It’s wintertime on the North Shore and the snow is thick on the ground. Jonah Borden, the coffee-guzzling, wisecracking, mystery-solving man of the cloth, is about to tie the knot with his sweetheart, Leyla Bennett. But just a few weeks before they do, Leyla decides to go undercover in a new cult to get an exclusive exposé which would make her name as a journalist. However, as time goes on, Borden is worried that her commitment to the troubling new religion and her devotion to its evil, charismatic leader are more than just professional.
When Borden confronts the cult leader, he is turned away and threatened. Meanwhile, mysterious hunting accidents begin happening around the town of Grand Lake. Assisted by his friends, Jonah tries to find a way to get Leyla out. What he uncovers is bigger than any of them had guessed. Now, he’s in a race to save his own life, and those of his friends, before a powerful enemy finds them and destroys them.
I discovered the dead body three days after my fiancée, Leyla Bennett, joined the cult.
At the time, I thought it was a hunting accident. Later of course, I knew what really happened. If I had known it all before, I might have said something different when Leyla proposed that she become a certified, sandal-wearing, vegetable-eating, ohm-chanting member of the Forest Way.
It all started about two weeks after Thanksgiving. Leyla and I were eating lunch at Dylan’s, my favorite waterfront café in Grand Lake. The café was in a strip that looked across the street to the Grand Lake waterfront, which, at this point in the year, was actually an ice-front. The name of the place came from the Minnesota North Shore’s favorite son, Robert Zimmerman; better known to the world as Bob Dylan. Dylan of course, had spent more time in Hibbing, Minnesota than the Lake Superior Coastline, but it was close enough. More importantly, the café named after him had excellent food and service.
Alex Chan was there too, along with Julie, who was the part time secretary at both the church and Chan’s law office.
“One of you is paying for this,” said Julie, looking first at me, and then Chan. “I don’t care who.”
“She looked at you first,” said Chan, chewing his food and hardly glancing up.
“That’s just because he’s so easy on the eyes,” said Leyla, patting my cheek, and then staring at me with a ridiculous expression of sickly adoration. I slid my eyes at Julie and then returned Leyla’s look.
Julie made an indelicate noise. “You two make me sick. Get a room.”
“We gotta get married first,” I said.
“Yeah, when is that happening again?” asked Chan, taking a drink of Coke.
“New Year’s Day,” said Leyla, rearranging her napkin.
Julie looked at me out of narrowed eyes. “You planned it that way just so you’d remember your anniversary, didn’t you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said blandly, concentrating on a french-fry that I intended to eat.
Leyla laughed. I never got tired of hearing that sound. “Don’t worry, Julie, I know all about him. I’m sure that was part of it. But we also agreed that we loved the idea of starting out new with each New Year. And I always wanted a winter wedding by candle-light.”
“Barefoot in the spring,” said Julie firmly.
“That’s so cliché,” I said. “Everyone wants that. We’re doing barefoot in the snow.” For some reason, Leyla kicked Chan under the table. He yelped and spilled a little Coke on the table.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” said Leyla, putting her hand on Chan’s arm. “I meant to kick Jonah.”
“You ever play soccer?”
“No, but she’s been practicing on me for quite a few months now,” I said. “She’s also got quite a punch. My shoulders are black and blue.”
Everyone watched Leyla while she slowly unclenched her raised left hand and used it to play with her thick, dark long hair while looking innocently out at the falling snow.
I took a sip of coffee and leaned back. I felt warm and happy inside, enjoying the company of dear friends, my love and good food. The whole world was right.
“I want to join the cult,” said Leyla.
When the love of your life tells you that she wants to join a cult, there are a number of appropriate and helpful responses. I just couldn’t think of any of them at the moment.
“What?” I said, maybe a little more sharply than I intended. Several other people in the restaurant turned to look our direction.
“The Forest Way?” asked Chan. He looked interested, like someone had cited an obscure precedent in a trial.
“Oh honey,” said Julie, leaning toward Leyla and patting her hand, “Jonah’s not that bad, really, once you get to know him. It’s not worth joining a cult to get out of the marriage.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “And if you really can’t handle Jonah, there’s always Alex here,” she nodded at Chan.
