Authors: Brian Freeman
He was silent, biting his lip.
“These voices you heard,” she went on. “Did you see the men who were talking? Do you know who they were?”
“Did they have guns?”
“What else do you remember about them? Did any of them fire their guns?”
He was quiet again. Lisa got up from the chair and came around to the other side of the table and sat next to him. “It may be scary, but you’re going to have to trust me. We can figure out the truth together, but I need your help. Tell me what else you remember.”
He tried to talk, but he choked up, as if he was about to cry. Then he sniffled and wiped his face.
“Fingers,” he said in a low voice.
She stared at him in confusion. “Fingers? I don’t understand.”
“Somebody’s fingers were lying on the ground,” he told her. “The men cut them off.”
Laurel had told her to stay home, but Lisa couldn’t do that, not after what she’d just heard from Purdue. She wasn’t going to stay in the dark, and she wasn’t going to wait in the house until the police officers from the previous night appeared on her front porch again. She needed to know what was going on.
“You and I are going to get some answers,” she told the boy. “Are you up for that?”
“I think so.”
“Okay then. The first puzzle we need to solve is exactly how you got here last night. We’re going to work our way backward. That means taking a little drive around the area and seeing if you remember anything. Got it?”
They left the house together and headed across the driveway to her garage. Lisa unlocked the garage door and threw it open on its metal rails. Her pickup was inside, still wet from the previous day’s downpour. She undid the flatbed door to let the standing water drain. Inside were bags of sand, a dirty shovel, road salt, a handful of sodden two-by-fours, and an emergency roadside kit in a red plastic shell. In rural Minnesota, you always had to be prepared for the possibility of getting stranded on the back roads far from any help.
Lisa relocked the truck bed and opened the passenger door. “Hop in,” she told Purdue.
The boy climbed inside, and Lisa shut the door behind him. She wore her white down vest, and she patted the pocket to make sure her Ruger was safely zipped inside. Then she got behind the wheel and backed the truck out of the garage.
When she reached the highway, she could see for miles. It was just after daybreak on a misty morning, and there was nothingness in every direction. Out here, the earth was flat all the way to the horizon, where the gray land met the gray sky. Railroad tracks paralleled the highway, but there were no trains coming. Telephone wires stretched between an endless series of poles that lined the road like crucifixion crosses. The scrub brush shook in the fields as the wind blew, making a dull kaleidoscope of gold, rust, and washed-out green. She could see small stands of trees huddled together in the far distance. Turning right, the highway led to the border not even half an hour away on the road to Winnipeg. Turning left took her south through places like Strandquist and Newfolden on the way back to Thief River Falls.
The nearest town to her was Lake Bronson, one of those roadside towns that was over almost before it began. It was still several miles north. A river squiggled through the town streets and widened into a lake in the state park two miles east. She’d lived in this area for over a year, but she still didn’t know the town well. It wasn’t home to her. No place was home anymore.
Lisa pointed toward the railroad tracks. “Do you remember coming this way? Across the train tracks?”
The boy shook his head. “No.”
“What about the highway? Did you hike along the highway at all?”
“No, I told you, I came through the fields behind the house.”
“All right. There aren’t any roads that head directly that way. I’ll find the next crossroad and come around on the other side. If anything looks familiar to you, you let me know, okay?”
Lisa headed north. She drove for a mile, seeing no farms or other vehicles coming or going. The clouds spat on the windshield, enough that she had to run the wipers occasionally. Unlike Laurel, she didn’t like the noise of the radio distracting her. She preferred silence when she drove. The only sounds were the hum of her tires and the shudder of the wind speeding out of the northern plains.
When she spotted a driveway leading across the railroad tracks to a mobile home sheltered inside a grove of birches, she slowed the truck so the boy could take a look. “What about there? Do you remember that place?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“When the truck stopped, were you near a house? Or was it a trailer like that one?”
