We had to wait three years between Kruger’s 17th and 18th books in the Cork O’Connor series. Luckily, we’ve got the next in the series now! A year later. We’ve said this before and we will continue to say it, “the Cork O’Connor series is intriguing, heartfelt, and empathetic.” Which is to say, jump in at any point (start here!) and know you are in good hands with the works of William Kent Kruger.
The ancient Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux has had a vision of his death. As he walks the Northwoods in solitude, he tries to prepare himself peacefully for the end of his long life. But peace is destined to elude him as hunters fill the woods seeking a woman named Dolores Morriseau, a stranger who had come to the healer for shelter and the gift of his wisdom.
Meloux guides this stranger and his great niece, Cork O’Connor’s wife, to safety deep into the Boundary Waters, his home for more than a century. On the last journey he may ever take into this beloved land, Meloux must do his best to outwit the deadly mercenaries who follow.
Meanwhile, in Aurora, Cork works feverishly to identify the hunters and the reason for their relentless pursuit, but he has little to go on. Desperate, Cork begins tracking the killers but his own skills as a hunter are severely tested by nightfall and a late season snowstorm. He knows only too well that with each passing hour time is running out. But his fiercest enemy in this deadly game of cat and mouse may well be his own deep self-doubt about his ability to save those he loves.
New and longtime “fans will be enthralled” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) by this gripping and richly told addition to a masterful series.
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He’s an old man, with more than a century of living behind him. When he rises each morning, there is no part of his body that doesn’t feel the weight, the ache, the wear of all those years. Although he moves more slowly now, he still unceasingly walks the forests with which he has been in intimate communion since he was a boy, spends full days alone in the great North Woods. His disappearances have become a cause for concern among those who care about him, and there are many, not only on the Iron Lake Reservation but also in the town of Aurora and across much of Tamarack County, Minnesota. When he returns from a long absence and sees the worry on their faces, he smiles and asks, “What are you afraid of?” Their answers are vague fears for his safety. “If I lie down somewhere on a soft bed of pine needles and begin my journey into the next world without a chance for you to say goodbye, you can always burn tobacco and send me your prayers. I will hear,” he promises.
His body is a thin wall between this world and that which awaits him beyond, but sometimes his spirit travels between these two worlds. He has occasionally flown like an eagle and seen from a high place his own body lying as if lifeless under a canopy of pine boughs. He understands his death is an experience neither to fear nor to welcome. It is simply a place toward which he has been walking since the moment of his birth.
The world around him is one that has both showered him in delight and presented him with enormous challenge. The delight has always been in nature, in the beauty it has offered, the solace, the lessons, the wisdom, the healing, the communion of spirits. The challenge has been of the human kind. At the hands of human beings, he has experienced cruelty, pain, deceit, avarice, jealousy, hate. Most of his life he has been a healer, working in the ways of the natural world to help guide others to a place of harmony, what his people, the Anishinaabeg, call mino-bimaadiziwin, the way of the good life. It is the purpose to which he was born.
But he feels the pull of another calling now, one that despite his age and knowledge and wisdom he doesn’t understand. It is a dark calling, melancholy and unsettling. As he walks the woods in the communion of spirits, he asks for answers, which have not come. Patience has always been his grounding, but he feels himself growing restless and uncertain. He feels he is being followed, but not by anything human. Death is his shadow. The prospect of his own death isn’t what troubles him. It is the sense that death will come to others, come far too early in their journey through this world. What the old man, this ancient soul, is trying to understand is this: Am I the one who stands between death and the others, or am I the one who leads death to them?
It’s after the lunch rush, and the man at the window orders a Sam’s Special, large fries, and a chocolate shake, a pretty standard request. But while he waits, alone now that the line has dwindled to nothing, he jabbers on about this and that, then finally asks the question as if he hasn’t been working up to it all along: “You’re a private investigator, right?”
The man is a stranger, a face Cork O’Connor can’t recall ever having seen in Tamarack County before, and Cork is good at remembering faces.
“I have a license. But mostly, I flip burgers. On the whole, I find it safer.” Cork slides the bag containing the burger and fries across the window counter, then hands the man the shake. “That’ll be nine seventy-five.”
The man takes a ten from his shiny wallet, gives it to Cork, and says, “Keep the change.” He stands looking at the bag and the shake, shifting a little on his feet, and finally comes out with it. “I need your help.”
“The kind that requires a PI license?”
“Yeah. That kind.”
“I’ll meet you at the door.”
Cork turns to his son, Stephen, who is scraping the charred grease from the lunch rush off the grill. Cork’s son is twenty-one, average height and build, but his Ojibwe heritage is evident in the dark brown of his eyes, the near black of his hair, and the prominence of his cheekbones. More than any of Cork’s children, he displays his Anishinaabe ancestry.
“Watch the window,” Cork says.
Stephen nods, and Cork leaves the prep area and walks to the rear of Sam’s Place.
