BOOKS

photoMercy Falls

View the reading group guide for Mercy Falls

How It Ends

She woke naked on the bed, in a room she didn't recognize, her mind as clear of memory as the sky outside her window was of clouds.  A huge pillow that smelled faintly of lavender cradled her head.  She was too warm and drew back the covers so that she lay exposed on the white sheet like a delicacy on a china plate.

She tried to sit up, far too quickly, and the room spun.  A minute later, she tried again, this time rising gradually until she could see the whole of the great bedroom.  The bed itself was a four-poster with a canopy.  The armoire a few feet distant was the color of maple syrup and carved with ornate scrolling.  On the walls, in elegant, gilt-edged frames, hung oil paintings of Mediterranean scenes, mostly with boats and angry, blue-black seas.  The magnificent red of the Persian rug matched the thick drapes drawn back to let in the morning light.  None of this was familiar to her.  But there was one detail that struck a welcome chord, an explosion of daisies in a yellow vase on the vanity.  Daisies, she remembered, had always been her favorite flowers.

A clean, white terrycloth robe had been neatly laid out at the foot of the bed, but she ignored it.  She walked to the daisies and touched one of the blossoms.  Something about the fragility of the petals touched her in return and made her sad in a way that felt like grieving.

For whom, she wondered, trying to nudge aside the veil that, at the moment, hung between her perception and all her understanding.  Then a thought occurred to her.  The birds.  Maybe that was it.  She was grieving for all the dead birds.

Her eyes lifted to the vanity mirror.  In the reflection there, she saw the bruises on her body.  One on her left breast above her nipple, another on the inside of her right thigh, oval-shaped, both of them, looking very much like the blue ghosts of teeth marks.

As she reached down and gingerly touched the tender skin, she heard firecrackers go off outside her window, two of them.  Only two? she thought.  What kind of celebration was that?

She put on the robe, went to the door, and opened it.  Stepping out, she found herself in a long hallway with closed doors on either side, her only companions several tall standing plants that were spaced between the rooms like mute guardians.  At each end of the hall, leaded windows with beveled glass let in enough daylight to give the emptiness a sense of benign well being that she somehow knew was false.  She crept down the hallway, listening for the slightest sound, feeling the deep nap of the carpet crush under the soles of her bare feet.  At last she reached a staircase that wound to the lower level.  She followed the lazy spiral unsteadily, her hand holding to the railing for balance, leaving moist fingerprints on the polished wood that vanished a moment after her passing.

She stood at the bottom of the stairway, uncertain which way to turn.  To her right, a large room with a baby grand piano at its center, a brick fireplace, a sofa and loveseat of chocolate brown leather.  To her left, a dining room with a huge crystal chandelier and a table large enough for a banquet.  Sunlight from a long window cleft the table, and in the bright gleam sat another vase full of daisies.  Drawn by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, she moved through the dining room to the opened door of the kitchen beyond.

A carafe of orange juice sat on the counter near the sink, and next to it a glass, poured and waiting.  The smell of the coffee came from a French press coffee maker that sat on a large, butcher-block island.  An empty cup and saucer had been placed on the block, as if she were expected.   A book lay there, too, opened to a page that began, I couldn't sleep all night; a fog-horn was groaning incessantly in the Sound, and I tossed half-sick between grotesque reality and savage, frightening dreams.

The sliding glass door that overlooked the veranda was drawn back, letting in the morning air, and she walked across the cool black and white kitchen tiles to the doorway.  From there, she could see the back of the estate with its pool set into the lawn like a piece of cut turquoise.  Beyond was the blue-gray sweep of a great body of water that collided at the horizon with a cornflower sky.   Beside the pool stood a man in a yellow windbreaker with the hood pulled up.  Although she couldn't see his face, there was something familiar in his stance.  She stepped outside, not bothering to slide the door closed behind her.

It was a chilly morning.  The cold marble of the veranda made her feet ache, but she paid no attention, because something else had caught her eye.  A crimson billow staining the blue water.  She descended the steps and followed a limestone walk to the apron of the pool.