“A house, I think. It was dark and rainy, and I couldn’t really see. I don’t remember very well.”
“That’s all right. We’ll keep going.”
Lisa accelerated again. The telephone poles sped by beside them. A solitary truck carrying a load of timber passed going the opposite way. Not long after, she reached an intersection at a single-lane dirt road. There were no structures and no traffic nearby, just two empty roads cutting across each other. She turned right, traveling past farm fields that had already been plowed over for the winter season. Fall colors painted the trees that grew along the ribbon of a creek.
“So you write books?” Purdue asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes, I do.”
“What kind of books?”
“You mean like where people get killed and stuff?”
Lisa smiled. “Sometimes.”
“Is it hard to write a book?”
“It’s very hard.”
“So why do you do it?”
She found herself slowing the pickup, watching the furrows of black dirt in the fields. “Well, I don’t really have a choice. That’s how my brain is wired.”
“What do you mean?”
Lisa pointed out the window. “What do you see out there?”
She pulled the truck onto the shoulder. Her wheels splashed through the puddles as she drifted to a stop. “No, seriously. Tell me exactly what you see.”
Purdue folded his arms together as if he were working on a school assignment. “I see tire ruts, like from a tractor. Mud, because it’s been raining. Bits of old cornstalks. Evergreens way far down on the other end of the field. A little bit of smoke going up in the sky, like somebody has a fire. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right, but that’s not what I see.”
The boy frowned. “What do you see?”
“I see something pretty scary. Maybe too scary for you.”
“No, tell me.”
“I see a dead body in the field. A woman. She’s wearing a red blouse that makes a splash of color against the black soil. I don’t know who she is yet, but I’m wondering who was cruel enough to leave her in this remote place. I see a sheriff’s car coming down the highway toward us at high speed. I can see its red lights from a mile away. There’s a man inside. He’s a good man, a handsome man, but he’s afraid, because this woman isn’t the first victim, and he knows what he’s going to find when he examines her body. An arrow, black, with white feathers, stuck in the woman’s mouth and going through the back of her neck into the mud. There’s a single word painted on the shaft of the arrow in tiny ancient script like you’d find in an old Bible. The word is
Purdue’s mouth hung open. “Seriously? That’s what you see?”
“Yup. Scary, right?”
“Yeah, but scary stories are fun. I like them. What does it all mean?”
“I don’t know. I won’t know until I write the book. But all my life, those are the things I’ve seen wherever I go. I don’t look at the world the way other people do. I live somewhere else. To me, every place turns into stories and crimes and characters and mysteries.”
“That sounds pretty cool.”
“It is. Although honestly, there are days when I wish I could see nothing but tractor ruts, just like you.”
She gave Purdue a grin. With a scrape of rock under her tires, she guided the pickup back onto the dirt road and headed east. Another mile passed. She could see the boy staring through the window, deep in thought, as if he was trying to see the things that she saw. Thriller things. Mystery things. And maybe he could. Children had the gift, the second sight, the sixth sense. Sometimes she wondered if most writers were really just children who’d never grown up.
At the next dirt road, she turned again.
That was when Purdue shouted, “There! That’s it!”
Lisa tapped the brakes. She leaned across the pickup, her stare following the direction where the boy was pointing. A quarter mile away, she saw a cluster of farm buildings on the border of an old cornfield. The property had seen better days, the white paint on the house flaking away, an old snowmobile rusting in the unmowed grass. She drove on until she reached the dented mailbox near the road, which bore the name LANCASTER.
In the driveway near the house was a dirty black Volkswagen panel van.
“That’s the truck I was in,” Purdue said.
“Yes, that’s it. It was black, just like that. I remember now, the back door was open, so I snuck inside. There was a blanket bunched up in the back, and I hid under it. Then somebody came and slammed the door, and the truck drove away. This is where I got out. Right here.”
