10:52 P.M. and I was driving at speeds that invited arrest. I-35 was all torn up in downtown Duluth, and I had a helluva time working my way through the construction area before connecting with Highway 61 and following it north along the shore of the big lake. I nearly cracked up while dialing Riley’s cell phone. She didn’t pick up then anymore than she had the first three times I called.
11:25 P.M. and I was a few miles north of Two Harbors and rolling past Betty’s Pies, the iconic tourist stop located midway between Duluth and my destination. It was closed.
“Gee, sorry about that, Nina,” I said.
I still had an hour’s drive in front of me.
Lutsen was a small tourist town built on a high bluff overlooking Lake Superior and flanked by four mountains and a dozen ski resorts. Some people liked it better than Aspen. Since I had never spent time in either place, I was happy to go along with their assessment.
I slowed before I reached the edge of town and began scanning the shoulder of the highway for the unmarked road Sheila told me about. I found it at 12:17 A.M. and followed it downward toward the lake. I stopped near the bottom when my headlamps illuminated the rear bumper of a Cook County Sheriff’s Department cruiser. It was parked directly behind a Honda Civic. I put the Jeep Cherokee in park and engaged the emergency brake, yet I did not turn off the engine or the lights. I slowly walked to the cruiser and looked inside. It was empty. I rested a hand on the hood. It was still warm.
Next I proceeded to the Civic. Its engine was cold. I looked inside. There was a copy of Minnesota Monthly on the front seat.
“Dammit,” I said,
From where I stood, I could look down the rest of the driveway. It led to the main house and the six cabins. The buildings were huddled together beneath the slanting bluff as if for protection from the enormous, temperamental lake, although it was calm enough when I arrived, the tide out. There were no other vehicles that I could see. All the cabins were dark, but there were lights shining through the windows on the ground floor of the main house.
I watched them for a moment from a distance. A bright moon shone overhead, and the sky was filled with a billion stars. I quickly returned to the Cherokee, extinguished the headlamps, and shut off the engine. I was alarmed by how quiet the world became. I could hear no noise at all, not even the sound of surf rolling up on the shore of the lake.
I pulled the SIG Sauer and moved toward the lights, a moth to a flame.
It was just a few degrees above freezing and I could see my breath as I negotiated the driveway and crossed the lawn; I could feel the cold air nipping at my bare hands as I gripped the gun.
There was movement in the back of the house. I squatted in the shadows and watched. It was Collin Baird—I recognized him immediately. He was standing in a well-appointed kitchen and eating ice cream directly from the carton, not a care in the world.
I edged closer.
The lights inside were bright enough that I knew they were reflecting off the glass in the kitchen windows like a mirror. Baird would be unable to see me, I was sure, yet I zealously avoided the shafts of light pouring from the windows onto the grounds anyway as I closed on the house and began moving along its walls.
The windows were high up, so I was forced to stand on my toes. Through one I could see a handsome living room with arched doorways and beamed ceiling. I grabbed hold of the windowsill and hoisted myself up. The furniture was elegant; a baby grand piano like the one I had vowed to buy Nina stood in the corner.
I went to another window and pulled myself up again. This time I saw a body on the floor, a man dressed in what I assumed was the uniform of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. He was lying on his stomach, his head turned away from me. I figured he must still be alive because Baird had cuffed his hands behind his back. If he were dead, why would he have bothered?
I didn’t see Riley until I moved to a different window. The sight of her was like a sucker punch to the stomach. She was naked. Her hands were fastened to a chain. The chain was wrapped around a ceiling beam above her. She was suspended from the beam, her feet well off the floor, like a side of beef in a slaughterhouse. Her mouth was gagged.
I dashed to the front door. It was locked. My right brain told me to kick it open. The cooler left brain couldn’t believe that Mr. Muehlenhaus would have invested in cheap locks and argued that nothing good would come from letting Baird hear me failing to get inside.