The body lay on the bottom, except for the arms, which floated free, lifted slightly as if in supplication.  The swimming trunks were white, the skin tanned.  She couldn't see the wounds, only the blood that leaked from somewhere underneath, gradually tinting the turquoise water a deep rose.

The standing man turned his head slowly, as if it was difficult, painful even, for him to look away from death.  The sun was at his back, his face shadowed, a gun in his hand.

She recognized him and the thought of what he'd just done pulled her heart out of her chest.

"Oh, Cork, no," she whispered.

When he heard his name, his hard, dark eyes grew soft.  Corcoran O'Connor stared at his wife, at her clean robe, her bare feet, her hair still mussed from a night she barely remembered.

"Jo," he said, "I came to bring you home."

 

Chapter 1

They hit the skunk just outside of town, and after that, they drove with the windows down.  It didn't help much.

"I know what you're thinking," Deputy Marsha Dross said.

"How could you know what I'm thinking?" Cork replied.

"Because it's what I'd be thinking if I were you."

"And what's that?"

"That if I'd let you drive, this wouldn't have happened."

"You're not me," Cork said.  "And that's not what I'm thinking."

"What are you thinking?"

"Just wondering if there's enough money in the budget for a new Land Cruiser."  He put his head out the window and let the air clear his nose.

The road they were traveling had been traveled before by generations of Ojibwe and Voyageurs.  It connected the Blueberry River with Iron Lake and had been an important passage in the days of the fur trade.  The French had called it Portage du Myrtille, Blueberry Portage.  To the Ojibwe, whom the white men often called Chippewa but who preferred the name Anishinnabe, which meant Original People, it was known as Maanadamon—bad trail—because it was a long portage with stretches of marsh and deep mud.  And skunks.  To the engineers who, in the mid twentieth century, had widened and graded it and laid down asphalt, it was called simply County Road 23.  They'd killed the beauty of the names, but they hadn't been able to destroy the stunning grandeur of the land through which it ran, the great Northwoods of Minnesota.

The asphalt ended at the beginning of the Iron Lake Reservation.  On the rez, the wide shoulders disappeared and the road became a narrow gravel track following a clear stream that threaded its way through vast stands of pine and rugged hills topped with birch trees and spruce.

As Dross slowed down, the skunk smell grew worse.

"Maybe I should take it through a creek or something," she suggested.

"With skunk, I think you just have to let it wear off.  Maybe we'll put this unit out to pasture for a while."  He scanned the road in front of them, looking for the turn he knew was coming up.

Autumn had started out cold that year.  The sugar maples and sumac had turned early, a deep crimson.  At sunrise, the eastern sky was often the color of an open wound and sometimes on crisp mornings the frost that lay over everything reflected the sky, and the whole land appeared to bleed.  Warm weather returned in the first week of October, and for the past few days it had felt almost like June again.

"I love Indian summer."  Marsha Dross smiled, as if hoping for a pleasant change of subject.

She was a tall woman, nearly six feet, and slender.  Her hair was coarse and brown and she kept it short.  She had a broad face, large nose.  In her uniform and without makeup—something she never wore on the job—she was sometimes mistaken for a man.  Off duty, she knew what to do with mascara and eyeliner and lip gloss.  She preferred tight dresses with high hemlines, gold jewelry, and line dancing.

"Don't you love Indian summer, Cork?"

"Know where the term ‘Indian summer' comes from?" he asked.

"No."

"A white man's phrase.  They didn't trust Indians, so when the warm days returned in late fall and it felt like summer but everyone knew it was a lie, they gave it a name they deemed appropriate."

"I didn't know."

"Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"I do love Indian summer."  He pointed to the right.  "Turn here."

"I know."

Dross pulled onto a side road even smaller and rougher than the one they'd just followed, and they slipped into the blue shadow of a high ridge where a cool darkness had settled among the pine trees.  The red-orange rays of the setting sun fell across the birches that crowned the hilltops, and the white trunks seemed consumed by a raging fire.

"I wish you had let me take the call alone," Dross said.

"As soon as you hit that skunk, so did I."  He smiled briefly.  "You know my policy."

