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Purgatory Ridge

(Part of Cork O'Connor Mystery Series)
By William Kent Krueger

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Chapter One

Corcoran O'Connor was pulled instantly from his sleep by the sound of a sniffle near his head. He opened his eyes and the face of his six-year-old son filled his vision.

"I'm thcared," Stevie said.

Cork propped himself on one arm. "Of what, buddy?"

"I heard thomething."

"Where? In your room?"

Stevie nodded.

"Let's go see."

Jo rolled over. "What is it?"

"Stevie heard something," Cork told his wife. "I'll take care of it. Go back to sleep."

"What time is it?"

Cork glanced at the radio alarm on the stand beside the bed. "Five o'clock."

"I can take him," she offered.

"Go back to sleep."

"Mmmm." She smiled faintly and rolled back to her dreaming.

Cork took his son by the hand, and together they walked down the hallway to where the night-light in Stevie's room cast a soft glow over everything.

"Where was the noise?"

Stevie pointed toward the window.

"Let's see."

Cork knelt and peered through the screen. Aurora, Minnesota, was defined by the barest hint of morning light. The air was quite still, not even the slightest rustle among the leaves of the elm in Cork's backyard. Far down the street, the Burnett's dog Bogart barked a few times, then fell silent. The only thing Cork found disturbing was the smell of wood smoke heavy on the breeze. The smoke came from forest fires burning all over the north country. Summer had come early that year. With it had come a dry heat and drought that wilted the undergrowth and turned fields of wild grass into something to be feared. Lake levels dropped to the lowest recorded in nearly a century. Rivers shrank to ragged threads. Creeks ceased to run. In shallow pools of trapped water, fish darted about wildly as what sustained them rapidly disappeared. The fires had begun in mid-June. Now it was nearly the end of July, and still the forests were burning. One blaze would be controlled and two others somewhere else would ignite. Day and night, the sky was full of smoke and the smell of burned wood.

"Do you still hear it?" Cork asked.

Stevie, who'd knelt beside him, shook his head.

"Probably an early bird," Cork said.

"After a worm." Stevie smiled.

"Yeah. And he must've got that worm. Think you can go back to sleep?"

"Yeth."

"Good man. Come on."

Cork got him settled in bed, then sat in a chair near the window. Stevie watched his father a while. His eyes were dark brown, the eyes of his Anishinaabe ancestors. Slowly, they drifted closed.

Cork's son had always been a light sleeper, awakened easily by noises in the night, disturbances in the routine of the household. He was the only one of the O'Connor children who'd needed the comfort of a night-light. Cork blamed himself. In Stevie's early years, when the dark of his closet or under his bed first became vast and menacing, Cork wasn't always there to stand between his son and the monsters of his imagination. There were times, he knew, when the monster was real and was Cork. He thought often these days of the words that ended the traditional marriage ceremony of the Anishinaabeg.

You will share the same fire.

You will hang your garments together.

You will help one another.

You will walk the same trail.

You will look after one another.

Be kind to one another.

Be kind to your children
.

He hadn't always been careful to abide by these simple instructions. But a man could change, and watching his son crawl back into his dreaming, Cork vowed -- as he did almost every morning -- to work at being a better man.

By the time Cork finally left Stevie to his dreaming, morning sunlight fired the curtains over the window at the end of the hallway. Cork thought of returning to bed for a little while, but chose instead to head to the bathroom, where he showered, shaved, splashed on aftershave, then looked himself over carefully in the bathroom mirror.

Corcoran Liam O'Connor was forty-seven years old. Part Irish, part Ojibwe Anishinaabe, he stood five feet eleven inches tall, weighed one hundred seventy-five pounds, and had brown eyes, thinning red-brown hair, and slightly crooked teeth. He suffered from mild rosacea that he treated with prescription ointment. In wet weather, his left shoulder -- twice dislocated -- was prone to an arthritic aching. He did not consider himself a handsome man, but there were those, apparently, who found him so. All in all, what stared back at him from the bathroom mirror was the face of a man who'd struggled to be happy and believed himself to be almost there.

He returned to his bedroom, a towel about his waist. The radio alarm had gone off and WIRR out of Buhl was playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Cork went to the dresser, pulled open a drawer, and took out a pair of black silk boxers.

Jo stirred. She took a deep breath but kept her eyes closed. When she spoke to him, the words seemed to come reluctantly and from a distant place.

"Stevie all right?"

"He's fine."

