Author Archive

Oops, Forgot the Prologue

Read this first, then go back to the beginning.


“God, Dad can be such an asshole!” Ian Bacwell grumbled into his helmet. He took his frustration out on the machine, gunning the snowmobile through the rough, family trail. It almost bogged out on a turn that was harboring a gully of deep snow. But Ian compensated quickly. His sled gutted the gully, sending a spray of ice crystals that obscured his headlights for a moment before he broke through the cloud and left the scrubby tree line to hit the open landscape of the pasture.

The open expanse would have been more impressive, but it was pitch black out. In January it wasn’t the time of day that dictated the beginning of the night, rather the tilt of the earth above the 45th parallel. It got dark before supper time. So it was perfectly acceptable for a young man to be driving his sled to his friend’s house to work on a school project, or more importantly, let off some steam.

Ian knew this pasture well… too well. He remembered his father foolishly thinking years ago how this land would make a useful crop field for hay, maybe oats. So the man had set to work plowing up the rough, raw ground only to be thwarted by all the stubborn aggregate the last glacier had left behind. Not to be outwitted by something as frivolous as geology, Ian’s dad used manual labor to deal with the problem, namely Ian and his brothers and sisters.

“Now that you’re not haying anymore,” his father had reasoned, “you can get this field picked clean in a season. I can sow clover in August.”

That spring the Bacwell children had silently rejoiced when their father and uncles had gone in together to buy a round bailer. Round bales were moved with machines, not men. There would be no more taking turns at the front of the hay wagon, waiting to catch the forty pound squares that shot out. No more gritting your teeth as bale twine dug into your fingers, encouraging you to stack the bale as soon as possible.

Instead, his father had replaced one chore with another. Picking rocks required them to be constantly bent over turned ground, gouging at the dirt with their hands, kicking with their feet, whatever it took. Then the glacial sediment was tossed into the recycled hay wagon to be hauled to a discrete corner of the field to sit for another millennium.

It was too dark for Ian to locate the rock pile from his present position. The headlights of his sled cut white stripes through the darkness onto the shallow snow drifts in front of him. The contrast of black and gray on the horizon vaguely revealed when he would approach the next tree line that separated the pastures.

The recollection of the summer of rock picking, only to be told, “Great Uncle Marvin’s retiring, so we can just use his hay field,” spurned Ian to give his sled more gas. He could feel the blades hitting the wind-driven drifts and bucking somewhat in response, sometimes even taking air. He didn’t care.

It was just so typical of his father. The man’s agenda was always more important than what anyone else in the family might want or need.

“It was just one time!” he yelled into his helmet again, recalling the fight he had with his dad right before he left the house. He missed one evening milking to watch his friend play basketball in regionals, and his father wouldn’t let him forget it. “You earn your keep,” was always the go-to with the old man, usually followed by some systematic confiscation of something valuable to Ian. This time it was his phone, the one he’d paid for by spending the previous year working a part-time job on top of his farm chores.

As far as Ian was concerned, that made it HIS phone. Fortunately, he managed to convince his mother that he needed it for this school project. His dad was not happy about his mom giving in, but Dad knew better than to argue with Mom. Dad was so mad that he didn’t even tell Ian goodbye. He just stormed back out to the barn.

So, here Ian was, the only place he felt truly free lately from the world’s responsibilities. He daydreamed about what it would be like to just keep going, skip his friend’s house and ride out the trails until there weren’t any. Would he end up at the border with Minnesota? Maybe he could find a bar and sell his sled for enough money to travel to the Cities. His sister lived there now. He could always sleep on her couch and get his diploma online. He could work construction.

Whether it was the daydreaming or the sheer confidence Ian had in this pasture’s terrain, he hadn’t been paying attention. He would later admit to seeing the large drift in front of him and looking forward to busting through it like that gully he’d left back in the previous tree line.

But the drift didn’t give. It didn’t burst into a cloudy mass of icy snow crystals. What it did do was stop Ian’s snowmobile in an instant.

Before Ian could register the passage of time, he found himself lying on the hard ground, looking up at the darkness of the inside of his helmet.

The rush of cold air passed over his bare hand and up the small gap in his sleeve. It forced him out of his stupor. He became aware of his limbs, and his first thought was, Shit! Am I paralyzed?! He moved his arms instinctively in response, and the arm that still had a glove seared with burning pain.

Ian sucked in a breath through his teeth. He used the cold arm to brace himself and carefully tried to sit up. He was able to do so with surprising ease. Encouraged, Ian pulled his legs up slowly until his knees were elevated. One boot scraped oddly. He bent forward and felt with his cold hand. The boot was twisted at a weird angle. Ian began to pant again with panic until he realized the boot had slipped partway off of his foot from the fall. He yanked it back on.