It’s an old Quonset hut, circa World War Two, which an Ojibwe man named Sam Winter Moon, long deceased, converted into a burger joint at the edge of Iron Lake, on the outskirts of Aurora, a small town deep in the great Northwoods of Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. The front of the Quonset hut is the food operation. The rear is a sometime living area with a kitchen and a sometime office with filing cabinets. In the center is a table with four chairs for meeting the occasional client or, more often, simply eating a meal.
Cork opens the door, letting in the early May sunshine and the stranger. “Have a seat.”
The man sits and puts his food on the table. That morning, when he arrived to open Sam’s Place, Cork had taken off his jean jacket and draped it over a chairback. Now he sits in that chair, crosses his legs, and waits. Through the door to the prep area comes the rhythmic scrape, scrape, scrape as Stephen cleans the grill. The man stares at Cork as if waiting for him to begin. Cork stares back.
The man finally fumbles it out. “I heard you’re… part Indian.”
“My grandmother was true-blood Iron Lake Anishinaabe. Is that important?”
“Yeah.” The man frowns a moment. “Or maybe. I’m not sure.”
“That burger’s getting cold, and the shake is getting warm.”
The man stares at his packaged meal. “I’m not really hungry. But I could use a cup of coffee.”
“Whatever,” the man says.
Cork gets up and returns to the food prep area.
“What’s it all about?” Tiny beads of sweat stand out on Stephen’s forehead, the result of the heat from the grill and his work cleaning its surface.
“Don’t know yet,” Cork replies.
He fills two disposable cups from the coffee urn and heads back. He places one cup on the table in front of his guest, then sits down, sips from his own cup, and waits.
“My wife’s gone missing,” the man finally says without touching his coffee.
“You’re not from around here, Mr. —?”
“Morriseau. Louis Morriseau. I go by Lou.”
He offers his hand as an afterthought. When Cork takes it, he feels the damp and the fleshiness of the palm, which together remind him of a kitchen sponge.
“From Edina, down in the Twin Cities. I’m in real estate.” Morriseau is in his late forties or early fifties, dressed in a long-sleeve blue shirt with some kind of logo stitched into the fabric over the area of his left pec. Cork doesn’t recognize the logo but guesses that it’s a brand you wouldn’t find at Target. A place like Saks Fifth Avenue, maybe. Cork’s never been there, but he can imagine. The loafers on the man’s feet are shiny and as out of place in the North Country as his cologne. Earlier, during the rush, Cork had watched as Morriseau parked his shiny Escalade in the gravel lot in front of Sam’s Place, well away from the dusty pickups and mud-spattered Jeeps, as if afraid the dirt and grit might migrate. “I do pretty damn well,” Morriseau adds. Which lowers him yet another notch in Cork’s estimation.
“Why is it important that I have Native heritage?” Cork asks.
“Dolores—that’s my wife—has become fascinated with Indian stuff lately.”
“You know, dreamcatchers, sage bundles, beadwork, sweat lodges, visions.”
“And you have a problem with that?”
“She claims to be part Indian, but she’s got no proof. It’s just another one of her fancies. Last year she was into Transcendental Meditation. The year before it was Scientology. Every year something different. This year it’s Indians.”
“You say she’s missing. How long?”
“Nearly a week.”
“Have you reported this to the police?”
Morriseau shakes his head. “It’s not like I don’t know where she’s gone.”
“You believe she’s in Aurora?”
“Around here somewhere, yeah.”
“Because the man she’s in love with lives up here and he’s Indian.”
“So that’s what this is about. Another man.”
“It’s a passing fancy. Dolores is always wrapped up in one fad or another.”
“You think she’s what? Just into her Indian period?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Why not simply wait it out?”
“Because this isn’t like when she was into yoga or marching for PETA. This is another guy.”
“An Indian from around here.”
“And you know this how?”
“She left me a note, told me she was leaving me. And she keeps a journal, writes in it every day. I read it. She talks about this guy a lot in the last few months. It’s clear she’s bonkers over him.”
“Bonkers? Are they lovers?”
“God, I hate that word. It’s so… delicate. But yeah, from what I read they must be screwing like a couple of rabbits. Me and Dolores, we don’t share a bedroom anymore. She claims my snoring keeps her awake.”
“What is it you want from me?”
“Find her. Take me to her.”
“So you can do what?”
“Talk her into coming home.”
Cork thinks about the Escalade and the distance the man put between his precious set of wheels and any taint from the local vehicles in the lot.
“You’re sure that’s all? Just to talk to her?”
“What if she doesn’t want to listen?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“Do you have a photo of Dolores?”
Lou Morriseau takes a snapshot from the wallet where he pulled out the ten, lays it on the table, and slides it across to Cork. She’s a stunning woman, a redhead. Her eyes are green, her smile like one you’d see on a billboard for a successful dental plan. It’s a static photograph and Cork doesn’t want to read too much into it, but he thinks the woman looks a good deal smarter, or maybe just deeper, than her husband.
“This Native paramour who’s stolen your wife’s heart, do you have a name?”
“Yeah. It was in her journal. Now it’s burned into my brain.” The man’s face goes taut, as if, in fact, a red-hot brand has just seared his soul. His lips curl into a snarl, and he spits out, “Henry Meloux.”