BOOKS

coverVermilion Drift

Prologue 

Some nights, Corcoran O’Connor dreams his father’s death.

Although the dream differs in the details, it always follows the same general pattern: His father falls from a great height.  Sometimes he stumbles backward over a precipice, his face an explosion of surprise.  Or he’s climbing a high, flat face of rock and, just as he reaches for the top, loses his grip and, in falling, appears both perplexed and angry.  Or he steps into an empty elevator shaft, expecting a floor that is not there, and looks skyward with astonishment as the darkness swallows him.

In the dream Cork is always a boy.  He’s always very near and reaches out to save his father, but his arm is too short, his hand too small.  Always, his father is lost to him, and Cork stands alone and heartbroken.

If that was all of it, if that was the end of the nightmare, it probably wouldn’t haunt him in quite the way that it does.  But the true end is a horrific vision that jars Cork awake every time.  In the dream, he relives the dream, and in that dream revisited something changes.  Not only is he near his father as the end occurs, but he also stands outside the dream watching it unfold, a distanced witness to himself and to all that unfolds.  And what he sees from that uninvolved perspective delivers a horrible shock.  For his hand, in reaching out, not only fails to save his father.  It is his small hand, in fact, that shoves him to his death.

 

Chapter 1 

That early June day began with one of the worst wounds Cork O’Connor had ever seen.  It was nearly three miles long, a mile wide, and more than five hundred feet deep.  It bled iron.

From behind the window glass of the fourth-floor conference room in the Great North Mining Company’s office complex, Cork looked down at the Ladyslipper Mine, one of the largest open-pit iron ore excavations in the world.  It was a landscape of devastation, of wide plateaus and steep terraces and broad canyons, all of it the color of coagulating blood.  He watched as far below him the jaws of an electric power shovel gobbled eighty tons of rock and spit the rubble into a dump truck the size of a house and with wheels twice as tall as a man.  The gargantuan machine crawled away up an incline that cut along the side of the pit and immediately another just like it took its place, waiting to be filled.  The work reminded him of insects feeding on the cavity of a dead body. 

At the distant end of the mine, poised at the very lip of the pit itself, stood the town of Granger.  The new town of Granger.  Thirty years earlier, Great North had moved the entire community, buildings and all, a mile south in order to take the ore from beneath the original town site.  Just outside Granger stood the immense structures of the taconite plant, where the rock was crushed and processed into iron pellets for shipping.  Clouds of steam billowed upward hundreds of feet, huge white pillars holding up the gray overcast of the sky.

Although he’d viewed the mine and the work that went on deep inside many times, the sight never ceased to amaze and sadden him.  The Ojibwe part of his thinking couldn’t help but look on the enterprise as a great injury delivered to Grandmother Earth.

“Cork.  Good.  You’re here.”

Cork turned as Max Cavanaugh closed the door.  Cavanaugh was tall and agreeable, a man who easily caught a lady’s eye.  In his early forties, he was younger than Cork by a decade.  He was almost the last of the Cavanaughs, a family whose name had been associated with mining since 1887, when Richard Frankton Cavanaugh, a railroad man from St. Paul, had founded the Great North Mining Company and had sunk one of the first shafts in Minnesota’s great Iron Range.  Cork saw Max Cavanaugh at Mass every Sunday and in winter they both played basketball for St. Agnes Catholic Church—the team was officially called the St. Agnes Saints, but all the players referred to themselves as “the old martyrs”—so they knew each other pretty well.  Cavanaugh was normally a guy with an easy smile, but not today.  Today his face was troubled, and with good reason.  One of his holdings, the Vermilion One Mine, was at the center of a controversy that threatened at any moment to break into violence. 

The two men shook hands.

“Where are the others?” Cork asked.

“They’re already headed to Vermilion One.  I wanted to talk to you alone first.  Have a seat?”

Cork took a chair at the conference table, and Cavanaugh took another.

“Do you find missing people, Cork?”

The question caught him by surprise. Cork had been expecting some discussion about Vermilion One.  But it was also a question with some sting to it, because the most important missing person case he’d ever handled had been the disappearance of his own wife and that had ended tragically.

“On occasion I’ve been hired to do just that,” he replied cautiously.

“Can you find someone for me?” 
 “I could try.  Who is it?”

The window at Cavanaugh’s back framed his face, which seemed as gray as the sky above the mine that morning.  “My sister.”

Lauren Cavanaugh.  Well known in Tamarack County for her unflagging efforts to bring artistic enlightenment to the North Country.  Two years earlier, she’d founded the Northern Lights Center for the Arts, an artists’ retreat in Aurora that had, in a very short time, acquired a national reputation. 

“I thought I read in the Sentinel that Lauren was in Chicago,” Cork said.

“She might be.  I don’t know.  Or she might be in New York or San Francisco or Paris.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Is what I tell you confidential?”

