On a frozen January night, a young man loops one end of a long rope over the branch of a tree. The other end he ties around his neck. A snowmobiler will find him thirty-six hours later, his lifeless eyes staring out at the endless cold water of Lake Superior. It happens in a lonely corner of the Upper Peninsula, in a place they call Misery Bay.
Alex McKnight does not know this young man, and he won’t even hear about the suicide until another cold night, two months later and 250 miles away, when the door to the Glasgow Inn opens and the last person Alex would ever expect to see comes walking in to ask for his help.
What seems like a simple quest to find a few answers will turn into a nightmare of sudden violence and bloody revenge, and a race against time to catch a ruthless killer. McKnight knows all about evil, of course, having faced down a madman who killed his partner and left a bullet next to his heart. Mobsters, drug dealers, hit men—he’s seen them all, and they’ve taken away almost everything he’s ever loved. But none of them could have ever prepared him for the darkness he’s about to face.
It is the third night of January, two hours past midnight, and everyone is in bed except this man. He is young and there’s no earthly reason for him to be here on this shoreline piled with snow with a freezing wind coming in off of Lake Superior, the air so cold here in this lonely place, cold enough to burn a man’s skin until he becomes numb and can no longer feel anything at all.
But he is here in this abandoned dead end near the water’s edge, twenty-six miles from his home near the college. Twenty-six miles from his warm bed. He is outside his car, with the driver’s side door still open and the only light the glow of the dashboard. The headlights are off. The engine is still running.
He is facing the lake, the endless expanse of water. It is not frozen because a small river feeds into the lake here and the motion is enough to keep the ice from forming. A miracle in itself, because otherwise this place feels like the coldest place in the whole world.
The rope is tight around his neck. He swings only slightly in the wind from the lake. The snow will come soon and it will cover the ground along with the car and the crown of his lifeless head.
He will hang here from the branch of this tree for almost thirty-six hours, until his car runs out of gas and the battery dies and his face turns blue from the cold. A man on a snowmobile will finally see him through the trees. He’ll make a call on his cell phone and an hour later two deputies will arrive on the scene and the young man will be lowered to the ground.
On that night, I know nothing of this young man or this young man’s death. Or what may have led him to tie that noose and to slip it around his neck. I am not there to see it, God knows, and I won’t even hear of it until three months later. I live on the shores of the same lake but it would take me five hours to find this place they call Misery Bay. Five hours of driving down empty roads with a good map to find a part of the lake I’d never even heard of.
That’s how big this lake is.
“It’s not the biggest lake in the world. You guys do know that, right?”
The man was wearing a pink snowmobile suit. He didn’t sound like he was from downstate Michigan. Probably Chicago, or one of the rich suburbs just outside of Chicago. The snowmobile suit probably set him back at least five hundred dollars, one of those space-age polymer waterproof-but-breathable suits you find in a catalog, and I’m sure the color was listed as “coral” or “shrimp” or “sea foam” or some such thing. But to me it was as pink as a girl’s nursery.
“I mean, I don’t want to be a jerk about it and all, but that’s all I hear up here. How goddamned big Lake Superior is and how it’s the biggest, deepest lake in the world. You guys know it’s not, right? That’s all I’m saying.”
Jackie stopped wiping the glass he was holding. Jackie Connery, the owner of the place, looking and sounding for all time like he just stepped red-faced off a fishing boat from the Outer Hebrides, even if he’d been living here in the Upper Peninsula for over forty years now. Jackie Connery, the man who still drove across the bridge once a week to buy me the real thing, Molson Canadian, brewed in Canada. Not the crap they bottle here in the States and criminally try to pass off as the same thing.
Jackie Connery, the man who wasn’t born here, who didn’t grow up here. The man who still couldn’t cope with the long winters, even after forty years. The one man you did not want to poke with a sharp stick in January or February or March. Or any kind of stick, sharp or dull. Not until the sun came out and he could at least imitate a normal human being again.
“What’s that you’re saying now?” He was looking at the man in the pink snowmobile suit with a Popeye squint in his right eye. The poor man had no idea what that look meant.
“I’m just saying, you know, to set the record straight. Lake Superior is not the biggest lake in the world. Or the deepest.”
