The man is only twenty feet back.
Jordan risks a look over his shoulder even though the snow is deep, even though his cross-country skis are no longer parallel, even though being off-balance could send him tumbling into the snow. He has to see. He has to know. His heart races in his chest, reverberating through the thick down of his jacket. Sweat from his forehead soaks into his winter hat. His breaths are caught by the scarf, wetting it, and the cold winter air fights back by freezing as moisture to the soft fabric.
He’s not on a ski trail anymore.
And still, the man follows.
Think, he tells himself. In his head, his voice is calm; he’s anything but calm.
The forest of red pines is dead silent. Light from the full moon sneaks through the canopy, casting a blue polka-dot glow over the blankets of snow. Pine needles lay atop the undisturbed powder. Jordan has to turn his cross-country skis a few degrees to avoid one of the thousands of tall pines; he does this carefully. He can’t afford to trip and fall. He has to keep his distance. From his hunter.
But who is hunting him?
He thinks back to the start of the evening, after parking in the little lot and putting on his skis, after standing in front of the trail map and making a decision. Nordic Pines, 6 miles, hilly, intermediate skill. It had been a challenging six miles, great exercise, and he’d lost the sun about halfway through. Beautiful night skiing.
The man had been waiting for him at the end of the trail, where it snakes around a small log cabin-style warming lodge next to a parking lot at the entrance to Cathedral Pines State Forest. The man must have followed Jordan here. Must have seen Jordan put on his skis and make his way to the Nordic Pines trail. Must have waited the entire three hours for him to complete the loop.
The man had simply been standing where the trail turns into packed snow at the edge of the parking lot, empty because it was well past dusk and only Jordan would be stupid enough to ski at night, but it was such a beautiful evening that he couldn’t resist. He can never resist. These quiet, cold nights call to him. Temper his good instincts. Tempt him to set aside his caution.
The man. At least, Jordan thinks it’s a man. He’s wearing a heavy black coat, a pair of black snow pants, gloves, ski goggles, a black neck warmer, a black hat. No physical features, except for one crucial truth: Jordan has already skied 6 difficult miles, and this man has not.
He can feel it already in his hamstrings. In his shoulders, every time he digs a ski pole into the snow. In his throat, which complains about every icy breath that goes in. At first, he thought he could turn around and outrun the man. But no matter how fast he went, the man matched his speed. Trailing him like a shadow.
Think! Jordan didn’t survive this long with luck. He’s always been a planner. He’s always carried extra hand warmers, an extra energy bar, a fully charged phone. All those things to ensure he could survive the unexpected on an evening ski run. Nothing useful now. Hand warmers and food he can’t reach without stopping, pulling off his fat mittens and reaching into his pocket. A phone he can’t use so deep in the woods.
The memory of the man putting on his skis and stepping casually onto the ski trail directly ahead of Jordan … haunts his mind’s eye now. The deliberate action. The dead silence. The terrifying realization that hit Jordan immediately: this man was here for him.
Even if he could have somehow taken his skis off, even if he--pushing fifty now--could have somehow gotten past the man, he knew without a doubt that his car had already been sabotaged.
So he made the only decision that might save his life: he turned back onto the Nordic Pines trail. At first, the man followed at a distance, and Jordan felt a surge of adrenaline--the man can’t ski well--but then the man grew closer and closer. At mile 4, Jordan broke off from the trail. Into the woods, east, back toward the town of Lakewood. Come out of the forest right at the edge of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Still, open another two hours. Plenty of people around. You don’t follow someone to an empty forest if you’re willing to kill him in public.
You don’t do it at night.
Every time he inhales, the air attacks the wet scarf. Every exhale, his warm breath tries to thaw the ice that’s begun to form. And despite the exertion, although he seems to be gulping oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide at the rate of a marathon runner … his scarf has begun to freeze.
He knows you. The words ring in Jordan’s head with each hiss of the skis. He. Knows. You. He. Knows. You.
His triceps bear the brunt of the pole work now, giving his sore shoulders a reprieve. Where the snow is deepest, the poles stab down through soft cotton. When he shifts his weight, the skis sink an extra few inches (thunk-thunk-thunk), and his leg muscles burn from the exertion. He imagines himself a nordic soldier, fleeing a contingent of Russians. He wonders why the man hasn’t shot him in the back yet. Surely the man has a gun.
And a thought occurs to Jordan: what if his pursuer hasn’t planned this out?
