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Winter Preyby John Sandford
1 The wind whistled down the frozen run of Shasta Creek, between the blacker-than-black walls of pine. The thin naked swamp alders and slight new birches bent before it. Needle-point ice crystals rode it, like sandpaper grit, carving arabesque whorls in the drifting snow.
The Iceman followed the creek down to the lake, navigating as much by feel, and by time, as by sight. At six minutes on the luminous dial of his dive watch, he began to look for the dead pine. Twenty seconds later, its weather-bleached trunk appeared in the snowmobile headlights, hung there for a moment, then slipped away like a hitchhiking ghost.
Now. Six hundred yards, compass bearing 270 degrees . . .
Time time time . . .
He almost hit the lake’s west bank as it came down from the house, white-on-white, rising in front of him. He swerved, slowed, followed it. The artificial blue of a yard light burrowed through the falling snow, and he eased the sled up onto the bank and cut the engine.
The Iceman pushed his faceplate up, sat and listened. He heard nothing but the pat of the snow off his suit and helmet, the ticking of the cooling engine, his own breathing, and the wind. He was wearing a full-face woolen ski mask with holes for his eyes and mouth. The snow caught on the soft wool, and after a moment, meltwater began trickling from the eye holes down his face beside his nose. He was dressed for the weather and the ride: the snowmobile suit was windproof and insulated, the legs fitting into his heavyweight pac boots, the wrists overlapped by expedition ski mitts. A heavyweight polypropylene turtleneck overlapped the face mask, and the collar of the suit snapped directly to the black helmet. He was virtually encapsulated in nylon and wool, and still the cold pried at the cracks and thinner spots, took away his breath . . .
A set of Bearpaw snowshoes was strapped behind the seat, on the sled’s carry-rack, along with a corn-knife wrapped in newspaper. He swiveled to a sidesaddle position, keeping his weight on the machine, fumbled a miniature milled-aluminum flashlight out of his parka pocket, and pointed it at the carry-rack. His mittens were too thick to work with, and he pulled them off, letting them dangle from his cuff-clips.
The wind was an ice pick, hacking at his exposed fingers as he pulled the snowshoes free. He dropped them onto the snow, stepped into the quick-release bindings, snapped the bindings and thrust his hands back into the mittens. They’d been exposed for less than a minute, and already felt stiff.
With his mittens on, he stood up, testing the snow. The latest fall was soft, but the bitter cold had solidified the layers beneath it. He sank no more than two or three inches. Good.
The chimes sounded in his mind again: Time.
He paused, calmed himself. The whole intricate clockwork of his existence was in danger. He’d killed once already, but that had been almost accidental. He’d had to improvise a suicide scene around the corpse.
And it had almost worked.
Had worked well enough to eliminate any chance that they might catch him. That experience changed him, gave him a taste of blood, a taste of real power.
The Iceman tipped his head back like a dog testing for scent. The house was a hundred feet farther along the lake shore. He couldn’t see it; except for the distant glow of the yard light, he was in a bowl of darkness. He pulled the corn knife free of the carry-rack and started up the slope. The corn-knife was a simple instrument, but perfect for an ambush on a snowy night, if the chance should present itself.
In a storm, and especially at night, Claudia LaCourt’s house seemed to slide out to the edge of the world. As the snow grew heavier, the lights across the frozen lake slowly faded and then, one by one, blinked out.
At the same time, the forest pressed in: the pine and spruce tiptoed closer, to bend over the house with an unbearable weight. The arbor vitae would paw at the windows, the bare birch branches would scratch at the eaves. All together they sounded like the maundering approach of something wicked, a beast with claws and fangs that rattled on the clapboard siding, searching for a grip. A beast that might pry the house apart.
When she was home alone, or alone with Lisa, Claudia played her old Tammy Wynette albums or listened to the television game shows. But the storm would always come through, with a thump or a screech. Or a line would go down somewhere: the lights would stutter and go out, the music would stop, everybody would hold their breath . . . and the storm would be there, clawing. Candlelight made it worse; hurricane lanterns didn’t help much. For the kinds of wickedness created by the imagination during a nighttime blizzard, only modern science could fight: satellite-dish television, radio, compact disks, telephones, computer games. Power drills. Things that made machine noise. Things that banished the dark-age claws that pried at the house.
Claudia stood at the sink, rinsing coffee cups and stacking them to dry. Her image was reflected in the window over the sink, as in a mirror, but darker in the eyes, darker in the lines that framed her face, like an old daguerreotype.