Lisa studied the farm field, and she could see trees marking the horizon line under the dark clouds a couple of miles away. There were no roads between here and there. She knew what you would find if you took off across the field and kept going through the trees.
“Stay here,” she told Purdue.
The farm felt deserted, almost abandoned. She turned into the driveway and parked behind the van, and when she got out of the pickup, a fierce wind pushed at her back. A few stray drops of rain landed on her face. She walked toward the house and realized that the quietness of the property was an illusion. Getting closer, she heard wind chimes, and she smelled fresh bread. A dog barked, and then a white Lab bounded across the overgrown grass to greet her. She bent down, letting it get to know her, and the two of them climbed up the porch steps together.
Lisa rapped her knuckles on the frame. A few seconds later, a middle-aged woman pushed open the screen door, letting the dog inside. She stepped outside onto the porch with Lisa. She had graying hair and a pleasant face, and she wore a cream-colored dress with a bright white apron tied around her waist. With the door open, the smell of baking bread got stronger.
The woman smiled. “Can I help you?”
“Are you Mrs. Lancaster?” Lisa asked, remembering the name on the mailbox.
“My name’s Lisa—” she began, but the woman stopped her before she could say anything more.
“Oh, I know who you are, Ms. Power. I was actually at a talk you did at the library a couple of years ago. I have to tell you, I just love your books. It’s so exciting to see places I know in a bestseller. Especially when we live out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Well, thank you. That’s very kind.”
“What can I do for you? Are you working on something new? If you need a crime scene, feel free to use our house. Kill anyone you want.”
Lisa laughed. “I appreciate the offer. Actually, this may sound like a strange question, but it’s about your truck outside. Do you know if it was out on the roads yesterday evening?”
“Oh, yes, my husband does deliveries all around the area. He didn’t get back until pretty late.”
“Do you know where he was last night?”
“I’m pretty sure his last stop was at the hospital in Thief River Falls.”
“That’s right. Why, is there a problem?”
“No, no problem.” Lisa struggled for a lie to explain herself, and then she realized that the only thing that made sense was the truth. “Actually, it’s possible your husband had a little stowaway in his truck without realizing it. A child. A boy showed up at my house last night, and I think he may have hidden in the back of your van. Then he headed off across the fields.”
“Oh, my goodness! Is he okay?”
“I think so, but I’m trying to figure out where he belongs.”
“Is he a runaway?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I wish I could help, but I’m sure Eldred didn’t have a clue that the boy was in his truck. He didn’t say anything about it. I can’t believe the child came all this way and then just wandered off. How terrible. He could have been seriously hurt. I’m so glad he found you.”
“Did your husband mention anything unusual going on at the hospital when he made his delivery?” Lisa asked.
“Unusual? I don’t think so. Did the boy run away from there? Was he a patient?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Well, if I can do anything at all to help, please let me know.”
“Thank you. I will. I appreciate your time, Mrs. Lancaster.”
“Of course. Don’t make us wait too long for that next book!”
Lisa turned to leave, but before she got off the porch, the woman called after her.
“Oh, wait! I don’t know what I was thinking! I must be so flustered meeting a celebrity. You asked about anything unusual going on, and I completely forgot about what happened at the house overnight.”
“What happened?” Lisa asked.
“The police! The police showed up. I’m surprised they didn’t visit your house, too.”
“No, Pennington County, actually.”
“What did they want? Were they looking for a boy?”
Mrs. Lancaster shook her head. “No, no, that’s not what they said. They told me they were looking for a man. A dangerous man. A fugitive of some kind, I guess. They said they were searching the entire area. We made sure to lock our doors after they were here, I’ll tell you that.”
“Did they say who this man was?” Lisa asked.
“No, but it makes me wonder if he’s connected to this little boy of yours. You better get him in safe hands soon.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, this man they were hunting for, apparently he’s involved in human trafficking across the border. Children! Taking children from their parents! Can you imagine anyone doing something like that?”