Jackie put the glass down and stepped forward. “So which particular lake, pray tell, are you going to suggest is bigger?”
The man leaned back on his stool, maybe two inches.
“Well, technically, that would be the Caspian Sea.”
“I thought we were talking about lakes.”
“Technically speaking. That’s what I’m saying. The Caspian Sea is technically a lake and not a sea.”
“And it’s bigger than Lake Superior.”
“Yes,” the man said. “Definitely.”
“The water in the Caspian Sea,” Jackie said, “is it saltwater or fresh?”
The man swallowed. “It’s saltwater.”
“Okay, then. If it’s technically a lake, then it’s the biggest, deepest saltwater lake in the world. Apples and oranges, am I right? Can we agree on that much?”
Jackie turned, and the man should have let it go. But he didn’t.
“Well, actually, no.”
“Lake Baikal,” the man said. “In Russia. That’s fresh water. And it’s way deeper than Lake Superior.”
“In Russia, you said? Is that where it is?”
“Lake Baikal, yes. I don’t know if it has a bigger surface area, but I know it’s got a lot more water in it. Like twice as much as Lake Superior. So really, in that respect, it’s twice as big.”
Jackie nodded his head, like this was actually an interesting fact he had just learned instead of the most ridiculous statement ever uttered by a human being. It would have been like somebody telling him that Mexico is actually more Scottish than Scotland.
I was sitting by the fireplace, of course. On a cold morning on the last day of March, after cutting some wood and touching up the road with my plow, where else would I be? But either way I was close enough to hear the whole exchange, and right about then I was hoping we’d all find a way to end it peacefully.
The man in the pink snowmobile suit started fishing for his wallet. Jackie raised a hand to stop him.
“Don’t even bother, sir. Your money’s no good here.”
The man looked over at me this time, as if I could actually help him.
“A man as smart as you,” Jackie said, “it’ll be my honor to buy you a drink.”
“Well, okay, but come on, don’t you—”
“Are you riding today?”
“Uh, yeah,” the man said, looking down at his suit. Like what the hell else would he be doing?
“Silly me. Of course you are. So why don’t you head back on out there while we still have some snow left.”
“It is pretty light this year. Must be global warming or something.”
“Global warming, now. So you mean like our winter might last ten months instead of eleven? Is that the idea? You’re like a walking library of knowledge, I swear.”
“Listen, is there a problem here? Because I don’t—”
“No, no,” Jackie said. “No problem. You go on out and enjoy your ride. In fact, you know what? I hear they’ve got a lot more snow in Russia this year. Up by that real big lake. What was it called again?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Lake Baikal,” I said.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Alex.”
“Just trying to help.”
“I’m leaving,” the man said, already halfway to the door. “And I won’t be back.”
“When you get to that lake, do me a favor, huh? I’m still not convinced it’s deeper, so can you drive your snowmobile and let it sink to the bottom with you still on it? You think you could do that? I’d really appreciate it.”
The man slammed the door behind him. Another drinking man turned away for life, not that he’d have any other place to go in Paradise, Michigan. Jackie picked up his towel and threw it at me. I ignored him and turned back to the fire.
They have long, long winters up here. Did I mention that yet? By the time the end of March drags around, everyone’s just a few degrees past crazy. Not just Jackie.
The sun was trying to come out as I was driving back up my road. It was an old unpaved logging road, with banks of snow lingering on either side. When the snow started to melt, the road would turn to mud and I’d have a whole new set of problems to deal with. By the time it dried out, it would be time for black fly season.
I passed Vinnie’s cabin first. Vinnie “Red Sky” LeBlanc, my only neighbor and maybe my only true friend. Meaning the one person who truly understood me, who never wanted anything from me, and who never tried to change me.
I passed by the first cabin, the one my father and I had built a million years ago—before I went off to play baseball and then become a cop—then the next four cabins, each bigger than the one before it, until I got to the end of the road. There stood the biggest cabin of all, looking almost as good as the original. I’d been rebuilding it for the past year, starting with just the fireplace and chimney my father had built stone by stone. Now it was almost done. Now it was almost as good as it was before somebody burned it down.
