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The Hounds of Winter

[ Fiction ]

The Hounds of Winter

By James Magnuson

In this psychological thriller by the critically acclaimed author of Windfall, Ghost Dancing, and Open Season, a father, on the run in the Wisconsin wilderness and accused of his daughter's murder, confronts a deadly legacy of silence-both personal and historical.

2005

$21.95$14.71

33% website discount price

Hardcover

6 x 9 | 283 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70990-4

This psychological thriller by the award-winning novelist James Magnuson combines the moral acuity of Graham Greene with the twists and turns of the best Hitchcock films.

David Neisen came seeking reconciliation; what he found was a father's worst nightmare. Arriving on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with his daughter Maya, he discovers her murdered on the floor of their cabin in the Wisconsin woods. He sees a ski-masked figure lurching through the snowdrifts behind the house and sets out in pursuit—only to transform himself into the prime suspect in his daughter's death.

Struggling to elude his pursuers in the fierce Wisconsin winter, Neisen must deal first with the ghosts of his past—a childhood tragedy that binds him to the small-town sheriff, the friends of his youth who must now choose to shelter or betray him, and the unresolved mysteries about the munitions plant where his father worked during the Korean War. And looming above it all is his growing certainty that his daughter was not who he thought she was. The answers lie hidden in "this Midwestern world of farmers and sons and daughters of farmers with their Christian forbearance and Scandinavian silences, their delicate kindnesses, this Cold War world, this white-bread world. It receded like the Ice Age had receded, leaving behind its own rubble, its broken citadels and buried secrets ...

Maya tapped the brakes as she passed the ranger station, easing down the winding park road to the lake. Through the driving snow she scanned the silent woods. There was no sign of life; everything had taken shelter from the storm. But the stillness was deceptive. There would be wolves out tonight, wolves that she had spent the last four years helping restore to the wilderness; she imagined them loping across the pristine whiteness.

She needed a smoke badly. She leaned against the steering wheel, wiping the windshield with her hand. Bonnie Raitt crooned through the speakers, but the sad, bluesy voice did nothing to assuage the rawness of her nerves. Blanketed quartzite boulders loomed in the woods like gleaming cenotaphs. It was Christmas Eve.

It looked as if a plow had been through at some point, but a good couple of inches had fallen since then. Her father, flying in from New York, was supposed to have gotten in before her, but she couldn't imagine he was going to make his connecting flight at O'Hare in weather like this. If he was late, the good news was she would have time to get hold of the people she'd been trying so desperately to get in touch with all day.

All fall she and her father had barely spoken, and this was going to be a hell of a way to break the silence. She was going to have to tell him everything. The story she had to tell was not one that you could do in installments. The thought of it made her chest heavy. Maybe she would wait until after supper.

Coming around the last hairpin turn, she could finally see the high bluffs, the mile-long lake where the wind chased great shrouds of snow across the ice. The cabin that her father had purchased just four years before nestled in the grove of dark pines just below her. She was relieved to see that her father's car was not there yet.

Leaving the main road, the Bronco fishtailed up the drive, bucking through untouched drifts. Maya got out, gathering a bag of groceries from the front seat, and trudged to the cabin. A crow called from deep in the woods as she fumbled with her keys.

As soon as she opened the door she heard the phone. She set the groceries on a chair in the hallway and ran for the kitchen, grabbing the receiver on the fourth ring.

"Maya?"

"Hey, Dad," she said. She tried to disguise the disappointment in her voice. She had been hoping for someone else. "Where are you?" The room was bitter cold.

"I'm in the car. Maybe twenty minutes away."

"Are you really?" She undid the top button of her long Russian wool coat, shook out her tangle of black hair. "I never thought they'd let you get out of Chicago." As she moved across the room to adjust the thermostat she saw the small hard kernels scattered on the floor. "Oh God."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It just looks as if the mice have gotten into the pantry again. Let me get off. I'll have a big fire in the fireplace by the time you get here."

