PROLOGUE I: July
There were plenty of witnesses.
At 11:13 on the scorching morning after the Fourth, with USA-themed inflatable yard goods, flags and pennants, barbecue aprons, pet accessories, and other items of patriotic decor at half price, a dozen or so shoppers had been making their way into or out of the Walmart in Farmstead, Wisconsin, when a Bad Axe County Sheriff’s Department deputy named Mikayla Stonebreaker sprang in a red sweat from her cruiser.
A former junior high school gym teacher, Deputy Stonebreaker strode largely and purposefully along a row of parked sedans and pickups. Her pace tracked the outbound progress of a tall, soft, comfortably handsome man with a long gray braid, wearing an earth-toned peasant robe and Teva sandals. The man carried a small white pharmacy sack and moved sedately, while his wife, a foot shorter in a pale blue robe, steered him from the elbow. Their intention was to enter the vehicle they had arrived in and return home. To all watching, these two were known as the Prophet-Father Euodoo Koresh and his First-Wife Ruth, leaders of a prosperity-theology church that had appeared in May to occupy the former U-Stash-It Mini-Storage compound in outer Farmstead. Bad Axers had been calling them a cult. They called themselves the House of Shalah.
From a slot between an F-250 Super Duty pickup and a cart corral, Deputy Stonebreaker launched. She ripped the prophet-father from the grip of his wife and slammed him into a chain of nested shopping carts. She screamed at him, “What’s in the bag, freak!” She tore away the little white sack, leaving its shredded top in the prophet-father’s trembling hands.
The final report would list the contents of the sack: the sedative Halcion, .5 mg, 60 count; and the painkiller Opana, 20 mg, 60 count. The scrip was legally written by a Dr. Gregory Ho, a general practitioner in Reno, Nevada, to a patient named Jerome W. Pearl.
Deputy Stonebreaker kept the prophet-father folded back over a shopping cart and continued to command the situation while the horrified first-wife looked on. It was noted in the report that some of those watching had flashbacks from gym class.
“Let me see some ID! Now!”
The final report would confirm that the ID given was a valid Texas driver’s license assigned to Jerome William Pearl, sixty-three. A plethora of documentation from the follow-up investigation would prove that Jerome William Pearl and the Prophet-Father Euodoo Koresh were one and the same person, that the medications were properly his, and that he had broken no laws, nor intended to. The report made clear that no legal standard whatsoever justified the parking lot attack on the prophet-father by Deputy Mikayla Stonebreaker.
The report would also state, accurately, that witnesses to the attack had whistled and applauded.
“The Bad Axe County Police and Fire Commission hereby unanimously recommends to the full county board for approval the retirement, with honor and with our heartfelt gratitude, of Interim Chief Deputy Richard Bender.”
Marge Joss struck her gavel. She covered her mic and leaned toward Bender, who slouched, gray and frail, in the first row of audience seating.
“We love you, Dick,” she rasped under the eruption of clapping hands. “You helped us keep some guardrails on your boss. Get well and catch some fish.”
Bender’s girlfriend, Irene, helped him up to leave. “We got two dozen minnows getting hot in the car,” she explained. “Actually, they’re black-tail chubs.”
Shuffling out of the courthouse basement meeting room on Irene’s arm, ex-Deputy Bender made teary eye contact with the broad-shouldered, red-haired, uniformed young woman in the back row of chairs. Though her green eyes glistened back, Sheriff Heidi Kick sent Bender the same lovely deep smile that as a seventeen-year-old had made her Dairy Queen in the next county south. The sheriff felt real joy in this fact: As her deputy, Bender had been an obstacle—a crank, he admitted—that she had turned into an ally. It had taken well into her second full term—1,084 days, not that she was counting—but from this moment forward she and Bender could upgrade from allies to friends. Last week he had given the sheriff’s daughter an accordion. Lessons had been scheduled. Ripe tomatoes from the Kick family garden were agreed to be the price.
Bender’s second glance at his ex-boss was fierce with meaning: I’m sorry about what’s going to happen next. I’d a hung in there if I could.
Sheriff Kick nodded.
Marge Joss gaveled again.
“The commission now moves to closed session to discuss a personnel matter.”
That matter was the evolving mess of Sheriff Kick’s suspension of Deputy Mikayla Stonebreaker over the Walmart incident, followed by Deputy Stonebreaker’s appeal of said suspension, followed by Stonebreaker’s subsequent reinstatement by the commission while her appeal was processed, followed by Sheriff Kick’s reassignment of the deputy to desk duty—meaning the jail, the evidence room, tours of the Public Safety Building—followed by Deputy Stonebreaker’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against Bad Axe County and the sheriff herself. In the meantime, Dennis Stonebreaker, the deputy’s unemployable husband, had formed an organization to defend the Bad Axe from the House of Shalah because the sheriff would not… though what she would not do to defend home ground was undefined aside from one thing: she refused to use the word cult.