From outside, she’d be a madonna in a painting, the only sign of light and life in the blizzard; but she never thought of herself as a madonna. She was a Mom with a still-shapely butt and hair done with a red rinse, an easy sense of humor, and a taste for beer. She could run a fishing boat and swing a softball bat and once or twice a winter, with Lisa staying over at a friend’s, she and Frank would drive into Grant and check into the Holiday Inn. The rooms had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors next to the bed. She did like to sit on his hips and watch herself fuck, her head thrown back and her breasts a burning pink.
Claudia scraped the last of the burnt crust from the cupcake tin, rinsed it and dumped it in the dish rack to air-dry.
A branch scraped against the window. She looked out, but without the chill: she was humming to herself, something old, something high school. Tonight, at least, she and Lisa weren’t alone. Frank was here. In fact, he was on the stairs, coming up, and he was humming to himself. They did that frequently, the same things at the same time.
“Um,” he said, and she turned. His thinning black hair fell over his dark eyes. He looked like a cowboy, she thought, with his high cheekbones and the battered Tony Lamas poking out of his boot-cut jeans. He was wearing a tattered denim shop apron over a T-shirt and held a paintbrush slashed with blood-red lacquer.
“Um, what?” Claudia asked. This was the second marriage for each of them. They were both a little beat-up and they liked each other a lot.
“I just got started on the bookcase and I remembered that I let the woodstove go,” he said ruefully. He waggled the paintbrush at her. “It’s gonna take me another hour to finish the bookcase. I really can’t stop with this lacquer.”
“Goddammit, Frank . . .” She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Moderately penitent, in a charming cowboy way.
“How about the sheriff?” she asked. New topic. “Are you still gonna do it?”
“I’ll see him tomorrow,” he said. He turned his head, refusing to meet her eyes.
“It’s nothing but trouble,” she said. The argument had been simmering between them. She stepped away from the sink and bent backwards, to look down the hall toward Lisa’s room. The girl’s door was closed and the faint sounds of Guns ’N Roses leaked out around the edges. Claudia’s voice grew sharper, worried. “If you’d just shut up . . . It’s not your responsibility, Frank. You told Harper about it. Jim was his boy. If it’s Jim.”
“It’s Jim, all right. And I told you how Harper acted.” Frank’s mouth closed in a narrow, tight line. Claudia recognized the expression, knew he wouldn’t change his mind. Like what’s-his-name, in High Noon. Gary Cooper.
“I wish I’d never seen the picture,” she said, dropping her head. Her right hand went to her temple, rubbing it. Lisa had taken her back to her bedroom to give it to her. Didn’t want Frank to see it.
“We can’t just let it lay,” Frank insisted. “I told Harper that.”
“There’ll be trouble, Frank,” Claudia said.
“And the law can handle it. It don’t have nothing to do with us,” he said. After a moment he asked, “Will you get the stove?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get the stove.”
Claudia looked out the window toward the mercury-vapor yard light down by the garage. The snow seemed to come from a point just below the light, as though it were being poured through a funnel, straight into the window, straight into her eyes. Small pellets, like birdshot. “It looks like it might be slowing down.”
“Wasn’t supposed to snow at all,” Frank said. “Assholes.”
He meant television weathermen. The weathermen said it would be clear and cold in Ojibway County, and here they were, snowing to beat the band.
“Think about letting it go.” She was pleading now. “Just think about it.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, and he turned and went back down to the basement.
He might think about it, but he wouldn’t change his mind. Claudia, turning the picture in her mind, put on a sweatshirt and walked out to the mudroom. Frank had gotten his driving gloves wet and had draped them over the furnace vent; the room smelled of heat-dried wool. She pulled on her parka and a stocking cap, picked up her gloves, turned on the porch lights from the switch inside the mudroom and stepped out into the storm.
The picture. The people might have been anybody, from Los Angeles or Miami, where they did these things. They weren’t.
They were from Lincoln County. The printing was bad and the paper was so cheap it almost crumbled in your fingers. But it was the Harper boy, all right. If you looked close, you could see the stub of the finger on the left hand, the one he’d caught in a log splitter; and you could see the loop earring. He was naked on a bed, his hips toward the camera, a dulled, wondering look on his face. He had the thickening face of an adolescent, but she could still see the shadow of a little boy she’d known, working at his father’s gas station.
In the foreground of the picture was the torso of an adult man, hairy-chested, gross. The image came too quickly to Claudia’s mind; she was familiar enough with men and their physical mechanisms, but there was something about this, something so bad . . . the boy’s eyes, caught in a flash, were black points. When she’d looked closely, it seemed that somebody at the magazine had put the pupils in with a felt-tipped pen. She shivered, not from the cold, and hurried down the snow-blown trench that led out to the garage and woodshed. There were four inches of new snow in the trench: she’d have to blow it out again in the morning.
