The red intersection light was flashing, a burst of brightness
caught in swirls of white fog and blowing snow. I braked and
turned the windshield wipers up to the highest speed. They
whirred into action, sending snowflakes flying into the air,
but visibility still hovered near zero.
All I could see of Huron Station's
Main Street were the bare trees of late November strung with
miniature lights, the corner drug store, and the Tuxedo theater,
dark and abandoned now with 'Closed' spelled out in black
letters on the marquee.
The rest of the block lay shrouded
in fog, but I knew the town, even though I hadn't seen it
in fifteen years. Only the trees that lined the street were
new, no more than two or three years old, I'd guess.
The intersection was clear. I stepped
lightly on the accelerator and felt the car skidding on a
patch of ice beneath the snow. Biting down on my lower lip,
I took my foot off the pedal, letting the Taurus choose its
own direction, and steered to the right.
Don't panic. There's nothing here to
hit, no moving cars, no pedestrians. Don't even think about
sliding into a parked car.
The Taurus sailed across the street
like a sled following a familiar trail, but I had control
of the wheel again, if not my heartbeat. Thank God the intersection
The only available parking places on
the block were in front of Nichols' Drug Store. I pulled into
the deep ruts behind a Huron Station sheriff's cruiser and
turned off the ignition. My car should be safe enough here
with the law so close.
Pulling off my gloves, I tried to rub
the ache out of my hands. I'd been gripping the wheel too
tightly for hours, expecting every second to hit that icy
patch and spin out of control. That was no way to drive in
a Michigan winter.
I knew that I should be relaxed and
cautious, ready for anything, and above all have confidence
in my ability to control my vehicle. All I could claim to
be today was cautious.
My throat was dry, and I was in desperate
need of a brief rest. Now that I was within twenty miles of
the cabin, I could stop for a quick lunch and a hot drink.
I remembered a small restaurant not far from the theatre.
Probably it was still there, or another one like it.
I rolled up the collar of my lavender
turtleneck that doubled as a scarf, pulled the hood of my
purple coat forward over my hair, and put my gloves on again.
Then I reached for my shoulder bag, opened the door, and stepped
out into the arctic air.
In the street I walked around the back
of the car to the sidewalk, stepping in the tracks left by
those who had come before me. The wind promptly blew my hood
back, and stinging icy flakes hit my face as I climbed over
high mounds of plowed snow. The pavement was shoveled and
sprinkled with salt. On a day like this, walking was infinitely
easier than driving.
The restaurant should be in the middle
of the block, directly across from the Huron Station Savings
Bank, only ten more steps, maybe fifteen. I had no real memory
of it, only fuzzy images of a wooden Indian at the entrance,
chicken pie, and an adjoining souvenir shop.
When I saw the bank, I came to a stop.
I was in the right place, but the restaurant was now a flower
and antique shop named Blooms from the Past. In the window,
deep pink azaleas and nineteenth century china surrounded
a wicker tea trolley filled with pumpkins.
Everything changes, even small northern
towns, but there must be another place to eat on Main Street.
I walked on, scanning the vintage storefronts anxiously, ready
to take temporary shelter in the first warm and welcoming
haven I came to.
I found it nestled between a barbershop
and a bakery. Estella's Cafe was a small gabled house, set
farther back from the sidewalk than its neighbors, looking
as if it had been left in its original location as stores
went up on either side. It was brightly lit, open, and appeared
to be doing a brisk business.
Relieved and very thirsty, I opened
the door and went inside.
The café was larger than it
appeared from the outside with a counter wrapped around three
sides and oval shaped tables clustered close together under
hanging Tiffany light fixtures. The yellows, peaches, and
oranges of the color scheme were warm and inviting, and a
fire blazed in a wood-burning stove.
As I moved farther into the entrance,
the temperature seemed to rise at least twenty degrees. I
unbuttoned my coat and paused to read the sign that leaned
on an oversized brass easel: 'Welcome to Estella's Cafe. Please
The place was crowded with people,
some of them still warmly dressed in their cold weather layers.
I walked toward the back where I saw a few unoccupied booths,
slid into one of them, and occupied myself by observing my
fellow diners, the most interesting of whom were the three
law enforcement officers.
They had commandeered the best table
in the room, alongside the stove. The two state troopers,
tall, armed, and exuding power, were dark-haired and husky.
They were so similar in appearance that they might have been
brothers. They ate quietly, their eyes fixed on their food.
The third man, wearing the tan uniform and badge of a county
sheriff, was the most visually appealing part of the decor.
He had a handsome, arresting face with
high cheekbones and intriguing angles, tawny-brown hair sprinkled
with gray strands, and a hard, lean body. High leather boots
reached up to his knees and clung to his long, muscular legs.
He was magnificent, a north woods bear
of a man, the kind who could banish the winter night's chill
for any woman. If I were Estella, I would pay him to eat in
the establishment just to bring in the female customers.