Chan gave her the look that he liked to think made him appear to be an enigmatic Chinese man of mystery. I thought it made him look like he had gas.
“Are you OK, Alex?” asked Julie. “Does your leg still hurt?”
He gave an exasperated sigh.
“Never mind,” I said to him.
Leyla laughed. “I don’t mean join the cult for real, you silly people. I want to do an investigative report. A couple people from Grand Lake have joined. They have their kiosk, selling tea in our mall here.” Next door to Dylan’s was a small converted warehouse with some public space and several shops. It wasn’t really a mall, but it was a popular spot in the winter in Grand Lake. “I’ve seen them in Duluth too. In the six months since the cult moved here, there’s been a train-load of rumor and speculation. Some say they’re brainwashing people. Others say they are just sincere but misguided people. I’d like to find out the truth for the people of the North Shore. Besides,” she added, “If I do a good job, it could get picked up nationally.”
Leyla was the editor for the bi-weekly Grand Lake newspaper. A couple of years ago, she had been a television reporter on the rise. I guess she still had the itch for a good story, and the desire to break a big one.
Chan frowned. “Nobody really knows much about them. Couldn’t it be a little dangerous?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t want you becoming some cult-leader’s twelfth wife before you marry me.”
“I’m not going to get brainwashed,” said Leyla, tossing her hair.
“I’m not so sure,” said Julie. “Look how easily Jonah convinced you to marry him.”
“That’s a valid point,” said Chan.
“In all seriousness,” I began, “I – ”
“We are serious,” said Julie, interrupting.
“In all seriousness,” I said again, “there are techniques to brainwashing, and many cults have learned them. It isn’t always as easy as just saying ‘I won’t believe them.’ It’s even partly chemical. The reason most cults are vegetarian is because protein helps you think more clearly, and they deprive you of it to make you more vulnerable.” I took a big bite of my hamburger, to demonstrate my point. “You can’t very well join the cult, and then say, ‘but I’m going to keep eating meat.’”
“Are the Forest Way people vegetarian?” asked Chan.
“Nobody really knows,” said Leyla. “That’s part of why I want to do this. We hardly know anything.”
Chan frowned again. “But Jonah does have a point. You need to do this safely.”
“Look,” I said to Leyla, “you are your own person. I can’t tell you what to do.”
There was a snort and a mumble from Julie’s direction. I ignored it.
“But could you agree to some precautions, to ease my mind?”
“What did you have in mind?” she asked.
“Could we set up some kind of a messaging system? Maybe some kind of code that lets me know you are doing OK, and are of sound mind?”
“If they are into brainwashing, I doubt they’ll let her keep a phone or use a computer,” said Chan.
“I think they have a strip of land that goes down to the Shore, but as I understand it, their main complex is up in the hills,” said Leyla.
“So what’s your point?”
“Well,” she said, “you like to ski and snow-shoe. Maybe we could arrange a kind of drop location – somewhere in the woods near the complex where I leave you a message.”
We chewed on this for a bit, and agreed to go over some maps and find an appropriate location.
“Are there any legal ramifications?” I asked Chan.
“Could be,” he said. “Sometimes people who have been brainwashed claim they don’t want to leave the cult. Sometimes they donate all their property to the cult.”
Leyla sighed. “OK. Maybe you could draw up some kind of legal document where I say that I’m only doing this as an investigative reporter, and any decisions I make after I join the cult are invalid.”
Chan leaned back in his chair. “I don’t think that will hold up,” he said. “But maybe we could create a waiting period on certain decisions. For instance, we could say that you would have to have no contact with the cult for a month, before any transfer of property could be finalized.”
“Maybe we could get her to agree to a longer waiting period before she marries Jonah, too,” said Julie.
That was Julie, being herself. But it wasn’t too long before I wished we had all paid more attention to the brainwashing angle.
I was skiing through a December blizzard. The snow would swirl around me and wrap me in a little bubble where I could only see five or ten yards. And then after a while it would lift for a few moments to show me the glowering gray clouds hovering over the sad, pine-clad hills. A lot of times I can embrace the cold and gloom and thick, quiet snow, and even kind of enjoy it. But that day, I was just cold and wet. I was only out there for the sake of love. As soon as I was done, I would be sitting in my cabin in front of a fire, sipping hot cocoa and brandy, listening to Bach, or Beethoven, or maybe Steely Dan. But first I had to check the drop location for Leyla’s safety message.
