The Renaissance Faire was in full swing. Coming to Delbrook, Wisconsin, the Friday after Labor Day, it was an event of pure performance art. A whimsical imitation of a medieval market town was erected in a field above Falcon Lake. Costumed players provided a day's worth of events that ranged from plays and musical entertainments to nature exhibits and crafts to a finale of jousting, mock battles and horsemanship.
Traditionally the local schools called a day off on Friday. It gave the teachers a welcome chance to catch their breath after the hectic opening days of the school year. Now that the lake crowd had closed up their summer cottages and returned to the cities where they lived and worked, the residents of Delbrook observed the weekend of the Renaissance Faire as a time for celebration. This year the weather was unusually warm.
Nevertheless, the Warrior was cold.
Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and slid down the side of his neck to pool at the indentation below his Adam's apple. The late afternoon heat pressed against the top of his head, but a chill, a combination of anticipation and fear, fanned out from the core of his being. His arms and legs tingled and his stomach cramped as he leaned against the railing, staring across the fairgrounds.
To the Warrior, the carnival atmosphere was alien to the serious purpose of the day's visit. The inherent danger of proximity to his home made it a daring choice. He had never worked within his own territory, and had strong misgivings. Even though the risk factor was very high, he had chosen the Faire for the apprentice's first test because it offered the greatest opportunity of success for the boy.
All week the Warrior had been restless. He had spent long nights establishing the guidelines, working out every detail to minimize the danger to both himself and the boy. The first trial in the initiation process was always the most important, setting the tone for eventual success or failure.
Despite the long training period, the boy's youth was a decided disadvantage. The test would prove whether, at four, the boy had mastered the necessary discipline to follow orders without question with all the distractions of a public place.
The Warrior had chosen his vantage point well. From the top of the hill, the outdoor patio of Ye Olde Ale House had a panoramic view of the entire fairground.
Smoke from the cooking pots and the open fires hung in a thick pall above the gaudily painted buildings of the mock town, pressed down by the humidity left behind by the recent thunderstorm. The ground was soaked and dotted with pools of standing water. In a futile effort to lessen the impact of the rain, the organizers had strewn loose straw on the main traffic areas, but despite that the ground had become a quagmire. The wet, mud-streaked crowd added a measure of veracity to the appearance and smell of the make-believe medieval fair.
The Warrior bit his lip. A sense of unease invaded his body. He hadn't counted on the rainstorm that had changed the temperament of the crowd. The sheer boisterousness worried him. In this atmosphere, anything could happen, and in an instant he could lose control of the situation.
Instinct urged him to abort the trial.
His eyes flicked across the crowd milling around the wooden benches next to the jousting field. It was easy to spot the blond boy sitting alone at the far end of the bench closest to the arena. Against the shifting movements of the excited audience, the child's immobility created an oasis of stillness.
One Who Cries was waiting for the signal. It was time for the boy to take the first step on his journey.
The Warrior could remember when he began his own training.
He had been older than One Who Cries. Twelve and lost in a world of pain and despair. He had found the answers to his search for freedom in reading about the culture of the American Indian. The tough disciplining of young boys captured his imagination, especially the tests that led to becoming a warrior. He'd steeped himself in the rituals and the customs, picking and choosing the elements he liked best and the ones he thought would enhance his own spirit.
The warrior symbolized power. And counting coup brought ultimate power.
A coup was a war honor that emphasized bravery, cunning and stealth over actual killing. It was the greatest achievement to touch an enemy with a coup stick in the heat of battle and leave him alive to wallow in shame and self-reproach. The triumphant warrior captured the enemy's spirit, which was worse than death to a man of the People.
Like a young American Indian boy, he began to train so that he would be worthy to take on the mantle of the warrior. In this he had no mentor to guide him. He would be his own teacher.
He had invented the first test when he was twelve.
During a week of planning he had fine-tuned the rules. He would select an enemy in a public place. For the coup to count, he had to touch the very center of the target's back. It must be a one-fingered touch, solid enough to elicit some reaction from the victim.
Level one had been easy to master.
Suddenly the Warrior straightened, hands tightening on the railing as he noticed the activity in the arena. Several horses had entered the jousting field.
