Skin River is the story of Buddy Bayes, a man with a past trying desperately for a second chance at a peaceful life as a tavern owner in smalltown Gunnar, Wisconsin. His hopes for a new start are shattered, however, when he finds the severed hand of a missing young woman and falls headlong into a harrowing situation which has Buddy convinced that his past has come back to haunt him. Things aren't what they seem, though, and jumping to conclusions proves to be a disastrous mistake as the true nature of Buddy's situation slowly comes into focus. A tense, chilling novel that introduces Steven Sidor, a fine young writer with an exacting touch, a disciplined hand, and a remarkable talent for suspense.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Steve Sidor lives near Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and two young children. Skin River is his first novel.
Steven Sidor is the author of acclaimed novels including Skin River, Mirror's Edge, Bone Factory. He lives near Chicago with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
By Steven Sidor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Steven Sidor
All rights reserved.
Flashlight beams play in the dark spaces between the trees as the search party fans out. Its movement forward is slow. The men stop to check the uneven ground, regain their sense of direction, and brush moths from their faces. The air hums. On all sides mosquitoes spin together in patches, and walking through them is like breaking through a series of thin nets. Here the forest is choked with weeds, and their decomposition smells polluted. Floating particles make the air fizz. Breathing in stings. Faint through the moisture, a wisp of marijuana smoke drifts like the mark of a sailboat in an otherwise empty harbor.
Hidden ten feet beyond the reach of the flashlights, a man who calls himself Goatskinner sucks the last life from a joint he holds daintily on the end of a toothpick. The tiny paper flares and disappears. Comfortable in the dark, he stretches back on the hood of the car. He rubs the warm tip of the toothpick with his thumb, then tucks it between his molars, biting down and tasting the smokiness in the wood. The man relaxes, and as the car takes his full bulk, the shocks creak. Large bugs land and walk on his powerful chest. They travel in erratic paths across him. When they buzz, the electricity in their feathery legs and wings tickles like new hair growing beneath his shirt. The lights approach, sweeping the trees that form a lush, broken fence between him and the men aiming the beams. For a lingering moment, splintered light enters through the gaps in the leaves, making the car seem to glow.
With his eyes half-open he witnesses the transformation. The plant life surrounding him changes to black and haunted shapes. His body and the stolen Pontiac turn a faded, milky green. He thinks that he can hear, in the distance, the ocean. Impossible because they are more than a thousand miles from salt water.
Inside the Pontiac, the girl has regained consciousness. He perceives her terror as if it were a vibration in the ground or colored smoke gliding through the car's open windows. The men with the lights are calling out her name. Neighbors' voices mixed with the hoarse shouts of her father, brothers, and boyfriend. The man has confidence in the rope and tape holding her quiet across the length of the backseat. The inevitability of what will happen during the rest of the night is so fixed it feels like the past to him.
"The only one not afraid of the woods tonight is me."
His voice is loud but drowned out by the noise from the search party. It isn't clear if he's speaking to the girl or to himself. He stares with true interest at the insects settling on him, the flat ones like buttons on his skin. He wants to laugh, but the lights move on.
Instead, Goatskinner sleeps.
Buddy Bayes' cabin faced Dark Cloud Lake to the south, and to the west, past the one cabin wall that had no window, the Skin River fed the lake and provided a good location for fishing all year long. It took Buddy ten minutes to negotiate the path, overgrown with summer brush, as it hooked and dropped gradually from the side of the cabin to the river mouth. If he had wanted to, he could have taken a hatchet and cleared the intrusive branches, made an easier walk for himself, but he preferred the look of the path the way it was. Just worn enough for the passage of a stocky man carrying two fishing rods, a clear plastic tackle box the size of a hardcover novel, and a soft cooler that fit a ham-and-cheese sandwich, two beers, and a blue ice pack.
From early spring to late autumn, Buddy would hear the river before he saw it. The sound of its rush made his approach more tantalizing. The trees ended a couple of yards short of the riverside. At the place where the path led out, a clump of white birches grew. Buddy slipped past the final, waist-high green branches, and felt, as he always did at this point, like he had entered a private spot. Rocks lined the near bank. Buddy set down his equipment on a flat square boulder the size of a delivery truck. As he bent over, he saw the curlicues of snipped fishing line and muddy boot prints that stamped the rocks along this side of the river. It was no remote site, the water hardly pristine. Fallen branches and trash rolled along twenty feet down in the brown water. The number of vacationers using the Skin River increased every year.