"I responded to a lot of calls on the rez when Wally was sheriff, and Soderberg."

"I'm sheriff now.  Domestic disturbances can turn ugly, even between people as harmless as Eli and Lucy."

"Then send another deputy with me.  You don't always have to go on the rez calls."

"When you're sheriff, you can do things your way."

Life, Cork knew, was odder than a paisley duck.  Three months before he'd been a private citizen, proud proprietor of Sam's Place, a small burger joint on a lovely spot along the shore of Iron Lake.  Flipping burgers was a vocation many people probably considered only slightly less humble than, say, rounding up shopping carts in a Wal-Mart parking lot, but Cork had grown fond of his independence.  When a scandal forced the duly-elected sheriff, a man named Arne Soderberg, from office, the Board of County Commissioners had offered Cork the job.  He had the experience; he had the trust of the people of Tamarack County; and the commissioners happened to catch him in a weak moment.

Dross slowed the Land Cruiser.  "The truth is, you love going out like this."

The truth was, he did.

"There," Cork said.

It was a small, shabby cabin set against the base of the ridge, with a horseshoe of poplar trees around the back and sides.  There was an old shed to the right, just large enough for a pickup truck, but Cork knew it was so full of junk there was no way a pickup could fit.  A metal washtub sat in the yard, full of potting soil and the browning stalks of mums that had frozen days before.  A big propane tank lay like a fat, white hyphen between the cabin and the shed.  Behind the shed stood an old outhouse.

Dross parked off the road in the dirt of what passed for a drive.  "Looks deserted," she said.

The curtains were open and behind each window was deep black.

"Eli's pickup's gone," she noted.  "Maybe they patched things up and went off to celebrate."

The call had come from Lucy Tibodeau who lived with her husband Eli in the little cabin.  These two had a long history of domestic disputes that, more often than not, arose from the fact that Eli liked to drink and Lucy liked to bully.  When Eli drank, he tended to forget that he weighed one-hundred forty pounds compared to Lucy's two hundred plus.  In their altercations, it was generally Eli who took it on the chin.  They always made up and never actually brought a formal complaint against one another.  Patsy, the dispatcher, had taken the call and reported that Lucy was threatening to beat the crap out of Eli if someone didn't get out there to stop her.  Which was a little odd.  Generally, it was Eli who called asking for protection.

Cork looked at the cabin a moment, and listened to the stillness in the hollow.

"Where are the dogs?" he said.

"Dogs?" Dross replied.  Then she understood.  "Yeah."

Everybody on the rez had dogs.  Eli and Lucy had two.  They were an early warning system of sorts, barking up a storm when visitors came.  At the moment, however, everything around the Tibodeau cabin was deathly still. 

"Maybe they took the dogs with them."

"Maybe," Cork said.  "I'm going to see if Patsy's heard anything more."

Dross put on her cap and opened her door.  She stepped out, slid her baton into her belt.

Cork reached for the radio mike.  "Unit three to Dispatch.  Over."

"This is Dispatch.  Go ahead, Cork."

"Patsy, we're at the Tibodeau place.  Looks like nobody's home.  Have you had any additional word from Lucy?"

"That's a negative, Cork.  Nothing since her initial call."

 "And you're sure it came from her?"

"She ID'ed herself as Lucy Tibodeau.  Things have been quiet out there lately, so I figured we were due for a call."

Marsha Dross circled around the front of the vehicle and took a few steps toward the cabin.  In the shadow cast by the ridge, everything had taken on a somber look.  She stopped, glanced at the ground near her feet, bent and put a finger in the dirt.

 "There's blood here," she called out to Cork.  "A lot of it."

She stood up, turned to the cabin again, her hand moving toward her holster.  Then she stumbled, as if she'd been shoved from behind, and collapsed face down.  In the same instant, Cork heard the report from a rifle.

"Shots fired," he screamed into the microphone.  "Officer down."

The windshield popped and a small hole surrounded by a spider web of cracks appeared like magic in front of Cork.  The bullet chunked into the padding on the door an inch from his arm.  Cork scrambled from the Land Cruiser and crouched low against the vehicle.