"Maya, I'm really happy we're doing this."

"Me too," she said. She kicked the toe of one of her battered cowboy boots against a chair, knocking off the snow. "There's a lot to say."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll tell you when you get here. See you in a few minutes."

She hung up and opened the pantry door. A crumpled bag of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, a hole gnawed in one end, sat on the shelf. Shiny golden seeds were all over the floor, mixed with pellets of mouse droppings.

She got the worn broom from the closet and swept up the mess. As she was dumping it all in the trash she heard something bang upstairs, a door or a shutter. She froze for a moment, listening for something more.

"Hello?" she called out. "Is anyone there?"

The cabin was utterly still, and then there was a metallic rattle as the heater kicked in. She put the rubber dustpan on the kitchen table and walked into the hall, gazing up the dark stairway. The glass chimes tinkled softly on the front porch, and through the living room window she could see the pine boughs rising and falling in the storm. It was nothing, she told herself, absolutely nothing. She went back outside and unstrapped her icy skis from the top of the Bronco, leaning them against the back door.

It was the first time she'd been back to the cabin in winter, and it felt strange. After her senior year in high school, Maya had come to Wisconsin for eight weeks to work as an intern with a group helping to restore wolves to the wilderness. It had been the best experience of her life. The following fall her father had bought the cabin, just ten miles in one direction from Black Hawk, the small town he'd grown up in, and ten miles in the other direction from the Wolf Center headquarters. At the time, Maya had found the decision alarming. It was so sudden, so extravagant, the sort of thing her father never did, but ever since the death of Maya's mother, she'd had to get used to him doing a lot of things he'd never done before. They'd come back to the cabin every summer. Now, as she limped her way through a desultory senior year at Macalester, the work at the Wolf Center had become the center of her life.

She swung two duffel bags from the Bronco and, head down against the snow, ran back to the house. She stomped her boots off on the worn mat and ascended the stairs. She dropped the duffel bags on the landing, stepped into her bedroom, and flipped on the light.

The first thing she noticed was one of her father's old photo albums, splayed open on the bed, but then she noticed more. In the far corner lay a soiled green sleeping bag and on the windowsill sat a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels. Outside a couple of chickadees flitted in a snow-covered apple tree.

When she nudged the sleeping bag with her foot, she uncovered a blue plastic soap container, a leather shaving kit, and a stack of old newspapers and Field and Stream magazines. Nearly every winter there had been break-ins. They had tried hiring a caretaker, a local man named George Kammen, to look in from time to time, but there was no way to keep people out, whether they were hunters or teenagers on a lark. But this looked as if someone had been living here. It scared her, and then it made her mad.

She went to her closet. Nothing had been touched. She opened her drawers. Shorts, T-shirts, scarves, socks, underwear—everything was just as she'd left it in August. She ran trembling fingers through her hair.

She tossed the newspapers, the shaving kit, and the bottle of whiskey into the center of the sleeping bag. Marching down the stairs, she held the stained bundle at arm's length, the way someone might hold a dead rat. She went out to the back porch and stuffed it all into the big plastic trash bin.

Her heart was racing. She stared at the undulating meadow, covered in snow, pristine. The cold stung her cheeks. God knew how long the intruder had been staying there. A week? A month? Hadn't George been checking? The man was utterly useless. She tried to calm herself. She and her father would discuss this. There was no point in letting it ruin everything.

She took a handful of the old newspapers and went back into the living room. She removed the fire screen and set two logs in the fireplace. Down on one knee, she balled up some of the old newspaper and wedged it under the logs. Her father would be here in minutes. She wanted the house to be warm. She retrieved the long matches from the mantel and lit the fire.

The paper ignited quickly, flames licking around the scabby oak bark, but after a few seconds the flames began to die. She reached back for the poker, but the poker wasn't there.