But this morning Buddy was alone and would not have to come up with small talk about weather changes, bait, and how pretty the sunrise looked. From his tackle box he chose a lureand picked up the longer of his two rods. He pushed the sleeves of his windbreaker back to his elbows. Buddy tied on the chartreuse spinner and cast it along the dark, submerged cracks in the rock.
Light wind stirred the already warm morning air. To his left, the lake's tinsel waves sparkled. Buddy worked the lure smoothly as he walked toward the river mouth and back again to where his equipment lay. He kept his attention on his hands, feeling the action of the spinner blade as he pulled it through the water. He waited for the rap-rap-rap signifying a fish.
The sun burned off the last traces of fog close to the ground. Across the lake, the sound of an outboard droned then vanished. Slow tension drew Buddy's line taut and bent his rod. He snapped his arms upward and heard the loud clicks from his drag as line continued to go out. It didn't feel like a fish. He opened the reel to free spool. The rod straightened. Buddy watched his line peel away and sink into the current. Probably a snag. The river carried debris for miles.
He waited a few seconds more. Sometimes the hook freed itself, untangled in the slack. Buddy broke his line there at least once a week. The river was tricky. It sucked your lure down between rocks and cut the line, or tied it fast to a hundred pounds of dead wood floating south. Buddy started to reel in. First the line came back easily. Warm drops flew off the reel onto his forearms. Then he felt what might have been a pull, and he yanked back. The resistance lessened. Buddy knew a large northern pike or a musky could be mistaken for a snag. Guides told stories about catching giants they thought were logs until the surface water blew up into froth.
Whatever he snagged was coming in. Slowly.
A cardinal exploded from a thicket behind him. The blur of red feathers passing overhead zapped Buddy's concentration. By instinct, he slammed back on the rod. Bitten or stretched to the point of breaking, the end of the line whipped out of the river and sailed over Buddy into the space where, a second before, the bird had flown.
As he gathered up his line to replace the lure, Buddy saw the cardinal spying on him from the vantage of a long spiral branch on the opposite bank. The cardinal's slurred whistle dropped in with the sound of the flowing water. Its red body mimicked the shape of a flame. Buddy imagined the bird's tiny eyes shimmering like oily beads. A jittery life poking the grass searching for the tips of worms. With small tools the creature met its needs. Buddy knelt next to his open tackle box and when he stood up, he noticed another fisherman, upriver.
The man came nearer, keeping his head down and switching his gaze, back and forth, from the river to the trees. Buddy saw the man carried no sporting gear but gripped a two-way radio in his left hand. The other hand he raised to wave hello. The two men recognized each other.
"Good morning, Vic."
"Wish I could say so, Buddy. I take it you haven't heard the news about the Teagles girl?" Vic closed the remaining distance between them.
"No, I haven't."
They shook hands. Vic's tone of voice said the situation was critical. He kept his smile in check. Both men skipped the protracted greeting of friendly neighbors in deference to the matter before them. Vic judged it to be serious, and Buddy trusted Vic enough to follow his lead.
"Melissa. That's her name. A good girl from what I've heard. Home from college on summer break. Last night she goes out to Pee-Jay's Pizza Shack to pick up dinner. And she never came home. Len and Marie drove to Pee-Jay's. The kid working there said she didn't show. He still had their pizza in the warmer. That was two hours after she left the house. Len went home, dropped Marie off to call the sheriff, then he rode around hoping he'd spot her car. He stayed out till eleven o'clock or so. Marie called her boys and some friends. We were all there when he got back. We divided up. Searched all night long. Nothing. No car. No Melissa. Nobody who remembers seeing her." Vic coughed. "That's about where we're at this morning."
Vic Presser owned a service station in town, and he was still wearing his uniform shirt. Sweat stains looped under his arms. The smell of engines clung to him. Buddy guessed he hadn't changed shirts since the previous day. Above Vic's breast pocket, black cursive letters spelled out his name. Vic reached into the pocket and withdrew a cigarette from a flattened pack of Winstons. One day's worth of grizzled beard roughened his chin. He clicked a green plastic lighter, sucked smoke deep into his lungs, and dropped one hand to his side. His other hand returned the lighter and pinched softly at the cigarette filter he held between his lips.
