Some people aren’t familiar with my first name. I’m Boston Irish, although I haven’t lived there for years, and it’s pronounced “Shay-mus”—like the private eye—which I am not. If I weren’t sequestered deep in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, eight miles from the nearest neighbor, you could call me a financial crimes consultant.
The idea had been for Abigail and me to spend a quiet winter recovering from the trauma surrounding bad guys shooting her and nearly burning down my house in Cincinnati. That wasn’t what happened. Abigail left on the Tuesday before New Year’s. I stayed.
And the winter was quiet—until the day that changed everything.
I have a daily routine: up before dawn, stretch (To say I am stiff is an understatement. I believe I was the only baby in history who couldn’t touch his toes.), oatmeal for breakfast, journal an hour, cross-country ski several hours.
I read a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe until dinner. Usually I snowshoe for several hours after dark. The WIKB weather report called for snow late that evening. Once outside I faced north into a brisk wind and searched for signs of the aurora borealis but only spotted a front forming in the distance. The skies above were so clear the Milky Way seemed almost within reach. Good to go.
Six miles into an eight-mile loop I exited the shelter of a cedar swamp. The evergreens had protected me from the changing weather. Deep in thought, I had paid only passing attention as snow-laden clouds from the north brought with them a howling February snowstorm that threatened to erase any trace of tracks leading me home.
That was a stupid mistake for someone living all alone, miles from anyone.
To the snare drum rattling of hardwood treetops, I climbed the rise from the frozen swamp to the head of the lake following faint indentations. I pushed through the brush border at the lake’s edge and met a fierce blast that tore my breath away. A thousand hypodermic snow needles jabbed my exposed face. I ducked my head into my parka, pulled ski goggles from my knapsack.
After some mishaps I finally reached my guest cabin where I decided to stop and pick up a book from the mystery selection I keep there. An arc of smoothed snow on the stoop formed a single angel wing. Someone had recently opened the door to the screened porch. Squatting down, I flipped up the headlamp’s red filter and spotted prints of bare feet.
Now I knew I was going nuts. Occasionally holding conversations with a disappeared Abigail was one thing, but phantom footprints meant my imagination was reaching a new level of desperation. Get a grip, Seamus. No one walks around barefoot in this weather. At the thought, my arms reminded me they were freezing from an earlier nosedive into the snow. My teeth started chattering.
I knelt to inspect the tracks: all faced forward; no departures. Must be guys from one of the nearby camps playing a trick. Peering into the swirling snow, the track of partially filled footprints disappeared down the driveway.
A frisson of disquiet struck me. Although only sixty-five yards away, the house and garage were invisible with their lights off. What if it wasn’t a joke? What if someone found this cabin and took refuge? I yanked open the screen door and tromped in, ignoring the scrape of snowshoe claws on the porch floor. I peered in the glass door to the cabin proper. No one had lit the fire preset in the wood stove.
A shiver running from my toes to the top of my head reminded me I needed warmth. A book could wait for morning. Turning from the door, I caught a flash of two bare legs dangling below the chair hammock attached to a porch rafter. I laughed so hard my sides ached and my lungs hurt from the frozen air.
In a place where winter lasts half the year, jokes and jokers get odd. The jerks must have stepped a blow-up doll onto my porch to make the footprints and posed it in the swinging chair. They had concealed their tracks well. In this dark, I couldn’t figure out how they did it, but I’d find the evidence in daylight.
Fine. Like pink flamingos mysteriously congregating in front lawns of townies about to return from vacation, this babe was definitely going to show up in someone’s sauna in the near future. Might as well drag it to the house so it’ll be close at hand for future revenge. I grabbed the plastic legs to haul the thing from the chair.
The legs were real.
You can read more about Seamus in Cabin Fever, the second book in the “Seamus McCree” mystery series, published by Barking Rain Press. The first book in the series is Bad Policy. Books are available at retail and online booksellers.
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Meet the author
JAMES M JACKSON authors the Seamus McCree mysteries, BAD POLICY (March 2013) and CABIN FEVER (coming April 2014). BAD POLICY won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods and Georgia’s low country. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, ONE TRICK AT A TIME: to start winning at bridge (Master Point Press 2012).
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