I was coming through a little pass between two ridges when I heard the echo of the shot. I didn’t think much of it. It was deer season, or near enough. A lot of North Shore families supplemented their diet with venison. If they happened to take a buck a day or two on either side of the weekend, no one up here raised much of a fuss.
I tucked my poles under my arms, crouched over, and swooped down the slope into the next valley. The trail wasn’t groomed or maintained in any way. It was just one of those back country hiking or hunting trails that wander through the hills above Lake Superior. That meant it was kind of narrow, and not always suited to skiing, but it was good enough for my purposes. I picked up some decent speed.
As I neared the bottom, I saw a colorful shape lying on the trail in front of me. I tried to do the Telemark style stop, but I over-compensated and went flying just as I heard another shot boom out. I landed in the snow next to the shape, which I now saw was a man. His right hand was clutching a rifle. There was red in the snow all around him. He wasn’t moving.
Every year hunters are shot by mistake during deer season. I shouted, presuming that my human voice would tell the hidden hunter that I didn’t have antlers. The snow descended again in a thick flurry, smothering visibility just as a second bullet whined by and smacked into a tree behind me. I snatched the rifle from the prone man. It was a bolt action gun with a scope, maybe a Remington 700. I worked the bolt and then fired into the air. “There! Deer don’t shoot back you insane idiot,” I muttered. “Plus, they don’t wear blaze orange.” I was wearing a vest of that color to avoid this very kind of accident. I fired again, and just in case, awkwardly scuttled into the trees next to the trail. I snapped my skis off, and crouched in the snow, waiting.
I’d never been near a hunting accident, but I assumed that usually what happened is that after the shooter realized what he’d shot, he felt awful and tried to give assistance.
There was a vast silence. The snow swept noiselessly down, obscuring the hurt man only five yards away.
“Hey!” I called.
“Man down!” I yelled. I might have felt funny saying it in other circumstances, but watching the motionless figure on the trail, it seemed kind of serious. There was already a little veil of snow on him. I pulled out my cell phone, but to my utter lack of surprise, I had no signal.
I crawled back out onto the trail, holding on to the rifle. The injured man was face down, lying completely still.
“Hey,” I said, gripping his shoulder. “Hey, someone’s here, it’s going to be OK.”
Carefully, I pushed him onto his back. I sat on my haunches and stared at him. I was right. Depending on his theology, of course, everything was going to be OK for him.
Just not in this life.
The bullet had hit almost in the center of his chest. The snow was stained with bright blood. His eyes were lifeless and staring. He looked to be in his early thirties and he had a scraggly, spotty, reddish beard on his cheeks.
I waited. It wasn’t long before I got very cold. It got darker as the snow thickened and the sun, somewhere far away, considered just giving up for the day. After about fifteen minutes I decided that whoever shot him was too scared to come and see what had happened.
Maneuvering the body, I got it into a fireman’s lift and staggered to my feet. I sank to my knees in the snow, lost my balance, and pitched the body forward. It landed, legs and arms crossed, half buried in a frozen drift. I tried again. As I lifted him, his stocking cap slid off his head and dropped to the snow. I considered, and immediately dismissed the idea of bending down to get it. This time I managed to take five steps before I hit a deep spot again, once more dropping the dead man. He must have weighed almost two hundred pounds.
“I’ve got more of a fast strength, than a brute strength,” I said to the general vicinity. No one replied. I waded through the snow to where the body had landed, and laid him out on his back, hands folded, in best funeral parlor position.
“Good thing I’m a pastor,” I said to him. “I’m authorized to do this stuff. Sort of.”
I considered the possibility that I was cracking up. I decided it was pretty likely. Then I floundered through the snow, snapped on my skis and slipped back up the trail. I didn’t have cell phone reception at any point when I stopped to check. I reached my car at the trailhead three miles later, but still did not have a signal.
After packing up my gear, I drove six miles to the top of the ridge that overlooks Lake Superior. The snow was already several inches deep on the road. There was no view of the water that day, and it was almost dark anyway. But I finally had a cell signal.
