Authors: Steve Hamilton
Tags: #Private Investigators, #Upper Peninsula (Mich.), #Mystery & Detective, #Michigan, #Private Investigators - Michigan - Upper Peninsula, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #McKnight; Alex (Fictitious Character), #Fiction, #Upper Peninsula
I looked at his picture one more time. You see someone’s face in a picture like this and you think you can form a basic impression of what kind of person he is. But everything I’d ever know about him would be completely secondhand, and even if I talked to every friend he had, every classmate, every teacher, every person who ever knew him in any way … how would I ever know what was really going on inside him?
I stayed there for a long time, taking it all in. There were no houses or other buildings to be seen in any direction. No sign of life at all. Just high drifts of snow and more trees and the lake itself. I started to feel a strange foreboding about the place, and I could only wonder if it was because I came here already knowing what had happened. Would I have felt the same thing if I had just stumbled upon this place by accident?
There was no way to know.
I got back in the truck and started it. I turned up the heat to warm my hands. Then I started driving up to Houghton to see what else I could find out about the late Charlie Razniewski Jr.
Houghton, Michigan. If you know your history, you know what this city once meant to the rest of the state. Hell, to the whole country.
The first big mining boom happened here, even before the gold rush out west. Copper Country, they called it. That’s how all of the Finns ended up here, along with a few Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. You can still hear the accents in many of the locals. You can still see some of the heavy equipment standing silent and rusted where the mines were. This is where they took all the copper from the ground and turned it into electrical wire and shipped it all over the world. It all happened right here.
They built the college and it went through several mining-related names until it finally ended up being known as Michigan Technological University. It’s not about mining anymore, of course. It’s all about science and engineering now. The students come from all over Michigan and besides studying, the one thing they’d better be ready for is snow, because they get a hell of a lot of it. Most years, anyway. I was reminded of that as I drove up into the Keweenaw Peninsula and saw the big sign by the side of the road. It was a measuring stick as tall as a tree, with that winter’s current snowfall amount marked at around twelve feet. On the second day of April, usually they’d have at least twice that by now.
As I got closer to the city, I passed a huge set of concrete slabs along the shoreline. Even taller than the snowfall stick, they looked like a giant set of dominoes. More relics from the copper mining, I’m sure, but beyond that I had no idea what they were used for. It made the whole place feel even more foreign to me.
When I got to Houghton itself, that feeling got even stronger. You lose sight of Lake Superior, but as you go inland, you see Portage Lake stretching out across the middle of the Keweenaw. The land rises on either side of the water, and the biggest lift bridge you’ll ever see connects Houghton to Hancock, the city to the north. The middle section of the bridge can rise a hundred feet to let ships pass beneath it.
Most strange of all is how the city of Houghton is built on an incline, with streets running parallel to each other and climbing in elevation as you get farther away from the water. It looks like a miniature San Francisco, I swear, and you have to remind yourself that you’re still in Michigan.
I passed Michigan Tech on my way into the center of the city, then I found the Houghton County Sheriff’s office on the fourth street up from the water. Just like back in the Soo, they seemed to have had the same idea when they put up the building. Start with the county courthouse, the tallest, grandest, most beautiful building in town. Connect another building to that, but make sure this one is a gray concrete box, with all the charm of an air raid shelter.
One of the county plows was touching up the parking lot. I waited for him to finish and gave him a little wave as he left, one plow operator to another. Then I parked the truck and went inside.
The receptionist asked if she could help me, and I picked up yet another Scandinavian accent. I would have guessed Swedish this time, but I wouldn’t have put much money on it. I bet if you live out here you can pick them out right away.
“I’d like to talk to the sheriff,” I said. “I’m a private investigator visiting from Chippewa County.”
I had my license with me, burning a hole in my pocket. It felt strange to refer to myself as a PI.
“He’s not in the office right now. I believe the undersheriff’s here, if you’d like to speak to him.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
A minute later, the undersheriff came out looking for me. He was a big man with a perfect cop’s mustache. He had a hell of a strong grip.
“Undersheriff Michael Reddy,” he said, looking me up and down. “What can I do for you?”
“I don’t mean to impose on your time, sir. I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions.”
“Can you give me a topic?”
“Charles Razniewski Jr.”
I didn’t have to say anything else. The undersheriff exchanged a quick look with the receptionist. Then he motioned for me to follow him.
“Come on back,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
* * *
A few minutes later, I was sitting on the opposite side of his desk. There were piles of paper everywhere. Organization was obviously not his strong suit, but I was holding a good strong cup of coffee and the man had listened carefully when I had told him why I was there. So I had no complaints.
“How far did you have to come to get here?” he asked.
“I live in Paradise.”
“Yeah, I know the place. Over by the Soo, right?”
“Other side of Whitefish Bay, yes.”
“Let me ask you, do you happen to know the chief of police there?”
“Roy Maven, you mean?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Is he the one who sent you out here?”
“No, sir. You see—”
“Because if it was, I’d like you to explain to me how one single person can be so charming and persuasive.”
“It was the young man’s father who sent me,” I said. “Charles Razniewski Sr. He and Chief Maven were once state police officers at the same post.”
“Okay, now it makes a little more sense. Maven called out here himself a few days ago, is the reason I ask. He didn’t say anything about his history. He was too busy grilling me like he’d just caught me trying to steal his car.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Okay, so I won’t hold that against you. Just tell him he might want to cool it next time you see him. But you’re saying this kid’s father sent you all the way out here to find out more about … what again? I’m sorry, I still don’t quite follow you.”
