Kasey Kennedy drove through a rain of dead leaves.
With each gust of wind, paper bullets swarmed out of the fog and slapped against her windshield, rat-a-tat-tat. Kasey flinched as they struck. She clutched the steering wheel and peered into the mist, but her headlights illuminated barely twenty feet of wet pavement. When she clicked on her high beams, it was worse, like shining a light into a mirror and having it bounce back in her eyes. The world was nothing but a sheet of gauze wrapped around her car. No street lights. No signs. No yellow lines on the highway. Nothing to guide her. She was blind and lost.
"Where the hell are we?" Kasey worried aloud.
She knew she wasn't where she needed to be. Highway 43 zigzagged left and right as it cut through the farmlands north of Duluth, Minnesota, and somewhere she had made a wrong turn. Then, trying to correct her error, she had turned several times more. All she had accomplished was to lose her sense of direction entirely. She couldn't be far from home, but a mile felt like a hundred miles in the fog. Her eyes flicked to the rear-view mirror, where she caught a glimpse of her own nervous face. Her shock-red curls draped limply on her forehead, moistened by sweat and rain. Her blue eyes were wide and glassy with tears. Her freckled cheekbones were flushed, the way a little girl gets when she's guilty and afraid. She tried to muster a smile, but she couldn't pretend. She had made a terrible mistake. She had wandered off the face of the earth and had no idea how to get back. Her cell phone was at home. She didn't own a GPS navigator. The only thing that made her feel better was the gun on the seat beside her.
These days, women who lived in the north farmlands slept, ate, and took showers with a gun nearby.
Kasey carried a gun every day, but she'd never had to unholster it on the job. She worked for the Duluth police, but she wasn't the kind of cop who dealt with drug dealers or armed robberies. Jonathan Stride and Maggie Bei, who led the Detective Bureau that handled the city's major crimes, probably didn't know who she was. She busted kids for breaking windows; she cooled down the hotheads at the bars in Lakeside; she checked out reports of cars parked in the woods and usually found teenagers making out. That was her beat.
Cops weren't supposed to get scared, but Kasey was terrified. It had been days since she'd had a good night's sleep. She was running on adrenaline and caffeine. Her shredded nerves had been on edge throughout the two-hour drive, and now her anxiety spiraled out of control, leaving her dizzy with confusion and panic.
She glanced in the mirror again. "What do I do?"
The spitting drizzle outside grew heavier. Some of the fallen leaves began to stick to the glass, where they resembled disembodied hand prints with outstretched fingers trying to get inside. The swirling threads of fog played tricks on her mind. She saw deer leaping across the narrow road and silhouettes of young children frozen in front of her. The hallucinations became so real that when she saw a car dead ahead, she swung the wheel hard to veer out of the way and pushed the accelerator to give her old Cutlass a burst of speed.
It was another mistake.
A mistake that would change everything.
The asphalt road vanished under her tires and became dirt. Tree branches grasped out from the shoulders and scraped her doors. The car lurched into uneven ruts, making the chassis shiver. She wasn't on a highway anymore, but on a trail leading deeper into the forest.
Kasey stopped. Rain leaked onto the windshield. She put her bony fingers over the lower half of her face, and her breathing was ragged and loud. She closed her eyes and prayed that the fog would lift, but when she opened them again, she was still marooned in a cloud. She knew she couldn't stay here. She had to figure out where she was and find her way home.
Kasey switched off the engine, shut down her headlights, and opened the driver's door. The bitter November air blew into the car with a thick scent of pine. She climbed out and eased the door shut behind her with a quiet click. Her boots landed in mud. Evergreen trees swayed like drunks above her. She pushed past the trees into the dark, and as her eyes adjusted to the night, she found herself on the edge of the stripped ruins of a corn field that hadn't been plowed in years. Short, knobby stalks pushed out of the dirt. It looked like a desolate moonscape.
People told her how much they loved fall in Minnesota, but Kasey hated it. She knew that the long death of winter was coming. The trees were already shrugging off their leaves and becoming frozen skeletons. This would be Kasey's fourth winter in Minnesota, and she was glad that they would be gone before it was over. She couldn't wait to escape with her husband and child to the desert of Nevada, baking in the heat, closing her eyes against the bright sunshine.
But that was far away. This was here and now.