My first call was to the county Sherriff’s department. I told them what I had found, and where, and gave them the location of the trailhead where I had parked.
“Bring snowmobiles,” I said. “It’s more than two miles back in there, and the snow’s pretty deep.”
Next I called the Grand Lake police Department. “Chief just heard it on the scanner,” the dispatcher said to me. It’s been a slow day here, so he’s going out to assist.” I thanked him, hung up and drove back to the trailhead.
The snow settled on my windshield and covered it up like thick drapery. I got cold and decided to drink coffee from my thermos to warm up. After that was gone, I got cold again, so I started the car and ran it for about ten minutes.
After about forty-five minutes it was full dark. I saw headlights cutting through the driving snow and two trucks pulling trailers swept into the parking area. Several patrol cars followed. I got out of my car to greet them.
A tall slim man stepped from one of the cars. He had an iron-gray mustache that was trimmed with impeccable precision. His nose curved down like a hawk’s, and his blue eyes were habitually colder than the winter around us. He stalked over to me and stood there for a second in the glare of the headlights. Then he shook his head.
“Borden. I should have known.” His voice was crisp and hard.
“Jaeger,” I said. “Been awhile.” Jaeger was one of the chief investigators with the Sherriff’s Office.
He considered that, blinking through the snow. In the background people were calling to each other, backing up trucks and unloading snow machines.
“Maybe not long enough,” he said.
We never did get along very well.
Another figure entered the bright circle of light. He was also tall, but clean shaven. A little reddish-blond hair showed under his Grand Lake PD stocking cap.
“Jonah,” he said, sticking out his gloved hand. We don’t take gloves off to shake hands in the winter in Minnesota. Too many people have lost fingers that way.
“Dan,” I said. Dan Jensen was chief of the Grand Lake Police force. Technically, this wasn’t his jurisdiction, but being in rural Minnesota, the Sherriff’s office and the Grand Lake town police worked pretty well together.
“What’s up?” he said.
While the snowmobiles were unloaded and prepped, I told Jensen and Jaeger what had happened.
“You know how to drive one of these things?” asked Jaeger, gesturing at a snow machine.
“Sure,” I said.
“OK, lead the way.”
The snowmobiles had headlights, but even so, I took it slow. We were in the middle of a real blizzard now, and visibility was awful. Finally, we reached the little pass where I had heard the first gun shot. I eased the machine slowly down the hill and started scanning for the body. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, because enough snow had fallen to cover it with at least a few inches. I came to the place where I thought I had left him, and pulled up. Jensen, Jaeger and three more Sherriff’s deputies stopped behind me.
“Around here,” I shouted over the noise of the machines, gesturing with my hand. I moved down the trail a little more, and then I saw the area where the body had laid initially. The fresh snow had almost covered it, but I could faintly see the hollows where I had churned up the area, trying to help the dead man. I pulled beyond it, turned the snowmobile around and shined my headlight back toward the others. I cut the engine, leaving the light on.
The others got off their machines and walked over.
“He was shot here,” I said.
Jensen and Jaeger squatted at the edge of the faintly disturbed snow. Another man came up with some camera equipment, and took a few pictures. Then Jaeger stepped forward and started brushing through the snow.
“Did you leave anything here?” he asked.
“Not intentionally, but I didn’t search the area,” I said. “Something might have fallen out of his pockets, maybe.”
He grunted and poked around some more. Jensen was walking further down the trail beyond my snowmobile, the powerful beam of his flashlight jabbing into the darkness.
“Sure this is right?” asked Jaeger. “You said there was a lot of blood. I don’t see any here.”
I stared at the snow. He was right. “I don’t know. We’re in the right general area. I tried to carry him out, at first, and I dropped him twice. Maybe this is where I dropped him.” We walked further down the trail, but I couldn’t find any bloodstained snow.
“It’s probably dropped two or three inches in the last hour,” I said after a while. “It could have been anywhere along here.”
“You can’t remember,” he said.
I doubted anyone could have remembered, what with the new snow and the dark. But I held my tongue as Jensen came up to us.
“Snow’s a little rough down the trail, like maybe other people walked around here this afternoon. Did you notice tracks when you were here before?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was a little preoccupied, what with being shot at, and discovering a dead body.”
