Carlos "The Hammer" Marino blew on his hands and cursed. It was cold as a flea on a well digger’s ass, as his not-so-sainted father used to say whenever Carlos dragged him out into the frigid Chicago winter from whichever bar had slurped up the old man’s weekly wages. He craved a smoke. Out of the question. The cabin was still dark, but the mark would be stirring soon, and he couldn’t risk the glow of tobacco giving his presence away. He studied the eastern sky above the jagged line of trees. A swath of gray heralded the approach of dawn. Wouldn’t be long now.
He was getting too old for this shit. At fifty-four, he shouldn’t be tramping three miles through the goddam forest in the dead of night. He had tripped and fallen twice despite his night-vision goggles, nearly losing his GPS receiver in the layer of dead leaves and pine needles underfoot. It was the middle of effing nowhere, but the woods sounded as busy as Rush Street on a Saturday night. Annoying cricket chatter. The hair-raising cry of a screech owl. The yip and howl of what had to be a wolf. A wolf, for crissakes. Not to mention ominous rustlings that made him think of something large and furry with sharp claws and big teeth. It was impossible to feel safe even with his silenced nine-millimeter Beretta drawn. He was a city boy, and the wilds of Ontario held no charm whatsoever. He couldn’t wait to get this over with, hump it on back to the seaplane, and fly the fuck out of there.
He pressed the button that lit up the face of his watch. Six-twenty. He had been in position since a little after ten the night before, at which time the cabin lights were still burning. Close to midnight, agitated male voices had punctuated the stillness. The shouting had lasted for maybe fifteen minutes. Then a shadowy figure had appeared on the cabin’s front deck. A match rasped, flamed, and went out. A second match flared and died out. The signal Carlos had been waiting for. A third match touched the tip of a cigarette. Carlos’s habit-deprived nerves had jumped with each drag until the butt finally arced through the darkness and the figure disappeared inside. Shortly thereafter, the last light had gone out. The Hammer had given it another hour, then set to work.
The two fourteen-foot Lund boats had been beached for the night on the narrow rocky shore near the pier. No telling which boat the mark would take out the next morning, so he had rigged both. First, exchange the flotation cushions for the ones he had brought along. Probably not an exact match, but any minor differences wouldn’t be noticed because of the predawn dark. Next, a tiny plug of C4 molded to the seam of each keel as close to the center of the craft as possible. Last, a radio-controlled, battery-operated underwater detonator and blasting cap sealed next to the explosive with industrial-strength waterproof tape. He’d done a couple of dry runs back in Illinois to determine the correct amount of explosive to breach the boat’s hull without causing major damage. Vince wanted it to look like an accident. It was The Hammer’s job to make sure it did.
Now all he had to do was activate the right frequency for the detonation. To eliminate the possibility of a mistake, he had brought along two preprogrammed transceivers, one now nestled in each coat pocket. Right pocket for the boat farthest from the dock, left pocket for the other one. He grinned. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, either way to hell you go. . .
A sudden light backlit the trees behind the cabin and brought him to attention. The cabin was situated at the back of a deep clearing, allowing him to remain under cover near the water’s edge. He could see the front deck and western facade of the pine-log structure. The light came from the far side. Probably from the mark’s bedroom. Soon it went out, and another came on in the kitchen area.
Breakfast. His stomach rumbled, the thought of bacon and eggs followed by a cup of fresh coffee and a cigarette bringing a rush of saliva to his mouth.
"Come on, fucker," he muttered. "You ain’t gonna need it where you’re going."
He wrestled his impatience aside and hunkered down to wait.***
Lou Pfister pushed the screen door aside and stepped out onto the front deck. He stretched, walked over to the railing, and leaned against it. His belly’s considerable girth rested comfortably on the handrail. He looked up. The western sky was still pricked with stars, but a pearly bubble of light swelled above the black tree line to the east. Just enough time for him fire up the outboard and get into position before the fish started biting. He’d snag a Walleye or two for breakfast. Call it a peace offering. After all, the guys couldn’t hold it against him forever. A man had to do what a man had to do. Especially on matters of conscience.