Slowly he drew himself up on his knees. Ian flipped up his helmet visor and proceeded to take stock. Considering, Ian knew he was lucky he had only hurt his arm. That didn’t make him any less angry, though. He got up, holding the bum arm to his chest and walked the ten paces back to his busted sled.

The sled was dead. Ian guessed the crash had caused the fail-safe to kill the engine. The impact probably knocked the connections off the battery too.

It was really dark now. Clouds had lain low all day and into the night. There were no heavens to behold, only empty black silence.

“See, this is why you need a phone, DAD!” Ian yelled into the darkness. He unzipped the inside of his suit and fished around. It was a struggle. His hurt arm smarted with all the commotion, but he finally was able to retrieve his phone. He left his cold hand inside his suit for a bit, letting it warm back up.

Understanding the irony of fighting to keep his phone only to drop it on the frozen ground, Ian gingerly cradled the phone in his palm while he used his thumb to power it on.

The light was comforting. The phone screen displayed a with a picture of Ian’s buddies doing a goofy pose. He smiled for a moment before he switched on his flashlight app. He turned the phone around to examine the damage. He figured he might be able to kick off whatever his blades hit. He knew it wasn’t a boulder. Perhaps a tree chunk had been blown in from one of the storms? Way out here? Unlikely.

Again, upon later reflection, Ian didn’t remember screaming, dropping his phone, or running then tripping several yards away. The pain in his arm brought him back to reality. He sat on his butt, holding the sore arm and staring back at the phone. It was upside down, but the app was still on, so the light was spilling out from its plastic edges. The light seemed so bright in the utter darkness. Even from this distance, he could see the face, the pale white forehead, the bridge of a nose, the sprig of graying hair.

Ian no longer wanted freedom. Now he wanted security. He wanted comfort. Ian was sitting in the middle of a frozen pasture in the dead of winter with a dead guy, and he was scared shitless.

At least, I think he’s dead. Oh, Christ! What if he’s not dead? For a few frantic moments, Ian’s debilitating fear did battle with his conscience. His conscience got reinforcements from common sense and won out. It was just too damn cold and dark to walk back home. If nothing else, Ian would at least have to retrieve his phone.

He got to his feet, but he felt like he was in slow motion. Step by tentative step, he approached the terrible scene. The person wasn’t moving, as far as he could tell. “Hey, you all right?” Ian spoke, but he felt like the cold night air sucked all the volume out of his request. He detected no response.

Oh God, I’m gonna have to touch him.  Ian shakily went down on a knee. He could hear his breathing increasing. Soon the vacuum of the night was replaced with the beating of his heart. With his bare hand, he reached out. It was shaking. His trembling pinky glanced the forehead. Even with the cold of the environment affecting his hand, he knew this person was much much colder. This person was frozen solid. This person was no longer a person. This was a meat popsicle

The situation was becoming overwhelming. Ian knew that was the case when he began to cry. So, he picked up his phone, grateful it wasn’t broken, and called the only person who could make it all better. His voice cracked when the line picked up.


Chapter One Part Two

Evan barely slowed his pace once they got back to Lollygagger’s Acres. He pulled his winter gear from the hall closet, threw it over his shoulder, said (and kissed) his goodbyes and walked back out with a promise to call if he wasn’t making it back home that night. Bernice looked at the vintage kitchen clock, noting that it was already pushing 8 p.m.

“He won’t be back,” Darlene echoed her thoughts as she walked in from the living room with her and Cameron’s supper plates. “There’s sausage and spinach quiche in the fridge.”

Bernice smiled at the mention of food and pulled a plate from the cupboard.

“So,” Darlene prompted as she loitered in the doorway, “How’d it go?”

Bernice dished up a healthy portion from the glass baking pan. She stuck it in the microwave. “It didn’t. The pastor was late, and then Evan got called into work.” She was waiting for the barrage of questions about why her state investigator fiancé would be called out to work so late in the evening, but Darlene went a different way.

“Why was Pastor late?” Darlene questioned as she set the dishes in the kitchen sink.

The microwave dinged. Bernice retrieved her late supper. “He was visiting someone in hospice.”

And that’s what Darlene chose to interrogate Bernice about. “What? Who?”

Bernice was taken aback by the dramatic reaction. “I don’t know.”

“You didn’t ask?” Darlene pushed.

Bernice frowned. “No, it’s none of my business.”

Darlene frowned back. “Since when?”

Shaking her head, Bernice sighed. “Darlene, it’s been a long day. Kindly let me eat in peace.”

Darlene rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll just call Marsha. She’ll know who’s dying.”

Bernice waved the matter away with her fork. “Fine.”

Darlene took the cordless off of its charger on the wall. “By the way, your realtor called.”

Bernice swallowed and got up to get her purse. “Why didn’t he call my cell?”

