"Freeman is an excellent writer and he's only getting better and better as time goes by. If you're not on the Freeman train yet, all aboard!" 5-star reader review
"Excellent . . . A winner." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"If not the best Jonathan Stride novel, it's right up there with them." 5-star reader review
When a freak auto accident kills a driver carrying false identification on the remote roads outside Duluth, Jonathan Stride is disturbed to find a gun in the trunkand the gun has recently been fired.
The next day, a Duluth college student has also vanished, and Stride worries they're connectedbut what would have put an ordinary young woman in the crosshairs of a man who has all the hallmarks of an assassin for hire?
Stride's investigation leads him to a film crew in Duluth, where a movie is being made based on a case in Stride's own past. The actor playing Stride is Hollywood royalty, an award-winning icon who has charmed his way to the top of the box office. But Stride soon hears whispers that his cinematic alter ego has a dark side . . .
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The man in the Australian oilskin coat and black cowboy hat didn't realize it yet, but fate already had dealt him the thirteenth tarot card. A skeleton on a white horse rode his way, bringing death. He had ninety seconds to live.
He struggled through knee-deep snow past skeletal birches and evergreens that shook their hunched shoulders at him. The bitter, driving wind in his face was so cold, it actually burned. Under the clouds, the night was black, with no moon or stars. He used a flashlight to make his way back to the lonely highway. When he looked behind him, he saw wind and snow filling in his footsteps. Soon there would be no evidence that he'd been here at all.
An owl hooted above him. The bird was close by, but then it lifted invisibly over the high trees as if alarmed by his arrival. Its mournful calls got farther away. Owls were another harbinger of coming death, but he didn't think about that.
He was a summer man in a winter place. It was January in the empty lands northwest of Duluth. The coat he wore would have been fine for a Florida cold front but not for the subzero temperatures here. His leather gloves were unlined. His feet inside his boots were wet from the deep snow. The cowboy hat left his ears exposed, and he wore no scarf over his face.
He'd been outside for half an hour. Skin froze in ten minutes.
The trail back to the road felt endless. He didn't recall traveling so far on his way in, but if you were hiding something you didn't want anyone to find, you had to look for the most remote section of the forest. Adrenaline had propelled him at first, but now he was simply numb. He was ready to get away and go back home to the South. In his imagination, warm sunshine glowed on a long stretch of sand by the still waters of the Gulf.
Sixty seconds remained.
The light of his flashlight finally glinted on his rented Chevy Impala on the shoulder of Highway 48. Its windshield was already dusted over with fresh snow. He trudged the last few steps and climbed inside. He switched on the engine and waited for warm air to blast through the vents. In the mirror, he saw his face, which was mottled white. He left his hat on. He peeled off his gloves, threw them on the seat, and struggled to bend his fingers. He kicked off his boots and rolled off his wet socks. He'd drive barefoot.
The windshield wipers pushed away the snow that had gathered while he was gone. He glanced at the woods from where he'd come and couldn't see his trail in the darkness. A few more minutes, another inch of snow, and the white bed would look virginal again. He drove away fast, kicking up a white cloud behind him. His speed was reckless. The pavement was almost invisible in the blizzard, and the plows wouldn't be out until morning. Even so, he wanted to put as much distance as he could between himself and the place where he'd stopped.
He grabbed his phone from the inside pocket of his coat. The signal was weak here, but he punched a single speed-dial number with his thumb. He'd used the phone only to call that one number. When he got to Minneapolis, he'd find a place to ditch the phone for good. No one would ever find it.
He heard a ringing on the other end. It was the middle of the night, but his contact was waiting for the call.
"It's me," he said. His numb lips slurred the words.
"Any problems?" the person on the other end asked.
"Where are you?"
"I'm leaving town."
"Okay. Good luck."
That was all. He hung up the phone.
If he'd glanced out the window next to him, he might have seen the skeleton keeping pace with his car and counting off the last few seconds with the bones of its hand. Ten, nine, eight —
Headlights shone in the opposite lane. There were only two vehicles out on the snow-swept road: his Impala and a truck roaring northward toward him.
He leaned forward, squinting.
Something strange was happening. The truck's lights blinked at him. A shadow came and went in front of them. He heard a bass horn, a thud, and a quick screech of tires. His heart pounded, but the truck passed him safely with a shudder of wind. For a millisecond, the deserted highway stretched out in front of him, just wilderness on both sides and snow swirling in his lights like thousands of flies.
He remembered that he was going home.
That was the last conscious thought of his life. In the next instant, his neck snapped and he was dead.
* * *
Maggie Bei of the Duluth Police zipped her down coat to her chin as she hopped from the driver's seat of her beat-up yellow Avalanche. The jacket draped to her knees. It was bright red, making her body look like a tube of lipstick. She pulled the fleece hood over her head, but the wind chill hit her like a shovel to the face. The air temperature was twelve degrees below zero. In the wind, it felt like forty below.
"Why the hell do we live here?" she asked Sergeant Max Guppo, not hiding her crabbiness.