I parked the truck and went inside. Vinnie was already there, on his hands and knees in the corner of the kitchen, once again working harder and longer than I ever did myself, making me feel like my debt to him was more than I could ever repay.
“What are you ruining now?” I said to him.
“I’m fixing the trim you put down on this floor.” He was in jeans and a white T-shirt, his denim jacket hanging on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. He had a long strip of quarter round molding in his hand, the very same strip I had just tacked down the day before.
“You’re ripping it up? How is that fixing it?”
“You used the wrong size trim. You need to start over.”
“It’s not the wrong size. Damn it, Vinnie, is it any wonder it’s taking me forever to finish this place? You wanna rip the ceiling off, too?”
“You got a good half-inch gap here,” he said, pointing to the gap between the floor and the lowest log on the wall.
“That’s a quarter inch.”
“Here it might be, but over on the other side of the room it gets wider. You have to measure the gap at its longest before you go out and buy your trim.”
“Vinnie, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I told you, you bought the wrong size. And as long as you’re buying new molding, get something with a little more style, too. Quarter round is boring.”
“Nobody’s going to notice it. It’s on the floor, for God’s sake.”
He turned away from me, shaking his head. He grabbed another length of molding and ripped it up like he was pulling weeds.
“Something’s eating at you,” I said. “I can tell.”
“I’m fine. I just wish you’d do things right for a change.”
First Jackie and now Vinnie. Such a parade of cheerful people in my life. I was truly a lucky man.
“It’s actually trying to get nice outside,” I said. “We might even have some sunlight soon. Will that make you feel better?”
He didn’t look up. “You know one thing that bothers me?”
“How long have you been living in this cabin?”
“Ever since I’ve been working on it. It just makes things easier.”
“I think you’re done now, Alex. You’ve got the floor down. You’ve got the woodstove working. As soon as I redo your trim, this place will be ready to rent out again.”
“It’s been a bad winter for the snowmobile people. You know that.”
“You could have this place rented right now. It’s your biggest cabin. You’re just wasting money.”
“Since when are you my accountant?”
He stopped what he was doing and sat still on the floor. He finally turned to look at me. “You need to move back into your cabin. You can’t keep avoiding it.”
“I will.” It was my turn to look away. “As soon as I’m done here.”
Vinnie didn’t say anything else. I got down on my knees and helped him tear up the remaining strips of floor molding. An hour later I was on my way to Sault Ste. Marie to buy the new strips, five eighths instead of half inch, cloverleaf instead of quarter round. As I passed that first cabin, I made a point of not even looking at it.
That was how the day went. That last day in March. It started with breakfast at the Glasgow Inn and ended with dinner in the same place. It was like most every other day in Paradise. Vinnie had helped me finish the baseboard trim, then he’d gone over to the rez to sit with his mother for a while. She’d not been feeling like herself lately. Maybe just one more person who was tired of winter. I was hoping that was it, that she’d feel better once the sun came back. That we’d all feel better.
Vinnie gave me a nod as he came through the door. Back from the rez, then a shift at the casino dealing blackjack, stopping in now because that’s what you do around here. Every night. Jackie was watching hockey on the television mounted above the bar. Vinnie went over and stood behind him, just like I had told him to do.
“Hey, Jackie,” he said, “I heard something interesting today.”
“What’s that, Vin?”
“Did you know Lake Superior isn’t really the biggest lake in the world? Or the deepest?”
Jackie turned and glared at me.
“I’ll throw you right out on your ass,” he said. “I swear to God I will.”
Finally, something to smile about, on a cold, cold night. I looked back into the fire and watched the flames dance. My last hour of peace until everything would change.
We’re not supposed to believe in evil anymore, right? It’s all about abnormal behavior now. Maladjustment, overcompensation, or my favorite, the antisocial personality disorder. Fancy words I was just starting to hear in that last year on the force, before I looked into the eyes of a madman as he pulled that trigger without even blinking.
In a way, I’ve never gotten past it. I’m still lying on that floor, watching the light in Franklin’s eyes slowly going out. My partner, the man I was supposed to protect at all costs. Later, in the hospital, they pulled two slugs from my body and left the one that was too close to my heart to touch. It’s been with me ever since, a constant reminder of the evil I saw that night, all those years ago on a warm summer evening in Detroit. You’d never convince me otherwise. No, I’d seen evil as deep as it could ever get.