“I consider it so, Max.”

Cavanaugh folded his hands atop his reflection in the shiny tabletop.  “My sister does this sometimes.  Just takes off.  But she’s always kept in touch with me, let me know where she’s gone.”

“Not this time?”

“Not a word.”

“Nothing before she left?”

“No.  But that’s not unusual.  When she gets it into her head to go, she’s gone, just like that.”

“What about Chicago?”

He shook his head.  “A smoke screen.  I put that story out there.”

“Is her car gone?”

“Yes.”

“When did you last hear from her?”

“A week ago.  We spoke on the phone.”

“How did she sound?”

“Like she always sounds.  Like sunshine if it had a voice.”

Cork took out the little notebook and pen that he generally carried in his shirt pocket when he was working a case.  He flipped the cover and found the first empty page.

“She drives a Mercedes, right?”

“A CLK coupe, two-door. Silver-gray.”

“Do you know the license plate number?”

“No, but I can get it.”

“So can I.  Don’t bother.”

“She hasn’t charged any gas since she left.”

“How do you know?”

“I oversee all her finances.  She also hasn’t charged any hotel rooms, any meals, anything.”

“Any substantial withdrawals from her bank account before she left?” 
 “Nothing extraordinary.”

“Is it possible she’s staying with a friend?”

“I’ve checked with everyone I can think of.”

“Have you talked to the police?”

“No.  I’d rather handle this quietly.”

“You said she does this periodically.  Why?”

Cavanaugh looked at Cork, his eyes staring out of a mist of confusion.  “I don’t know exactly.  She claims she needs to get away from her life.”

As far as Cork knew, her life consisted of lots of money and lots of adulation.  What was there to run from? 
 “Is there someplace she usually goes?”

“Since she moved here, it’s generally the Twin Cities or Chicago.  In the past, it’s been New York City, Sydney, London, Buenos Aires, Rome.”

“For the museums?”

He frowned.  “Not amusing, Cork.”

“My point is what does she do there?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t ask.  Can you find her?”

“From what you’ve told me, she could be anywhere in the world.”

He shook his head.  “She left her passport.”

“Well, that narrows it down to a couple of million square miles here in the U.S.”

“I don’t need your sarcasm, Cork.  I need your help.”

“Does she have a cell phone?”

“Of course.  I’ve been calling her number since she left.”

“We can get her cell phone records, see if she’s called anyone or taken calls from anyone.  Did she pack a suitcase?”

“No, but sometimes when she takes off, she just goes and buys whatever she needs along the way.”

“According to her credit card records, not this time?”

“Not this time.”

“Does she use a computer?  Have an e-mail account?”

“Yes.”

“Any way to check her e-mails?”

“I already have.  There’s been no activity since last Sunday, and nothing in the communication before that that seems relevant.”

“Is it possible she has an account you don’t know about?”

“It’s possible but not probable.”

“How did you manage to get her e-mail password?”

“We’re close,” he said, and left it at that.

“Look, Max, there’s something I need to say.”

“Say it.”

“I have two grown daughters and a teenage son.  It strikes me that I have less control, less access to their private lives than you have with your sister.  Frankly, it seems odd.”

Cavanaugh stared at him.  His eyes were the hard green-brown of turtle shells.  Cork waited. 

“My sister is flamboyant,” Cavanaugh finally said.  “She inspires.  She walks into a room and the place becomes electric, brighter and more exciting.  People fall in love with her easily, and they’ll follow her anywhere.  In this way, she’s charmed.  But she has no concept of how to handle money.  The truth is that financially she’s a walking disaster.  Consequently, for most of her life, I’ve overseen her finances.  It hasn’t been easy.  There have been issues.”

“Recently?”

He hesitated.  “This arts center of hers.  She gifted it significantly from her own resources—our resources.  The idea was that other avenues of financing would then be found.  They haven’t materialized.  I’ve been bleeding money into this project for some time now.”

“Do you have the ability to bleed?”

“There’s plenty of money.  That’s not the point.”

“The point is her unreliability?”

He considered Cork’s question, as if searching for a better answer, then reluctantly nodded.

“One more question.  Has your sister received any threats related to the situation at Vermilion One?”

“No.  She’s not associated with this at all.  The mine is my business.”

  “All right.”  Cork quoted his usual daily rate, then added, “A five-thousand-dollar bonus if I find her.”

“I don’t care what it takes.  Will this interfere with your investigation of the mine threats?”

“I’m sure I can handle them both.  I’ll prepare the paperwork.  Will you be around this afternoon?”

“I have a meeting until four, but I’ll be at my home this evening.”

Cork said, “I’ll drop by.  Say around six?”

“Thanks, Cork.  But I’m hoping you’ll begin this investigation immediately.”

“I’m already on the clock.”

 

© William Kent Krueger.