11 January, 2017 — Whitmore Lake, Michigan
The territory around I-94 in the no-man’s-land between Jackson and Chelsea is mostly open fields. Wind can basically come all the way from the North Pole and have nothing to slow it down but barbed wire. And with how cold it’s been, the snow that fell a week ago still hasn’t even crusted over. It’s still drifting as badly as when it was brand new. After a week of this, it looks as though the plows have just given up even trying to keep the highway clear. Maybe they all got together and migrated south, and now there are dozens of big Michigan snowplow trucks that have come to rest in some parking lot in Key West, Florida. Their drivers are stumbling out of the cabs, blinking at the sun and trying to sell their trucks to the natives for brightly colored shirts and cold Piña Coladas. Or maybe they’re just all dead and frozen in snow banks and they’ll be discovered in a thousand years when the ice finally melts, still inside their trucks, empty no-spill coffee mugs still clutched in frozen hands.
Bill Geisler drives in the right lane, keeping it at fifty miles an hour and hoping that’s slow enough with the tires on this car. He only glanced at them briefly when he took the vehicle, but he doesn’t recall them looking any too great. It’s certainly not like he’s slowing anyone down: there’s no one behind him except for a semi about a mile back going even slower than he is. It looks like even the truckers are trying to wait until the drifting stops. Up ahead he sees a thicker area of snow crossing the highway and slows down to thirty, carefully pumping the brakes.
Juggling the wheel to keep his rented car in the ruts that previous vehicles have worn in the drifted snow, Geisler frowns at the road.
What the hell did you expect, anyway? What was Patrick supposed to do? Jump out of his chair and tell you that you haven’t pissed away the last thirty years of your life? ‘Hey, by golly, you’ve been right all along, Billy! Let’s go kill that darn vampire!’
Some people have conventional lives, in which they fit comfortably near the middle of every normal curve by which a human life might be measured. They have a nearly-average childhood, followed by a nearly-average adolescence. After a nearly-average higher education they land a nearly-average career. And they get married.
Geisler’s lips compress with old anger.
The people who have those lives—do they get bored? Is one of them, maybe an only slightly different version of William Temple Geisler, sitting in his favorite chair right now, staring out a window, and wishing that something would happen?
You make the choices that you make in life, and if they lead you to be in the middle of the pack then you should accept that I am a middle-of-the-pack kind of guy, and get on with life. But if, through some combination of choice and happenstance, you end up way out on the edge of life, seeing things that no one else has seen—isn’t it at least equally pitiful to spend your time wishing for more normalcy? Wishing, in this case, that your old partner would endorse your beliefs?
If there were someone else who can see everything you can see, then why would we need you?
It’s just that, in thirty years since the night at Waldron Road, there have been very few nights when thoughts of those events did not occupy his mind. He has spent most of his life since then searching and researching, preparing, watching—and waiting.
You have either wasted your life or you haven’t. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But you know that, don’t you? You’re not upset that Patrick disagrees. So why are you upset?
The highway swerves south, toward exit 172 where he will get off, negotiate the snowy surface streets of Ann Arbor, return the car, and walk home. The exit is half a mile ahead, he can see the sign for it. But a hundred yards in front of him is another exit, or a branch, rather, where M-14 peels off toward the north. And toward Whitmore Lake.
Half a second short of too late, Geisler twists the wheel to the left, belatedly realizing that he hasn’t even checked for traffic coming up behind him. There isn’t any, but there’s plenty more to worry about. When the car hits the deeper snow it fishtails sickeningly and he has to play the steering wheel like a fiddle just to stay on the road. But after a few moments of terror, he’s in a new rut, although much less well-worn than the main route, and curving north onto M-14.
I took the road less traveled by. Let’s see if it makes any difference.
M-14 soon gives way to US-23, and the little car’s compass indicates due north. At least visibility is good, with the sky being completely clear for a change, but the afternoon sunlight only serves to turn the lowest few feet of air into a brilliant white fog of blowing snow. This is exactly the kind of day where you used to hear about hundred-vehicle pileups. A sudden increase in the wind causes a big area of the highway to white out, half the drivers panic and jam on the brakes, and boom. All of a sudden it’s bumper-cars, except some of the cars are semis. Well, accidents like that were far back in the Good Old Days. Now, there aren’t enough cars or trucks on the highway to cause such grand pileups, and in drifting conditions like this everybody’s doing thirty or less. No matter what happens, most people are going to be able to stop before slamming into any possible accident in front of them. So at least there is this one way in which the post-War world is an improvement over the Roaring 90s and even the Y2K years. Although, as he hunches over his steering wheel trying to see, it is the only way that Bill Geisler can think of right off the top of his head.
It takes more than twenty minutes to do thirteen miles, by which time the ice-white expanse of Whitmore Lake is passing silently to the right.
OK, genius, welcome to Whitmore Lake. May I ask why you are here? Both of your newspaper stories happened in this area. So what? What’s the plan? Go walkabout on the frozen prairies knocking on farmer’s doors? ‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ the half-frozen old weirdo says through the young farm-woman’s screen door, trying to ignore the shotgun that she has trained on his chest. ‘I was wondering if you’ve seen anything unusual around here lately.’