Dross wasn't moving.  He could see a dark red patch that looked like a maple leaf spread over the khaki blouse of her uniform.

The reports had come from the other side of the road, from the hill to the east.  Where Cork hunkered, the Land Cruiser acted as a shield and protected him, but Dross was still vulnerable.  He sprinted to her, hooked his hands under her arms and dug his heels into the dirt, preparing to drag her to safety.  As he rocked his weight back, something stung his left ear.  A fraction of a second later came another report from the hill.  Cork kept moving, his hands never losing their grip as he hauled his fallen deputy to the cover of the Land Cruiser.

A shot slammed through the hood, clanged off the engine block, and thudded into the dirt next to the left front tire.

Cork drew his revolver and tried to think.  The shots had hit an instant before he'd heard the sound of them being fired, so the shooter was at some distance.  But was there only one?  Or were others moving in, positioning themselves for the kill?

He could hear the traffic on the radio, Patsy communicating with the other units, the units responding.  He tried to remember how many cruisers were out, where they were patrolling, and how long it would take them to reach that cabin in the middle of nowhere, but he couldn't quite put it all together.

Dross lay on her back staring up with dazed eyes.  The front of her blouse was soaked nearly black.  Cork undid the buttons and looked at the exit wound in her abdomen.  A lot of blood had leaked out, but the wound wasn't as large as he'd feared.  It was a neat, single hole, which probably meant that the bullet had maintained its shape, hadn't mushroomed as it passed through her body.  A round with a full metal jacket, Cork guessed.  Jacketed rounds were generally used in order to penetrate body armor, which Dross wasn't wearing.

Cork had choices to make and he had to make them quickly.  If he tended to Dross's wounds, he ignored the threat of an advance from the shooter—or shooters—and risked both their lives.  But if he spent time securing their position, the delay could mean his deputy's life.

He weighed the possibility of more than one assailant.  The shots had come one at a time, from a distance.  When he considered how Dross had fallen, the trajectory of the bullet that had pierced the windshield, and where the final round had hit the engine, he calculated they'd all come from approximately the same direction, from somewhere high on the hill across the road.  The shooter was above them and a little forward of their position, with a good view of the driver's side but blind to where Cork crouched.  If there'd been more than one assailant involved, a crossfire would have made the most sense, but so far that hadn't happened.

So many elements to consider.  So little time.  So much at stake.

He chose.

He holstered his revolver and leaned toward the deputy.  "Marsha, can you hear me?"

Her eyes drifted to his face, but she didn't answer.

"Hang on, kiddo, I'll be right back."

In the back of the Land Cruiser was a medical kit that contained, among other things, rolls of gauze, sterile pads, and adhesive tape.  Cork crept toward the rear of the vehicle.  If he was right about the shooter's location, he should be able to grab the medical kit without exposing himself significantly to gunfire.  If he was right.  It was a big gamble.  Dross gave a low moan.  The blood had spread across the whole of her uniform, seeped below the beltline of her trousers.  Still she looked at him and shook her head, trying to warn him against anything rash.  Cork drew a breath and moved.

He reached around the back end of the Land Cruiser, grasped the handle and swung the rear door open.  He stood exposed for only a moment as he snatched the medical kit and the blanket, then he spun away and fell to the ground just as another round punched a hole in the vehicle and drilled through the spare tire, which deflated with a prolonged hiss.  He rolled into the cover of the Land Cruiser.

While he put a compress over Dross's wounds, the radio crackled again.

"Dispatch to Unit Three.  Over."

Cork glanced up from the bloody work of his hands.  At the moment, there was no way to reach the mike.  He tore another strip of tape with his teeth.

"Unit Three, do you copy?"

He finished tending to both wounds, then turned Marsha gently, tucked the blanket underneath her along the length of her body.  He crawled to the other side, pulled the blanket under her, and wrapped her in it tightly like a cocoon.

"Unit Three, backup is on the way.  ETA is twenty minutes.  Are you still taking fire?"

