Minnesota Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Julius climbed out of the squad car and picked his way
across the hard-packed snow, the crunch of the breaking surface loud under his boots.
He felt as if he was inhaling ice shards instead of air. The snow began falling again,
stinging needles against his already icy skin. Within seconds, his eyes teared up and his
ears burned, even with his woolen watch cap and parka hood protecting them. Still, he
had to check it out. His headlights had picked up what looked like a dog or possum
carcass along side the road. Probably already dead, whatever it was, but if it wasn't―well,
he didn't even want to think about that.
The glare from his headlights on the blowing snow made it hard to see beyond a foot or
two, but without them, visibility would be zero. There was no moon, no lights from nearby
houses. Only inky blackness above a featureless white carpet. It was impossible to make
out clearly where the road ended and the shoulder began, but he knew a ditch ran along
here somewhere. He didn’t want to topple into it head first and break his neck.
There. Up closer, it looked like a skinned animal or―
“Oh, my God,” Joe hissed through his teeth. For an instant, he felt like his feet had
frozen to the ground. Then he dashed back toward his cruiser. Halfway there, he
hunkered over at the waist and spewed his dinner across the pristine snow.
A safe distance away, a late model Ford F-150 truck idled in park, lights extinguished.
White, it disappeared in the falling snow. The driver slapped the steering wheel. Fuck. No
one was supposed to come by this way. Fifteen minutes. That’s all it would have taken for
the snow to cover it. “Why the hell didn’t I bury it?” He looked out at the brutal landscape.
Simple. He couldn't plod through that without snowshoes, and what would he use for a
shovel? He hadn’t thought of that. He hadn’t thought of anything but getting the body out
Now what? Had he been spotted? Doubtful. He’d watched the cop toss his cookies
before climbing back into the cruiser. Before the cop pulled the door closed, he’d
snatched up his radio mike. Then the car went dark.
Jesus. The place would be crawling with police before you knew it. He had no choice. He
put the truck into drive and idled away, praying the guy hadn’t seen his brake lights.
“Just tossed in the snow like a sack of garbage, sheriff,” Joe said. “I didn’t get a good
look because I didn’t want to disturb the body, but I couldn’t see any blood. Could be he
froze to death.”
Clay watched Joe's Adam's apple bob like a live thing in his throat. Not for the first time,
he wondered if the young man was cut out for law enforcement. Come to think of it, Clay
wasn't sure he should be doing it anymore.
“You didn't leave the body unattended?”
“No. I called Mazie. She’s out there with some of the others. I didn't want to do anything
else until I talked to you. I tried to call you, but the lines are down and your cell dumped
me into voicemail.”
“Damn,” Clay muttered. He'd forgotten to charge it again.
“First, I thought it was an animal,” Joe went on, “but then I saw the foot sticking out. It had
toes. Even with the snow cover, I could see he looks to be about two or three years old
and naked as a jaybird.” Joe’s voice choked off. After a moment, he shook his head.
“What kind of person would do that to a kid?”
Clay started to speak. Then he heard the creak of a stair. Holding up a hand at Joe, he
moved from the kitchen to the living room and heard a noise like some small animal
scurrying back into its burrow.
“Nikki?” he called from the foyer.
Dead silence. Then his daughter came into view, eyes huge in her pale face. She
swallowed visibly. “I heard what Joe said about the boy in the snow.”
Clay grimaced. So the damage was already done. At twelve years old, she was too
young to hear about things like this. Hell, if she was forty, he’d try to shield her from it.
He stepped to her and pulled her close, putting his arm around her shoulders. She was
shaking head to toe. "It’s late. You need to get back to bed, sweetheart."
Her lower lip trembled. "What happened to him?"
Clay shook his head. “We don’t know anything yet, and it doesn’t concern you, honey. It’
s police business." He turned her around and walked her back to her room, pulling her
door closed once she'd slipped into bed. No doubt she'd have nightmares tonight.
Back in the kitchen, Joe was on his feet.
“Tell Mazie I’ll be there in about half an hour," Clay said. "And call George. I'll roust out Vi
Haggars to stay with Nikki and head out there. Don’t let anyone touch anything or move
the body until George and I get there.”
When Joe was gone, Clay picked up the phone to call Vi but remembered the phone lines
were down. He plugged his cell into the charger in the wall. As it went through its warm up
thing, he started a new pot of coffee and pulled out his biggest thermos. They'd probably
all need a shot of hot caffeine before the night was over.
Clay squinted against the blowing snow. The scene was a virtual whiteout. They'd tented
the area, but it was a futile effort. Anything of value was already covered with inches of
new snow by the time they got the tent erected. Forget tire prints and trace.
The perimeter was secured and lit, and the camera flashes exploded like obscene
strobes as they photographed the position of the body. Apter was leaning over the boy
doing God knew what. Mazie Frederick, Rustic Falls' first female deputy, knelt beside the
body. Five-feet, ten inches of chocolate skin and well-toned muscle, Mazie was a
transplant from the Minneapolis PD like Clay, but they hadn't known each other back then.
She joined the force after Clay relocated to Rustic Falls. If she knew about the cloud
under which he resigned, she'd never mentioned it. As Clay watched, she bagged the
boy's hands and bare feet.
Rock Phillips, a veteran deputy, walked up to where Mazie knelt. "Has the hotshot cop
from Minneapolis solved the crime yet?"
Mazie looked up through narrowed eyes. "Are you addressing me or your boss?"
Rock glanced over at Clay. He started to speak, then appeared to think better of it and
turned to go.
"Why don't you go do something productive for a change? Oh, that's right. This is Rock
I'm talking to."
"I could kneel in the snow like you and pretend to know something if it would make you
As Mazie opened her mouth to speak, Clay stepped between them. Left to their own
devices, they'd probably come to blows.
"Get anything?" he asked Mazie.
"Other than a sick stomach?" Mazie looked away. "No. Apter gave the body a quick look.
Nothing obvious, like a gunshot wound or broken neck." She pushed to her feet and
walked away, giving Rock a wide berth.
Clay turned to Rock. "Why don't you quit baiting her? We're all on the same side here."
"Are we?" Rock asked as he moved away.