Kasey realized what she'd done. In her panic, she had turned off the highway into the unpaved driveway of a Duluth farm home. She could make out its peaked roof and dark windows, and when she wrinkled her nose, she smelled a remnant of fireplace smoke. Beside the house, she saw the foundation of a steel tower, and as the fog ebbed and flowed, she glimpsed the soaring triple wings of a windmill overhead, turning with slow grace. She retraced her steps quickly. She couldn't afford to stray far from her car.
Kasey clambered inside her Cutlass and cursed when her key ring slipped through her fingers. She banged her head on the steering wheel as she hunched over to hunt for the keys on the floor of the car.
Then something thumped. Pounded. Right next to her.
Kasey reared up and screamed. Like a garish painted scarecrow, a woman's face popped into her line of sight. They were no more than six inches apart. Kasey saw frenzied green eyes, raven hair pasted in wet, messy strands across her face, and two hands pressed in supplication against the window. The woman's slim neck was ringed in what looked like a red necklace, but was really a deep and violent abrasion, dripping pearls of blood.
"Help me, oh Lord, help me!"
Kasey froze. The woman hammered her fists on the glass. She wore a flannel nightgown, one sleeve ripped off, jagged tears in the chest flapping over her exposed left breast.
"Let me in! Please!"
The woman didn't wait. She flung open the rear door of the Cutlass and piled into the back seat. Kasey smelled her fear and the sick odor of urine and feces where she had soiled herself. The woman dug her nails into Kasey's shoulders and shook her like a doll.
"Drive! Go! Don't you understand? He's coming for us."
Kasey grabbed her gun off the passenger seat and wheeled around to confront her. "What's going on? Who are you?"
The woman shrank into the back seat and cowered with her hands in front of her face. "Oh, my God, you're with him? You're part of this? Please, please, for God's sake. I'm a mother, too. Don't kill me, just let me go." She kicked open the rear door to escape, and Kasey leaped half-way over the seat and grabbed her arm to stop her.
"I'm a cop!" Kasey shouted. "Stay right there."
The woman hesitated. Reality penetrated her consciousness slowly, as if she didn't dare believe it. She became aware of Kasey's uniform. Saw her badge. "You're with the police?"
"Yes, now what happened to you?"
"Oh, thank God!" the woman cried in relief. "You have to get us out of here. There's no time. He'll kill us all. Hurry."
Kasey reached for the ignition but realized that her keys were still lost on the floor of the car. She bent over and pushed her trembling hands blindly around the mat. As her fingers closed on the key chain, she heard a panicked scream behind her.
"It's too late! Oh my God, he's here!"
Kasey's head snapped up. Her hand flicked to the headlights, and when the two beams split the night, she saw the black outline of a man ten feet in front of the car. He had no face, like a headless monster, and Kasey realized he wore a ski mask pulled down over his skull.
Kasey lifted the gun, but the man outside the car ducked to his knees and rolled away. She snatched up her keys and fired the engine, and the Cutlass motor roared to life. She shoved the gear into reverse and pressed the accelerator to the floor, and the car shot backward, swerving. Before Kasey could control it, the Cutlass veered into the long grass and collided with the trunk of one of the trees bordering the driveway. Pine needles and branches sprinkled over the windows. The impact knocked her gun out of her hand, and it disappeared between the seat cushion and the right-side door.
"Shit, I dropped the gun."
"Oh, my God!" the woman screamed.
Kasey jumped across the seat for the gun, but she wasn't fast enough. When she looked up, he was outside the car window. The man's black eyes gleamed at her, and for a split second, the two of them stared at each other through the glass. She thought he was smiling. He reached for the door handle.
Behind her, the woman dissolved into panic. Her cry was like an animal's howl, and she reacted the way an animal would, by trying to flee. The woman flung open the rear door and bolted into the night, running in bare feet toward the deeper woods beyond the farm, swallowed up by the fog. The man outside the window abandoned the car and followed her. In an instant, he was invisible, too. Kasey was alone.
She wanted nothing more than to drive away. Escape to safety. Pretend that nothing had happened here. She wanted to return to the highway and block out the last five minutes from her brain and criss-cross the empty roads until she found her way home. But she couldn't let this woman and her pursuer run off into the woods. She had to go after them.
Kasey located her gun wedged inside the door frame and locked both doors behind her as she scrambled out of the Cutlass. Outside the car, she froze with indecision. She squeezed her right hand against her forehead and took several loud, open-mouthed breaths to hold back her terror. Her body was soaked with sweat. She listened and heard a scream not far away and tried to pinpoint the direction of the voice.