"Oh, it's not so bad," Guppo replied cheerfully. "A little nippy maybe."
Guppo was as round as he was short, and he had the advantage of 250 pounds of padding on his frame. He seemed blissfully unaware of the cold, although the bulbs on his cheeks looked extra rosy tonight.
The highway around them was closed. Clouds of snow blew past the lights of the emergency vehicles. A trailer truck was parked safely on the shoulder a hundred yards to the north. The Impala, which had spun when the driver lost control, was lodged tail first in the drifts at the base of the highway shoulder. Its windshield was completely shattered.
Maggie could see the forlorn brown carcass of the deer where the first responders had dumped it in the snow after prying it from the front seat of the Impala.
"Tell me again what happened here," she said.
"Freak accident," Guppo replied. "The truck back there hit a deer, and the thing went airborne. Must have been like a missile. The deer landed on the Impala, went through the windshield, and took out the driver. Broke his neck, practically decapitated him. Talk about your bad luck."
Maggie shook her head. "Yikes. Killed by a flying deer two weeks after Christmas. What do you think? Dancer? Prancer? Vixen?"
Guppo choked back a laugh. "I heard the EMTs saying they should stick a red nose on the deer before you got here."
Maggie grinned. She had a well-earned reputation for sarcasm. When you're a forty-year-old detective small enough to buy your clothes in the teen section — and you have to boss around twenty-something Minnesota cops who look like Paul Bunyan — you learn pretty fast to develop a smart mouth.
"Who called in the accident?" she asked.
"The truck driver. He saw the car go off the road in his mirror."
"Is he okay?"
"Fine. The deer barely dented his truck."
"Was he drunk?"
"The deer? I don't think so." Guppo laughed as Maggie's bloodshot eyes narrowed into annoyed little slits. "No, the truck driver was sober."
"Okay, you want to tell me why we're here?" Maggie asked. "This looks like nothing more than a weird traffic accident. I'm guessing there must be some other reason the highway cops called us in."
Guppo nodded. He hoisted a hard-shell plastic case in his gloved hand and set it on the hood of Maggie's Avalanche. "The cops found this case in the snow a few feet from the wreck of the Impala. It must have been ejected through the window when the car went off the shoulder. As soon as they saw what was inside, they called me."
Guppo popped the lid of the case. Inside, nestled in foam cushioning, was a black Glock and a spare ammunition clip.
Maggie leaned forward and gave it a whiff. "This thing's been fired recently."
"Yeah. And it gets more interesting. I checked the guy's pockets after they pulled him out. He had ten thousand dollars in cash wrapped up in a tight roll. His wallet had nothing in it except a Florida driver's license under the name James Lyons at an address in Miami. No credit cards. No other ID. I made a call to the Miami PD to check him out for me. They're supposed to call me back."
"He was barefoot. His boots were soaking wet and covered with pine needles. So were the legs of his pants. He'd been walking through the woods not long before the accident."
"In the middle of the night? In a blizzard like this? I don't like that. Have we checked the trunk of the car?" "No, it's buried in the snow. We won't be able to get to it until we get a tow truck out here."
"What about a cell phone?" Maggie asked.
"The EMTs found it on the floor of the car. The call log shows half a dozen calls to the same Duluth number. That was it, nothing else. I dialed the number. No answer."
"And the car?"
"It was rented ten days ago at the Minneapolis airport. He also had a receipt in his pocket from a cheap place that rents efficiency apartments up on the hill in Hermantown. Paid cash. He's been in town since he rented the car."
Maggie shoved the hood back from her head. The wind made a mess of her black hair. She'd worn bowl-cut bangs for most of her life, but she'd been growing her hair out for six months. Her stylist had added some spiral curls. Now she looked like Lucy Liu if Lucy wore no makeup and hadn't gotten any sleep in days.
She wandered over to the ambulance and gestured for the EMTs to open the rear doors. She clambered inside, where the body of the Impala driver lay under a sheet on a metal gurney. She drew the sheet back to study his face, which was difficult to distinguish because of the dried blood. She could make out scars and a dimpled square jaw. His blondish hair was short and shot through with gray, and it had a ridge where he'd worn a hat. He wasn't old but probably was north of fifty.
"What were you shooting at?" she murmured. Then she stared through the back of the ambulance at the empty forest land that went on for miles. "And what were you doing out here?"
Maggie pulled the sheet back over the body and climbed out of the ambulance. She slid down the slick slope from the highway to the wreck of the Impala, which jutted into the air at a forty-five-degree angle. The front doors were cracked open; the back doors were entombed in drifts. All the windows were shattered and empty. She peered inside and saw that the front seats were covered in glass and blood. Through the back windows, she saw a cowboy hat upside down against the rear window. On the rear floor, she noticed a crumpled piece of newspaper. She reached in through the broken window to grab the paper with her gloved hand. Blood had soaked the pages. When she smoothed out the four-page sheet, she recognized an entertainment tabloid called the National Gazette. The newspaper was at least a week old.