He drew in a deep breath and allowed the crisp morning air to scatter the mental dregs of the previous night’s argument. He was glad the other two guys had decided to sleep in. He needed time alone to figure out how to handle things after they got home. And to prepare for the remaining day and a half up here. One little spat didn’t change the fact they were friends. The three of them had stuck together through thick and thin over the past few years, winning success for their agenda whenever the chips were down. They would just have to agree to disagree on this one issue.
He picked up his rod and tackle box and headed for the lake. Partway down the gentle incline, he stopped to take a pee. It was their habit to save the outhouse behind the cabin for their big jobs and do the other wherever they happened to be when the urge struck. They’d even had a bona fide pissing contest. And why not? There wasn’t another soul between here and the seaplane base thirty-five miles to the south. They were as isolated as it was possible to be in the modern world.
And yet. . .
As he zipped up and continued his trek to the lakeshore, he thought about the plane they’d heard flying in low over the southeastern leg of Horseshoe Lake around dusk the night before. Their camp was located at the apex of the lake’s arch. Their quest for fish over the past days had taken them up and down the shoreline in both directions without noticing any other cabins. It was possible there were people on a nearby lake. Even if there were, dusk was a strange time to be flying in or out. Their own plane would show up early on the morning after next to take them back to the seaplane base where they had parked their car. Meanwhile, they were on their own except for the cabin’s two-way radio, which they could use to summon help in case of an emergency. Maybe that explained the plane. Maybe some unlucky fisherman had needed to be flown out early because of an illness or injury. He hoped not. Talk about ruining a good time.
He tossed his gear into the boat nearest the dock and pushed it down the gravelly slope and into the water. He rested one knee on the bow, pushed off with the other foot, and hopped in. He used an oar to leverage the boat into deeper water, then lowered the outboard motor into place. It started up on the third pull, the brash mechanized sound an obscene violation of the pristine stillness. He throttled back to a low hum and checked to make sure the safety cushions were within easy reach. He had never learned to swim and was terrified of any body of water where he couldn’t touch bottom—but not terrified enough to endure the tortuous confines of a life vest. He had tried every vest on the market, but they simply didn’t make one that fit his short fat body. So he surrounded himself with flotation cushions and refused to think about the type of dire emergency that might make their use necessary.
He rotated the boat and puttered out toward the spot where they’d had some luck the morning before. When he came close, he killed the motor and let the boat drift, settling back to wait for the first rays of sun to bring up the fish. The utter serenity of earth and sky filled his heart with a peace he hadn’t known for a long time. The gentle motion of the boat lulled him and weighted his eyelids. Maybe he’d take a little snooze. . .
A muted pop. A slight bucking of the boat. Lou’s eyes snapped open. "What the—"
He didn’t see the water bubbling up into the boat until he felt it soak through his tennis shoes. "Hey!" he yelled, pulling his feet up. The water soon found them again.
Reality crashed in on him. Somehow, someway, the boat had been breached and was going down. In a panic, he grabbed for two seat cushions and threaded his arms through the side loops so that one hugged his chest and the other his back. By then the water was lapping around his buttocks. The weight of the now-submerged motor was dragging the boat down at frightening speed. He clutched a third cushion and started screaming for help.
"Ken!" Tyler Marowetz reached into the upper bunk and shook his friend’s shoulder. "Wake up!"
Ken Redenauer grunted but lay motionless.
"For God’s sake, wake up! It’s Lou. Sounds like he’s in trouble."
Ken rolled over and propped himself on one elbow. His sandy hair stood in a ring of spikes around his balding head. Bleary blue eyes squinted. "Trouble? What trouble?"
"Just get your ass out of bed, okay?" Ty was already struggling into his jeans. He grabbed his glasses, shoved his bare feet into his tennis shoes, and ran from the room.
The frantic cries that had wakened him were louder in the front part of the cabin. He heard the thud of Ken’s feet hitting the floor as he wrenched the door open. No time to wait. He barreled out onto the deck and down the steps in the direction of the lake.
A band of pink lit the eastern sky enough for him to see the flailing figure some four hundred yards from shore. He charged toward the remaining boat and shoved it into the water.