The crowd applauded and shouted as the colorfully draped mounts with costumed knights on their backs pranced nervously around the ring. A loudspeaker bellowed over the noise of the audience, but the words were unintelligible at this distance.
Soon. It would be soon.
Eyes intent on the back of the blond head, the Warrior waited. He stood tall so that the boy would be able to see him clearly when he turned to catch the signal. The noise and commotion faded into the background as the Warrior concentrated on the child. He narrowed his focus, as if by sheer willpower he could guarantee success.
Still seated on the bench while all around him people shouted and gestured at the activity, One Who Cries looked too frail for the test ahead.
Despite appearances, the boy was in peak physical condition. He had been prepared for this moment through a strict regimen of healthy food, exercise and a highly structured schedule of activities.
The Warrior had made today's test extremely simple. It was the first time the boy had been released from confinement in a year and a half. Primarily the test was to see if the Warrior could maintain control of the four-year-old with all the distractions of the real world and an opportunity to escape.
What the boy had to do was neither demanding nor dangerous. He needed to wait for the appointed signal that initiated the coup, touch the wooden fence around the jousting field, then look to the Warrior for the signal to retreat and return to the rendezvous point. If he could, it would prove that the boy could be trusted on his own to obey his mentor's instructions.
A trumpet blew. One Who Cries rose to his feet and turned around until he was facing the Warrior. His right hand came up just below his chin and his fingers formed the sign to indicate he was ready. The Warrior raised his own hand and gave the go-ahead.
Heart racing in anticipation, the Warrior watched the boy walk with steady steps to the edge of the jousting arena. He reached out with his left hand and placed his palm flat on the wooden fencing.
One Who Cries turned around, and even at a distance, the Warrior could see the pride written clearly in the straight carriage of the boy. Now all that remained was the retreat. The Warrior raised his hand, but before he could give the signal for withdrawal, he heard a piercing cry. The boy's body jerked at the sound. His head tilted back, mouth open slightly, eyes trained upward.
A falcon soared high overhead. Even at that height, her silhouette was easily recognizable. With her strong wings, she dug into the air and climbed steeply above the arena. Wings and tail spread wide, she circled in a lazy spiral. A shiver of fear ran through the Warrior's body. This was not a part of the trial.
The falcon was a harbinger. An omen of disaster.
The Warrior started to move forward, watching the boy, who remained transfixed by the bird. The falcon slipped sideways, riding the rising currents of heat, then folded her wings against her body and dived straight down toward the earth, swooping above the crowd before she started to climb again.
One Who Cries opened his mouth in a silent scream.
Covering the top of his head with his arms, the boy raced down the aisle away from the arena. Seeing his distress, people reached out to him, but the boy dodged all attempts to hold him, ducking beneath the outstretched arms until he was beyond the jousting field.
Free of the crowd, One Who Cries slowed. His eyes were open, but he appeared to travel blindly, mind far from the motion of his body. The mud sucked at his feet, holding him to the earth, as he staggered from side to side up the hill. The Warrior could see the heaviness that invaded the small body as exhaustion overcame his initial panic.
The Warrior drew upon his own training to guard his face from showing any interest or emotion, but inside he twisted with frustration.
One Who Cries had failed the test.
The Warrior pushed away from the railing, charting a path that would intersect with the boy. He held his hands, curled into fists, tightly against his sides as he strode across the crest of the hill and angled toward One Who Cries. This was the moment of maximum danger where recognition could result in the loss of the child. He tried to clear his mind of negative thoughts. His first priority was to regain control of the child.
Later there would be time for analysis. He would have to discover what flaw in the training process had resulted in another failure. At least it was not a total disaster like the last time. Bad enough, but not unalterable.
It was important to keep in mind how much time he had invested in the boy's training. Well worth finding the weakness in the program so that he could modify it for the next time. Not much time remained until the final test. It was painful to think that the boy might be a poor choice.
Like the others, however, One Who Cries was expendable.
"Look, Mom. It's Grampa's car," Jake yelled.