But like Jackie and his beloved lake, you’d never know there was something deeper out there until somebody came to you and told you about it. A deeper lake. A lake you’ve never seen before. Even then, you might not believe it. Not unless he took you there and showed it to you.
It was about to happen. Minutes away, then seconds. Then the door opened and the cold air blew in and the last person I expected to see that night stepped inside, carrying a big problem and looking for my help.
Chief Roy Maven stood in the doorway of the Glasgow Inn. He was out of uniform, but everything else about him—his clean-shaven face, his buzz cut, his hard eyes, his body language—gave him away as a lifelong cop. He blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the light, did a scan around the room, taking it all in. He finally saw me sitting by the fire and came over.
“Chief Maven,” I said. “What the hell?”
“McKnight. Can I sit down?”
I nodded to the chair across from me, another overstuffed leather armchair angled toward the fire— just one more reason why a Scottish pub is a thousand percent better than your average American bar.
“This is nice,” he said. “I can see why you spend so much time here.”
“You knew to find me here?”
“Yeah, it’s been an exhausting search. First your cabin. Then your bar.”
“Are you gonna tell me why you’re here or not?”
He leaned forward in the chair and rested his forearms on his knees. He looked me in the eye and as he did I was already coming up with my own theory. You see, the chief and I had sort of gotten off to a rough start. Genuinely bad chemistry from the first time I laid eyes on him and he laid eyes on me. Then things just went downhill from there, until at one point, he promised me that the day he retired, he’d come out to Paradise to find me so we could settle things between us once and for all. No more badge in the way, just a couple of men who truly didn’t like each other, having it out in the parking lot. He was ten years older than me, maybe even fifteen. But I knew it wouldn’t be an easy fight. Not by a long shot.
“I came out here to ask for your help,” he said.
I stared at him for a moment, waiting for it to make sense. It didn’t happen.
“I didn’t want to call you,” he said. “I figured his is the kind of thing you need to do in person.”
Jackie wandered over at that point, a bar towel over his shoulder.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is Roy Maven,” I said, “chief of police in the Soo.”
“Okay,” Jackie said, reaching over to shake the man’s hand. “At the risk of being indelicate . . . I was led to believe that you and Alex hate each other.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. Just call it a persistent lack of liking each other.”
Jackie looked at me for confirmation. I just shrugged.
“Well, as long as we’re playing nice here, how ’bout we get you a beer. Alex? A Molson?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Maven said.
“You don’t understand,” Jackie said. “This is a real Molson, bottled in Canada. From Alex’s personal stash. He doesn’t drink anything else.”
“McKnight, you drive all the way to Canada to get your beer?”
“Hell if he drives,” Jackie said. “I do.”
“Well, damn,” Maven said. “In that case I’ll have to have one. I am out of uniform, after all.”
The evening is just about complete, I thought. All we need now is dinner and a movie.
He looked into the fire as we waited for Jackie to come back with the beer. When we both had our bottles, Maven tipped his back and took a long drink.
“That ain’t bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.”
“So seriously,” I said, “quit joking around and tell me why you’re here.”
“You really think I came all the way out here to have a beer with you? I meant what I said. I need your help.”
He looked around the place, like somebody else might be listening in on our conversation. Then he pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“Can I smoke in here?”
“Jackie would prefer that you don’t.”
He put the cigarettes away. He fidgeted with his bottle for a few seconds, then he stood up.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go outside.”
Now we’re getting to it, I thought. He really did come here to fight.
“If I don’t smoke a cigarette, I’m gonna kill someone,” he said. “This is hard enough as it is, believe me.”
I made him wait for a three count, then I finally got up and grabbed my coat. Who needs a comfortable chair in front of the fire when you can go freeze your ass off with a man you can’t stand?
He opened the door and I followed him into the darkness. He took a few steps along the side of the building, staying out of the wind. He pulled out his cigarettes and his lighter. It was an old-school silver flip lighter. He cupped his hands around the end of his cigarette as he lit it, then he snapped the lighter shut and put it in his pocket. He took a deep draw and let out a stream of smoke.