She turned. A figure in a ski mask of the palest blue stood in the middle of the room, holding the poker loosely to one side, the way a dog owner might hold a leash while his retriever went for a romp in the water.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Maya said.

There was no answer. The intruder was tall, in a bulky hunting coat, and behind the pale blue ski mask there was something in the eyes that was almost familiar. Wisps of smoke had begun to back up in the room, as if the flue was still closed.

Maya was still kneeling on the bricks of the fireplace. She rose to her feet. When she took a step to her left, the intruder moved to block her way. Maya's heart thudded in her chest.

She glanced out the window at the road, at the falling snow. Where was her father? He was supposed to have been here.

She grabbed the fire screen and tried to swing it, but the poker came up quickly, knocking it away. She tried to run, moving behind the couch, shoving the heavy furniture, trying to create an obstacle course, but as she did she stumbled on a piece of loose firewood. As she fell, the poker caught her across the back. The blow knocked her to the floor, took all the breath from her. Once when she was ten she had fallen from the loft of a barn. This was like that: the same metallic taste in her mouth, the same black dots swirling in front of her eyes.

She groped on all fours, reaching out for the wall. A second blow missed her hand by inches and smashed the window just above it. She felt the rush of cold air, of winter. She struggled to her knees. She stared out at the dazzling white meadow, searching the empty road and calling out through the jagged glass, "Dad, Dad. . . ." but there was no answer, just the sharp crack of metal on bone and engulfing darkness.

Following the wide diamond treads of his daughter's Bronco down the hill, all David Neisen could think of was that he should have warned her to put on chains. Not that she would have listened.

He passed the ranger station and the turnoff for the campgrounds. It looked as if no one else had been through all afternoon. The snow filled him with a mindless joy. Wasn't this what everyone was always hoping for, a white Christmas? It was so good that he and Maya had decided to do this. Their estrangement at the end of the summer had been allowed to go on too long, to grow into something more than either of them meant it to. This would give them a chance to back away from the ledge.

On the other hand, he needed to keep reminding himself that this was not Versailles; they were not deciding the fate of the Western world. All they were doing was getting together for a few days of cross-country skiing. They would open a few presents, sit by the fire and drink hot cider, have a little time to talk. He had the manuscripts of two clients in the trunk of his car, but if he didn't get to them until he was back in New York, he wasn't going to sweat it.

He slowed the rented Camry to ten miles an hour, creeping along the guardrail. White flakes danced in front of the windshield, melted and slid along the glass, and, farther off, drifted and settled silently in the trees. If the storm kept up for another hour, the road would be impassable. A crow flapped low over a jagged outcropping of rock. The woods on either side of him were filling with shadows.

He still felt bad about the summer. He was aware of his faults as a father. He knew that he was too private, that he kept things in too much, that he had failed Maya after her mother's death in ways he was only beginning to understand.

But, good Christ, there was more to their relationship than that! When she was small and afraid of the dark, he would lie next to her in bed and tell her stories until she nodded off. Even then, in sleep, she would have her fist tight around his thumb so he couldn't escape.

Yet it wasn't as if he needed her to remain a child. Nothing made him happier than to look across the room at some neighborhood holiday gathering and see her surrounded by a group of college boys, see her regaling them with her adventures in the Wisconsin north woods.

She had a wonderful, wicked laugh, and she was a little too much for boys her own age to handle. Parents were always pulling David aside to tell him how gorgeous she was. It was true; she could be beautiful, with her great mane of tangled black hair and startling blue eyes. She had a rebel's charisma, there was no doubt, and seemed capable of a certain raucous exuberance, particularly when she was in the presence of people other than her father. She was just twenty-two. How much could he ask? In five years or ten, they would be laughing over the trouble they were having now.

He could feel a slight tug in his calf as he toed the brakes. For over a month he'd been doing an hour a day on the cross-trainer, plus weights and stretches, and he was in the best shape of his life. When you had Wilderness Woman for a daughter, you didn't assume that three days of skiing was going to be a stroll through the park.