Darlene gave a snotty answer. “I didn’t ask. It’s none of my business.” With that she returned to the living room.

“Go chew on Marsha’s ear, you smartass!” Bernice yelled after her and pulled out her cell phone.

“Oh, Bernice,” the realtor answered without saying hello. “I’ve got news on the place we looked at last week.”

“Good, I hope,” Bernice reacted evenly.

“The inspection came back. You were right. The sewer’s bad, but the well’s okay.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess,” Bernice decided and filled her fork. “So, they’ll come down in price to cover the cost of the new sewer.”

“Better than that. They’re knocking off twenty grand,” the realtor paused, “um, but they’re changing up the offering.”

Bernice chewed quickly. “What’s that mean?”

“Well, they decided to only sell you the acreage around the house and buildings. They’re keeping the rest to rent out to the neighbors. Apparently, with all the drought down South, the price of corn’s expected to go sky high.”

Suddenly, the quiche lost its appeal. Bernice set down her fork. “So, what you’re telling me is they want to knock twenty grand off the price, but sell me, say, seven acres worth of beat up buildings and a bad sewer in exchange.”

“Well, they figured since you’re only running a hobby farm, it would be a waste to sell you all that nice crop land.”

“And there’s nothing I like better than buying a dinky lot surrounded by someone else’s cornfield.”

“So, that’s a no?” the realtor clarified.

“That’s a get-me-my-earnest-money-back kind of a no, Jerry.”

There was an audible sigh in response. “Okay then, Bernice. The check’ll be in my office tomorrow.”

“Sure thing.”

There was another pause. “So we keep looking. Did you want to make an offer on the one we looked at this afternoon?”

“Not right now. Thanks.”

“Alright then. We’ll call it a night.”

“Yep, see ya.” Bernice killed the call. With her portion of quiche cold again, and Bernice not feeling like heating it back up, she chose instead to stick the plate in the fridge and pull out a bottle of wine. She spyed some lovely cheese hiding amongst the leftovers and pulled that out too. She cut up a few hunks of cheese, tore the end off a loaf of crusty bread, and took the plate with a glass of wine into the living room.

She was just in time to watch Darlene hang up the phone. Darlene looked confused. She faced Bernice. “Marsha says no one is in hospice right now that she knows of, and she would have been told, because she’s the head of the call chain for prayer when something like that happens.”

“Hmm,” Bernice grunted as she took her seat with her rations.

The grunt did not improve Darlene’s mood. It only made her scowl at Bernice with suspicion. “So, why’s the pastor lying?”

Chapter One

Chapter One

The engaged couple huddled together on the truncated pew outside the pastor’s office. They were unusually subdued. It could have just been the cold. To save money, churches in the winter were kept just warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing, barring a church service or special event. Since it was January, the church calendar was between Christmas and Lent, and so there wasn’t much going on between Sundays. This was a late Tuesday evening.

Normally, the pastor would have arrived in their stead and prepared for this meeting, such as it was. But the pastor was obviously late, and a neighbor and council member had noticed their car idling in the parking lot and let them in, turning up the thermostat before leaving them alone again. Now they were just waiting for the furnace to catch up.

It could have also been because the environment of the dark hushed church drove home the stark reality that they were embarking upon a serious endeavor that had nothing to do with overtures of love and everything to do with moral and legal commitment.

That particular point had been struck home under no uncertain terms by this pastor at their last meeting. Perhaps there was a preconceived expectation of ease when the couple had approached this particular juncture of their wedding plans. After all, it was a Lutheran church, the bride’s family church no less.

“He’s late,” Evan grumbled.

“Yep,” Bernice responded.

The conversation stopped there for a few moments. They should have been thrilled. They were planning their wedding, a usually happy occasion, even if it was January. But life was getting in the way. Bernice Hordstrom was busy looking for a farm to buy. Evan Wyatt was busy trying to set up his newly acquired DCI field office in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Neither task was going smoothly. Meanwhile, both sets of potential in-laws were turning up the heat on making actual wedding plans.

Which is why they were sitting in this particular church on this particular evening. It was to appease the loudest potential in-law with the most access to apply guilt. Namely, Darlene Sparks, with whom they presently resided on Bernice’s family Farm, Lollygagger’s Acres, along with Cameron Sparks, Darlene’s husband and Bernice’s long-time friend.

Darlene’s philosophy was stated to them quite clearly. “Just have the ceremony at the church and be done with it. You can always have the reception at some fancy shindig later.” They suspected Darlene was hoping to put herself back into the congregation’s good graces with Bernice and Evan’s wedding, seeing as how she and Cam had gotten married at home with a different pastor.

After the first meeting between the newly engaged Evan and Bernice and this pastor, they understood why. Saying he wasn’t the “open minded” or “outdoorsy” type was being generous. Bernice secretly decided she’d even have Agent Determyer officiate their ceremony over this pastor, because Determyer would actually cast a more cheerful demeanor over the proceedings in comparison.