“Clear the room, please.”
Obeying the orders of Police and Fire Chairperson Joss, the larger-than-normal contingent of spectators withdrew. That left Sheriff Kick alone with Ms. Joss and the five male members of the commission, all farmers whose latest beef with the sheriff concerned her enforcement of traffic and safety laws with respect to on-road use of off-road vehicles. Doors and seat belts, she was saying, if you want to use a public road. No, she was saying, your unsafe habits will not be “grandfathered in.” Her commissioners also shared the general dismay, Sheriff Kick knew, at her refusal to call the House of Shalah a cult.
After the room cleared there followed a short recess. The vending machine was worked for cans of Sun Drop while the moisture level of the corn crop was discussed. In an overall dry year, that half inch yesterday was a drop in the bucket, and what the doctor ordered was three or four good soaks in September.
Left out of this conversation, the former farm-girl sheriff retrieved her phone from behind her badge and took a moment to follow up on a different personnel matter, one that the commission didn’t know about yet.
She moved to the meeting room window. From there she could see a thousand acres of field corn turning brown too quickly under a hot blue sky. Between cornfields she could see Bender’s girlfriend’s red car heading out Courthouse Road and passing between two great prairie oaks before disappearing down into Spring Coulee. When Sheriff Kick said she loved this landscape, she always felt like love was too weak a word. Among its many other graces, the coulee region was modest in the way that a view from ridge level concealed its intimate beauty: the narrow coulees carved by spring-fed watersheds through sea-bottom limestone, the densely forested hillsides, rugged and wild, that flanked fertile bottomlands spotted with family dairy farms and threaded with trout streams that meandered through embroidered sleeves of orange jewelweed, purple aster, and dusty-pink joe-pye. In the sheriff’s mind, this sense of so much more than meets the eye defined the land and the people who went with it. The untrained eye looked from the state highway across the cornfield skin of the Bad Axe and missed the depth, the heart and soul—and honestly, from Sheriff Kick’s point of view, most of the darkness and trouble.
The call connected. She asked Denise Halverson, her dispatcher, “So do we have a warrant?”
“The judge is skittish, Heidi. Jpay.com, prison mail, that’s federal stuff. He wants more cause.”
“But we’re sure about the IP address.”
“Right. It’s ours. Oops, hang on.”
Denise clicked over to take a different incoming call.
“You’ve reached the Bad Axe County Sheriff’s Department. Whose bull is on which road? Thank you. I’ll send a deputy.”
She came back.
“It’s our IP for sure, Heidi, the laptop in the squad room. But so far, the judge sees a policy breach more than a crime.”
The sheriff sighed. “So far. It’s just so disturbing that she would use one of our computers. Why?”
“Well,” Denise said, “because she’s more afraid to get caught doing weird shit at home than at work?”
“I don’t know…”
The sheriff watched a gust rustle the corn. “She” was young Deputy Lyndsey Luck, apparently going through some personal struggles in her second year. On principle, faced with turnover midway through her first term, the sheriff had demanded more female deputies. But actually having them? Managing Lyndsey Luck and then Mikayla Stonebreaker had been another story.
“The meeting’s back on, Denise. I gotta go.”
I’m sorry about what’s going to happen next.
Bender’s look had referred to rumors that the matter of Deputy Stonebreaker’s status had been secretly discussed and already decided—and linked to the now-vacant chief deputy position.
“Sheriff…” began Marge Joss. Peering over black half-glasses, she followed this with a preemptive sigh of exasperation, that of a massive God-fearing farm woman with a crew cut and sun-scorched cleavage. “The members of this commission fully expect that when you hear our decision you’re going to kick and scream and stomp your feet…”
Kicking and screaming meant the sheriff speaking her mind thoughtfully.
Alexis Schmidt—who at age seventeen had begun to consider a career in law enforcement—had only one thin hour between milking twenty-three black-and-white Holsteins and the arrival of the bus that would take her to Blackhawk High School.
“Mom,” the girl called, rushing out the door in barn clothes, with uncombed hair and wet hands, “I gotta get some pumpkins from the Amish. For a… Halloween school thing.”
The Amish lived a half mile away on gravel. She took her Grandpa Ed’s four-wheeler and goosed it.
She ripped past the Amish place, the Hochstetlers’, and out of cold coulee shadows up to the ridge, where combines spewed chaff and dust into the bright sun.
She was riding illegally now, driving a four-wheeler where Schmidt Road crossed U.S. Highway 14 and became Fog Hollow Road.
Different township, different rules. Five-hundred-dollar ticket.
First there had been Sheriff Heidi Kick, then Deputy Lyndsey Luck—and recently her old gym teacher, Ms. Stonebreaker, had been promoted to chief deputy. With these examples, a girl began to see her world differently.
