Dead of Winter
Our Noir Publishing
It was just a dull thud, a sound that drifted down to him as he lay in the deepest fathoms of his sleep. He struggled up to the surface and opened his eyes with a start. Darkness, and then emerging from the shadows, a bulky form and a glint of light. He let out a breath. Just the oak bureau, and his badge laying on top.
The sound had probably come from his dream, and the thought made him relax back into the pillows. But his ears remained alert for foreign sounds amid all the familiar groans and squeaks of the house.
He glanced over at Stephanie, snoring softly by his side. She always kidded him about his excellent hearing. "Tommy, baby, you can hear the snow falling," she laughed. Hell, sometimes he thought so, too. He pulled the quilt up over his wife's shoulder and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
He rose, shivering in the cold air, and went to the window. He pulled back the drape. Sure enough, it was snowing. Already covered the yard, leaving pillows of meringue on the kids' swing set. He gazed at the softly falling snow. First big snowfall of the season. It was beautiful.
His eyes narrowed. There was a truck parked across the street, a few houses down, in front of the McCabe house. The headlights were off but he could see the tail of smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. He squinted, trying to remember if he'd seen it before. It looked to be /pown, although it was so dirty he couldn't really tell. He felt his body tense slightly, that involuntary response to an unknown situation.
It was probably nothing. Maybe someone visiting the McCabes. But except for the Christmas lights around the front door, the McCabe house was dark. He squinted to see who was in the car and thought he picked out two forms. Shoot, it was probably that crazy teenager Lisa, necking with some boy just to make her old man mad.
He glanced back at the clock on the bureau. Three ten. Late for a Sunday night, even for Lisa.
He shivered, and he knew it wasn't from the cold. It was his body sending out its old signals, that familiar release of adrenalin.
Stephanie gave out a soft moan and he looked back at her. It occurred to him, as he watched her, that he should have told her what was going on. He had never held things back from her before and he shouldn't have now. But she was so happy in this place and he hadn't wanted to give her a reason to worry. This isn't like Flint, he had told her not long after they had arrived, they don't hurt cops in a place like this.
He hadn't really wanted to leave his old job, especially to work in this speck of a town in the Michigan woods. But the bullet he had taken in the shoulder by that crack-crazed kid had been the last straw. We're safe here, baby, he told her, we're safe here.
He moved silently to the closet. He ran his hand along the top shelf until it found the cold metal of his service weapon, a .357 Colt Python. He checked the cylinder and, with a glance back at Stephanie, tiptoed out of the bedroom.
The gun was cold; he could feel it against his thigh through the thin cotton of his pajamas as he crept down the hall. Outside the kids' room, he paused. The baby had colic and it occurred to him that it might have been just his restless thump that he had heard. He strained his ears in the darkness. Nothing.
Downstairs in the foyer, the white tile floor shimmered with a kaleidoscope of color, created by the Christmas lights outside, refracted through the leaded-glass panel of the front door. He stopped. No sound. Had the truck left? He looked out the small window in the door but couldn't see it.
He let out a sigh of relief and turned away from the door.
A soft tap. Someone knocking. He drew back the small curtain and looked out at the face in the shadows outside.
A sharp, snapping sound.
His heart slammed up against his sternum, then froze.
It was a sound he had heard before. Too many times before.
The pump of a shot gun.
Dear God Almighty...
Glass exploded over, around and into him. He was hurled back against the staircase. His fingers groped for the spindles but he could not move. He couldn't feel his legs. He couldn't feel anything. Except, except....except a horrible pumping. His blood pumping out the black hole in his chest.
Oh Jesus, help me. Stephanie...
Then he felt nothing.
The colored lights danced over the white tile, turning the shards of glass into gaudy jewels. Snowflakes swirled in through the gaping hole in the glass window of the door, dying as they hit the warm blood. A Christmas wreath lay across his legs, its sound-activated battery pack sending out a tinny rendition of Silent Night.
A scream came from upstairs.
