Tom woke to a day that anyone who lives in a northern state assumes will never arrive, spring. With the sound of the spring peepers in his ears, rubber boots sinking in mud and a sandwich in his pocket, he walked to his secluded sanctuary. A private lake nestled between hills the glaciers carved millions of years before. The snow melt brought the lake level to a new high water mark. He had prepared the previous autumn to repair the twenty year old relic of a dock and a stack of lumber awaited him. His dog, a mutt he affectionately named Digger, excitedly ran the property.
Digger led the way anticipating his first swim of the year. Squirrels and birds greeted him with irritation as he trailed through their home. As Tom descended the final hill that approached the lake, he stopped, taking in the beauty that surrounded him. His slice of heaven on earth fed his soul. The land, in his family for generations, spoke to him. It was his one true love.
As the wind shifted, the spell was broken. Sensing something was wrong, Digger slowly returned to Tom’s side, tail between his legs. The overwhelming smell and sight of death consumed him at the same moment. Unable to look away, he realized it was a woman. The dock supported her naked body rotting in the warm spring sun. Nature was doing its best to reclaim her. Clumps of her long brown hair floated in the water as vultures began feasting on her remains. Most haunting, she was surrounded by fresh bouquets of trillium, the delicate forest flower that carpeted the forest floor.
He didn’t realize he was running until he reached the top of the hill, light headed, out of breath. Digger remained by the dock, as if he were standing guard. As he bent over to hopefully prevent passing out, he noticed his and Digger’s footprints in the soft earth. It took another moment for him to make sense of what he was seeing. Overlapping his footprints there were another set of footprints. They were larger, pressed deeper into the spring mud. Frantic, he started yelling, “Digger! Digger! Get up here boy!” As Digger stood and started on his way up the hill, the noise of the gunshot drowned out any commands hanging in the air for Digger to hear. Digger collapsed half way up the hill, gone. His own screams filled the woods as he fled in terror.
Through the chaos he was able to organize his thoughts. Thinking, “get the key in the lock, open door, relock door, get phone, lock self in attic, call police.” It was now a chant in his head, repeating the order thousands of times in less than a minute. As the adrenaline rushed through his body, he turned slightly to see who was following him. Expecting to be killed instantly, he was shocked to see that he was alone.
He first scanned the field that separated him from the wood line, nothing. He looked further to the woods that spring had yet to claim, as far as he could see, still nothing. He was alone, his constant companion dead, with tears rolling down his face he gasped, “Digger.” His voice hoarse from screaming, the sound of his heart beating in his ears, shaking, he entered the house and called the police.
The calming voice of a woman answered his call, “911 what is your emergency?”
Before he could answer, he heard the crackling of glass, felt the bullet as it entered his shoulder. Losing consciousness he whispered into the phone, “He has come back.”
For the next three days he was lost, trapped in a nightmare. He had vague memories of the police arriving, trying to make them understand to go to the lake, doctors talking about surgery and options, deep sleep. It was dark when he awoke, except for a sliver of light through the door that was slightly cracked open. He remained silent, not wanting the barrage of nurses to arrive with their questions and concerns. Surveying the room, he realized he was not alone. Even in the dark, he recognized his cousin Sam.
“I see you decided to rejoin the living.”
Tom yawned, “Might as well, the line to get into hell was taking too long and heaven had to check my references.”
Growing up more like brothers than cousins, Sam was relieved Tom’s sense of humor was still intact. “The detectives are anxious to talk to you.”
Sam turned on the small bedside light and sat on the edge of the bed next to Tom. There was no hiding from Sam, he would understand his tears. “What did they do with Digger?”
“After the police retrieved the bullet, I buried him under the Lilac tree at the north end of the house. “
“Sam, who was she?”
He couldn’t meet Tom’s stare. “No one’s saying.”
“Have you talked to the detectives?”
Sam met Tom’s watery gaze, “It’s complicated.”
As Tom closed his eyes, he whispered, “It always is.”
Detective Frank Larsen had seen it all. There were car accidents that claimed the lives of teenagers, husbands who killed wives, missing children never found, and illegal drugs that destroyed the best of people and their communities. Occasionally there were cases that caught him off guard, like this one. In the last three days he had barely slept. His mind organizing the details of the crime, trying to make sense where there was none to be made. The facts, a man had been shot, his dog murdered in front of him, an unidentified woman, dead. The devil is always in the details, like the note that was found nailed to a tree. Then there was Tom, who he knew and respected. The FBI had been called and would be arriving before the end of the day. He needed to talk to Tom before they arrived.