"Ty! Wait a sec!"
He glanced over his shoulder to see Ken crow hopping toward him on bare feet, a life preserver in each hand. He jumped into the boat and poled it into deeper water. He was setting the choke and pulling the cord on the motor as Ken splashed through the shallows and lunged for the gunwale. He pulled himself into the boat even as it began to gain speed.
"Here," he shouted, shoving one of the life preservers in Ty’s direction.
Ty ignored him and opened the throttle. By now the cries had become weak and sporadic. Lou’s head could be seen bobbing on the surface, disappearing, then reappearing in a frenzy of ineffectual flailing. Each time he went down, the interval until he struggled back to the surface grew longer. By the time they arrived at the approximate spot where they’d last seen him, the lake surface was smooth as glass. Lou was nowhere to be seen.
Ty shot Ken a wild look. "My God, what shall we do?"
Ken’s response was to throw off his life preserver, strip out of his sweatpants, and dive into the frigid water. Ty struggled out of his jeans and shoes, discarded his glasses, and jumped in after him.
The shock of the forty-six-degree water took his breath away. He gasped and fought for enough air to allow him to dive. The minute his head went under, he knew it was hopeless. Night still ruled the lake, and he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. He groped as deep as he could until he had to kick back to the surface for air. He was just in time to glimpse a pale foot disappear as Ken headed back down.
Ty was thirty-six and the youngest of the three. If Ken could continue on despite being twelve years older and twenty pounds overweight, then so could he. He drew another breath and plunged off in a different direction.
Ten minutes of fruitless searching left both men exhausted and frozen to the bone. They treaded water side by side, lips blue, teeth chattering.
"Better. . .get out. . .or. . .we’ll. . .be goners. . .too," said Ty.
Ken nodded, and they swam over to the boat. They struggled to pull themselves in. Collapsed onto the bottom, winded and shaking uncontrollably. Their bodies gradually warmed, the sun helping as it edged above the tree line. At last they pulled themselves onto the benches and sat staring at each other.
"What the hell just happened?" said Ken.
Ty shook his head.
"Where’s the boat? How could it just disappear like that?"
"But how? And wouldn’t we see some debris? It’s like the lake just swallowed it whole."
"I know. Crazy. Impossible. But. . ." He shrugged, not needing to state the obvious. "So what do we do now?"
That was, indeed, the question of the hour. The three of them had been a voting block on the village board of their small community northwest of Chicago for the past several years. They had stood shoulder to shoulder in championing the progressive view on such issues as growth and water quality and expansion of village government. Not to mention the subject of the previous night’s discussion. With a sympathetic village president leaning in their direction, they had been pretty much calling the shots. Now the entire dynamic was changed. Lou’s death was not only a tragedy for his family and friends, but the political ramifications were enormous.
"First off, we’d better radio down to the seaplane base," said Ken. "They’ll have to contact the Mounties and get a recovery operation going. Then I suppose we should see if they can patch us through to home. Susan needs to be told."
"Do we have to do it?" The note of panic in Ty’s voice was clear.
Ken grimaced. "Wouldn’t be my choice, I admit." He thought for a minute. "The Mounties probably have procedures for notifying families in situations like this. Maybe through the police department back home. But at the very least, we’d better give Sam a heads up." Sam O’Leary was the village president of East Dundee. "This is going to be a huge pain in the ass for him. He’ll need to start covering his bases right away."
Ty ran a hand through his damp hair. Nodded. The sooner they passed off the responsibility for this disaster, the better. He crawled back to the stern, started the motor, and circled the boat back toward the cabin.
The Hammer watched from his forested vantage point as the Lund boat turned and headed to shore. He’d been worried there for awhile. The last thing he’d expected was for those two yahoos to pull a Rambo stunt like that. What was their man thinking? Just proved Carlos’s point that involving an amateur in something this important was effing stupid. But did Vince take his advice? Fuck, no. Brushed it off like it was a piece of lint on one of his thousand-dollar suits. Resentment rose like bile in his throat. His ass would have been the one on the line if the mark had survived. As it was, he wouldn’t get any special kudos for dodging a bullet he himself had warned against.