The trench ended at the garage door. She shoved the door open, stepped inside, snapped on the lights and stomped her feet without thinking. The garage was insulated and heated with a woodstove. Four good chunks of oak would burn slowly enough, and throw off enough heat, to keep the inside temperature above the freezing point on even the coldest nights. Warm enough to start the cars, anyway. Out here, in the Chequamegon, getting the cars to start could be a matter of life and death.
The stove was still hot. Down to coals, but Frank had cleaned it out the night before—she wouldn’t have to do that, anyway. She looked back toward the door, at the woodpile. Enough for the night, but no more. She tossed a few wrist-thin splits of sap-heavy pine onto the fire, to get some flame going, then four solid chunks of oak. That would do it.
She looked at the space where the woodpile should have been, sighed, and decided she might as well bring in a few chunks now—give it a chance to thaw before morning. She went back outside, pulling the door shut, but not latched, walked along the side of the garage to the lean-to that covered the woodpile. She picked up four more chunks of oak, staggered back to the garage door, pushed the door open with her foot and dropped the oak next to the stove. One more trip, she thought; Frank could do his share tomorrow.
She went back out to the side of the garage, into the dark of the woodshed, picked up two more pieces of oak.
And felt the short hairs rise on the back of her neck.
Somebody was here with her . . .
Claudia dropped the oak splits, one gloved hand going to her throat. The woodlot was dark beyond the back of the garage. She could feel it, but not see it, could hear her heart pounding in her ears, and the snow hitting her hood with a delicate pit-put-pit. Nothing else: but still . . .
She backed away. Nothing but the snow and the blue circle of the yard light. At the snow-blown trench, she paused, straining into the dark . . . and ran. Up to the house, still with the sense of someone behind her, his hand almost there, reaching for her. She pawed at the door handle, smashed it down, hit the door with the heel of her hand, followed it into the heat and light of the mudroom.
She screamed. Frank stood there, with a paint rag, eyes wide, startled. “What?”
“My God,” she said. She pulled down the zip on the snowmobile suit, struggled with the hood snaps, her mouth working, nothing coming out until: “My God, Frank, there’s somebody out there by the garage.”
“What?” He frowned and went to the kitchen window, looked out. “Did you see him?”
“No, but I swear to God, Frank, there’s somebody out there. I could feel him,” she said, catching his arm, looking past him through the window. “Call nine-one-one.”
“I don’t see anything,” Frank said. He went through the kitchen, bent over the sink, looked out toward the yard light.
“You can’t see anything,” Claudia said. She flipped the lock on the door, then stepped into the kitchen. “Frank, I swear to God there’s somebody . . .”
“All right,” he said. He took her seriously: “I’ll go look.”
“Why don’t we call . . . ?”
“I’ll take a look,” he said again. Then: “They wouldn’t send a cop out here, in this storm. Not if you didn’t even see anybody.”
He was right. Claudia followed him into the mudroom, heard herself babbling: “I loaded up the stove, then I went around to the side to bring some wood in for tomorrow morning . . .” and she thought, I’m not like this.
Frank sat on the mudroom bench and pulled off the Tony Lamas, stepped into his snowmobile suit, sat down, pulled on his pacs, laced them, then zipped the suit and picked up his gloves. “Back in a minute,” he said. He sounded exasperated; but he knew her. She wasn’t one to panic.
“I’ll come,” she blurted.
“Nah, you wait,” he said.
“Frank: take the gun.” She hurried over to the service island, jerked open the drawer. Way at the back, a fully loaded Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum snuggled behind a divider. “Maybe it’s Harper. Maybe . . .”
“Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. He grinned at her ruefully, and he was out the door, pulling on his ski gloves.
On the stoop, the snow pecked his face, mean little hard pellets. He half-turned against it. As long as he wasn’t looking directly into the wind, the snowmobile suit kept him comfortable. But he couldn’t see much, or hear anything but the sound of the wind whistling over the nylon hood. With his head averted, he walked down the steps onto the snow-blown path to the garage. The Iceman was there, next to the woodpile, his shoulder just at the corner of the shed, his back to the wind. He’d been in the woodlot when Claudia came out. He’d tried to get to her, but he hadn’t dared use the flashlight and, in the dark, had gotten tangled in brush and had to stop. When she ran back inside, he’d almost turned away, headed back to the snowmobile. The opportunity was lost, he thought. Somehow, she’d been warned. And time was pressing. He looked at his watch. He had a half hour, no more.
But after a moment of thought, he’d methodically untangled his snowshoes and continued toward the dark hulk of the garage. He had to catch the LaCourts together, in the kitchen, where he could take care of both of them at once. They’d have guns, so he’d have to be quick.
The Iceman carried a Colt Anaconda under his arm. He’d stolen it from a man who never knew it was stolen. He’d done that a lot, in the old days. Got a lot of good stuff. The Anaconda was a treasure, every curve and notch with a function.