The car lights illuminated George Collier as Maggie pulled into her parking space behind the house. As the tall, slim figure rose from the swing on the side porch, she sighed, knowing she didn't look her best. One glance in the rearview mirror confirmed the fact she couldn't look much worse.
"Hi, Grampa," Jake shouted as he got out of the car. "We just got back from my birthday party."
"It was getting late and I was beginning to worry that you'd run into trouble," George said.
"No trouble. I had to drop off the other boys," Maggie said, following more sedately as Jake bounded up the stairs to the porch. "Don't get too close, George. We're both absolutely filthy."
"Good heavens," the older man said as they came into the light. "What happened?"
"We got caught in the rain." Jake held out his dirt-streaked arms for his grandfather's approval.
"Was the party a disaster?" George asked.
"Actually, it was a great success," Maggie said. "Start taking your shoes and socks off, Jake, so you don't drag all that mud into the house."
She brushed at the front of her once white blouse, wondering if the splatters of mud would come out in the wash. A damp strand of reddish brown hair touched the side of her cheek, and she raised her hands to anchor the curly mess behind her ears. Her sneakers made squishing sounds as she crossed the wooden floor.
She frowned at the acrid smell of smoke. She knew George's doctor had told him to give up cigars, but other than to make her father-in-law sneak his guilty pleasures, the injunction seemed to have had little effect. Oh damn! She bit her lip. No point in nagging him. He'd just shrug and ignore her, like Jake did.
"How was the carnival?" George asked.
"Super," Jake said. "Extra super. None of the boys had ever been to the Renaissance Faire. Not even Kenny Rossiter. It was awesome."
"Despite the rain?" George asked.
"Probably because of it," Maggie said. "The whole place was one huge mud hole. If you were eight years old, what could be better. The boys loved it. Believe it or not we cleaned up a bit before we came home. After a day of slogging through the muck and mire, we were a pretty nasty-looking group. And you should see the car. I'll have to have it washed, inside and out."
Jake pulled at the sleeve of George's jacket to get his grandfather's attention.
"These two guys got into a fight and they wrestled in the middle of this mud puddle. They were all covered except for their eyeballs. They looked like white marbles. And when they were all done, another guy squirted them with a hose. Oh, and Grampa, if you gave this guy a dollar, he'd eat a whole handful of mud."
"Good Lord." George turned to Maggie. "How on earth did you survive?"
"Actually, it was a lot of fun," she said. "Once I realized the boys were having a great time and there was no hope of staying clean, I just sort of relaxed. It was like being a kid again. And the big finale at the jousting arena was well worth the aggravations."
Since Jake was too excited to be very helpful, she knelt down on the porch and grabbed one foot as he braced himself with a dirty hand on her shoulder. She removed his shoes and peeled off his socks as he regaled his grandfather with the events of the day.
Male bonding, she thought wistfully as they chattered away, oblivious to her presence. That was the one thing she could never give her son. After all these many days since Mark's death and all she'd done to help him, she couldn't hold back a twinge of jealousy that George could give Jake more than she could.
"Grampa, they had these horses and these knights with poles and they'd run at each other. And smash! They'd knock each other off the horses and then finish the fight with swords. I don't think anyone got killed." There was a trace of disappointment in his voice.
"Well I should hope not." George shook his head. "I'm sorry I missed it. It must have been a real spectacle."
"Just wait'll you see. Mom bought me one of those cardboard cameras, and I took tons of pictures. I even got one of Kenny throwing up."
"A bit too much pizza and cotton candy," Maggie explained, standing up. "He was back in action almost immediately."
"Sounds like quite a day," George said, smiling down at the excited child. "I can't wait to see the pictures."
"We took them to Kruckmeyer's Pharmacy to be developed. I'll have them back tomorrow, so you can see them before we go to dinner."
In the dim porch light, Maggie noted the bright color rising high on George's cheek and guessed the reason he had been waiting for them.
"Well, you see, son," George said. "I know we talked about going to dinner and a movie tomorrow, but I've run into a problem."
Jake's eyes narrowed slightly as he stared up at his grandfather.
"I got a call this afternoon and I have to go to the country club tomorrow. There's going to be a poker game." His eyes shifted between Jake and Maggie. "We won't be able to go to a movie, but there's no reason we can't have dinner together. I thought you and your mom could have dinner at the country club and then we'd take in a movie on another night."