He blew out his cheeks and bent to pick up the sack containing the flotation cushions he had removed from the boat earlier. This assignment might suck, but he couldn’t complain about his life on the whole. Vince was a reliable meal ticket, and together they made a kick-ass team. That Vince sometimes failed to appreciate all the crap Carlos took on his behalf was a small price to pay for their shared brotherhood.
He turned on his handheld GPS, took his bearings, and started back toward the waiting seaplane. After fifty feet or so, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. His spirits rose the instant the smoke hit his lungs. The mark was dead, the project no longer in jeopardy. Not a bad day’s work, even if he was the only one to appreciate it.
Hannah McPherson steeled herself as she climbed the funeral home steps. She had never been a fan of funerals and their trappings—who was?—but ever since her father’s death, she had taken special pains to avoid them. She would not have come today were it not for the business and political fallout of Lou Pfister’s untimely death.
Hannah was the appointed village engineer for East Dundee and served at the pleasure of the village president and board of trustees, of which Lou had been a member. She had held the position for a year and a half. Compared to the thirty-odd-year tenure of her predecessor, the beloved Barry Lindahl, she was a relative newcomer still proving herself to the board. It would be unthinkable for her to miss this opportunity to express her condolences and shmooze any political figures who might be there.
The tragic news of Lou’s drowning had blown into the small village like a category five hurricane. The local papers spewed the gory details: the rescue attempt by the two other trustees, recovery of the body and its return to East Dundee, retrieval of the boat from fifteen feet of water and the ongoing Canadian investigation into what had happened. The town gossip mill was rumbling over three trustees who generally voted in lockstep having retreated to a remote Canadian fishing camp in order to plot village policy out of the public eye. Suspicion and disapproval permeated the collective psyche.
Hannah reminded herself of Barry’s maxim as she reached for the entrance door—never take sides. That philosophy had served him well over the years and was the primary reason for his long run as village engineer. Elected officials had come and gone, but he had remained above the fray, refusing to get sucked into personalities. Hannah knew it was wise advice. Putting it into practice had become a greater challenge than she would ever have thought possible.
The funeral home’s reception area was crowded, not a surprise given the difficulty she’d had finding a parking place. The first person she saw was Sam O’Leary. The village president was a short chubby Irishman, something of an anomaly in a community settled by German immigrants and heavily populated by their descendants. The village administrator and two trustees clustered around him. Hannah walked over.
Sam’s round face crinkled in a wide smile. He took a couple of steps forward, hand extended. "Hannah, girl! Nice of you to come."
The blustery, proprietary tone of his greeting was not lost on Hannah. Nor on others standing nearby, many of whom turned to stare in their direction.
"Hello, Mr. Mayor," she said as she reached for his hand. It felt warm and clammy. She gave a light squeeze and released her grip. He continued to hold her limp hand, his bright eyes dancing down the length of her tailored black pantsuit.
It was an ongoing contest between the two of them—the divorced, fifty-something mayor blatantly telegraphing his erotic interest, Hannah pretending not to notice and hoping she could convince him to give it up before she was forced to file a sexual harassment suit. She freed her hand with a subtle jerk, resisted the impulse to wipe it on her trousers, and turned to Ken Redenauer, one of the trustees who had attempted to rescue Lou.
He towered over her, a man of sturdy stature in his late forties with sparse sandy hair and a softness around the middle that the loose wings of his open sport jacket could not hide.
"This can’t have been easy on you, Ken," she said. "I’m sorry for your ordeal."
"I only wish we could have saved him." The trustee’s voice was hoarse, his eyes rheumy, his nose red around the nostrils. He sneezed and reached in his pocket for a handkerchief.
Eyes still on Hannah, the mayor said, "Look at him. Damn near caught pneumonia out of the deal." Then to Ken, "You guys did your best. Can’t ask more of a man than that."
Rich Hauser, the trustee standing to Ken’s left, said, "Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to mix pleasure and politics."
Rich was a youngish man, probably close to Hannah’s age of thirty-three, and the newest member of the board. He was the grandson of a former village president and had allied himself with the more conservative trustees. Which put him in direct opposition to almost every position Ken’s faction championed.
