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Lightning Strike


January 1989

On his first day as the newly sworn-in sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, Cork O’Connor seated himself behind the desk that came with the badge. The desk, clear at the moment of all but a morning paper, a ceramic mug that held pens rather than coffee, and a framed family photograph, was a mosaic of scars and cigarette burns, the legacy of his father and the other men who’d sat behind that desk before Cork. He wore the khaki uniform he’d ironed himself for the swearing-in ceremony, which had been held that morning in the county courthouse a block away. His wife, Jo, had been there, along with his three young children and his sister-in-law, Rose. Sam Winter Moon had come, and Cork had been especially pleased to see Henry Meloux at the back of the courtroom. The old Mide had sat erect and expressionless, but his presence—and Sam’s—in that place where the Anishinaabeg had sought but seldom received justice spoke to the hope they now held.

Cork felt the solemnity of the moment. It came to him with a sense of satisfaction but also with a profound sense of burden. Wearing the badge his father had worn, he felt the heavy responsibility of measuring up to a man who’d given his life in the line of duty and, in doing so, had left his son with a hard road map to follow into his own manhood.

Deputy Ed Larson appeared in the doorway. He was tall, laconic, and nearly a decade Cork’s senior. They’d worked alongside one another for years.

“Care to take a victory lap around town?” the deputy said, then added with a grin, “Sheriff.”

It was January, and there was a bracing chill in the air outside the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department. The sun was a melt of yellow in an aster blue sky. On the streets of Aurora, which were banked with plowed snow, folks greeted him in a neighborly way. Despite the badge and the nature of all that came with it, he was still one of them and had been his entire life. They ate alongside him and his family at the Friday night fish fry in Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler. On fall evenings, they cheered with him among the local fans at the high school football games and sat next to him in the bleachers of the school gymnasium during basketball season. They took communion with him on Sundays at St. Agnes. Yes, he was one of them. And yet, not quite. Because there was something different about Corcoran Liam O’Connor that didn’t show in his face but ran in his blood. And he was reminded of it on that first day he wore the new badge.

As he and Deputy Ed Larson made the rounds of the small business district, an old man stepped from the Crooked Pine, and with him came the musty odor of stale beer. He jammed a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, cupped his hands around a match flame, and blew smoke toward the sky. Then he caught sight of the two officers and gave a drunken grunt.

“Never thought I’d see the day when a Redskin was sheriff here,” he said.

“I take it you didn’t vote for me, Lyle,” Cork said. “Hell, didn’t vote period.”

“Not much cause to complain then,” Larson said. “And I’ve got a question for you, Lyle. How do you intend to get home? Because it’s clear you’re too drunk to drive.”

The old man swung his eyes to a mud-spattered pickup parked at the curb. “Guess I’ll have a cup of coffee at the Broiler first.”

“Better make it three or four,” Larson said. “And I’ll be watching.”

The two officers walked on, a rough circle that brought them to the courthouse, where they stood looking at the structure, which had been built of red sandstone in the days when the wealth from the mines had fed the county’s economy and ornate public buildings were de rigueur on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

“You promised lots of changes in your campaign speeches. Going to change that?” Larson said, nodding toward the courthouse.

As was often the case with county courthouses, at least in Cork’s experience, a cupola crowned the structure and a large clock face was set within it. The hands had not moved in twenty-five years. The clock had been hit during the exchange of gunfire in which Cork’s father was killed. Periodically, the county commissioners would entertain a motion to have the clock repaired, but so far that motion had never passed. In its way, that frozen clock face was considered a memorial to Sheriff Liam O’Connor.

“Not up to me,” Cork said.

“I didn’t know him,” Larson said. “But he sure left a mark on this town.”

“Tell you what, Ed. Why don’t you go on back to the office? I’d like to spend a few minutes here alone.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff.” Larson gave him a little salute and crossed the street.

As Cork stared up at the frozen clock face, a cool breeze passed over him, which felt to him like the visitation of his father’s spirit. His father would have scowled and said something like “That’s your heart talking. If you’re going to be a good lawman, you need to listen to your head.”

It was a piece of advice in keeping with the kind of man his father had been. Or at least as Cork remembered him. In Cork’s memories, Liam O’Connor had been a lion, powerfully built, with hands like huge paws and a thick mane of red-gold hair. Although not typically given to displays of emotion, when the situation demanded, he was a ferocious, towering figure. Yet these days, whenever he studied the family photographs of his father, Cork saw a man much smaller than he remembered and with a much gentler face, different from the father Cork remembered, a stranger in so many ways.

There was a bench on the sidewalk, and he sat and allowed himself the indulgence of reverie. Beneath a blue sky and a butter yellow sun, with a cool breeze on his face, the weight of a new badge on his chest, and the responsibilities that came with it resting on his shoulders, he considered a summer long ago when he’d first begun to try to unravel the mystery that had been his father.


Chapter 1

Summer 1963

Before they discovered the body, Jorge had been singing.

“Sixty-six bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-six bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, sixty-five bottles of beer on the wall.”

That droning ditty had gone on longer than Cork O’Connor could stand, and he finally said, “Will you just shut up.”