"That's OK, Grampa," Jake said. "Mom already planned a special dinner for tomorrow. We can go to a movie next weekend, if you want."
His voice was flat, and Maggie felt a lump in her throat at his lie. She dug the house keys out of her pocket.
"It's still pretty warm out," she said, opening the screen and unlocking the door to the second floor apartment, "but I don't want you catching cold. Give Grampa a careful hug, then run along upstairs and take a shower."
She ignored the relief on George's face as Jake hugged him then raced up the carpeted stairs. Maggie sighed as the screen door slammed.
"Is he never still?" George asked.
"Not often. Even in his sleep, he tosses and turns as if he's fighting dragons or herding cattle in some imaginary world."
"I don't recall his father being quite so physical," George said. "Mark read a lot, and at Jake's age he was content to play with his collection of action figures."
Maggie chuckled. "Jake is his own action figure."
"The boy seems to be more cheerful. Not so sad and moody as when you first moved here."
"He's better. He's made some friends in this past year, and that's helped. But if you look beneath the surface, the anger's there. Deep down, he still blames me for his father's death."
"I thought he was over that nonsense," George said. "He must know it wasn't your fault. It was a car accident, for God's sake."
Maggie shrugged. "I know that, but Jake sees it differently."
"Do you have any regrets about moving here?"
"Not when I see how well he's adjusted. Right after Mark died I thought it would be better to stay in our house in Chicago." Maggie shrugged. "I suppose part of it was an attempt to keep as much the same as I could for Jake's sake. The other part was inertia."
"I can understand that," George said. "Mark's death was a shock to us all."
He took a deep breath and blew it out as if to cut off any more discussion. Maggie knew that George had never really come to terms with his son's death. He rarely spoke about that first year, but Maggie knew from others in Delbrook that her father-in-law had lived as a recluse, only coming out when he could find a card game or when he'd run out of alcohol.
It had been a letter from Nell Gleason, her mother's friend, mentioning George's situation that convinced Maggie to move to Delbrook.
"Don't worry, George. I'm very glad we came. With you here, Jake has a real sense of family. He misses his father a lot and loves spending time with you."
"I like it too," George said. He reached out and squeezed Maggie's shoulder. He ducked his head, his words mumbled as he continued. "I know these last two years have been hard, but you've done a damn fine job with the lad."
Maggie was surprised and touched by her father-in-law's momentary softness. Normally he was not a demonstrative man. Mark had referred to his father as The Tall Silence, and the nickname fit. George was the first to admit he wasn't into that "New Age touchy-feely crap," but in the last two years Maggie had grown to love her father-in-law dearly.
"Thank you, George." She leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out for the movie tomorrow," he mumbled. "They're counting on me to be at the poker game, and I'd hate to disappoint them."
Better to disillusion one small boy, she thought. Aloud she said, "There will be other times for a movie."
"I hate letting Jake down," George said, echoing her own thoughts.
It was difficult to be angry with George. He was far too aware of his own weaknesses. She knew he had done his best since Mark's death to be a strong male influence for his grandson. For that she would forgive a great deal.
"Why don't you come over Sunday for dinner? Jake's dying to tell you all about the birthday party."
"I'd like that," George said. "In fact, tomorrow I go right past Kruckmeyer's Pharmacy on the way to the country club. If they're ready, I'll pick up the photographs from the Renaissance Faire."
"That would save me a trip. I played hooky today, but tomorrow I'm working all day. Come about five on Sunday."
It was clear that George was pleased with the olive branch.
"Jake's a good kid, Maggie. Every day he looks more and more like his father. He'll be a real heartbreaker when he grows up. Just like his dad."
A heartbreaker just like his dad. His words kept repeating in her ears as she watched her father-in-law walk down the stairs to his car.
"A heartbreaker? Not if I can help it," Maggie muttered aloud, sitting down on the porch swing.
George's weakness was cards; Mark's had been women.
Mark with the bedroom eyes, who had attempted to sleep with every woman he met. Mark, who had ignored his marriage vows the moment the ink was dry on the wedding license. Mark, whose car had swerved off the road, killing himself along with the twenty-five-year-old woman carrying his child.