“So tell me what the hell’s going on,” I said.
“I told you this wasn’t easy. So cut me some slack, eh? I came to ask you to do some work for a friend of mine.”
“What kind of work?”
“You still have the private investigator’s license?”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“Do you still have the license or not?”
“It’s a moot point, I told you I don’t—”
“Okay, so you have the license. That’s good.”
“Maven, I swear to God . . .”
“Relax, McKnight. Will you just shut up for once and listen? Here’s the situation. I’ve got this friend, Charles Razniewski. Everybody calls him Raz. I used to ride with him a lot when I was with the state police.”
“When was that?”
“Hell, that was what, ten years ago now? I was getting sick of the politics so I left to try something else. Eventually ended up taking the job up here.”
“The state police’s loss was Sault Ste. Marie’s gain, you mean.”
“I told you to shut up, okay? So Raz, he ended up leaving, too, just before I did. But in his case he went federal. He’s been a U.S. marshal ever since. Based down in Detroit. Your old stomping grounds.”
“The marshals had an office on Lafayette. I wonder if he was there when I was.”
“Small world, who knows. But here’s the point of all this. He’s got one kid, Charles Jr.”
Maven stopped and looked out into the parking lot. The wind picked up and the pine trees started swaying.
“God damn,” he said. “I mean to say, he had one kid. Here’s the thing. You see, Charlie, he was going to school out at Michigan Tech. Just starting his last semester, right after Christmas break, he goes back up to school for some New Year’s Eve party, and then . . .”
He stopped and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. I waited for him to get to what was obviously a hard thing to say.
“He hanged himself. From a tree. There was some alcohol in his system, I guess, but . . . I mean, he went out on his own and he drove down by the lake and he hanged himself.”
“Did he leave a note?”
“No note. There usually isn’t.”
“I know, but . . .”
But nothing, I thought. The man was right. Despite everything you see in the movies, no matter how somebody kills himself, they almost never leave a note.
“I can’t imagine,” he said. “I mean, if it was my daughter Olivia . . .”
He took another drag off his cigarette and looked away, shaking his head.
“I don’t understand, Chief. I mean, this shouldn’t happen to anybody. Your old friend or anybody’s old friend. But what does this have to do with me?”
“This whole thing has been eating Raz alive, okay? He can’t make any sense of it. If the kid was upset about something specific . . . about a girl or something. But no. He’s just . . . gone. Like that.”
“I still don’t see how I can help here.”
“He wants to know. That’s all. If there’s anything to know. He just wants to understand what was going through his kid’s head before he died. That’s all the man wants.”
“How can anybody possibly know that?”
“Maybe you can’t. Maybe this whole thing is just a waste of time. But he wants somebody to try. He’s already talked to the Houghton County Sheriff’s office, but they can’t do anything more for him. It’s not like they’re gonna spend much more time on this. So he’s thinking maybe if somebody talks to some of Charlie’s friends . . .”
“Wait a minute, are you talking about me going out there and doing that?”
“He can’t do it. There’s no way he can go out there again. Not yet. Even if he could, there’s not much chance they’d really be straight with him. There are some things you just can’t talk about with your dead friend’s father, you know?”
“But hold on. Time out.”
“I can’t do it. I’ve already talked to the sheriff out there. We didn’t exactly hit it off, but no matter what, I can’t go out there and start grilling people. I mean, I know how I can come across sometimes. I think any of these kids, they’d just feel like they were getting the third degree and there’s no way they’d open up to me. What Raz needs is an impartial third party, somebody who’s reasonably good at talking to people. And if he hires you on an official basis . . .”
“No. Chief, please. Even if I was going to do this, there’s no way I’d take money for it.”
“You’re not getting it.” He was starting to rock back and forth now, shivering from the cold and maybe something else. Some kind of raw energy he was trying to burn off. “Don’t you see? He needs to hire you. He needs to pay you some money to go talk to these kids. Find out what you can about his son’s state of mind. Talk to the sheriff’s office, find out if there’s anything else they can tell you. About any kind of trouble he might have been in. If he does that, then he’s doing something. See what I mean? Paying you makes it real to him. So even if you don’t find out anything, he can go home feeling like he did everything he could.”