Despite the blanket, Dross was shivering.  Cork knew that shock could be as deadly as the bullet itself.  In addition to keeping her warm, he had to elevate her feet.  He opened the front passenger door and wormed his arm along the floor until his hand touched a fat Thermos full of coffee he'd brought along.  He hauled the Thermos out and put it under the deputy's ankles.  It elevated her feet only a few inches, but he hoped that would be enough.

Then he turned his attention to the son of a bitch on the hill.

He drew again his .38, a Smith & Wesson Police Special that had been his father's.  It was chrome-plated with a 6" barrel and a walnut grip.  The familiar heft of it, and even the history of the weapon itself, gave him a measure of confidence.  He crawled under the Land Cruiser, grateful for the high clearance of the undercarriage, inching his way to the front tire on the driver's side.  From the shadow there, he peered up at the wooded hill across the road.  The crown still caught the last direct rays of the sun and the birch trees dripped with a color like melting brass.  After a moment, he saw a flash of reflected sunlight that could have come off the high polish of a rifle stock plate or perhaps the glass of a scope.  If it was, indeed, from the shooter, Cork's target was two hundred and fifty, maybe three hundred yards away, uphill.   He thought about the twelve gauge Remington cradled on the rack inside the Land Cruiser.  Should he make an attempt, risk getting himself killed in the process?  No, at that distance, the shotgun would be useless, and if he were hit trying for it, there'd be nothing to prevent the goddamn bastard from coming down the hill and finishing the job he'd begun.  Better to stay put and wait for backup.

But his backup, too, would come under fire.  Cork knew he had to advise them of the situation.  And that meant exposing himself one more time to the sniper.

He took aim at the place where he'd seen the flash of sunlight, which was far beyond the effective range of his .38, but he squeezed off a couple of rounds anyway to encourage the sniper to reconsider, should he be thinking about coming down.

He shoved himself backward over the cold earth and came up on all fours beside the front passenger door.  He gripped the handle and tried to take a breath, but he was so tense he could only manage a quick, shallow gasp.  He willed himself to move and flung the door open.  Lunging toward the radio unit attached to the dash, he wrapped his fingers around the mike dangling on the accordion cord and fell back just as a sniper round slammed through the passenger seatback.

"Unit Three to Unit One.  Over."

"Unit One.  Go ahead, Sheriff."

"We're still taking fire, Duane.  A single shooter, I think, up on a hill due east of our position, directly in front of the cabin.  Which way you coming from?" 

"South," Deputy Duane Pender said.

"Approach with extreme caution."

"Ten-four, Cork."

"Unit Two to Unit Three.  Over."

"I read you, Cy."

"I'm coming in from the north.  I'll be a couple of minutes behind Pender."

"Ten-four.  Listen, I want you guys coming with your sirens blasting.  Maybe we can scare this guy."

"We might lose him, Sheriff," Pender said.

"Right now our job is to get an ambulance in here for Marsha."

"Dispatch to Unit Three."

"Go ahead, Patsy."

"Ambulance estimates another twelve to fifteen minutes, Sheriff.  They want to know Marsha's situation."

"Single bullet, entry and exit wounds.  I've got compresses on both.  I've put a blanket around her and elevated her feet.  She's still losing blood."

"Ten-four.  Also, state patrol's responding.  They've got two cruisers dispatched to assist."

"I copy that.  Out."

Cork crawled toward Dross.  Her face was pale, bloodless.

"A few more minutes, Marsha.  Help's on the way."

She seemed focused on the sky above them both.  She whispered something.

"What?"  Cork leaned close.

"Star light, star bright…"

Cork lifted his eyes.  The sun had finally set and the eastern sky was turning inky.  He saw the evening star, a glowing ember caught against the rising wall of night. 

From a distance came the thin, welcome howl of a siren.

Cork looked down at his deputy and remembered what she'd said, that he loved this work.  At the moment, she couldn't have been more wrong.  Her eyes had closed.  He felt at her neck and found the pulse so faint he could barely detect it.

Then her eyes opened slowly.  Her lips moved.  Cork bent to her again.

"Next time," she whispered, "you drive."

 

© William Kent Krueger.