"That's what you were reading?" she murmured. "Really?"
She turned over the sheet and saw an article outlined with black marker. The headline read:
NEW DEAN CASPERSON THRILLER DOGGED BY WINTER WEATHER
The rest of the article was illegible, but Maggie didn't need to read it. She knew all about the film that was being shot on location around Duluth. It was called The Caged Girl, and it was based on a series of murders that had taken place in the city more than a decade earlier. She'd lived the case; she'd been part of it. Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, the role of the Chinese cop was now a bit part given to a redheaded bombshell. Life was unfair.
She heard the labored breathing of Max Guppo as he slipped down the snowy slope to join her beside the car. She pointed at the article in the tabloid.
Guppo read the headline, too. "You think this is about the movie?"
"You going to call Stride?"
"Sure," she replied. "Why should he get to sleep when we're awake?"
"I've got something else," Guppo added. "I just got a call back from the police in Miami."
"The driver's license is for someone named James Lyons, but the real James Lyons died five years ago. Our corpse is a John Doe with a stolen identity. He's some kind of ghost."
In what felt like an out-of-body experience, Jonathan Stride watched himself sprint toward the hunting lodge on the shore of the small lake. He could see himself from the side, where silver sprays of snow washed across his face. His black-and-gray hair was pushed back by the wind. He could see himself from above, running along the narrow dirt road through ruts of ice. He could see his face screwed up with intensity as he neared the tiny cabin.
There, inside an eight-foot by eight-foot cage, a young woman was near death and running out of time.
It wasn't real, of course.
None of it was real except the Duluth snow. The detective on the road was actually a Hollywood star named Dean Casperson. A camera followed Casperson on railroad tracks built beside the road. A drone filmed him from overhead as he ran. Microphones picked up the sound of his breath and the whistle of the wind. As Stride watched, Casperson reached the wooden door of the shed and ripped it open.
End of scene.
The actor, the director, the camera operators, the sound engineers, the gaffers, the grips, the production designers, and the location manager all began to reset for the next take. The crew worked quickly. It was already midafternoon, and the natural light wouldn't last long. Days were short in January, and time was money on a movie set.
The Caged Girl.
Inspired by actual events.
Eleven years earlier, Stride had rescued a young woman named Lori Fulkerson from a cage that was almost identical to the one on the set. It had been built by a serial killer named Art Leipold. Lori had been his fourth victim. Stride had been too late to save the three earlier women who had died while Art played his game of cat and mouse with the police.
The movie script took liberties with what had really happened when Stride rescued Lori. He hadn't been alone. Maggie Bei and half a dozen other police officers had stormed the remote hunting lodge with him. The real cabin wasn't anywhere near a lake; it was hidden inside a few acres of forested hunting land. But this was the movies, where reality didn't mean a thing. The only thing that mattered was what looked good on the big screen.
Even so, the Hollywood version made Stride think about the past again.
He hadn't even been forty years old back then. His first wife, Cindy, was still alive. It would be three more years before she died of cancer. He'd just been made the lieutenant in charge of the city's detective bureau that summer. The audio CD that had arrived at his desk on a sticky July day was like a grim welcome to the responsibilities of his new position.
The tape was of a woman breathing raggedly, crying, and banging on the walls for freedom. She said the same four words over and over.
"Save me, Jonathan Stride."
That was what made the case so personal. Every victim used his name.
The voice on the tape belonged to a St. Scholastica journalism student named Kristal Beech. She'd gone missing after the evening shift of her job at Maurice's at Miller Hill Mall. Stride and his detectives had analyzed the sound recording for clues to her location. They'd done chemical analyses of the envelope, handwriting, and postage stamp. They'd delved into Kristal's life to find out who could have taken her.
But they failed.
Kristal died of dehydration before they could find her. Stride received a photograph of her body with a message scrawled across the back:
Better luck next time.
Next time came two months later. Tanya Carter was a twenty-five-year-old waitress at Bellisio's in Canal Park. Stride had received another CD with a message from Tanya: Save me, Jonathan Stride. As before, he and his team had no idea where she was being held and no clues about the killer's identity. And as before, they didn't find her.
Better luck next time.
It happened all over again just before Thanksgiving with a thirty-one-year-old publicist for a nonprofit organization named Sally Wills. The third victim.
After that, for six weeks the killer went silent, but they knew he wasn't done. In January, during one of the city's most bitter stretches of cold weather, the next audio CD arrived. This time the woman was Lori Fulkerson, a twenty-two-year-old bookkeeper.
The message was the same: Save me, Jonathan Stride.
The only thing that was different was that the killer finally had made a mistake. They found a small broken shard of plastic from a pen in Lori Fulkerson's apartment. The killer must have dropped it, stepped on it, and then tried to pick up the pieces. Maybe he was hurrying because of the cold, but he missed a piece. The fragment of plastic had a partial fingerprint on it, and the fingerprint led them to Art Leipold.
Excerpted from "Alter Ego"
Copyright © 2018 Brian Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of Quercus.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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