Coming out of the hairpin turn, he glanced down at the cabin in the dark cluster of pines. He could see her car and the skis leaning against the back door. He eased off the pavement and then nearly got stuck coming up the drive, tires spinning in the snow. Rather than force it, he let the Camry roll back and tried again. On his second attempt he bumped through. He opened the car door, hitting the horn lightly with the heel of his hand.

"Hey, Maya!"

There was no answer. He stood, slamming the car door behind him, and stared up at the dark windows of the house. Great wet flakes caught in his lashes, blurring his vision for a second. He wiped at his eyes, then got his suitcase out of the trunk and walked to the cabin.

The first thing he noticed when he entered was the smell of smoke. A bag of groceries sat on the chair in the hallway. He turned and surveyed the living room, scanning the fire screen overturned on the rug, the couch askew, unlit logs, the smoldering papery ashes. His heart leapt with alarm, but it wasn't until he stepped forward to pick up the fire screen that he saw Maya on the other side of the couch. She lay face down, her arms outstretched, her head resting on a bloody towel, broken glass scattered around her. There was a second when he tried to tell himself that it was just an accident, that she had tripped and fallen and cut herself and that he could still save her, but as he knelt he saw behind her ear the tangled hair matted and, almost black with blood, the bludgeoned skull, and he understood that there would be no saving anyone.

He heard a terrible sound come out of him. He gently turned her over. Her nose was broken, blood still flowing from her left nostril, and one of her eyes was swollen shut from a blow. His beautiful daughter. He cradled her to his chest, her body still warm and limp. He could feel the cold streaming from the window as he rocked her, and then he saw the poker lying under one of the chairs.

He stared dully at it for a second before it occurred to him to wonder why it was there. He lay Maya down softly on the rug and rose to his feet. A thin band of smoke hung in the air. He swayed for a moment, nearly blacking out. He retrieved the poker and turned the cold metal over in his hands. A tuft of his daughter's dark hair trembled between the prong and the shaft.

His mind refused it; this could not be happening. He had just been talking to her, minutes before. He whirled around, as if looking for someone to help.

His thoughts were oddly mechanical, narrowed to a dim tunnel, but he still knew he needed to call someone. On his way to the kitchen he stumbled over a chair and almost fell. He glanced up the stairs and saw two blue duffel bags on the landing, an old Field and Stream magazine sitting on the top step. He set the poker on the breakfast table and reached for the phone. He dialed 911; it rang four or five times before anyone picked up.

"Black Hawk Police Department." It was a woman's voice.

"This is David Neisen. Something terrible has happened. Someone has just killed my daughter."

"And where are you now?"

"I'm at our cabin. On the north end of Sauk Lake. Just a half mile down from the main entrance." Wiping his hand across his chest, he realized that his coat was slick with his daughter's blood. "Please . . . Someone help me. . . ."

There was a sharp bang, like a screen door slamming shut, somewhere in the house. He whirled around and stood listening for another sound, but none came. He set the phone silently on the counter. The policewoman's voice still flickered through the phone, tinny and unreal. He picked up the poker and moved into the hallway.

The front porch door was open; it had not been open before. David stared dumbly at it for several seconds and then glanced over his shoulder. Through the living room window he could see a man in a bulky winter overcoat plunging through the heavy snow in the meadow. The air in the hallway was acrid with the smell of ashes.

David barged through the open porch door, down the steps, and out into the snow. The man was less than a hundred yards ahead of him, and at first David was able to gain ground by simply following his trail, leaping from one gaping foothole to the next. He narrowed the gap to fifty yards and then twenty-five. He was close enough to hear the man's wheezing and the crunch of his boots in the hard white crust—there was no other sound in the vast dazzling space—but then David fell.

He retrieved the poker from the snow and rose to his knees. "Murderer!" he shouted.