"There's no chance she just took off on a road trip without telling anyone? Maybe she went to meet a boyfriend, and they lost track of the time," Buddy said.
Vic shook his head. "Len says everything was normal. They were going to eat pizza and watch a movie on TV. She's dating Bill Harkin's son. Bill and his boy helped us with the search. The boy says he last talked to her yesterday. Noonish. They went swimming at the sandy beach right around the corner from here. He says things were good between them. Guess we can't know for sure. But something sure happened to her."
Buddy would have put his money on an ordinary explanation. He had seen small-town parents underestimate their kids' ability to develop adult problems. They came into his place still trying to figure out what happened. To fathom how they got blind-sided by children who grew into the strangers living in their house. But there was probably an equal share of parents who lived apart from their offspring, numb to their problems, distracted, overcome by their own dissatisfaction with life. Blame cropped up on both sides. Either way, Buddy suspected that the girl was safe, if not sound. And her predicament, when it became clear, would probably be a familiar one.
Both men let their gazes wander over the burnt blond grass at their ankles. Vic used his pinkie to dab at a speck of tobacco sticking to his tongue. The cardinal's whistle repeated. Buddy asked if there was anything he could do.
"Somebody who stops in at your place for a beer might've seen something on the road. I'll get you her picture to post at the bar. Putting the word out might help. But, to tell you the honest truth, Bud, I really don't know what we can do. Wait and see. That's about all at this point."
Buddy figured Vic to be the type used to fixing problems. Aleaky trans, maybe a rattle in the exhaust, or a worn tire. Cars were mysteries he could solve. Vic fidgeted. Buddy guessed that looking for the Teagles' daughter made him feel inept.
Then Vic admitted he'd been thinking about his own little girl, Tina, who lived with his ex-wife in Traverse City. Last Christmas she served him invisible food on miniature china plates from Santa Claus. He remembered the careful way she bent her wrist to pour him a cup of imaginary coffee. How he pretended to stir and drink it. The thought of losing a daughter was too horrible.
Buddy felt Vic might be jumping the gun. It was still early. The Teagles girl hadn't been gone long.
"Anyone check along this river yet?" Buddy asked his question as though the flowing water had materialized a moment ago.
"Nope. I think I'm the only one that's been this far away from town. I've been over this stretch back to Ketchel Road, where I parked, but I'm pretty tired. I might've missed things. Hell, everything's starting to look out of place to me. I thought I saw something next to a stump way back there," Vic jerked his thumb in the direction he had come from, "and, goddamn it, I swore I'd found that girl's body. Curled up naked in the dirt with her little knees and elbows sticking out. When I walked up to it ... just a patch of wild mushrooms." Vic massaged the side of his head with the palm of one hand. "Uh, Len and Marie must be going out of their minds. If it was my Tina ..."
Buddy detected Vic's fatigue, and the guilt he was trying to push away. Buddy figured it was hard for a man like Vic to accept the secret gladness he was experiencing, knowing his own child was safe in another town. He offered to take up Vic's part of the search.
"Why don't you go home and sleep. I'll look around this side of the river from the sandy beach to the bridge, then I'll cross and walk back along the other side."
Vic nodded his thanks and said he'd drop off Melissa's picture at the bar. He handed over his radio, and Buddy watched him walk off until he rounded a big curve in the river.
Augustus Bodine uses his finger to scoop maraschino cherries from ajar. He adds them, one by one, to a drinking glass filled with Jack Daniel's. Country music jangles from a cheap radio propped on the windowsill. He sinks the fourth piece of fruit, and the whiskey brims, the brown fluid swirling with cherry syrup.
Augustus leans forward and, without touching the glass, sucks the top of the sweetened whiskey through his lips. He is at home, relaxing in his kitchen.
Freshly showered, Augustus wears nothing but a soft, raggedy pair of jeans. His bare feet leave damp prints on the linoleum when he walks to the back door. There's a lake breeze. But the stirred air is hot like a blow-dryer pointed in his face. He pushes his nose against the screen. His tongue darts out and licks the metal.
A muffled clinking of musical chimes. Augustus steps back and turns to the interior of the house.
"Just a minute," he says. He reaches for a clean shirt drapedover one of the kitchen chairs. He puts it on and fastens the buttons as he walks into the living room. From a tin on the coffee table, he picks up a mint wrapped in a twist of plastic. The chimes ring again.