He had reached the dessert and coffee
stage of the meal and set his cup close to the edge of the
table, ignoring the large piece of pie at his elbow, while
he studied a map and waited for his lunch companions to catch
up to him.
Don't react as if you'd never seen
a handsome man, I scolded myself. Look away now. The next
thing you know, he'll turn around and notice you staring at
Or was that what I wanted?
The sheriff continued to read the map,
as if it were an engrossing news story, and the troopers kept
eating. No one at the table was engaging in casual conversation.
The Alcona County lawmen were focused on business.
Wishing I'd taken the time to apply
lipstick and powder, I ran my hand through my hair. It felt
damp, snowdrops melting in a tangle of wind-tossed auburn
strands, but I knew it looked better this way with moisture
creating instant waves.
The waitress brought me back down to
earth. She was young, efficient, and apparently oblivious
of the nearby display of male beauty. Her crisp orange and
white uniform complemented the café's décor.
"I'm Cindy. I'll be your waitress today,"
she said, as she handed me a menu and filled my cup with coffee,
creating an instant heat source on the table. "Is it getting
"They say the fog is supposed to clear
up after noon."
"That's good. I like to see where I'm
The first swallow of coffee burned
my throat, but this was what I needed. I sat back and began
"It's going to be a long winter, and
it isn't even December yet," she said. "Our specials today
are turkey pot pie and venison stew. The soup is beef barley."
I opened the menu and scanned the sandwich
column. It was still too early for heavy dinner food. I wanted
something hot now and a sandwich to take out for later. I
didn't know what I'd find in the cabin, but I was reasonably
certain it wouldn't be a pantry stocked with staples.
"I'll have a cup of soup and also a
sandwich to go," I said. "Make it corned beef on rye."
When Cindy left to fill my order, I
sipped coffee and glanced surreptitiously at the lawmen's
table. The tawny-haired sheriff had folded the map and begun
a conversation with the troopers. I wasn't close enough to
hear what they were saying. Usually I don't eavesdrop, but
I thought they might mention updated information about the
weather or the condition of the roads to the north.
Cindy brought my soup then and refilled
the coffee cup, and I concentrated on my lunch. Aside from
any other considerations, the presence of the lawmen was reassuring.
I was going to an isolated wilderness cabin surrounded by
eighty acres of woods. Although I hadn't seen the farm since
my childhood vacations with my family, my Great Aunt Celia
had lived alone there without incident for a quarter of a
century, and I expected to do the same for two weeks.
Having an active police force in the
area could only add to my sense of security, and a man who
looked like the sheriff was a definite fringe. I hoped I'd
see him again.
Welcome north, I thought. This time
I made the right decision.
* * * *
A cream minivan was parked behind me
now, giving me very little room to back up and maneuver my
way out into the street. I could only move forward. Unfortunately,
I'd pulled closer to the sheriff's car than I should have.
How many sheriffs could there be in
Huron Station? This cruiser almost certainly belonged to the
tawny-haired officer in Estella's Café. He might come
back to his car at any minute or in an hour, as might the
driver of the minivan.
I didn't want to wait. The fog was
lifting, but it was still snowing, and I had twenty more miles
As I stood in the street, calculating
my chances of extricating myself from this cramped place,
it seemed to me that the space between the patrol car and
the Taurus had shrunk. An illusion brought about by the snow
and fog or an earlier lack of foresight? It didn't matter.
I was blocked in.
It would be difficult but not impossible
to free myself if I kept turning the steering wheel to the
left, moving a fraction of an inch forward each time, until
I was in a position to swing out into the street.
I thought I could do it. All the same,
I cursed the unknown driver of the minivan who had created
this unnecessary obstacle for me.
A thin layer of fresh snow covered
all three vehicles. I unlocked the car, started the engine,
and turned on the windshield wipers and defroster. My long-handled
brush lay on the floor in front of the passenger's seat where
I had tossed it this morning. I grabbed it and cleared the
snow from the top of the car, using long, angry strokes and
wishing I could brush away the minivan or, better still, the
driver who had cut off my easy exit.
As soon as I could see through the
windows, I turned on the lights and began to ease the car
out of the space into the street. The familiar ache rushed
back to my hands as I gripped the wheel, once again too tightly,
but I paid no attention to it and kept my eyes fixed on the
back of the cruiser.
I was sure I could do it now. Turning
the wheel one last time, I stepped on the gas pedal, moved
a bit forward, and rammed into the patrol car. The crunch
of steel smashing into steel cracked open the deep afternoon
Instantly I braked and looked in dismay
at what I had done. The shiny blue rear fender of the sheriff's
car had crumpled as easily as a model made of cardboard. The
damaged area resembled a gaping wound, dripping white snow
on the ground instead of blood. My car must be dented too.
Of all the vehicles in Huron Station,
why did I have to park behind the cruiser? More to the point,
why did I have to run into it?
