January, as usual, was meat locker cold, and the girl had already been missing for nearly two days. Corcoran O'Connor couldn't ignore the first circumstance. The second he tried not to think about.
He stood in snow up to his ass, more than two feet of drifted powder blinding white in the afternoon sun. He lifted his tinted goggles and glanced at the sky, a blue ceiling held up by green walls of pine. He stood on a ridge that overlooked a small oval of ice called Needle Lake, five miles from the nearest maintained road. Aside from the track his snowmobile had pressed into the powder, there was no sign of human life. A rugged vista lay before him -- an uplifted ridge, a jagged shoreline, a bare granite pinnacle that jutted from the ice and gave the lake its name -- but the recent snowfall had softened the look of the land. In his time, Cork had seen nearly fifty winters come and go. Sometimes the snow fell softly, sometimes it came in a rage. Always it changed the face of whatever it touched. Cork couldn't help thinking that in this respect, snow was a little like death. Except that death, when it changed a thing, changed it forever.
He took off his mittens, deerskin lined with fleece. He turned back to the Polaris snowmobile that Search and Rescue had provided for him, and he pulled a radio transmitter from the compartment behind the seat. When he spoke through the mouth hole of his ski mask, his words ghosted against the radio in a cloud of white vapor.
"Unit Three to base. Over."
"This is base. Go ahead, Cork."
"I'm at Needle Lake. No sign of her. I'm going to head up to Hat Lake. That'll finish this section."
"I copy that. Have you seen Bledsoe?"
"That's a negative."
"He completed the North Arm trail and was going to swing over to give you a hand. Also, be advised that the National Weather Service has issued a severe weather warning. A blizzard's coming our way. Sheriff's thinking of pulling everybody in."
Cork O'Connor had lived in the Northwoods of Minnesota most of his life. Although at the moment there was only a dark cloud bank building in the western sky, he knew that in no time at all the weather could turn.
"Ten-four, Patsy. I'll stay in touch. Unit Three out."
He'd been out since first light, and despite the deerskin mittens, the Sorel boots and thick socks, the quilted snowmobile suit, the down parka, and the ski mask, he was cold to the bone. He put the radio back, lifted a Thermos from the compartment under the seat of the Polaris, and poured a cup of coffee. It was only lukewarm, but it felt great going down his throat. As he sipped, he heard the sound of another machine cutting through the pines to his right. In a minute, a snowmobile broke through a gap in the trees, and shot onto the trail where Cork's own machine sat idle. Oliver Bledsoe buzzed up beside Cork and killed the engine. He dismounted and pulled off his ski mask.
"Heard you on the radio with Patsy," Bledsoe said. "Knew I'd catch you here." He cast a longing look at Cork's coffee. "Got any left?"
"Couple swallows," Cork said. He poured the last of the coffee into the cup and offered it to Bledsoe. "All yours."
Bledsoe was true-blood Iron Lake Ojibwe. He was large, muscular, a hair past fifty, with a wide, honest face and warm almond eyes. Although he was now an attorney and headed the legal affairs office for the tribal council, in his early years he'd worked as a logger and he knew this area well. Cork was glad to have him there.
Bledsoe stripped off his gloves and wrapped his hands around the warm cup. He closed his eyes to savor the coffee as it coursed down his throat. "Anything?" he asked.
"Nothing," Cork said.
"Lot of ground to cover." Bledsoe handed the cup back and glanced north where the wilderness stretched all the way to Canada. "It's a shame, nice girl like her, something like this." He dug beneath his parka and brought out a pack of Chesterfields and Zippo lighter. He offered a cigarette to Cork, who declined. He lit up, took a deep breath, and exhaled a great white cloud of smoke and wet breath. He put his gloves back on and let the cigarette dangle from the corner of his mouth. Nodding toward the sky in the west, he said, "You hear what's coming in? If that girl didn't have bad luck, she'd have no luck at all."
Cork heard the squawk of his radio and picked it up.
"Base to all units. It's official. We've got us a blizzard on the doorstep. A real ass kicker, looks like. Come on in. Sheriff says he doesn't want anyone else lost out there."
Cork listened as one by one the other units acknowledged.
"Unit Three. Unit Four. Did you copy? Over."
"This is Unit Three. Bledsoe's with me. We copy, Patsy. But listen. I still haven't checked Hat Lake. I'd like to have a quick look before I head back."
"Negative, Cork. Sheriff says turn around now. He's pulling in the dogs and air search, too. Weather service says it's not a storm to mess with."
"Is Wally there?"
"He won't tell you anything different."
"Put him on."
"Schanno, here. This better be good."
Cork could see him, Sheriff Wally Schanno. Grim, harried. With a missing girl, a whale of a blizzard, and a recalcitrant ex-sheriff on his hands.
"I'm just shy of Hat Lake, Wally. I'm going to check it out before I turn back."
"The hell you are. Have you taken a good look behind you?"
Glancing back to the west, toward the cloud bank that was now looming high above the tree line, Cork knew time was short.
"It would be a shame to come this far and not make it that last mile."
"Bring yourself in. That's an order."
"What are you going to do if I don't? Fire me? I'm a volunteer."
"You want to stay on Search and Rescue, you'll come back now. You read me, Unit Three?"
"Loud and clear, Sheriff."
"Good. I expect to see you shortly. Base out."
Schanno sounded weary deep down in his soul. Cork knew that the sheriff would turn away from the radio to face the family of the missing girl, having just reduced significantly the chances of finding her alive. For Cork, being out there in the cold and the snow with a blizzard at his back was infinitely preferable to what Sheriff Wally Schanno had to deal with. Once again, he was exceedingly glad that the badge he himself had once worn was now pinned to the chest of another man.
"Guess that about does it," Oliver Bledsoe said.
"I'm going to check Hat Lake."
"You heard the sheriff."
"I've got to know, Ollie."
Bledsoe nodded. "You want a hand?"
"No. You go on back. I won't be more than half an hour behind you."
"Schanno'll skin you alive."
"I'll take my chances with Wally."
Cork climbed onto the seat, kicked the engine over, and shot east in a roar of sparkling powder.
He hated snowmobiles. Hated the noise, a desecration of the silence of the deep woods that was to him a beauty so profound it felt sacred. Hated the kind of people snowmobiling brought, people who looked at the woods as they would an amusement park, just another diversion in the never-ending battle against boredom. Hated the ease with which the machines allowed access to a wilderness that could swallow the ignorant and unwary without a trace. The only value he could see in a snowmobile was that it allowed him, in a situation like this, to cover a large area quickly.
By the time he reached Hat Lake, the dark wall of cloud behind him stretched north and south from horizon to horizon, completely blotting out the late afternoon sun. The sight gave Cork chills that had nothing to do with the temperature. He found no sign of a snowmobile on the trail that circled the lake. Exactly what he'd suspected, but he wanted to be certain. The wind rose at his back. He watched ghosts of snow swirl up and pirouette across the lake ice. Except for the dancing snow and the trees as they bent to the rising wind, nothing moved. Not one flicker of life across the whole, frigid face of that land.
Copyright © 2004 by William Kent Krueger