A crow called from deep in the woods like an answering cry. The man disappeared over a rise. David stumbled forward, falling again, then righted himself. There was the gutting sound of an engine starting up. He began to run, lunging through the snow like a lashed horse. The sound grew louder, clattering. He was almost at the rise.

A snowmobile flew at him. David threw the poker at the hurtling vehicle and the metal rod shattered the windshield. He dove to his left, getting his right arm up to protect his face, and the snowmobile drove right over him. It felt as if he'd been hit in the back by a wrecking ball.

He lay gasping in the snow, trying to get his breath back. He wondered if his right arm was broken. The buzzing of the snowmobile grew more distant and then vanished altogether.

He made a first tentative attempt to bend his arm and discovered that he could. He finally rolled onto his back and wiped the icy crystals from his face. Huge lacy flakes drifted down, and it felt as if the tops of the encircling trees were rotating slowly, first in one direction and then in the other. He closed his eyes again. Something cold trickled down his back. It was utterly still, and then, out of the stillness, he heard the faint whine of the snowmobile.

He sat up. Ten feet away, lying at the base of an ancient red oak, was the poker. He rose, clenching and unclenching his right hand; the pain was dull and constant, but at least he had motion. He scooped up the poker and stared back at the cabin. For a second it occurred to him that maybe he should go back and call the police, but then he heard the sound again, the droning of the snowmobile carried by some shift in the wind. The tracks leading into the woods were crisp and fresh; there was no way he was going to just walk off and leave them. He set out across the undulating meadow, the twin grooves in the snow drawing him onward. A squirrel bounded from branch to branch, chattering warning. David began to run.

***

He stood at the edge of a ravine, utterly lost, quivering like an exhausted pack animal. The ice-glazed poker swung at his side. He had no idea how far he'd come or even how long he'd been following the tracks of the snowmobile. Twenty minutes? Thirty? The tracks had gradually grown fainter, and now had disappeared altogether, filled in by new snow.

He had made a terrible mistake. What person in his right mind could ever imagine a man on foot being able to overtake a man in a snowmobile? But he hadn't been in his right mind. He had been a fool to leave Maya, bloodied and cold on the cabin floor, but each time he'd been about to turn back, another low mechanical whine in the woods or over the next ridge had jerked him onward like the yank of a puppeteer's string. Now, finally, his rage had burned itself out. All that was left was grief and despair.

He swayed, steadied himself, and finally dropped to his knees. He tried to push himself up, using the poker as a crook, but hadn't the strength. He set the poker aside and lowered himself until he sat, propped up by his hands, his legs sticking out in front of him. He watched the snow gather in the folds of his trousers. He knew that he wasn't thinking correctly. His attention bounced from thing to thing, like a wasp trapped between panes of glass. He remembered snowball fights he and his friends used to have on afternoons like this; he remembered promising Peggy on one of her last days in the hospital that he would see that Maya had a proper wedding; he remembered the Christmas presents still sitting in the trunk of his rental car.

It wasn't until he lifted his hand to wipe wet flakes from his cheek that he saw the discoloration on his jacket. Maya's blood, dried in the cold and wind, had made a stain as dark as coffee.

He rocked onto all fours and puked into the snow. When he was done, he sat on his haunches, panting, wiping at the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand. He could feel the tiny acid bits burning in his nose and throat. He rose to his feet and surveyed the silent woods. There was only one thing that mattered now, and that was being with his daughter.

***

Trudging down the road, he could see the cabin and the two squad cars pulled in behind his rented Camry. One of the cars still had its overheads on, blades of red and blue flickering across the snow and the side of the house.

He stopped and stared, momentarily befuddled. He had not counted on the police being here already. He should have, but he hadn't. The impulse to flee was deep and impervious to reason; he fought it back. If anyone could help him, these were the guys.