I glanced out the window, expecting
to be surrounded by eager witnesses. In any town downstate,
the sheer noise of the collision would have attracted at least
a few curious passersby to the scene. Huron Station's Main
Street, like the intersection I'd recently slid across, was
relatively empty. The people who happened to be in the vicinity
were intent on reaching their various destinations and getting
in out of the cold. They looked once and walked on.
I wished I could drive away and leave
Huron Station and this accident behind, but that was unthinkable.
I had damaged a sheriff's car while it was parked, and now
I had to deal with the situation.
With a shaky hand, I shifted into neutral
and got out to view the patrol car's fender more closely.
From outside, it looked even worse. I would have to notify
When I'd left the restaurant, the town's
law officers were still lingering over their dessert. That
meant I would have to return to Estella's Café and
confess what I'd done, which was the last thing I wanted to
do. I had hoped to see the sheriff again, but not like this.
I was reaching across the seat to get
my shoulder bag when I heard someone behind me walking up
to the car, boots stamping down the snow, the sound magnified
in the stillness.
I turned to see the sheriff. He was
looking at his cruiser and frowning. "What have we here?"
He was taller than I had imagined and
brawnier, and his hat and jacket were layered with new snow.
As he stood waiting for my answer, his hand rested casually
on the holster of his gun.
Although his expression hovered between
neutral and benign, there was a chill in his voice that had
nothing to do with the bitter temperature. I noticed that
his eyes were the ice-blue color of Lake Huron in the winter.
He was waiting for me to answer him, to offer an excuse I
couldn't possibly give, while the snow blew and drifted between
us, creating a high, frosty barrier.
"I thought I had enough room to pull
out," I said.
He didn't say a word. He was so silent
that I could almost hear the snow falling.
"Obviously I didn't. I'm sorry."
Still without answering me, he stooped
down in the hard-packed snow and ran his large gloved hand
along the damaged fender and then back again, as if caressing
a loved one.
I wished myself a thousand miles away,
anywhere but on the main street of this frozen backwoods town
at the mercy of a man whose property I had damaged.
At last he spoke again. "You did have
enough room. Are you a new driver?"
I bit back an angry retort. I was the
offender here, and the sheriff was apparently a take-no-prisoners
kind of man. Not an hour ago in the café I'd thought
of him in a vastly different way. The reality didn't match
my fantasy, except the part about the bear. That was accurate,
except he would be a deadly brown grizzly, not the fuzzy,
"No, of course not," I said. "I've
been driving for years. That minivan parked way too close
to me. I'm really sorry. I did the best I could."
Realizing that this defense bordered
on belligerence, I ended it and waited for him to respond.
He didn't say "just like a woman driver,"
or anything remotely similar, but his expression did. I couldn't
think of anything else to say. Probably it was better that
He stood up, brushing snow from his
"I see. Do you have your driver's license
and registration, ma'am?" He paused and added, "Your insurance
It was a relief to look away from him
and fumble in my bag for the documents he requested. My hands
were definitely shaking as I removed the cards from my wallet.
I handed them to him, hoping that he wouldn't notice, or,
if he did, would think I was only cold and not intimidated.
He studied each one carefully. Just
as I began to think he suspected they were forged, he said,
"Krista Marlow, is it? Like Christopher Marlowe, the playwright?"
"Close," I said. "My mother was an
He removed his gloves and reached for
a ticket pad. I didn't expect this. What had happened was
an accident. Didn't the concept of "no fault" exist this far
Suddenly, my remorse vanished. I hadn't
broken any laws or injured anyone, and surely even in Huron
Station a policeman took weather conditions into consideration
before issuing a citation. Also, my car had its own share
of damage. That should be punishment enough.
"You're not giving me a ticket," I
"I am, for handling a vehicle carelessly."
"But the minivan . . ."
"It didn't hit a parked car."
He handed me a pen. "Sign here, please."
I had no choice, but as I wrote my
name, I felt resentment welling up in me and willed myself
not to let him sense it. This was a small town, after all.
Maybe they needed the income collected from downstate tourists
who broke their laws, or their handsome sheriff could be a
male chauvinist, in which case I didn't have a chance.
Silently I handed him the signed citation.
Even now there wasn't the slightest hint of friendliness in
his face, only the self-satisfied look of a lawman who has
done his duty, or a bear that has captured his dinner.
I liked that last comparison better.
"So you're from the big city. Are you
going to stay in Huron Station long, Ms. Marlow?" he asked.
"I'm just passing through."
"Didn't I see you at Estella's?"
"Probably. I was there."
"I thought so. Be careful," he said,
making no attempt to disguise the condescension. "These roads
can be tricky for a city girl."
I dropped the ticket into my bag. "I'll
keep that in mind. Is it all right if I leave—and would
you move your car, please?"
"Sure, Ms. Marlow." He tipped his hat,
and a shower of snow fell against his jacket. Now that I was
on my way out of town, he looked positively congenial.
"And drive safely. You're in dangerous