"Another fire's started. Up in the Boundary Waters near Saganaga Lake." She yawned. "I just heard it on the news."

"Oh?"

"Get this. The guy who started it is a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. He was shooting off fireworks. In the Boundary Waters -- can you believe it?"

"I hope they fine his ass big time," Cork said.

"He's a tobacco lawyer. He can pay from his pocket money." The room was quiet. Bogart started barking again down the block. "I can feel you watching me."

"What else?"

"I smell Old Spice."

"Anything else?"

"If I had to guess, I'd say you've put on your black silk boxers."

"What a detective you would have made." He sat on the bed, leaned down, and kissed her shoulder.

"I was dreaming before the radio came on." She rolled toward him and opened her eyes.

"What?"

"We were trying to fly, you and I. A plane we had to pedal. But somehow we couldn't quite get it off the ground."

Cork reached out and brushed a white-blond strand of hair from her cheek.

She reached up and drifted her hand down his chest. "You smell good."

"Only Old Spice. You have pedestrian tastes."

"And, my, aren't you lucky."

He bent to her lips. She let him kiss her but kept her mouth closed. "I'm all stale. Give me five minutes." She slid from the bed. She wore a gray tank top and white cotton underwear, her usual sleep attire. "Don't start anything without me." She smiled coyly as she went out the door.

Cork drew back the covers, straightened the bottom sheet, fluffed the pillows, and lay down to wait. The bedroom window was open. Bogart had ceased his barking and the only sound now was the call of a mourning dove perched in the big maple in the front yard. Aurora, Minnesota, deep in the great North Woods, riding the jagged edge of the Iron Range, had not yet wakened. This was Cork's favorite time of day. Although he couldn't actually see it, he could picture the whole town perfectly. Sunlight dripping down the houses on Gooseberry Lane like butter melting down pancakes. The streets empty and clean. The surface of Iron Lake on such a still morning looking solid as polished steel.

God, he loved this place.

And he'd begun to love again, too, the woman who now stood in the doorway with a gold towel wrapped about her and tucked at her breasts. Her hair was wet. Her pale blue eyes were wide awake and interested. She locked the door behind her.

"We don't have much time," she said in a whisper. "I think I heard Stevie stirring."

"We're the experts at putting a lot into a little time."

He smiled wide, and widely he opened his arms.

An explosion kept them from beginning anything. The house shook; the windows rattled; the mourning dove fell silent, frightened to stillness or frightened away.

"My God," Cork said. "What was that?"

Jo looked at him, her eyes blue and shiny. "I think the earth moved. Without us." She glanced at the window. "Sonic boom?"

"When was the last time you heard a sonic boom around here?"

From the hallway beyond the bedroom door came the sound of voices, then a knock.

"Jo? Cork?"

"Just a minute, Rose." She blew Cork a kiss. "Rain check." She headed to the closet and grabbed a robe from the door hook.

Cork quickly exchanged his silk boxers for a pair of jogging shorts and went to the window. He stared north over the roofs of Aurora where a column of smoke rose thick and black somewhere beyond the town limits. Just above the ground, the air was calm and the smoke climbed straight up four or five hundred feet until it hit a high current that spread it east over Iron Lake. The sky was a milky blue from the haze of the distant forest fires. Against it, the smoke from the nearer burn was dark as crude oil.

At his back, Cork heard the door unlock. Rose stepped in, Stevie at her heels.

"Whatever that was, it didn't sound good." Rose tugged her beige chenille robe tight about her broad waist and stuffed her plump, freckled hands into the pockets. She was Jo's sister and for more than fifteen years had been part of the O'Connor household.

Stevie ran to his father. "Thomething blew up."

"I think something did, buddy." Cork put his arm around his son and motioned the others to the window, where they huddled and stared at the huge smoke cloud fanning out above the lake.

The siren on Aurora's only fire station began to wail, calling the volunteers to duty.

"See the direction that smoke's coming from?" He glanced at Jo. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

From the concern on her face, it was clear to him that she was. She straightened and turned from the window. "I'd better go."

"I'll come with you." Cork started toward the dresser to get his clothes.

"Cork." Jo put a hand on his arm to restrain him gently. "I have clients to protect. I need to be out there. But there's no reason for you to go. You're not the sheriff anymore." She seemed reluctant to add that last bit of a reminder, as if she were afraid that even after all this time, it still might hurt him.

He smiled gamely and said, "Then let's just chalk it up to morbid curiosity."

Copyright © 2001 by William Kent Krueger

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