Christopher Hawk drove west on Highway 7 into the emptiness of rural Minnesota, leaving civilization behind him with each mile away from the city. Staring at the horizon between his windshield wipers, he could have sworn the world was flat, and he hoped there was a sign ahead to warn him before he sped off the edge of the earth. Long, empty miles loomed between towns. There were no buildings, other than the occasional desolate farm. He drove beside endless fields ruled by King Corn, but it was too early for planting season, and the land resembled a rutted moonscape. He didn’t feel welcome.
The weather made it worse. March was going out like a lamb, freakishly warm and wet. It had started raining almost as soon as he cleared the western edge of I-494, and the dreary spattering had continued nonstop for nearly two hours and a hundred miles. He passed swollen drainage ditches where the water looked ready to spill across the lanes of the highway. The bumpy gray clouds were like a thick hood thrown over his head.
An amateur billboard mounted in the midst of farmland caught his eye. The message had been painted in bold black letters on a plain white background. It said:
I AM COMING SOON. ARE YOU READY?
The message was signed, "Jesus."
Chris didn’t think he belonged in a place where God felt the need to advertise. Even so, when he asked himself if he was ready, the answer was easy. No. He wasn’t ready at all. He was nervous about this journey, because he was on his way back into the lives of two strangers.
The first was his ex-wife. The second was his daughter.
That morning, Hannah had called at six o’clock, waking him up. He hadn’t spoken to her in months, but he could see her face as clearly as if she’d been sleeping beside him. There were still days when he reached for her in bed, hoping to take her hand, hoping to fold her against his body. He still had dreams where the three of them lived together as a family. Chris. Hannah. Olivia.
She didn’t give him a chance to dream.
"Our daughter has been arrested for murder," she announced.
Just like that. No small talk. Hannah never wasted time. She had a way of cutting to the chase, whether it was in college when he wanted to sleep with her (she said yes), or three years ago when she wanted a divorce (he said no, but that didn’t change her mind).
Chris didn’t ask for details about the crime she had supposedly committed. He didn’t want to know the victim’s name, or what happened, or hear Hannah reassure him that she was really innocent. For him, that wasn’t even a question. His daughter didn’t do it. Not Olivia. The girl who texted and tweeted him every day – Send me a pic of a Dunn Bros latte, Dad. I miss it. – was not a murderer.
"I’ll be there this afternoon," he replied.
The silence on the phone told him that his answer surprised her. Finally, Hannah said, "She needs a lawyer, Chris."
"I’m a lawyer."
"You know what I mean. A criminal lawyer."
"All lawyers are criminals."
It was an old joke between them, but Hannah didn’t laugh. "Chris, this is serious. I’m scared."
"I know you are, but this is obviously a misunderstanding. I’ll straighten it out with the police."
Her hesitation felt like a punch to the gut. "I’m not so sure that’s all it is," she said. She was silent again, and then she added, "It’s ugly. Olivia’s in trouble."
Hannah sketched out the facts for him, and he realized that she was right. It was ugly. In the early hours of Saturday morning, a pretty teenage girl had been shot to death, and Olivia had been at the scene, drunk, desperate, pointing a gun at the girl’s head. It hadn’t taken long – it was Tuesday now – for the police to conclude that his daughter was guilty.
"What did Olivia tell you?" he asked. "What happened between them?"
"She won’t talk to me. She said I should call you."
"Okay, tell her I’ll be there soon."
Hannah didn’t protest further. "Fine. You’re right, she needs you. Just remember that you don’t know this girl, Chris. Not anymore."
"We talk all the time."
"That’s not the same thing. Believe me. You see the girl she wants you to see."
As his ex-wife hung up, he’d wondered if that were true.
A lifetime had passed – three years – since Hannah left him to go back to the small farm town called St. Croix where she’d been raised. He saw his daughter every few months, but to him she would always be a girl, not a woman. He didn’t know anything about the mix-up of emotions a teenager faced. She hadn’t said a word to him about what was in her head. She talked about meaningless things. Easy things. He should have realized there was much more to her than a girl who missed her father.