The corn-knife, on the other hand, was almost elegant in its crudeness. Homemade, with a rough wooden handle, it looked something like a machete, but with a thinner blade and a squared end. In the old days it had been used to chop cornstalks. The blade had been covered with a patina of surface rust, but he’d put the edge on a shop grinder and the new edge was silvery and fine and sharp enough to shave with.
The corn-knife might kill, but that wasn’t why he’d brought it. The corn-knife was simply horrifying: If he needed a threat to get the picture, if he needed to hurt the girl bad but not kill her, then the corn-knife was exactly right.
Standing atop the snow, the Iceman felt like a giant, his head reaching nearly to the eaves of the garage as he worked his way down its length. He saw Frank come to the window and peer out, and he stopped. Had Claudia seen him after all? Impossible. She’d turned away, and she’d run, but he could hardly see her, even with the garage and yard lights on her. He’d been back in the dark, wearing black. Impossible.
The Iceman was sweating from the short climb up the bank, and the struggle with the brush. He snapped the releases and pulled the bindings loose, but stayed balanced on the shoes. He’d have to be careful climbing down into the trench. He glanced at his watch. Time time time . . .
He unzipped his parka, pulled his glove and reached inside to touch the wooden stock of the Anaconda. Ready. He was turning to step into the trench when the back door opened and a shaft of light played out across the porch. The Iceman rocked back, dragging the snowshoes with his boots, into the darkness beside the woodshed, his back to the corrugated metal garage wall.
Frank was a dark silhouette in the light of the open door, then a three-dimensional figure shuffling down the snow trench out toward the garage. He had a flashlight in one hand, and played it off the side of the garage. The Iceman eased back as the light crossed the side wall of the garage, gave Frank a few seconds to get farther down the path, then peeked around the corner. Frank had gotten to the garage door, opened it. The Iceman shuffled up to the corner of the garage, the gun in his left hand, the corn-knife in his right, the cold burning his bare hands.
Frank snapped on the garage lights, stepped inside. A moment later, the lights went out again. Frank stepped out, pulled it tight behind him, rattled the knob. Stepped up the path. Shone the flashlight across the yard at the propane tank.
Took another step.
The Iceman was there. The corn-knife whipped down, chunked. Frank saw it coming, just soon enough to flinch, not soon enough to avoid it. The knife chocked through Frank’s parka and into his skull, the shock jolted through the Iceman’s arm. A familiar shock, as though he’d chopped the blade into a fence post.
The blade popped free as Frank pitched over. He was dead as he fell, but his body made a sound like a stepped-on snake, a tight exhalation, a ccccuuuhhhhh, and blood ran into the snow.
For just a second then, the wind stopped, as though nature were holding her breath. The snow seemed to pause with the wind, and something flicked across the edge of the woods, at the corner of the Iceman’s vision. Something out there . . . he was touched by an uneasiness. He watched, but there was no further movement, and the wind and snow were back as quickly as they’d gone.
The Iceman stepped down into the trench, started toward the house. Claudia’s face appeared in the window, floating out there in the storm. He stopped, sure he’d been seen: but she pressed her face closer to the window, peering out, and he realized that he was still invisible. After a moment, her face moved back away from the window. The Iceman started for the house again, climbed the porch as quietly as he could, turned the knob, pushed the door open.
“Frank?” Claudia was there, in the doorway to the kitchen. Her hand popped out of her sleeve and the Iceman saw the flash of chrome, knew the flash, reacted, brought up the big .44 Mag.
“Frank?” Claudia screamed. The .357 hung in her hand, by her side, unready, unthought-of, a worthless icon of self-defense. Then the V of the back sight and the i of the front sight crossed the plane of her head and the .44 bucked in the Iceman’s hand. He’d spent hours in the quarry doing this, swinging on targets, and he knew he had her, felt the accuracy in his bones, one with the target.
The slug hit Claudia in the forehead and the world stopped. No more Lisa, no more Frank, no more nights in the Holiday Inn with the mirrors, no memories, no regrets. Nothing. She didn’t fly back, like in the movies. She wasn’t hammered down. She simply dropped, her mouth open. The Iceman, bringing the Colt back to bear, felt a thin sense of disappointment. The big gun should batter them down, blow them up; the big gun was a Universal Force.
From the back room, then, in the silence after the shot, a young girl’s voice, not yet afraid: “Mom? Mom? What was that?”
The Iceman grabbed Claudia’s parka hood, dragged her into the kitchen and dropped her. She lay on the floor like a puppet with the strings cut. Her eyes were open, sightless. He ignored her. He was focused now on the back room. He needed the picture. He hefted the corn-knife and started back.
The girl’s voice again. A little fear this time: “Mom?”
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