He risks another glance over his shoulder. The man is still behind him, no more than twenty feet. Has he closed the distance at all? Maybe a little. Taking his time. A morbid, humiliating chase, the kind of thing that belongs in an episode of Fargo, not real life. This isn’t how you take someone out. Jordan knows.
His tongue feels like sandpaper. He has a water bottle in his pocket, but grabbing for it would mean stopping or continuing skiing with one pole for balance. Both bad options. If it gets worse … if it comes down to it, he’ll take the risk. But not yet. Not until he absolutely needs it.
Not until he reaches the Crossroads.
When did he make the mistake? He’s been so careful. Fifteen years now. Fifteen years since he moved to the little north Wisconsin town of Wentworth and purchased the go-kart track with cold, hard cash. Safe, because Jordan did his homework on the owner. Knew the owner could write off the loss on the business--which clearly hadn’t been operating for at least two years, judging by the weeds growing in the cracked asphalt and the wasp nests inside the old Michelin truck tires stacked like bumpers along the sides of the track.
The attached mini-golf course was a total loss. But the track only needed a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The carts? Jordan fixed those little gas-guzzlers himself. He paid on credit, got it open the following spring, and a trickle of customers showed up. A few locals, some families visiting relatives--mostly parents and grandparents who lived in one-story homes around Maiden Lake. Jordan was careful with the daily sales. Only laundered a few hundred dollars a week in the spring. Then, in the summer, it was a few hundred dollars a day. Cash hidden under the floorboards of his house. When the economy was good, “sales” went up. When the economy was bad, he let the go-kart business suffer along with it. He never made a suspicious deposit.
Something he did recently, then. Something that raised a red flag somewhere. But what? The only time he spent cash was when he went golfing at the local country club, because a round of 18 with a cart was a little less than a hundred dollars; paying with a hundred-dollar bill was entirely normal. He snowmobiled in the winter with a group of assholes who were almost as dirty and skeezy as the people he knew in his old life. But he didn’t get drunk. He’s never gotten drunk out here--a small price for the peace of mind of knowing you never spilled your secrets after that second pitcher of Miller Lite. Jordan had always been a loud, obnoxious drunk anyway. And the snowmobilers had a few AA members so splitting a pot of boiling hot coffee after three hours of tooling around wasn’t suspicious.
What then? How did this bastard find him?
Ice forms on the tips of Jordan’s eyelashes, making them heavy. He can’t help it: he looks over his shoulder again. The man is definitely closer now. Jordan feels his weight shift precipitously when his left ski sinks deeper into the snow than he was expecting. His heart leaps out of his chest; the only thing that keeps him from losing his balance entirely is his left ski pole held like a brace by the sore muscles in his left shoulder. His clavicle screams in pain. He has to keep moving. Can’t change his pace. The snow is thicker here, where a wind has slipped into the forest and created drifts. His skis disappear under the powder. The ends of his poles sink deep. Can’t slow down.
“What do you want!” he shouts. In one of the tall pines ahead, a snow-white owl takes flight, soaring low over the undisturbed snow between the pines.
Silence. Only the rhythmic squeak of waxed skis through dry snow.
Jordan has to turn to make his way around a copse of oaks. They grow close together where the earth dimples. Their gnarled, arthritic limbs twist in every direction, reaching out at violent angles. He has to be aware of his direction. He has to go around the oaks, try to get back on a path bearing due-east.
He has to get to the Crossroads.
An interaction, maybe. Something he said to someone in town, maybe got repeated on Facebook or some other social media network, was somehow seen by the wrong person. Six degrees of separation and all that. Lots of Chicago and Milwaukee transplants up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, especially during the summer. It’s not hard to imagine someone might know someone who has a passing affiliation with Juan or Cam, Jordan’s old crew.
His mind reels through the years of interactions. Close calls. Tense moments. It’s hard to get in trouble in a little shit town like Lakewood unless you’re looking for it, or you’re drunk at a bar. Much harder, though, to keep your secrets. How many times over the years has he come close to letting a little bit slip, just for the thrill of seeing the look on a person’s face? A surly teenage cashier at the supermarket. A nasty comment from a barfly. That damn group of white boys who hang out at the custard stand all summer and blast rap music and pretend they’re “hardcore.”
I robbed an armored truck.
It’s not just to see their faces change. It’s the rush of confession. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing you got away with it. No need to say how easy the robbery actually was. No need to go into any detail about the meticulous planning that went into it. Just that one sentence, sitting on the tip of Jordan’s tongue more times than he can count.