It didn’t change what he had to do. Olivia needed him, and he had to go.
Now, hours later, he was deep in the western farmlands of Minnesota, with the rain coming down, with Jesus on a billboard asking if he was ready. It could have been Antarctica; it could have been Mars. Every mile here looked like the next. This part of the world wasterra incognita to him. He was a creature of the noise, asphalt, and people of downtown Minneapolis. He owned a two-bedroom condominium near Loring Park, which he used mostly to sleep. He didn’t cook, so he ate fish and chips and drank Guinness at The Local and ordered take-out pho from Quang. He spent his days and nights negotiating contracts for industrial parks and strip malls. Steel and concrete – those were things that were real, things he could touch and measure.
In the city, he was an insider. Not here. Out here, he was an alien.
Ahead of him, through the sheets of rain, Chris saw a highway sign for the Spirit Dam. The town of Barron, where Olivia was being held in the county jail, was on the river side of the dam, three miles to the south. He drove his decade-old silver Lexus onto the roadway, but he stopped in the middle of the bridge. For some reason, he found himself hesitating. He got out of the car and shut the door behind him. Rain lashed across his face, and he squinted. He didn’t care about getting wet.
Chris looked down at the wild water squeezing into whirlpools through a dozen sluice gates. Downstream, the Spirit River settled into a mucky brown calm as it wound toward Barron, feeding a web of narrow streams, including one that flowed behind Hannah’s house in the tiny town of St. Croix a few miles to the southeast. On the north side of the dam, the water sprawled like a vast octopus into miles of man-made lake. The river pushed toward the valley, and the dam pushed back and said,Stop. That was exactly what he had to do. That was his mission. Olivia was in the path of a flood, and he had to stop it.
Still, Chris lingered on the bridge, staring at the water.
He was a tall man, almost exactly six feet. At forty-one, his hair was still thick and brown, without any gray to remind him of his age. He wore contacts over his dark eyes; years of poring over realestate contracts had killed his eyesight. Since the divorce, he’d had no excuse for avoiding the gym. He’d dropped twenty pounds and added several inches of muscle to his chest. He looked good; the various women who chased him told him that. It wasn’t just his lawyer’s wallet that attracted them. Even so, he hadn’t agreed to a date in seven months, hadn’t had sex in over a year. He told himself that it was his busy schedule, but the truth was more complicated.
The truth was Hannah. He’d never stopped loving her. Her voice on the phone was enough to awaken the old feelings. She was what was holding him back.
Ready or not, Chris drove across the dam and turned south toward Barron. The river followed the highway, winking in and out behind trees that grew on the shore. Houses appeared. A school bus pulled in front of him. The city sign advertised the population: 5,383. Out here, that was a metropolis, a hub for the whole county. As he neared the town, he felt as if he had crossed back into the 1950s, as if decades of progress had hopscotched over this section of land. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe this place would not be as intimidating as it seemed.
Life in the city was fast and complex; life in the country was slower and simpler.
A mile later, he realized that he was wrong.
On the outskirts of Barron, he passed an agribusiness facility built on the western bank of the river. It was one-story, white, clean, and almost windowless. The plant looked more like a prison than an industrial site, because it was protected by a nine-foot fence wound with coils of barbed wire to keep intruders from reaching the interior grounds. The single narrow gate in the fence, just wide enough for trucks to pass, was guarded by two uniformed security officers who were both armed with handguns. As he drove by the plant slowly, he noticed their eyes following him with suspicion.
He noticed something else, too. Outside the fence, he saw a dramatic marble sign ten feet in height, featuring the company name in brass letters. Mondamin Research. Its logo was a golden ear of corn inside a multi-colored helix strand of DNA. Two workers in yellow slickers labored in the rain to sandblast graffiti that had been spray-painted in streaky letters across the white stone.Despite their efforts, he could still see what had been written.
The graffiti said: You’re killing us.
Brian Freeman is an internationally bestselling author of psychological suspense novels. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 20 languages.