Oh yes. Mark had been a real heartbreaker.
He had broken her heart long ago. And for different reasons his death had broken the hearts of his father and his son. There were times when she wondered if any of them would ever heal.
He had been gone for two years, and yet Maggie had not been able to move beyond her anger. To George and Jake, Mark had been a wonderful son and father. Dead, he had become Saint Mark. They both assumed that she was as devastated as they were.
Maggie jumped at the voice behind her. "Sorry, Jake, I was daydreaming."
"I knew you didn't hear me when I came down." He plopped down on the wooden seat beside her, leaning his head against her shoulder. "Grampa gone?"
"Yes." She put her arm around his bathrobed figure and leaned close to smell the shampoo in his hair.
"No movie. That really bites," Jake said. "Big time."
Although Maggie might have worded it more strongly, she forced out a motherly response. "Life is like that sometimes. You could see that Grampa was sorry."
"He's always sorry."
Maggie heard the hurt in his voice. "And what's this about the special dinner I had planned?"
He grimaced. "I guess I sort of lied, Mom."
"Lies stink. They always end up hurting people. Even when you're trying not to." She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "Do you know what I've been thinking about for tomorrow night's dinner?" He shook his head. "A big pepperoni pizza."
Jake's expression lightened. "DeNato's makes really great pizza."
"Excellent plan. And on the way back we'll stop at Hoffman's Video and pick up Godzilla. You haven't seen that in at least a week or two."
"It's my favorite."
"Don't I know it."
She pulled him to his feet. He put his arms around her waist, and when he spoke, his voice was muffled against her rib cage.
It was times like this that were the toughest for Maggie. Jake was only eight, but his father's death had made him more aware of her feelings than he normally would be. He knew she was trying to make it up to him because George had bailed out of the movie. Jake's forced sensitivity to her emotions was one more thing she blamed on Mark. Tears pricked her eyelids as Jake pulled away.
"And thanks for the party. It was the best."
She grasped the chains to haul herself out of the swing. She was stiff. Jake's clean smell made her far too aware of her own odor. Definitely time for a shower.
"Race you," she said.
She released the swing chain and ran across to the open doorway. He was right behind her as she swung open the screen door. He slammed the inside door, and then, crowing with delight, he shot past her and scrambled up the narrow flight of stairs.
"What if Hoffman's doesn't have the Godzilla tape?" he called back over his shoulder.
"Then we'll rent a wonderful old musical with lots of singing, not to mention tap dancing."
"Yuck," he groaned.
With what little breath she had left, Maggie sighed. It was good to hear him laugh. For a long time after Mark's death, Jake would barely speak to her. She had thought he was asleep the night that Mark had asked her for a divorce. But Jake had been awake. He'd heard them arguing and heard his father slam out of the house in anger. The next day Mark had been killed.
Jake had blamed Maggie. If she hadn't fought with Mark, he reasoned, there wouldn't have been a car accident. Therefore it was Maggie's fault that his father was dead.
Although she had told George that Jake would eventually understand, the truth was she wondered if he ever would.
Copyright © 2000 by Martha Powers
When Maggie Collier learns that her father-in-law's murder may have been the result of his accidentally discovering the whereabouts of a kidnapped child, she takes up the investigation herself.
As she explores the seemingly idyllic lives of citizens in the quiet community of Delbrook, Wisconsin, Maggie gradually recognizes a dark and eerie menace lurking beneath the town's picture-perfect façade. And she's clearly not the only one feeling unnerved by the proceedings. Someone else is keenly interested in her search. Soon her own questions about her father-in-law's murder intersect with the investigation by a young lawyer from Chicago who is hunting for his niece's kidnapper. As they join forces, Maggie and Grant probe deeply into the lives of her seemingly respectable friends and neighbors. When everyone, it appears, has a secret to hide, Maggie enters a race against the clock to find the truth before the elusive serial killer and kidnapper can make her the next victim.
Crackling with tension and rich characterizations, Bleeding Heart hurtles toward a skillfully realized, cunningly resolved climax.