The Bodies Left Behind Excerpt
The woods around Lake Mondac were as quiet as could be, a world of difference from the churning, chaotic city where the couple spent their weekdays.
Silence, broken only by an occasional a-hoo-ah of a distant bird, the hollow siren of a frog.
And now: another sound.
A shuffle of leaves, two impatient snaps of branch or twig.
No, that couldn’t be. The other vacation houses beside the lake were deserted on this cool Friday afternoon in April.
Emma Feldman, in her early thirties, set down her martini on the kitchen table, where she sat across from her husband. She tucked a strand of curly black hair behind her ear and walked to one of the grimy kitchen windows. She saw nothing but dense clusters of cedar, juniper and black spruce rising up a steep hill, whose rocks resembled cracked yellow bone.
Her husband lifted an eyebrow. “What was it?”
She shrugged and returned to her chair. “I don’t know. Didn’t see anything.”
Outside, silence again.
Emma, lean as any stark, white birch outside one of the many windows of the vacation house, shook off her blue jacket. She was wearing the matching skirt and a white blouse. Lawyer clothes. Hair in a bun. Lawyer hair. Stockings but shoeless.
Steven, turning his attention to the bar, had abandoned his jacket as well, and a wrinkly striped tie. The thirty-six-year-old, with a full head of unruly hair, was in a blue shirt and his belly protruded inexorably over the belt of his navy slacks. Emma didn’t care; she thought he was cute and always would.
“And look what I got,” he said, nodding toward the upstairs guest room and unbagging a large bottle of pulpy organic vegetable juice. Their friend, visiting from Chicago this weekend, had been flirting with liquid diets lately, drinking the most disgusting things.
Emma read the ingredients and wrinkled her nose. “It’s all hers. I’ll stick with vodka.”
“Why I love you.”
The house creaked, as it often did. The place was 76 years old. It featured an abundance of wood and a scarcity of steel and stone. The kitchen, where they stood, was angular and paneled in glowing yellow pine. The floor was lumpy. The colonial structure was one of three houses on this private road, each squatting on ten acres. It could be called lakefront property but only because the lake lapped at a rocky shore two hundred yards from the front door.
The house was plopped down in a small clearing on the east side of a substantial elevation. Midwest reserve kept people from labeling these hills “mountains” here in Wisconsin, though it rose easily 700 or 800 feet into the air. Presently the big house was bathed in blue late-afternoon.
Emma gazed out at rippling Lake Mondac, far enough from the hill to catch some descending sun. Now, in early spring, the surrounding area was scruffy, reminding of wet hackles rising from a guard dog’s back. The house was much nicer than they could otherwise afford—they’d bought it through foreclosure—and she knew from the moment she’d seen it that this was the perfect vacation house.
Silence. . . .
The colonial also had a pretty colorful history.
The owner of a big meatpacking company in Chicago had built the place before World War Two. It was discovered years later that much of his fortune had come from selling black-market meat, circumventing the rationing system that limited foods here at home to make sure the troops were nourished. In 1956 the man’s body was found floating in the lake; he was possibly the victim of veterans who’d had learned of his scheme and killed him, then searched the house, looking for the illicit cash he’d hidden here.
No ghosts figured in any version of the death, though Emma and Steven couldn’t keep from embellishing. When guests were staying here they’d gleefully take note of who kept the bathroom lights on and who braved the dark after hearing the tales.
Two more snaps outside. Then a third.
Emma frowned. “You hear that? Again, that sound. Outside.”
Steven glanced out the window. The breeze kicked up now and then. He turned back.
Her eyes strayed to her briefcase.
“Caught that,” he said, chiding.
“Don’t even think about opening it.”
She laughed, though without much humor.
“Work-free weekend,” he said. “We agreed.”
“And what’s in there?” she asked, nodding at the backpack he carried in lieu of an attaché case. Emma was wrestling the lid off a jar of cocktail olives.
“Only two things of relevance, Your Honor: my le Carré novel and that bottle of Merlot I had at work. Shall I introduce the latter into evid . . .” Voice fading. He looked to the window, through which they could see a tangle of weeds and trees and branches and rocks the color of dinosaur bones.
Emma too glanced outside.
“That I heard,” he said. He refreshed his wife’s martini. She dropped olives into both drinks.