Jaeger snorted. I wondered if it would be juvenile and un-pastorly of me to rub his face in the snow. “OK,” he said. “The scene’s a bust. Let’s get the body.”
I led him over to where I had laid the dead man out on his back. The snow looked like it had been stirred up, but there was no body there.
“I thought it was here,” I said. I looked around. There was another place it might have been. I walked over and started shoveling snow aside with my hands. But there was nothing there. “I was sure I put him there,” I said, pointing back to the first place.
Jaeger plowed through the thick snow and stood a little closer to me than was necessary. “What are you pulling here, Borden?”
I straightened and stood eye to eye with him. “What’re you saying, Jaeger, that I brought you out here for the fun of it?”
We glared at each other for a minute. The tension grew. I really, really wanted to rub his face in the snow.
“You think you can take me, Borden?” The steam from his breath swirled around my face.
“Act your age, Jaeger,” said Dan Jensen, cutting in. “I think all three of us know that Jonah could take you to pieces, what with his black belt in Tai Bo, or whatever, and also that his weird sense of honor would never let him do it.”
“Tae Kwon Do,” I said.
Jensen shook his head like he was irritated. “I thought you two had worked out your differences.”
Jaeger’s face, what I could see of it behind his mustache and scarf, remained expressionless. His cold eyes flickered momentarily. Then he sighed. “Sorry,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder. The word, not the blow, almost knocked me off my feet in surprise. “Old habits die hard, and I’m not thrilled to be out here in the cold and dark.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “It’s not enjoyable and that’s a fact. And I don’t understand. The guy was here, and he wasn’t long dead. In fact, he was still warm.”
A shout interrupted our thoughts. A sheriff’s deputy waddled up to us. “We just found a little spot of snow with some blood in it. Also, we found this.” He held up the dead man’s stocking cap.
“That’s his hat,” I said. “It fell off when I was trying to move him.”
“He must have walked,” said Jaeger.
“He was dead.”
“Says you,” said Jaeger. Jensen glared at him. “I’m sure you thought he was dead,” Jaeger amended more gently, surprising me again. “But maybe he was just out cold, with the shock and everything, and after you left, he got up and made his way out. You said he was still warm.”
“OK,” I said, trying to keep the peace with Jaeger, even though I was certain the man I left had been dead. “Then where did he go? We didn’t see him on the way in.”
“Where’s the trail go to?” He gestured north, where the path continued on into the hills.
I shrugged. “I think it’s several miles before it hits another road. I don’t really know.”
Jensen called to the other deputies and asked, but no one knew where the trail led. There are dozens of paths like that in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. Some were made by loggers, others by snowmobile or dirt-bike enthusiasts. The government makes some trails too, but those are usually well marked and well maintained.
“Omdahl,” said Jaeger to one of the deputies, “you and Petersen take a couple machines and see if you can find where this trail comes out.” He blinked up into the thickly flying snow. “Be careful, stay in radio contact and come back if this gets any worse. Don’t take any stupid risks. You get stuck out here tonight, you might not make it back.”
Jaeger turned back to me. “I don’t s’pose you took his wallet, or driver’s license or anything before you left him?” He sounded resigned.
No one said anything.
“Well,” said Jaeger at last, “if he’s alive, he’ll get medical treatment, and we’ll find out about it, and your little mystery will be solved.”
“If he’s dead, he’s got to be here somewhere,” I said.
“But he’s not here,” said Jaeger.
Jensen spoke up. “Jonah, if he is dead, and he’s just buried under the snow around here, someone will report him missing, and we’ll find out then. It’s too bad for the family, but we can’t do anything about it.”
“Well,” said Jaeger, “let’s give it one more try, while we wait for Omdahl and Petersen, and then get out of the cold.”
But the deputies returned within five minutes.
“There’s a tree down across the trail, about a quarter mile farther on and around a bend,” said deputy Petersen. He waved his hand in the snowy air. “In this stuff, it’s impossible to find a good way around it.”
Jaeger grunted his acknowledgement. We spent another hour out there in the cold dark hills while the snow piled up around us. We looked all up and down the trail, but we didn’t find anything else.
The body was gone.