He left the road, stumbling down the slope behind the tool shed. The poker still swung in his left hand. He halted thirty feet from the house and stared across the meadow. The trail of gaping bootholes left by Maya's killer had been reduced to a series of gentle indentations. He turned back to the cabin. Lamps flickered in two of the windows.

"Hello?" he called out. "Hello?" The last thing he wanted was to take anybody by surprise.

It was five or six seconds before the kitchen door opened. A young policeman poked his head out, stared for a moment, and then came down the steps. He stopped between the cars, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I'm David Neisen."

"I know."

There was something familiar about the boy, something about the way he moved, but it took David a minute to place him; it was Tommy Burmeister, the grandson of their old mailman. A second deputy, barely older than the first, had come to the open door. Shorter and grimmer than Young Burmeister, he exuded the glaring menace of a pit bull.

"Please," David said. "You've got to help me." Neither of the officers spoke. The poker in David's hands had Young Burmeister transfixed. "The man who murdered my daughter, he's out there. When I was on the phone, calling you guys, I saw him running from the house. I went after him, but he had a snowmobile stashed back in the meadow..."

"I think you better come inside," the Pit Bull said.

"But you don't understand. There's no time to lose. If we go now . . ."

"It would be best if you did like he said." Young Burmeister was backing up his partner.

David looked from one to the other of them. "Fine," he said. "Fine."

Young Burmeister retreated a step to let David pass. The Pit Bull held the door, stiffening as David ducked into the kitchen. The place was a mess: muddy footprints on the floor, a Sheriff's Department jacket tossed over a chair, a walkie-talkie and a couple of writing pads on the counter. David propped the poker against the wall.

"So what's this?"

David turned back. The two deputies stood shoulder to shoulder in the entryway, raw and wary. The Pit Bull nodded at the poker.

"That's what she was killed with," David said.

"You took it with you?"

"Yes."

The Pit Bull moved across the room, picked up the poker, and turned it over in his hands, frowning. David glanced over at Young Burmeister, who just looked sorrowful.

"So where were you when you saw him?" the Pit Bull said.

"In the living room. I was on the phone and I heard a door bang, so I went in there and saw him through the window."

"Did you see his face?"

"No."

"Was he a large man, a small man . . . ?"

"I'm not sure. Large, I think," David said. Young Burmeister surreptitiously knocked the snow off his boots, using the mat.

"And where is he now?"

"I don't know. I followed the snowmobile tracks as far as I could. . ."

"Which was how far?"

"Maybe a mile."

"So you lost the tracks or you just gave up?"

"I lost them. It was hopeless." He could tell from their faces: they weren't sure he was lying, but they weren't convinced he was telling the truth either. "He's probably out of the park by now, but if we went now, I could show you where the tracks gave out. He was headed up toward the north entrance. At least we'd have a chance . . ."

Young Burmeister looked as if he was up for it. The Pit Bull didn't. He set the poker on the counter. "I'm sorry, we can't leave. We're expecting the sheriff any minute. He was supposed to have been here by now."

"You can't let him waltz away like this!"

The Pit Bull's neck began to redden. "Did you hear what I said? We can't leave. We're under orders. All right?"

Anger took like a struck match. David felt himself within an inch of doing something stupid. For several seconds the two men stared at each other like heavyweight fighters at a weigh-in, and, to David's astonishment, it was the Pit Bull who wavered.

"Let me get on the phone and see what we can do." He turned sourly to his partner. "Just get him out of here, ok?"

Young Burmeister ushered David into the hallway. Moving through the cabin had the quality of a dream where everything was simultaneously familiar and utterly foreign. David's suitcase was right where he'd dropped it, and the acrid smell of smoke was as strong as ever. The bag of groceries still sat on the chair. David fingered a quart of softening Ben and Jerry's ice cream perched precariously atop a loaf of bread.

"I'd like to see my daughter if I could," David said.

"I don't see how there would be any harm in that," Young Burmeister said.

When they came to the entrance to the living room, Young Burmeister took David by the elbow, making sure he wasn't going any further.