Understanding herself as a scofflaw at the moment, Alexis waited for an ambulance, a milk tanker, and a corn hauler, then nipped across the highway at full throttle and aimed the machine down the steep grade alongside Fog Hollow Creek.
In the shadows she was cold again. She did not wear a wristwatch and had left her phone at home. How long was this taking? Side by side, the winding road and winding creek screwed themselves deeper into the Fog Hollow coulee until at last the creek backed up behind the earthen dam that formed little Lake Susan.
Alexis parked the four-wheeler where a one-bar gate kept kids from driving out onto the dam.
Because otherwise they would, she understood now.
Drunk. Showing off. And sooner or later Sheriff Kick would find somebody’s truck upside down in Lake Susan, with maybe someone drowned inside it.
That’s why the gate was here.
The rising sun had just struck the fog along the dam’s grassy eastern face. But it was still chilly. Alexis eyed the dusty work shirt wadded into her Grandpa Ed’s dash console. She shook the shirt out and put it on, then stepped off the four-wheeler and into the dew-wet opening blooms of hawkweed and chicory.
Ahead of her, a loaf of soil five hundred feet wide held back Lake Susan and let the creek back out through a corrugated pipe on the downstream side of the dam.
Alexis hurried out along the spine of the dam, hearing the water spew out and crash into the pool below the pipe. You want to see a miracle? Win Carpenter had asked a few days ago. Win Carpenter was this quiet older guy from the cult who did farm work for her dad and grandpa. You have to go see it, he had urged her. And, though she couldn’t say exactly why, here she was.
Alexis’s long shadow hurried with her out along the dam, gliding blackly down the western slope and touching murky Lake Susan. Something made her stop and scan the shore, a grid of muddy bathtub rings left as the reservoir filled and emptied.
Nothing to see, no idea why she was looking, she moved on.
The sound of water crashing below the dam grew louder as Alexis neared its center, where Win Carpenter had said a trail cut back and forth between tall asters and joe-pye weed down to the top of the pipe.
There she found it. She descended excitedly through the tall wet flowers, sometimes skidding, until she stood upon the concrete housing for the pipe.
Arms spread for balance, heart thumping, she took tiny steps out onto the housing and then out upon the ribbed pipe. She reached the lip and froze. Beneath her, little Fog Hollow Creek poured out in force, fell and smashed mightily, splashed and foamed and spread, swirled and gathered, then tumbled on downstream, once again its simple, modest self.
She brought her eyes back and stared exactly where Lake Susan poured out, a smooth and solid curl of faintly mud-tinted water.
Stared and stared.
A trout as long as her forearm leapt up from the tumult.
For two breathtaking seconds, the creature hung before Alexis in the morning sun, a gorgeous gleaming ornament, golden brown with red spots, quivering in its effort to land inside the mouth of the pipe.
To her dad and grandpa, Win Carpenter was a religious weirdo. But Alexis saw what he meant. The thick fish hung as a jewel in the sun… and hung… squirmed for more height… stopped Alexis’s heart with its desire to land upon that fast lip of water, somehow grip it, and squiggle upstream into the pipe. It was a miracle of aspiration and will, of breaking boundaries, and she needed it.
“Oh, no!” she cried when the plunging current caught the fish by the tail and flicked it cartwheeling back into the pool.
“Try again!” she cried. “You can do it!”
The next trout, a slightly smaller one, caught the lip, held, and squirted up into the pipe toward Lake Susan.
“Oh, my God!”
The next one, an even bigger trout than the first, achieved enough writhing height, flashed spectacularly in the sun, but missed the pipe entirely, landed in the weeds below, and flopped itself back into the water.
It went on.
Alexis lay facedown on the pipe, smiling, her unkempt frizzy blond hair hanging over, and she forgot time. She forgot her grandpa’s four-wheeler. She forgot her lie about the pumpkins and the schedule of the school bus.
She forgot who she was, and where she was, until out of the pipe, inching along, emerged two white human hands, palms up.
Next came forearms.
Next, thinning gray-brown hair and a long pale forehead, trout slapping off and falling back.
Then a man’s half-familiar face: his open eyes, his mud-packed nose, his purple twisted lips, crawfish clinging to the white-pink meat of a deep slash across his throat.
Her joy replaced by frozen horror, Alexis at last roused herself and ran to the top of the dam.
She was surprised and relieved to see a sheriff’s cruiser already idling beside her grandpa’s four-wheeler.
She waved both arms, hollered, “Help!” at the top of her lungs.
Chief Deputy Mikayla Stonebreaker emerged from the cruiser.
Alexis waved, saw Deputy Stonebreaker begin to move in response. Then, with her breakfast loosening in her stomach, she ran back across the dam and down the trail.
Just as Alexis re-arrived woozily at the end of the pipe, the disemboweled remainder of Win Carpenter slid out and crashed into the pool.