“What was it?”
“Remember that bear?”
“He didn’t come up to the house.” They tinked glasses and sipped clear liquor.
Steven said, “You seem preoccupied. What’s up? The union case?”
Research for a corporate acquisition had revealed some possible shenanigans within the lakefront workers union in Milwaukee. The government had become involved and the acquisition was temporarily tabled, which nobody was very happy about.
But she said, “This’s something else. One of our clients makes car parts.”
“Right. Kenosha Auto. See, I do listen.”
She looked at her husband with an astonished glance. “Well, the CEO, turns out, is an absolute prick.” She explained about a wrongful death case involving components of a hybrid car engine: a freak accident, a passenger electrocuted. “The head of their R&D department . . . why, he demanded I return all the technical files. Imagine that.”
Steven said, “I liked your other case better—that state representative’s last will and testament . . . the sex stuff.”
“Shhhh,” she said, alarmed. “Remember, I never said a word about it.”
“My lips are sealed.”
Emma speared an olive and ate it. “And how was your day?”
Steven laughed. “Please . . . I don’t make enough to talk about business after hours.” The Feldmans were a shining example of a blind date gone right, despite the odds. Emma, a U of W law school valedictorian, daughter of Milwaukee/Chicago money; Steven, a city college B.A. from the Brewline, intent on helping society. Their friends gave them six months, top; the Door County wedding, to which all those friends were invited, was exactly eight months after their first date.
Steven pulled a triangle of brie out of a shopping bag. Found crackers and opened them.
“Oh, okay. Just a little.”
Snap, snap . . .
Her husband frowned. Emma said, “Honey, it’s freaking me a little. That was footsteps.”
The three vacation houses here were eight or nine miles from the nearest shop or gas station and a little over a mile from the county highway, which was accessed via a strip of dirt poorly impersonating a road. Marquette State Park, the biggest in the Wisconsin system, swallowed most of the land in the area; Lake Mondac and these houses made up an enclave of private property.
And very deserted.
Steven walked into the utility room, pulled aside the limp beige curtain and gazed past a cut-back crepe myrtle into the side yard. “Nothing. I’m thinking we—”
“Honey, honey, honey!” her husband cried.
The face studied them through the back window. The man’s head was covered with a stocking, though you could see crew-cut, blondish hair, a colorful tattoo on his neck. The eyes were halfway surprised to see people so close. He wore an olive-drab combat jacket. He knocked on the glass with one hand. In the other he was holding a shotgun, muzzle up. He was smiling eerily.
“Oh, God,” Emma whispered.
Steven pulled out his cell phone, flipped it open and punched numbers, telling her, “I’ll deal with him. Go lock the front door.”
Emma ran to the entryway, dropping her glass. The olives spun amid the dancing shards, picking up dust. Crying out, she heard the kitchen door splinter inward. She looked back and saw the intruder with the shotgun rip the phone from her husband’s hand and shove him against the wall. A print of an old sepia landscape photograph crashed to the floor.
The front door too swung open. A second man, his head also covered with mesh, pushed inside. He had long dark hair, pressed close by the nylon. Taller and stockier than the first, he held a pistol. The black gun was small in his outsized hand. He pushed Emma into the kitchen, where the other man tossed him the cell phone. The bigger one stiffened at the pitch, but caught the phone one-handed. He seemed to grimace in irritation, from the juvenile toss, and dropped the phone in his pocket.
Steven said, “Please . . . What do you . . .?” Voice quavering.
Emma looked away quickly. The less she saw, she was thinking, the better their chances to survive.
“Please,” Steven said, “Please. You can take whatever you want. Just leave us. Please.”
Emma stared at the dark pistol in the taller man’s hand. He wore a black leather jacket and boots. His were like the other man’s, the kind soldiers wear.
Both men grew oblivious to the couple. They looked around the house.
Emma’s husband continued, “Look, you can have whatever you want. We’ve got a Mercedes outside. I’ll get the keys. You—”
“Just, don’t talk,” the taller man said, gesturing with the pistol.
“We have money. And credit cards. Debit card too. I’ll give you the PIN.”
“What do you want?” Emma asked, crying.
Somewhere, in its ancient heart, the house creaked once more.