From where they stood, he didn't have a clear view of her. She lay on the far side of the couch, one arm reaching out, the towel that had been under her head now unfurled on the rug and dark with blood.

"Can I . . . ?"

"No, I'm sorry," Young Burmeister said.

David lowered himself gingerly into a sagging wicker chair. Something had changed. Maybe it was just that it was later in the day, the afternoon fading in the dark windows, the lamp glowing in the corner. The silence seemed so deep. Maybe it was just that death was settling in. When did the soul leave the body? All at once, in a twinkling, or could it still be there in the room with them, like fine ash, bitter and burning to the eyes? He stared at the worn-down heels of her cowboy boots.

David could hear the distant murmur of the Pit Bull on the phone. How much could there be to talk about? They needed to go now. How obtuse could these people be? David crossed his arms tightly, trying to keep himself in check.

He could not see Maya's wound. He could almost convince himself that she was merely asleep, that all he needed to do was go to her, pick her up, and carry her to her bed. Pine boughs rose and fell outside the window.

All his life, David realized, he had mishandled grief. It had always filled him with wonder, seeing footage of Middle Eastern women wailing over the bodies of their dead. When the worst happened, he had always gone into a fog. It was as if an aperture closed down to the narrowest slit.

He rubbed his knees with the palms of his hands. He could have been at a museum, staring in at an exhibition sealed off by velvet ropes. This place was not his anymore. He had to understand that. It was a crime scene, a site to be scoured for hair and fiber, bits of torn skin and fingerprints.

He noticed for the first time the huge dent in the fire screen, as if someone had fallen into it. Maya must have fought the man. For how long, he wondered.

A door slammed in another part of the house. Why couldn't David just have gotten here ten minutes earlier? She would still be alive. If the flight from O'Hare hadn't been pushed back a half hour, if the line at the car rental hadn't been so long, if it hadn't been snowing so hard, he could have stopped this from happening.

David looked up and caught Young Burmeister staring at him.

"You're Eddie Burmeister's boy, aren't you?" David said.

"Yeah."

"I knew your grandfather. He used to deliver our mail. Years ago."

"All right."

Voices rose and fell in the kitchen. It sounded as if somebody else had arrived and somebody was angry. This was not the way any of them had planned on spending Christmas Eve. This boy needed to be home, wrapping presents for his family.

"So how long have you been with the sheriff's department?"

"A little over a year."

"Your Dad must be proud of you."

"I guess he is." In the corner the lamp flickered with the uncertain light of a votive candle.

"So how old are you?"

"Twenty-two."

"That's how old my daughter was. Twenty-two." David hunched forward. He could feel a fever coming on. "So have you ever seen anything like this before?"

"No, sir, I haven't."

"It's hard, isn't it?"

"Hard for everybody, I guess," the boy said.

"But let me tell you something," David said. "That's not her."

"I'm sorry?" Young Burmeister said.

"That's not her. What you see there. That's not her." Young Burmeister had no reply. There was the sound of footsteps in the hallway. The deputy turned to look, but David did not, focused only on his daughter's outstretched hand, the curled fingers, trying to fix it all in his mind.

"What the hell is going on here?"

Even after thirty-five years the voice had lost none of its bullyof- the-schoolyard belligerence. David pivoted in his chair. In his winter parka, Doug Danacek looked as big as a buffalo. When the Pit Bull had said that the sheriff was on his way, it hadn't fully registered with David just who that sheriff would be.

"He just wanted to see his daughter," Young Burmeister said.

"I understand that." The sheriff unzipped his jacket with one brutal motion. The Pit Bull had emerged from the kitchen looking thoroughly chastised. David leaned forward, looking from one to the other of them, on the verge of saying something. If they were going to have any chance of catching the man on the snowmobile, they had to leave now.