Sam had told Tom he needed some fresh air. Really, he needed a drink. His truck had seen better days. Thankfully spring had arrived because he was getting tired of using his ice scraper to peel the layer of frost from the inside of his windshield on cold mornings. It was warm enough to have the windows down, the air cool on the back of his neck while he sipped bourbon out of his thermos cup. From where he was parked, he could see the people coming and going. Hospitals gave him the creeps, full of sick people and others waiting to die. If it weren’t Tom, he wouldn’t come near the place. As he swallowed the last of his drink, he saw Frank walking up to his truck. “Guess you heard.”
Frank leaned on the truck window and rested his foot on the rusty running board. “How is he?”
“He’s awake, asking questions, pissed about Digger.”
Frank looked down, “FBI will be here this afternoon.”
Sam refilled his cup from the thermos and handed it to Frank, “I figured as much.”
Frank took the cup and quickly downed the drink, instantly clearing his head.
“I’ll be on my way.”
Frank stared into Sam’s eyes. No words were needed, volumes spoken in a glance. As Sam started the truck, Frank reached in to shake Sam’s hand. Pulling his hand away, leaving in Sam’s hand a computer flash drive.
Tom was relieved when Frank walked in the room. He had known Frank longer than he hadn’t known him. They had an easy comfortable relationship based on their love of the outdoors. Seasons marked by fishing, deer hunting, wood cutting. They had shared enough years to fade the memories surrounding the murder of his wife and Frank’s sister, Lily. Frank looked ten years older than he had last week. Voice still weak, it took effort to speak, “How did we end up here again?”
Frank cleared his throat, still warm from the bourbon. “History has a sick way of repeating itself.”
Tom exhaled a long and painful breath. “It’s not possible he’s returned, right?”
“Her name was Jessica Calder. She was 23 and worked as an office clerk in an auto dealership 3 states from here. She went missing 4 weeks ago after leaving work. Her parents and boyfriend have been desperately searching for her or anyone who might have seen her. The autopsy approximates her time of death about a week ago. Her clothes were found in the crawl space of your house inside a paper bag. In her jeans pocket, we found Lily’s wedding ring which was never found when she was murdered. There was a note nailed to the oak at the bottom of the hill before the dock. It was a poem called Watery Lily that Lily wrote during her junior year of high school and was published in her high school yearbook. We have confirmed that it is Jessica’s handwriting and that she was under a great amount of stress as she copied Lily’s words. At the bottom of the note is a separate line written by someone other than Jessica. It is a Latin Quote, di te incolumem custodian. Translated, it means, may the gods guard your safety. There is no doubt, it’s him.”
It was as much fun as he remembered. He enjoyed the adrenaline, the high of creating fear in others, the hunt, satisfied with the destruction he created. It was as if he had never left this god forsaken part of the country. He might as well be invisible, living a normal life about a hundred miles away from the epicenter of torture he artfully crafted. He was living in plain sight, driving a common car, working a middle class job, dating, visiting the local bar after work with the guys, attending church on Sundays. By now Tom and Frank knew it was him, the FBI had most likely arrived, the dance under way. The two years of preparation buying him the time needed to complete the job started so many years ago. Even if his picture was circulated, no one would recognize him. His identity obscured by age. And time had been good to him. Where physical appearance and charm left off, his keen taste in clothing and style completed the picture. His casual swagger, high end outdoor sports attire, kayak strapped to the top of his SUV, it painted the outdoor recreationist picture perfectly. People might see muddy boots in his car and think about his weekend warrior spirit, never thinking he was stalking human targets. As he finished his domestic beer, he heard the guys yelling for him from the pool tables, “Adam! You’re Up!” Taking the cue, he finished the game, slamming the eight ball into the corner pocket.
Tom startled awake, as the fog of sleep lifted he was left with the memory of his dream. For years he was tormented by her passing, but in the recent years he found peace and as her memory slept, he went on. But now she was back, her ghost alive as he closed his eyes. The dream always the same, a snapshot of the first time they met, but it was in living color and her voice, her laughter, her innocence. He was transported back in the day when Frank was a new friend and he had barely heard anything about his sister. Tom had stopped to see Frank and she appeared out of nowhere, long legs, long hair, wearing a Detroit Tigers t-shirt, worn jeans and knee high rubber boots. She was home from college for the summer. She had handed him a cooler with a 6 pack of beer, gave Frank the fishing poles and without asking, they both followed her to the truck. He knew that first day they would never be apart, he was home. The more awake he became, her essence was replaced by loss and anger. The bile of revenge and anger filled his throat.
Sam took one last drink from the thermos before driving home. Liquor always took him to what he referred to as “the edge of greatness.” It relaxed him enough not give a shit about anything and right now, that was the place he needed to be. Today, he knew it would take another fifth of whiskey to maintain greatness. There were very few times Frank called in a favor, but obviously this was personal. He thought walking away from the Bureau would end his obsession with details, but it had followed him into civilian life. Retirement from what, he would always be an FBI Profiler. As he drove, he unconsciously tapped the flash drive on the steering wheel, failure was not an option.