Her mind said again: Escape. Run.
Kasey had no choice but to ignore what her instincts told her. She ran from the car, her heart in her mouth, her stomach churning with acid and fear. On both sides, the pines loomed like fat soldiers. She slashed through the branches, trying to see what was ahead of her, but the fog left her sightless. She found herself in an open patch of wet grass and ran faster, and then the grass ended in a thick stand of paper birches. She stopped and listened again, trying to hear sounds above her own breathing. Somewhere ahead she heard the noise of branches cracking and heavy footfalls in the woods. Kasey followed.
She pushed through sharp brambles that ripped at her sleeves. The trees were matted and close together here, like passengers at a crowded train station. She held her gun high, pointed at the sky. Her feet tripped her up as she fought her way forward, stumbling on bulging tree roots and indentations in the soil. Her wet red hair sagged over her eyes. In some part of her soul, she realized she was crying, but she shoved aside her emotions. She hadn't come this far for nothing. Her heart hardened, becoming cold and furious.
As she ran, she heard a wet, roaring noise far below her. She realized what it was, but not before the ground beneath her became air. Her momentum carried her off the edge of a steep slope, where she tumbled shoulder over shoulder through mud and trees. The contents of her pockets spilled across the slope; her badge was ripped from her shirt; one boot fell away and left her right foot bare. She fell twenty feet, thirty feet, forty feet, and finally landed heavily on the soggy earth at the bottom of the hill. She tried to clear her head. Nothing felt broken. She got up slowly and realized with relief that she still had her gun clutched in her hand.
Water cascaded through the narrows. She recognized where she was now, at the edge of the Lester River where it ran southward toward Lake Superior. She knew this area from her beat, knew that a highway bridge crossed the river barely fifty yards away, knew that a single turn of the wheel would lead her back to Highway 43. Of all the horrors of this night, she had gotten lost only ten minutes from her home.
Another scream rose above the noise of the river from the opposite shore. Kasey stumbled onto the marshy rye grass at the bank, and the water flooded to her ankles. She could make out the black water; the fog was thinning. The river was barely twenty feet from shore to shore, but she forgot that the narrows also meant the water here was stronger and faster. She waded in with a shudder, and the impact slammed her body and knocked her off her feet. The hurtling current whipped her downstream before her feet clawed for purchase on the slippery rocks of the river bed. She fought to the opposite bank and dug her fingers into the eroded clay soil above her. With a silent groan, she pulled herself out of the river and onto the soft grass.
She still hung on to her gun. She was drenched and freezing. Shivers wracked her body.
She ducked under the arms of a huge spruce and crept through fallen branches that snapped under her feet. Just ahead of her was a low, square building of white cinder block, an abandoned dairy she passed on her beat every week. From the other side of the stone building she heard a strangled cry. With both hands, Kasey pointed the way with her gun and followed their trail behind the rear wall of the dairy. The stonework was cracked, the white paint peeling. The windows were shattered and covered over with chicken wire. She passed a rusting propane tank.
Carefully, she eased around the corner to the open field of grass behind the building. They were there. Both of them. Wet to the bone. The man tightened a metal wire around the woman's neck, biting into the bloody line he had made there earlier. She struggled, but faintly, her limbs twitching. When the man saw Kasey, he jerked the woman's body in front of him as a shield. All that was visible was one of his dark eyes, shining brightly.
Kasey extended her gun. Her cold, tired arms trembled. "Let her go."
They faced each other across twenty feet of mist and darkness. Kasey knew she barely had a shot. She focused on what she could see of his body. Half of his head. The meat of his shoulder. His right leg. He was taller than the woman in his grasp, but his knees were bent as he crouched behind her.
"Let her go now," Kasey repeated. "Run if you want."
"Drop the gun, and I'll let her go."
"I'm going to take the shot."
"And risk killing her? Not a chance."
Kasey took a step closer. The man backed up, dragging the woman with him, her feet scraping the ground. "I already told you. Run."
The noose strangled the woman, choking off her air. Her near-dead eyes bulged. Kasey sighted down the barrel of her gun. She planted her feet in the sodden soil. She exhaled slowly and felt a serene calm wash over her freezing skin. Her finger eased onto the trigger.
Behind the mask, the man taunted her. "You won't do it," he said.
Kasey took the shot.