“That’s the tough part,” I said. “He’s not sure what he thinks I can do. He just wants somebody to do something. Find out what I can from people while it’s still fresh in their minds.”
“He basically wants you to find out why his son killed himself?”
“I guess you could put it that way, yes.”
The undersheriff shook his head slowly. “I think he’s asking you to do the impossible. Is that something you’re usually good at?”
I had to smile. “Generally not. Most days I’m just trying to keep my road clear.”
“I had to cut the kid down, you know.”
My smile disappeared.
“The EMS guys,” he said, “they sorta just put the stretcher underneath him. There was a fire truck there, so we had the ladder, but for some reason I got elected to climb up there and cut the rope. Hell, it wasn’t even officially my jurisdiction.”
“What do you mean?”
“Misery Bay is actually in Ontonagon County, not Houghton County.”
“I didn’t realize that. The map made it look like—”
“It’s barely over the line. But we always help each other out, you know, and as soon as we found out this kid was one of ours…”
“Sounds like a tough day, no matter who’s in charge.”
“He’d been hanging out there for a day and a half, you realize. Nobody had seen him that whole time. That’s how lonely that place is. This time of year, anyway.”
“I sort of got that idea,” I said. “I drove by there today.”
That seemed to surprise him. “You were at Misery Bay?”
“I just wanted to see it.”
“Yeah, well, I keep seeing it, too. Every night when I try to go to sleep.”
“I understand,” I said. “But still. I felt I had to start there.”
“What was your impression?”
“Well, I tried to reconstruct the event in my mind. Let me ask you this while I’m thinking of it. How long was the rope?”
The undersheriff picked up a blank pad of paper from the mess on his desk. He picked up a pen and stared down at the pad. It was obvious to me he was coming to some sort of decision.
“Mr. McKnight, I take it you were in law enforcement at some point?”
“Detroit Police Department. Eight years.”
He nodded. “And now you’re private?”
“On paper, yes, but I’ll be honest with you. This feels more like I’m just doing the man a favor. So really, I know I’m just a stranger showing up out of nowhere, asking you all these questions.”
“Do you feel that there was something inappropriate about the way we handled this case?”
“No,” I said. “God, no. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Let me tell you what kind of winter it’s been for me. A couple nights after New Year’s, a kid from Tech drives down to Misery Bay and manages to hang himself from a tree. Like I said, I was the lucky bastard who got to cut him down. Had to look this kid right in the face. He was as frozen as an icicle. Just a couple weeks later, I hear about an old friend of mine, a sergeant down in Iron Mountain. His son shot himself behind the barn. Put a bullet right in his own head.”
He paused for a moment, then continued.
“My wife’s father killed himself a few years ago, so it’s already kind of a hot spot for me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, he just drove off one day. He found a deserted spot and he tried to run a hose from the exhaust pipe through the window, had it all taped up with duct tape. He didn’t realize that new cars don’t put out that much carbon monoxide anymore. So it must have taken hours. If he didn’t have a full tank, it might not have worked. Although in that case he might have just froze to death. But anyway, he’d been suffering from depression. We had him on some new medicine, but I guess it wasn’t doing the job. Takes a while, they said. So meanwhile he has to slip away from us when we’re not looking and take all damned day to kill himself. It absolutely destroyed my wife, I’ll tell you that much.”
He dropped the pad back on the desk. The mess made a little more sense to me now. This man was just trying to keep it all together, and a clean desk was pretty low on his list of priorities.
“It would have been better if her father had died in an accident,” he said. “Or hell, even if somebody had broken into the house and killed him. At least that way, you wouldn’t have to keep wondering why he did it to himself, you know? I can’t imagine a worse thing to have to go through. But anyway, ever since then, every time I hear about a suicide, it just hits me right in the gut, you know? Now two kids killing themselves in the same winter. One of them in my county.”
“Look, I’m sorry I’m bringing all this back up. I had no idea this was going to hit so close to home with you.”
“You just have to understand. Lately I’m beginning to think that everybody I see is going to find some way to kill themselves.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not going to. I promise.”
“Okay. That’s good to hear. That’s a start, I guess. But you know, to tell you the truth … maybe it’s a good thing I’m the one you got to talk to today. Because maybe most cops wouldn’t understand why you’d come all the way out here just to pry into a situation that’s obviously not going to change.”
I started to protest, but he put up his hand to stop me.
“It’s okay, Mr. McKnight. I get it. If it was somebody from my family, I’d be asking the same questions myself. Or else I’d be sending out a wise-looking old cop like yourself to ask the questions for me.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”
“I meant it no other way. And to answer your question, the rope was approximately fifty feet long.”
“So more than long enough to tie off around the trunk, and then extend over that big branch.”
“That’s how he did it, yes. Beyond that, I just wish I could give you more information. We’ve got so many kids who come up here for college. Then they’re gone. I’m afraid that young Mr. Razniewski was just one of those temporary residents.”
“His father gave me three names to look up—his girlfriend and two of his other friends.”
“You got the phone numbers?”
“I do, yes.”
“Then give them a call. On a Wednesday, this time of year, there’s not a whole lot to do besides going to class or hanging out in a bar somewhere.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said. “Except for the going-to-class part.”
“This is a terrible thought,” he said, his voice lowered, his head leaning toward me. “But sometimes in the dead of winter up here … as I get older, I mean, I start to wonder why we don’t see even