The man holding the shotgun looked up the staircase and then reached into his jacket and withdrew a blue-backed playing card. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed it through the hole in the glass. It spun to the floor, settling on the white tile near the body.
"Merry fucking Christmas, Officer Pryce," he said.
It was a lousy day for a drive. Smog-stained sleet left dirty streaks on the windshield. Slick patches of ice sent the tires spinning for grip. It seemed to take forever for the gray Detroit skyline to disappear in the rear-view mirror.
The bad weather followed him as he drove up I-75, past the sooty factories in Flint and the sodden corn fields outside Saginaw. Somewhere north of a town called Standish, the temperature dropped and the sleet turned to snow. Now it was coming down hard, flakes so big he could make out their lacy patterns on the windshield before the wipers slapped them away.
Louis Kincaid followed a snowplow into a town called Rose City and pulled into a gas station. As he waited for the old man to fill the tank, he unfolded the wrinkled map. It couldn't be far now, maybe twenty-five miles.
"That's eleven fifty," the old man said, holding out a mittened hand. "Check your oil?"
Louis nodded. "Yeah, guess you better. Got a small leak."
The man eyed the scarred white sixty-five Mustang. "That ain't your only problem," he said. "That back right tire's bald."
Louis nodded grimly and the man trudged to the front and popped the hood. As he watched the man pull the dipstick, he thought of Phillip Lawrence's warning that morning. Take my truck, Louis, that Mustang will never make it. It looked like his foster father was right again, which bothered him. And it bothered him that it bothered him.
"It took a quart. You're gonna need another soon though."
"Thanks." He handled the old man some bills. "How far to Loon Lake?"
"Oh, 'bout thirty miles." His snow-encrusted brows knitted together. "You going up there for some ice fishing?"
"Nope. For a job."
The man nodded and handed back the change. "Well, good luck to you. Pretty place, Loon Lake."
"So I've heard."
As he pulled back onto the highway, Louis shook his head and smiled. It was obvious the old man had been trying his damndest to figure out what business a young black man in a beat-up convertible had in Loon Lake. Phillip had warned him it would be like that. I just don't think you'll like it there, Louis. It's a resort town, where rich white men from Chicago build hunting lodges so they have a place to get away.
Louis reached down and turned the heater up to its highest setting. It answered with a cough and a sudden blast of cold air.
He banged a fist on the dash, then switched the dead heater off.
A place to get away. That didn't sound so bad. It wasn't like he had such a great life back in Detroit. A roach-filled efficiency. And no job.
He shook his head, thinking back over the events of the last couple of months. Stupid. Had he really expected to walk back into the station and get his old job back after being gone for a year? It had been official, his leave of absence, but by the time he got back to Ann Arbor, there were cutbacks on the force. Last one in, first one out. Jesus, tough luck, Louis, you're a good cop but you know how these budget things are, but if you need a recommendation...
He saw the classified ad in the Free Press the same day. It was slipped in between the computer programmers and fast food managers.
Police Officer. Loon Lake, Mich. Must be MLEOTC.$22,000. Physical/drug test required. Application deadline Dec. 18., 5 p.m.
Come back home, Louis, Phillip Lawrence had said. Just until you get your feet back on the ground. We're worried about you. Loon Lake isn't the answer.
The snow was starting to let up some. Louis glanced at his watch. It was four-thirty.
He straightened against the cold vinyl seat, his teeth chattering. A green reflector sign caught the headlights. Welcome to Loon Lake, Gateway to the Winter Wonderland.
The pines parted, opening onto a two-lane residential street, cast in the soft glow of old-style street lamps. Neat frame houses lined the street, with swings on the porches, smoke curling from their chimneys and snowmen standing guard in the yards. In the dusk, ruddy-faced men shoveled their driveways. Louis drove past a red brick school. Kids were sliding down a hill on cafeteria trays, chased by a barking golden retriever.
Louis continued down Main Street. There were garlands of lights festooned across the street and big plastic candy canes fastened to each streetlight. The stores windows were filled with signs announcing Christmas sales. Women stood in knots on the snowy sidewalks holding babies and packages.