Angry again, Geisler impulsively pulls off the highway and takes the big looping exit at a dangerous speed for these conditions until he calms himself enough to slow down. The exit goes onto 9 Mile Road, then there’s a mirror image loop to take you back onto southbound US-23. But as he blows his breath out again—fogging the window slightly because the car’s heater also isn’t worth a damn—he sees, up ahead, a Denny’s, its bright yellow and red sign standing out like a beacon of warmer times in a freezing world.
OK, calm down. Why not have lunch? If that’s the right word for three in the afternoon. You already blew an extra hundred bucks by driving up here. Why not make it a nice, round two hundred? Settle down and think for five minutes.
He frowns at the sign, wondering if it represents a frivolous temptation.
Yes it does! Sign me up.
So instead of turning off to re-enter the highway, Geisler continues west on 9 Mile another few hundred yards and pulls into the Denny’s parking lot. The empty feeling he has, he suddenly realizes, is not entirely emotional. He hasn’t had any breakfast yet today. Geisler laughs, and wrestles Denny’s front glass door open against the icy wind.
There’s a pile of USA Today floppies by the greeter’s desk, so he grabs one and activates its screen once he gets his coat off and gets seated in a brightly-colored booth. The headline says “Sun Quake! Scientists Measure Largest Solar Wave”. The story is interesting, the food is very welcome when it comes, and Geisler doesn’t think about his own worries for all of ten minutes while he eats and reads, touching the thin plastic display whenever he’s ready to go to the next page. At one point there’s even a video graphic of how two big solar flares and some kind of moving filament thing combined forces to make this big upheaval over one entire hemisphere of the sun. There were actually two separate big waves, spreading out like ripples in a pond from the origin of the twin flares, both of them traveling more than a million miles before fading out, and accelerating the whole time rather than slowing down. The story says that this has never happened before, at least not since people have had telescopes observing the sun. Terrific,Geisler thinks. Now even the Sun is messed up.
He reads, fascinated, until he becomes aware that his waitress is kind of hovering with the coffee pot. He looks up, ready to decline any further caffeination, but sees worry on the woman’s face. He has seen this many times. Somebody wants to talk to him—and it’s always about police business because, somehow, thirty years after he left the force, it apparently still shows—but they don’t know how to get started. Also he still apparently has the instincts of a detective, because he never discourages them when they come to him like this. You never know but you might hear something interesting.
“Oh, thanks,” he says, putting his coffee cup down for her to top off, pretending that’s the reason she approached. “Hey, I wanted to mention, it’s nice and warm in here. I like it! It seems like nobody turns the heat up anymore.” He gives her his best I am a harmless old man and easy to talk to smile.
She smiles back, sort of. A flickering kind of smile. She didn’t come to talk about things that make her smile. What the hell, is her boss beating her? It doesn’t look like it. Did the restaurant get ripped off? There’s certainly plenty of that going around, but a gang of thieves would have to be pretty hard up to try this place.
“I turn the thermostat up when Bob’s gone,” she says. A shadow crosses her face. “Because I figure—you know?—anything can happen, any time.” She glances up and out of the big plate glass window. “Why shouldn’t we at least be a little comfortable while—I don’t know. While we can.”
Brenda, as her name tag claims, looks back down at him and Bill keeps his smile turned on, although it’s starting to get a little old.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We all need that sometimes.”
After a final long pause, Brenda takes the plunge.
“I was just wondering,” she says, “I mean—you’re a cop, aren’t you?”
If it’s still that obvious, how far did it soak in to me? All the way through?
“I was in the Ann Arbor PD a long time ago,” Bill nods. When they come to you to talk, they don’t want to check your badge number first. They just want some kind attention. “Now I’m actually more of a private detective.”
Brenda nods, looking at him but barely listening. She’s maybe ten years younger than he is: still old enough to remember what real cops looked like before all the police departments got nationalized and privatized.
“So—” she sets the coffee pot down on the table, “are you here about the cars?”
And that is the type of question that neither a real peace officer nor a real private detective should ever answer.
“What can you tell me about them?” he asks, letting his expression relax into something more natural.
Brenda nods quickly and lowers her voice. “There was another one just yesterday. People are just leaving them! And a lot of them are real nice cars, and Bob has been selling them! I don’t want to get into trouble, but,” she frowns, looking into space for a moment. “You know? That’s not even what I’m worried about, not really.” Brenda looks at the aging sort-of detective. “It just so creepy,” she says quietly. “We’ve had a dozen of them right here in our parking lot while I was working, and I never even seen them go. And you know—those people never come back. Not a one of them. They even leave the keys in the cars. Every time!” Her voice falls to a whisper. “I mean—I think they’re killing themselves. Like a cult or something. But why do they have to do it here? It’s so creepy!”
In the silence, the restaurant’s front door opens again as a new customer comes in, the little bronze bells that they have attached to its top jingle, and Bill Geisler feels the subtle draft of cold outside air.
“So—I mean, that why you came, right?” Brenda asks. “To look into—whatever’s going on?”
There is no way anything like this happened thirty years ago, or he would have probably heard about it back then, and would certainly have uncovered it since then with all of the newspaper and library research that he’s done. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in Geisler’s mind that he has stumbled onto a piece of his mystery. No doubt, but just a little wonder, in the back of his thoughts, about how life works. Life, and fate.
“Yes,” he tells her simply. “This is why I came. Can you show me the cars?” He starts standing up.