Ken looked down at the shorter man, his face hard with dislike. "There wasn’t a damn thing political about it, Rich. Me and Ty and Lou were friends who all liked to fish. So we went where fishing is king. Canada. What’s wrong with that?"
"Depends on what you were doing when you weren’t fishing." He waited a pregnant beat, then said, "What I want to know is why a guy who couldn’t swim was out in the middle of the lake by himself without a life jacket. If you and Ty were such great pals of his, how come you weren’t out there with him?"
The cold fury in Ken’s eyes was plain to see. Village Administrator Bill Fallon exchanged a look with Hannah and stepped forward, saying, "Save it, guys. Let’s remember where we are, okay?"
"Hold on, Bill," said Ken, his eyes never leaving Rich’s. "It’s a fair question. We weren’t with him because we’d all been up late the night before, and Ty and I decided to sleep in. Lou wasn’t about to miss a single morning of fishing. So he went out alone. As for the life jacket, we harped on him about it all week, but he wouldn’t wear one. Said they cut into his armpits so bad he couldn’t relax and enjoy himself. He figured the flotation cushions served the same purpose."
Rich smirked, clearly enjoying the exchange. "So it was his fault he drowned because he wouldn’t wear a life jacket?"
"No." Ken’s jaw was so tight his lips barely moved. "I’m just telling it like it was."
"Then what happened with the cushions? He couldn’t hang on. . .or what?"
A flicker of uncertainty. "Actually, that’s a puzzler. When we got to the spot where he went down, we didn’t see any debris. The cushions were buoyant and should have risen to the surface, but. . ." He spread his hands. ". . .nada."
"Maybe he forgot to put them in the boat," suggested Hannah.
"If he did, they vanished into thin air because we didn’t find them on shore. The Mounties are still looking into it."
"Well, it’s a damn shame, that’s all I can say," said the mayor. "We’ve got a lot of issues pending before the board, and now we’re a man short."
"Not to mention our side now having the advantage," said Rich. "I don’t expect that’ll last long, though. Got a replacement candidate in mind, Sam?"
A mellow female voice said, "Don’t you think we should bury the poor man before we start talking politics?"
Joanna Zeller, the lone female member of the board of trustees, moved in beside Hannah. She was a tall angular woman in her early sixties with iron-gray hair cut in an ear-length bob and leathery skin cured by many years of exposure to the sun in pursuit of her passion for golf. She had taken Hannah under her wing from the beginning, declaring they needed to stick together since they were the only two women in a male-dominated arena. Hannah was grateful for the leg up even as she struggled to keep their relationship from coloring her perceptions and interactions with the remainder of the board. Never take sides. She could almost hear Barry speak the words even as Joanna gave her shoulder a friendly pat before turning her piercing blue eyes on the men.
Sam said, "Can’t ignore reality, Joanna, no matter how painful. But I agree this isn’t the time or the place for political talk. How’s Susan holding up?"
Joanna had just come from the viewing room where Lou’s widow and family were holding court. She shook her head, her long face lined with sadness. "Not well. Noah’s doing his best to help her through it, but he’s only seventeen, and it’s tough for him, too. Have you all had a chance to go in?"
It became apparent Hannah was the only one who had yet to convey her condolences. She excused herself and went to the counter along the back wall. She signed the guest book, tucked an envelope for a future memorial contribution into her pocket, and read the small folder that outlined Louis Pfister’s days on earth.
She took a deep breath. It was time.
Wide double doors led to the viewing room. The cloying aroma of cut flowers transported her to another time and place. Had it been only two years? Then, like now, the room was overly warm and crammed with mourners. A line of people stretched from the door to the casket, where a widow new to her role tried without much success to be brave and gracious. In this case, the offspring standing at Susan Pfister’s side was a gangly teenaged boy. Hannah could see the stoic determination on his face and knew he had pushed his own crushing grief to the background so he could coax his mother through these necessary rituals of death. She wondered what burden of guilt he carried beneath it all. The dead always left regrets behind. What memories haunted this young man’s sleep?
She sighed and took her place at the end of the line.