“Well, you’ve got the license.”
“I don’t use it. You know that. Why don’t you hire Leon Prudell?”
He was the only other game in town. My former sometimes-partner, a man who grew up in the UP and who never wanted to be anything else other than a private investigator. Problem was, he was the fat goofy kid who sat in the back of the classroom and to most people around here, he’d never be anything else.
“Prudell’s a clown,” Maven said. “At least you look competent.”
“Gee, thanks. But seriously, Prudell’s a lot better than anybody realizes. He’d do a fantastic job with this.”
“Look, McKnight, all you have to do is drive out there, talk to a few people, then drive back. Tell Raz what you heard. If that happened to be, ‘You know what, your son wasn’t depressed at all, there was absolutely no reason he should have killed himself, so it was just a tragic fluke thing, one bad night in his life and I’m awfully sorry. . . .’ Well, then, I mean if you said that, then everybody would be better off, I think.”
“So now you’re even telling me what to say? Why bother even going out there? I can just say I did.”
“Don’t be a wiseass. I’m just saying, if you don’t find out anything, that would be a good line to take. Is that too much to ask?”
“Chief . . .”
“And you make your three hundred bucks. Or whatever. I don’t see what the problem is.”
“You’re something else,” I said. “You treat me like crap every time I see you, but now you think all you gotta do is wave some money in my face and I’ll help you.”
He threw his cigarette down onto the gravel and reached out for me. He grabbed me by the coat and drew himself to within a few inches of my face. Here we go, I thought. We’re gonna have that fight in the parking lot after all.
“I’m not asking for me,” he said, looking me dead in the eye. “I’m asking for my old friend, who’s spent the last three months living in hell. Okay? He’s going to be in my office tomorrow at ten o’clock. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like you to stop by and at least talk to him. Can you do that?”
“Just once, would it kill you to say please?”
I could feel him tightening his grip on my coat.
“Please, Alex. Okay? Please.”
Then he pushed me away from him and turned to go.
“Ten o’clock,” he said as he got into his car. “Don’t be late.”
A few hours later, I helped Jackie close up the place for the night. It was starting to snow again when I went out to the truck. The whole town looked even emptier than usual. It actually gets pretty busy up here during prime snowmobile season, but tonight there were no vehicles on the road. The one traffic light blinked yellow above the only main intersection. It was so quiet I could actually hear the yellow bulb clicking on and off.
I got in the truck and started it. I didn’t bother turning on the heat. It was only a quarter mile up the main road to my turnoff, then another quarter mile down the old logging road to the first of my cabins. I put the plow down as I rumbled along, past Vinnie’s house, then my first cabin. Instead of passing it, I decided to stop this time. I don’t know what made me do that, but I pulled up in front of the cabin and looked at it in the glow of my headlights. I could remember setting every single log with my father, back when he was alive and I was a kid who knew everything. I had lived in this cabin ever since coming back up here so many years later, my father long gone, my partner Franklin fresh in the ground with a wife and two little girls left behind, and me off the force by then, just looking to sell off the land and the cabins with it. Finding something up here that seemed to match the way I was feeling inside and deciding to stay. All the things that had happened since, both good and bad—until the day a killer from Toronto came looking for me and found someone else in the cabin instead. How many years later, and yet the feeling had been much the same. More blood, more blame. All on me, no matter what anyone else said. It was all on me.
I hadn’t set foot in the place since that day. I had barely looked at it. Vinnie was right, I was avoiding the issue. I was working on every last detail in rebuilding the last cabin at the end of the road, unwilling to face the idea of moving back to where I belonged.
After hearing Maven tell me about his friend living in hell after what had happened to him . . . that night as I looked at my cabin glowing in my headlights, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
I didn’t get out of the truck. I couldn’t bring myself to do that yet.
I drove to the end of the road and went to sleep. Just another cold night in Paradise.
Copyright © 2011 by Steve Hamilton
Steve Hamilton grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the prestigious Avery Hopwood Prize. He lives in Cottekill, New York, with his wife, Julia, and their two children.