Of course, there could be other reasons for the couple’s present and quiet contemplation. Where were we?

“He’s late,” Evan grumbled.

“Yep,” Bernice agreed. “Good thing too, considering what the neighbor found us doing.”

“They couldn’t see anything,” Evan pointed out, smirking.

“Not with the windows all fogged up, no.” Bernice shook her head. “No doubt the pastor’s gonna hear about it.”

“So what?” Evan argued. “I’d let Determyer do our wedding before that self-righteous ass-clown.”

Bernice gasped, more astonished at their intellectual compatibility than the insult to the pastor. “You would not.”

Evan leveled Bernice a challenging gaze. “Try me.”

Bernice crossed her arms at that point. “No thank you, that’s how we ended up fogging up the car.”

Evan just smiled and kissed her cheek. “Most action we’ve had in two weeks.”

Bernice shrugged. “We’ve been busy.”

Evan’s smile remained, but there was a new crinkle between his eyebrows. “Should I be worried that you’re more interested in trekking across frozen barnyards than wedding dress shopping?”

Bernice’s reply was interrupted by the suction of the entry door filling the empty sanctuary with noise and removing what little heat that had accumulated.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” the dour, looming shadow informed them right before he forcefully shoved the entry door shut again. “I had to visit someone in hospice.”

“Oh, we’re sorry to hear that,” Bernice remarked automatically.

“Well,” the pastor encapsulated his opinion on the entire matter. “It’s God’s will.”

The pastor turned to face them at this point. He wasn’t a bad looking man. There were no sharp angles or unfortunately shaped facial features to instill any instinctive empathy. I was the clergyman’s attitude which he wore in a very physical sense upon his countenance that made him appear unappealing. Both Bernice and Evan had made it their livelihoods to study the body language and facial expressions of others. The pastor never failed to disappoint.

“I hope you took this time to reflect upon the severe shortcomings of your relationship and seek the Lord’s guidance in coming to real terms about whether or not they are repairable.”

“We sure did,” Evan retorted happily. “It took some exploratory soul searching, but I think with some renewed practice, we can dig down deep and get to the real bone of our issues.”

Bernice clamped her jaw so tightly, she was afraid a tooth might crack, but she maintained her sober look.

The pastor still looked judgmental, so whether or not he suspected doubletalk could not be determined. “Well, we’ll have to see about that,” he proclaimed forebodingly and marched past them to unlock his office door.

Following him in, the couple could feel the heat hit them. The smaller, closed space had accumulated some warmth while they were waiting. Bernice quickly closed the door again.

For being such a dour and formidable man, the pastor’s office was comfortable. The old-fashioned paneled walls made the office seem warmer if a little dark. Framed photos of confirmations took up an entire wall and covered more than a century of affirmed church membership. Bernice knew which photos displayed Darlene, her mother, and her grandparents.

On another wall was a large painting of the original church before size and mechanical upgrades required a new building to be built in the 1970s. The older building still stood a few miles down the road. It was a residence now, although a few decades of bad additions and the removal of the bell tower made it almost unrecognizable as an old church.

Bernice did like this church. She had fond memories of this place, and a few melancholy ones as well. Bernice would always feel the spirit of her grandparents here, though not nearly with the same depth as Lollygagger’s Acres. Still, she wouldn’t mind having the ceremony in this church. It would seem like her grandparents would be casting their blessings over the proceedings from the hereafter.

Bernice’s romantic musings were interrupted by the chimes of the pastor’s computer operating system coming to life. “I believe we left off on the issues of your lack of mutual fidelity. I think we need to review scripture regarding these transgressions. Then we can move on to your casual living arrangements. All these things can be symptoms of a lack of real commitment. And it would be helpful if we could nail down a Saturday for the ceremony, so I can work it into my schedule.”

Evan’s phone squawked that he had received a text message. The pastor was clearly annoyed. Evan showed no emotion. He simply stood and addressed Bernice. “We have to go.” He gave a more pointed explanation to the pastor. “Duty calls, I’m afraid. We’ll have to reschedule.”

The pastor pursed his lips bitterly as he shut his computer back down. “Kindly leave an email with my secretary as to when your schedule will allow you to take this process more seriously.”

All Evan did was to respond with a cheerful, “Will do.” He gestured to his fiancé to precede him out the door of the office.

Once they shuffled back to the car and got the engine running and the heat hiked up, Bernice asked, “what’s up?”

“That was ME Hildigaard,” Evan informed her.

Bernice nodded and looked out into the black. “That can’t be good.”

“Nope,” Evan agreed. “I need to drop you off and get my Carharts. The crime scene is out in the middle of some guy’s field.”