"I'm coming," Augustus answers. He scans the room for signs, but there are none. As he opens the front door, he crinkles the plastic off the candy and slides the mint into his mouth. A sheriff's deputy stands waiting in the cup of shade beneath his awning.
Buddy concealed his gear in the brush near the path's opening. When he backed his way out of the woods, a loose branch slapped the knuckles of his left hand, and a row of thorns nipped him. He used his handkerchief to wipe the dots of blood. The two-way radio clipped to his belt crackled with static, followed by the voice of a man and an engulfing swoosh of interference. Buddy couldn't make out what the voice said. He unclipped the radio, turned the volume down, and transferred it to his bleeding hand.
New droplets replaced those he had cleaned away. He kept the handkerchief pressed down over his wound and felt foolish, strolling along the river's edge holding his hands out in front of him like a prisoner.
The sandy beach turned up nothing. At the grass fringe, the County Park Service had stationed a blue garbage barrel. Beachgoers overfed it the remains of their picnics, perforated inflatable toys, and spent beer bottles with sand molded to their bottoms. Litter mounded next to the can. Down the slope of the beach, the discarded items were more singular.
Buddy located an aqua pair of toddlers' swim trunks, a tower of sun-bleached Pepsi cans, and a punched-in chicken box from Hardee's. Inside the box were chicken bones, napkins, two empty peach wine coolers, and a condom wrapper.
The land slanted into the water, and the sand washed away in the shallows. The remainder of the lake floor seemed to be composed of little burgundy stones shaped like internal organs. Half of a sopping-wet, gold Nerf football bobbed on the lake's easy wavelets. Farther out, a gutted watermelon took on water and capsized in the reeds.
Excerpted from Skin River by Steven Sidor. Copyright © 2004 Steven Sidor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Steven Sidor's plot line tempts you to read Skin River quickly. Don't. This is a book not only rich in plot, but richer in style and nuance than most novels within the last decade. Perhaps the genre sweeps the reader along briskly, following Buddy Bayes through a physical and psychological maze of deceit, doubt, self-doubt, and revelation. We are tempted to read such books as if we were watching a television series. Mistake. Steven Sidor's book transcends the confinement of genre and achieves the status of literature - a great story with memorable characters and, best of all, a great style, sutiable for any genre. The dialogue is crisp, the imagery haunting, and the narration, like the title itself, flows gracefully and mysteriously without apology - like a river.
A new writer, Steven Sidor has written a compelling thriller with a darkly atmospheric tone as a search goes on for a murderer referred to as the Goatskinner. Thing are not as they seem for a tavern owner wondering if his past is catching up with him or if there is another reason for a sadistic killer to be roaming the banks of the Skin River. This is a good debut, hope to see more from Sidor.
Mr. Sidor keeps the reader guessing until the end. The characters are beleivable and well developed. I hope to see them again. This book pulled me back into a genre I had all but given up on.
The searchers failed to find Melissa Teagles who was held captured and ultimately killed by the Goatskinner. The police could never find a trace of her until Buddy Bayes, the owner for the last year and a half of The Black Chimney Tavern in Wisconsin, found her hand while fishing; searchers never found the rest of her.---- Buddy had left Chicago to start over after what happened in Chicago and he was an upstanding citizen until he found that hand. He believes that the person who took a contract out on him is responsible for Melissa¿s death. He doesn¿t realize that there is a serial killer operating in Gunnar. When someone abducts his waitress, he rescues her but the sheriff suspects him especially since the waitress is in a coma. Buddy devises a plan to make sure that the person who ordered the hit comes after him in Wisconsin. When his tavern burns down; no one lifts a finger to help Buddy who they believe is behind the killings. Law enforcement wises up that the Goatskinner has operated in the area for years and has at least fourteen kills to his credit, but Buddy and his waitress already left town determined to start anew.---- SKIN RIVER is full of stark prose, a foreboding atmosphere and an anti-hero thief who is not ashamed of his past but doesn¿t want to end up in jail so he tries to go straight. He, like everyone, has good and bad character traits but readers will appreciate that he cares about his waitress and is determined to stop the killer from Chicago. Stephen Sidor has written an exciting debut tale with characters that are sides of grey and happy endings are just a pipe dream.---- Harriet Klausner