing, revved his snowmobile, and charged onto the ice.
On the flat, frozen lake, a bleached wall blotted out the rest of the world. There was no up or down, no left or right, no ahead or behind; there was only a hellish, acid brilliance blasting at him from every direction. He gripped the compass in his hand and kept the nose of the snowmobile lined up with the bearing point he’d chosen. In a few minutes, he would reach the far shoreline and the relative shelter of the trees.
He hadn’t counted on seeing the missing girl.
He jerked the machine hard to the left. The snowmobile tipped. He let go his hold, flew off the Polaris. The ice was like concrete and sent a bone-rattling jolt down his body when he hit. He rolled several times before he came to rest on his back staring up (was it up?) into blinding white. For a moment, he lay perfectly still, putting together what his perception had taken in but his mind hadn’t fully processed, then he staggered to his feet.
Had he actually seen the girl materialize in front of him? Something had been there, little more than a gray wraith barely visible behind the curtain of snow.
“Charlotte!” He shouted into a wind that ate the word. “Charlotte!”
He turned, then turned again. He moved a few steps forward. Or was he going back? The compass had flown from his hand when he spilled off the snowmobile, and he had no idea of direction.
“Charlotte Kane!” he tried again.
No matter which way he turned, the wind screamed at him. He lifted his goggles. The driving snow attacked his eyeballs, a thousand sharp needles, and bitter fingers seemed to pry at his sockets. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried again to recall exactly what he’d seen in the instant before he’d lost control.
There had been something directly ahead of him, a vague gray shape, no more. Why had he thought it was the girl? He realized that if it were Charlotte Kane, he hadn’t had enough time to turn aside before he hit her, yet he’d felt no impact. Had the blizzard simply played a cruel trick on him?
He had no idea where the Polaris was, and nearly blind in the white, he began to grope around him.
This was exactly what Schanno had been afraid of, losing one of the search team. Cork, in his arrogance, believing that he might yet find the missing girl, had only made matters worse. Unless he was able to locate the snowmobile or the radio, Search and Rescue would have no idea where he was, no knowledge that he’d screwed himself, tumbled onto the ice of Fisheye Lake and got lost in a whiteout there. He was about to become another weight on the shoulders of the other searchers.
He tried not to panic, telling himself he could wait out the storm. But that was a supposition, not a known. For all he knew, the blizzard could last a week. Where would he be then?
He’d just resettled the goggles when he saw it again out of the corner of his eye, the flicker of gray behind the white.
“Charlotte!” He stumbled in that direction.
Blindly, he groped ahead a dozen steps, then another glimpse of the phantom, left this time, and he turned and hit his shinbone against the snowmobile, which was sitting upright, half-buried in a drift that was growing deeper even as Cork stood there, amazed and grateful.
The compass was hanging from the handgrip. Cork did a three-sixty, one last scan of the small circle his eyes could penetrate. He took his bearing, kicked the machine into action, and headed toward safety.
It took him another hour to reach the graded road that led him to Valhalla on Black Bear Lake.
Valhalla was the Northwoods retreat of Dr. Fletcher Kane, a widower, and his sister, Glory. The main structure was a lodge-like affair, two stories, five bedrooms, three baths, a couple of stone fireplaces, and fifty-five windows. All the numbers added up to a piece of property worth a million plus dollars situated at the end of a graded road twenty miles from Aurora, Minnesota, the nearest town, and about as far from any neighbors as a person could get in that stretch of woods. In addition to the house, a small guest lodge had been constructed a hundred yards south on the shoreline of Black Bear Lake. It was in the guesthouse that Wally Schanno had set up the base for the search and rescue operation. Since leaving that morning, Cork had been back once, near noon, to gas up and to grab a quick sandwich. The guesthouse had been a hub of activity then. This time when he pulled up on his Polaris, the place was dead. A dozen other snowmobiles were parked among the trees. The trailers that had brought the machines stood empty and unconnected, the hitches buried in snow, the trucks and SUVs that had hauled them gone. The only vehicles remaining were Cork’s old red Bronco and a Land Cruiser from the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department.