Did he utter it, ever, even once? Did he mention some random robbery in passing, act strange about it? Joke about it with his golfing buddies?
No. No, he’s been so careful.
What about the other part?
What about the murder?
“Tell me what you want,” Jordan huffs out. His scarf is solid. Ice rubs against his chapped lips. The forest has grown denser, darker; he has to regularly turn, adjust his mental compass, try to turn back in the same direction.
He looks over his shoulder.
The man--if it is a man--has closed the gap another five feet. Only two car lengths away now. The man is not breathing heavily. There’s no doubt now that he could catch up to Jordan if he really wanted. This realization calms Jordan. He knows now the man is tiring Jordan out.
But what the man doesn’t realize is that he’s running out of time.
Just a few hundred yards ahead, Jordan can see where the forest thins out. Where old power lines run north to south.
There were victims. There was the company, Algenon Armored, although their insurance covers losses. So there’s the insurance company, too. And of course, Juan’s unsuspecting coworker who was driving the armored vehicle when a car crash--planned by Jordan at the perfect intersection--made it easy for Juan to recommend the best detour down a side street that led to the Milwaukee River. Just as they’d planned it, the armored truck blew a flat, and Juan’s partner pulled over. The third player in the operation, Cam, was parked nearby. Juan broke protocol by getting out of the vehicle to check the flat. Cam put the empty gun to Juan’s head, forced the driver out, made them both load up his car with cash. The car turned right at the intersection of Fifth and Academy Drive. This was where their plan was ingenious: transfer the money to Jordan’s car. Cam had no criminal record. No registered gun. By the time the police caught up to him, he was clean. Juan sat for questioning and swore in an affidavit that Cam wasn’t the gunman, that the getaway car looked similar but definitely newer. Contradicted his terrified partner. Cam was released.
The trio stayed quiet. The money sat in the trunk of Jordan’s car, in his garage.
Next to a bag full of clothes and documentation for a new identity.
“Cam?” he calls out. “Cam, that you? Finally find me after all these years?”
No answer from the man.
Jordan laughs, coughs out cold air. “I never planned to kill you, Cam. I knew you could keep your mouth shut!”
But Jordan is getting closer. He can see the worn trail of snow a hundred feet ahead. No trees in his path. Just a straight shot now and a prayer.
“I hid it,” Jordan had told Juan when it was time to divvy up the money.
Juan was angry. That wasn’t part of the plan. Not their plan, at least.
“There were some break-ins,” Jordan explained. “All over my neighborhood.”
Juan seemed to relax in the passenger’s seat. They were driving to the south side of Milwaukee, windows down because the AC in Jordan’s car was broken. Juan started talking about his daughter’s violin lessons, how this money would ensure he never has another fight with the little hellion about the cost again. No more skipping a couple weeks while he reloads his bank account. That’s the problem with a crew: they can’t wait to spend the money. Raise suspicion. Get people talking. And when people start talking, that’s when police close in.
“Cam’s meeting us?” Jordan had asked. He remembers his voice sounding hoarse. Guilty.
“Yeah. He’ll be a little late. Said we should just hold up for him.”
Not part of the plan. They were supposed to drive together to get the money. Jordan took First Avenue to Milwaukee’s harbor district. Along the Milwaukee River, where condos were springing up like invasive weeds. Still a few old, empty factories. An old concrete batch plant, their destination. Juan would have been pensive, except he knew Jordan’s life story.
What better place to hide the money than in the foreclosed building of the family business?
Jordan maneuvered the car around an old chain link fence surrounding the building. He parked in the shade of the steel cement bin. Just ahead was a large building where Jordan had spent his entire childhood running around the offices and high-fiving his father’s employees.
The lock appeared broken. Jordan feigned surprise. Juan cursed and hurried inside.
Jordan didn’t waste time. Didn’t want Juan to know the pain of betrayal.
One bullet to the back of the head. No warning. No chance for Juan to make peace with his God. No closure. No explanation.
The Crossroads are quiet. A yellow sign warns skiers of snowmobiles. A perpendicular sign warns snowmobilers of skiers. The snow is packed down, groomed by snowmobile treads. Jordan turns north. Skiing immediately becomes easier. He can use his triceps to stab with the poles, giving his left shoulder a rest.
Rescue comes even faster than he could have hoped. A pair of yellow lights up ahead, rounding a corner, heading their way. Snowmobilers. Witnesses.