Ignoring the three of them, Danacek skirted the perimeter of the room with the gravity of a golfer sizing up a difficult putt. He had been big as a kid and three decades had only made him bigger. Ruddy-faced, coat open, heavy leather gloves flapping from his pockets, he seemed to blot out half the light in the cabin.

He moved finally into the space that David had been forbidden to enter, examining the overturned fire screen, the obstacle course of furniture knocked askew. David rose to his feet.

The sheriff toed the spilled ashes on the hearth, opened and shut the flue. He picked up the framed photo of David, Peggy, and Maya, taken on their trip to Tuscany, ten years before. In the picture, the three of them sat on a Roman aqueduct, tawny hayfield stretching out beneath them. Maya had been just twelve then, scrawny, with braces and big glasses.

Danacek set the photo back on the mantel. He surveyed the room, drinking it all in—the Navajo rug on the wall, the varnished log beams on the ceiling, the jammed bookshelves, the Shaker chairs. Danacek might not have known the price of Indian weaving, but he was no fool; this was not the kind of cabin a small-town sheriff could afford.

He knelt finally behind the couch to examine the body. After a minute or so he leaned forward to undo the buttons on Maya's long black Russian coat.

"Don't . . ." David said.

Danacek's eyes came up slowly. "I beg your pardon?"

If there was anyone in the world David didn't want touching his daughter, it was this man. "Nothing," David said. "Nothing."

Danacek lifted Maya's outstretched hand, examining the fingernails, and then let it drop. He pushed himself up; his knees were not good. "So where's the coroner?"

"He's on the way," the Pit Bull said.

Danacek hiked up his belt. Young Burmeister put a hand on David's arm, and David gave the deputy a quick glance. Young Burmeister knew the story; David could tell instantly from the flushed cheeks. Who in this town didn't know the story, the story that had linked David and Danacek for all these years?

The sheriff stepped around the fire screen. "I understand that you went after the man who did this?" he said.

"Yes."

"So where did you lose his tracks?" There was a full complement of gear on Danacek's belt, including a gun and what looked like a walkie-talkie.

"Somewhere in the boulder field. Below the ranger station."

"But you could still hear the snowmobile?"

"Off and on."

"And how long ago was this?"

"Thirty minutes, forty . . ."

Danacek glared at his two deputies as if he was ready to fire both of them. "Which way did it seem to be going?"

"At first I thought it was headed for the main road, but then I wasn't sure. It was more like he was trying to find a way up to the west bluff."

"I want you to show me."

"I don't understand."

"I've got a car outside."

"You mean, you and I . . ."

"That's right, you and I," Danacek said.

"But he's got to be long gone by now."

"Maybe so, maybe not, but one thing I can tell you, the way it's snowing, another half hour and there's not going to be a trace of anything out there." For the first time David noticed that Danacek's trousers were wet from the knees down.

"The coroner's going to be here any minute," Young Burmeister said to David. "It would be better if you went with the sheriff." Bewildered, David glanced over at the deputy. Why, of the three of them, should Danacek be the one to believe his story? They were all staring at him.

He looked back at his daughter. Because of the way Danacek had repositioned her arm, all David could see of her now was her tangle of dark hair. Her mother was the only one she'd let brush it. He remembered once going to the bedroom door and spying on them—Maya sitting at her desk in her flannel nightgown, her mother behind her, combing out the snarls. He could see Maya's reflection in the mirror, shining with contentment, see her mother whisk away an unruly lock. Maya had started to sing. She'd been in the chorus of The Nutcracker that winter, and she'd practiced her tiny part endlessly, night and day, the same twenty note refrain. He remembered thinking at that moment, standing outside the door, that the universe had never seemed so whole.

"OK," David said. "We should go then."

James Magnuson is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, including Windfall, Ghost Dancing, Open Season, and The Rundown. He is a former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for his fiction, and the winner of the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Currently Magnuson directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

"The book shifts into a sleepless-night psychological thriller along the lines of a more literary Ludlum."

San Antonio Express-News

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