“Sixty-five bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-five bottles of beer…”

It was late July, hot and humid. In the North Country of Minnesota, everything under the blaze of the sun sweltered. The afternoon was a miserable biting of blackflies, and to keep from being eaten alive, the two boys had done their best to maintain a brisk pace. They were hiking an abandoned logging road through the Superior National Forest, at the edge of what was then officially known as the Quetico-Superior Wilderness, though most folks simply called it the Boundary Waters. This was one of the ten milers required for their hiking merit badge, their destination a place known as Lightning Strike. They both carried packs topped with rolled sleeping bags, intending to spend the night, then hike back into the town of Aurora in the morning, completing the second of the required ten milers. They’d set out at noon, and it was now nearing three o’clock.

“…take one down and pass it around. Sixty-four bottles of beer on the wall.”

“Geez, just can it for a while.”

“Okay. What do you want to sing?”

“I don’t want to sing.”

“Guess what I watched on television the other night.”

“You already told me. The Thing.”

“That creature was so cool. Know who was inside the monster suit?”

“No idea.”

“James Arness. You know, Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I swear.”

“Why would he do something stupid like that when he’s already Marshal Dillon?”

“This was before Gunsmoke. Everybody’s got to start somewhere. Check this out.”

Jorge shrugged off his pack, reached under the flap, and pulled out a rolled sheet of drawing paper. He unfurled it and showed it to Cork. It was a pencil sketch of the creature from the movie they were discussing. Even at twelve years of age, Jorge was a terrific artist, and his interest for a long time now had been in things that go bump in the night, especially those things pumped out by the Hollywood B-movie horror factories.

“That’s really good,” Cork said.

“I’ve already sent away for the model kit. When I put it together, I know exactly where it will go. Right beside the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Jorge stopped talking for a moment, sniffed the air, wrinkled his nose, and said, “What died?” Cork smelled it, too, the foul odor of rotting flesh, brought to them on a weak breeze. “Probably a deer or something,” he said. “Somewhere in the woods.”

A hundred yards down the grown-over logging road, the two boys could see the meadow where the ruins of Lightning Strike lay. “Let’s go,” Cork said. “We’re almost there.”

Jorge put away his drawing, reshouldered his pack, and they walked on.

Lightning Strike sat in a clearing in the middle of a great stand of old-growth white pines and mixed hardwoods on the shoreline of Iron Lake. Cork had been there many times, usually in the company of Billy Downwind, a friend from the rez, and Billy’s uncle, Big John Manydeeds. Because of his deep knowledge of the great Northwoods and the skills it took to survive there, Big John was a man Cork respected and admired. But the first time Cork visited Lightning Strike, he’d been only six years old and in the company of his grandmother Dilsey. From the reservation, it was a three-mile hike, and though Cork’s legs were small, they’d carried him to Lightning Strike and back easily. The whole way, Grandma Dilsey had pointed out plants and trees and the signs of animals, telling him the Ojibwe names for these things. She was true-blood Iron Lake Anishinaabe, and one of only a handful of elders left who spoke the language of her people fluently. She was always trying to convince Cork to learn to speak as his ancestors had, but he complained that it was too hard.

“Only to a lazy mind, Corkie,” was her usual reply. She’d been a teacher most of her life, and although she chose not to push him in his learning, she would generally add something along the lines of “When I die, and the other elders, too, the language dies with us. And there will go everything we’ve ever been as a people.” Which always made Cork feel guilty, but not enough that he’d knuckled down yet to learn a language his father had complained was the second most difficult on earth behind Mandarin Chinese.

In the center of the clearing stood the burned remains of a large log construction. The walls had long ago collapsed and only a stone hearth and chimney remained intact. The clearing was filled with rattlesnake ferns and club moss and fireweed that bloomed in spiked clusters of brilliant purple blossoms. The boys crossed the meadow and went directly to the burned-down structure.

Jorge stood looking at the charred scene, then at the sky. “Hope there’s not a storm tonight. I don’t want to end up like this place.”

“This is a sacred place for the Ojibwe, a place of power,” Cork told him. “Grandma Dilsey says no one should have ever logged here. That’s why the spirits caused it to be hit by lightning. You and me, I think we’re okay.” Cork gave a skeptical look. “Well, I’m okay anyway.”

Jorge punched Cork’s shoulder, then contorted his face in a look of revulsion. “That dead stink is following us. Maybe we should camp somewhere else. I don’t want to smell that all night.”

Cork wasn’t listening now. He was looking toward the south end of the meadow. Through the trees there, the surface of Iron Lake shimmered as if it were made of mercury. But it wasn’t the lake that had caught Cork’s attention. He was focused on a huge maple tree that stood alone inside the clearing. “Jorge,” he whispered and nodded toward the tree.

Jorge followed his gaze, then whispered back, “Jesus. That’s no dead deer.”

The boys dropped their backpacks and walked slowly toward the solitary maple, unable to take their eyes away from what they saw there. They stopped a dozen feet from the hanging body.

The man at the end of the rope was huge, a goliath. His long black hair lay draped over his shoulders like a mourning shawl. His face was swollen, his tongue distended and black. Foamy, blood-colored liquid leaked from his mouth and nostrils. His eye sockets were empty holes from which maggots crawled down his cheeks like milky tears.

The breeze shifted strong in their direction, and they recoiled at the smell that overwhelmed them.

“God!” Jorge turned and stumbled away.

Despite the stench and the grotesque, rotting figure, Cork couldn’t move, couldn’t take his eyes away, because he knew this man. And although what hung before him was in no way his fault or his doing, Cork began to cry and said, “I’m sorry, Big John. I’m so sorry.”

Lightning Strike
by by William Kent Krueger