“Hey!” he screams. He doesn’t care how close his hunter is now. Doesn’t care about over-exerting himself. He skis as quickly as he can, waving one pole every few feet. His heart hammers his chest. His scarf slips, his cheeks flush against the bitter cold. He tries to call out again, but all he can manage is a raspy cough.
The snowmobiles slow.
“A thousand dollars if you take me into town,” he tells the lead snowmobiler, who’s bundled even heavier than Jordan’s faceless pursuer. The snowmobiler lifts up the visor on his helmet. He’s about to ask Jordan if he’s serious but Jordan is already awkwardly swinging one leg over the seat. “Go go go!”
And you couldn’t ask for a more perfect response. Whether the man believes Jordan or not, he’s going to take the chance. Jordan’s hunter is standing next to the yellow sign warning snowmobilers of crossing skiers. Ahead is a trail of groomed snow that snakes northeast and crosses through the town of Wentworth. And it looks like they’re going to make it.
Then a pop. The snowmobile slows. Jordan smells smoke. His rescuer utters a curse inside the helmet.
Another pop. To his right, Jordan watches the other snowmobile pass. But the rider is slumped over the handles, and the snowmobile drifts gently to the right, coming to a stop ten feet away.
Jordan lifts himself off the seat. The other rider raises his hands. Words are lost inside his helmet, but they have the obvious cadence of fear and pleading. It doesn’t help. Jordan’s hunter shoots him, too. Fast and callous, unthinking, the same way Jordan killed his partner in crime.
As the body collapses beside the snowmobile, Jordan notices a price tag hanging from the snowmobiler’s heavy blue jacket. He recognizes it because it’s the exact same price tag that was on his mittens.
And now Jordan realizes his mistake: the outdoor sports shop in Wentworth. He’d been there in the fall, shopping for mittens, the same ones he’s wearing now. There had been a woman from the local paper there, interviewing the shop owner about the financial impact of COVID-19, how the owner and his wife had stayed afloat by taking out a second mortgage, maxing out their credit cards.
Jordan had empathized with the owner. During the Great Recession, he’d watched his father’s business fall apart. He’d watched his family peel away like scaling concrete. First, his father’s sobriety. Then his mother’s patience. Then his uncle’s sanity.
And he’d stood there as the journalist took photos of the business, lost in those hard memories because the Great Recession had taken everything from him. Forgetting entirely that she’d taken a photo of him standing there next to the glove rack, his face entirely visible.
“Cam,” he says.
But the killer doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move. The gun is steady in his gloved hand.
“You recognized me after all these years,” Jordan says. He forces a weak smile. He can’t raise his arms because of the screaming pain in his shoulders. He feels a stinging numbness run through his chest. Tight. Hot. He’s having a heart attack, maybe. Maybe he can convince the killer he’s going to die here anyway.
“Let me go. I’ll give you the money.”
No answer. The snowmobiles’ engines have shut off, leaving them in dead silence. Clouds roll across the sky. The moon disappears. The darkness grows thicker. Jordan’s beating heart hurts.
“I have more money now. I’ll give you your cut, plus interest. How’s that sound?”
No answer. The man’s ski goggles reflect the moon as it reappears. The snow glows blue again, except where the two snowmobilers’ blood stains it like inkblots. Jordan took a lot of inkblot tests after his family fell apart. Testing his sanity. Analyzing his mental competence. But inkblots don’t measure the impact of watching your family business go bankrupt. Inkblots can’t assess the pain you feel when everything your family has worked for disappears and the guilt that consumes you in knowing how selfish that pain is when the people you love are suffering even more.
“At least tell me who you are,” he begs.
The killer doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card. He flicks it at Jordan. It spins in the air, lands next to the dead snowmobiler. Jordan reaches down to grab it. He recognizes it immediately.
His old driver’s license. With his real name.
“Who are you?”
But the killer doesn’t answer. And Jordan sees the plan now in its entirety, so ironically ingenious: two dead bodies and a skier with a fake identity.
“At least tell me who you are!”
But the man doesn’t answer. And maybe it’s not a man at all. Because Cam never knew Jordan’s real name. Only Juan knew.
“You’re his daughter,” Jordan says. He wants her to say yes, to tell him about the pain he’s caused her and how good it feels to finally catch him. An explanation. Closure.
But the figure doesn’t answer. And Jordan knows this is the ending he deserves.