"Christ," Louis muttered. "It's Bedford fucking Falls."
A sign for the police station lay ahead. The station was nearly obscured by pines and evergreens. Louis swung into the small lot and cut the engine. The building was made of logs, like a ranger station. A smoking chimney reached into the gray sky and two bare maples formed a spindly tunnel over the sidewalk.
Louis got out of the car, stretching his stiff body. He was struck by the smell of the airpine and smoke. He bent and checked his tie in the side view mirror. He had spent almost eight hours on the road. His trousers were wrinkled and he felt dirty. What a way to appear for a job interview.
Louis stepped into the station, the heat from a ceiling vent raining down on him. The interior was paneled in a coffee-colored wood and a brick fireplace in the back crackled with a healthy fire. A polished pine counter and a long, gleaming railing separated the work area from where he stood, set off by a small gate. On his left was a door marked Chief of Police.
Louis walked to the counter, glancing down hungrily at a large tray of Christmas cookies. An officer sat at the rear desk, his blonde head bent over a report. Louis cleared his throat.
The young man looked up and smiled. He stacked his papers neatly, positioning them exactly parallel to the edge of the desk and rose, coming toward the counter.
"Hello. What can I help you with?" The smile was genuine. He had pearly, straight teeth and closely cut hair. His skin was flawless and pink, and combined with the powder blue police shirt, he looked like a baby shower gift. His silver name plate said Dale McGuire.
"I saw the ad in the paper," Louis said.
The officer's eyes moved over Louis's dark blue suit and he reached under the counter and produced an application and several other papers. He slid the stack across the counter. Louis moved the tray of cookies and turned the papers so he could read them.
"You have to do the app here. Chief wants to make sure you can read and write," the young officer said.
Louis nodded, reaching for his pen. "Have you had many applicants?"
"A few but you're the last. Chief says deadline is five, he means five."
Louis glanced back at the empty chairs, debating whether to take a seat. His eye was drawn to a photograph on the wall. The photograph had a small black ribbon across the top left hand corner. The handsome black officer in the photo was named Thomas Pryce. The plate beneath the photo said: In Memorium, June 12, 1952-December 1, 1984. Two weeks ago.
Louis turned back to see Dale McGuire staring at him.
"Is there something wrong?" Louis asked.
Dale smiled. "No, nothing. Would you like a cookie?"
Louis smiled and nodded. Dale pulled off the Saran wrap and Louis took a red Christmas tree. He munched on it as he filled out the application.
"L-17 to Central. We're back in service."
The sound of the officer's voice on the radio drew Louis's attention to the dispatch desk in the corner. The dispatcher was a walrus of a woman with a jet-black bouffant and Fifties-style cat-eye glasses. With a sigh, she lowered her paperback and keyed her microphone.
"Ten-4, seventeen. I have a message for you. Your wife requests you stop and pick up egg nog on the way home."
A voice came back, slightly chagrined. "Ten-4, Central."
More calls trickled in, and Louis listened as he filled out the application. A lost dog. An officer stating he was checking on an elderly woman who lived alone. Another requesting jumper cables for a stranded motorist. It was unreal. All his adult life, he had set his sights on Detroit and the challenge of working for a big city department with plenty of action. But here he was. What the hell did this town even need cops for?
Still, there was something about this place. Something in the air, something...sweet and clean, more than just pine and gingerbread. He had felt it the moment he drove into town. He remembered something Frances Lawrence, his foster mother, once said, something about people having places on earth where their souls felt comfortable, places where, as soon as you set foot in them, you felt at home. He had never felt that special pull to any one place.
"You know," Dale said, interrupting his thoughts, "The chief hasn't found anyone he liked yet. When you get done with that, he'll want to see you."
See him? Now?
"He's anxious to fill the job. Doesn't like working short-handed," Dale added.
Louis glanced at the chief's closed door. He saw his cold, ugly apartment back in Detroit and felt the sting of lonely and boring nights.
God, he wanted this job. He wanted it bad.
© P.J. Parrish