I. POTTER AND BARLOWE
Darryl had been in one of his moods for a week, and he seemed to find a valve for it that night at the bar. “All you clowns pipe down,” he said.
Nobody paid much attention. Glen Campbell kept playing on the jukebox. Pool balls clacked around the table in back. A couple of guys from the garage across the street threw darts in the corner, still in their grease-stained coveralls. The old-timers down the bar went right on bitching about whatever they figured needed bitching about today, and Mike Barlowe sat on his stool, nursing a beer, wondering what it would take to fix his life. More or less Tuesday at the Elbow Room.
Darryl said, “Hal, gimme the thing.” Hal wiped the bar with one hand, slid the remote over with the other. Darryl gave Mike a nudge and punched up the volume on the Elbow’s only television, a raggedy Magnavox Hal kept bolted over the back-bar mirror on a shelf made out of angle iron and a plank of warped plywood.
Mike looked and saw that they were doing a story about Becky Morse on the ten o’clock news. At first he wondered why, and then the reporter told him: April 7. Five years tomorrow since the crash.
“Tell you right now where the hell this is going,” Darryl Potter said.
Mike watched as they reran the same bygone photo from the Morse kid’s senior yearbook: same honey hair, same pretty smile. A heartbreaker. The picture cut to file footage of cops and EMTs, a dark highway strewn with wreckage, emergency lights strobing wet pavement and scattered glass.
Now came the girl’s mother, Lily Morse, looking older than Mike remembered. She spoke to the reporter from a couch in a living room he remembered better than he’d have preferred. In a minute the picture cut again to some white-haired state senator with a face full of eyebrows, talking to the camera about whether or not they’d ever pass a new law.
Finally, a little business on the other driver: Benson, his name was, though Mike wouldn’t have remembered that if he hadn’t been watching the news. Late forties or so by now. Sharp-looking guy with a sharp-looking wife and a sharp-looking daughter of his own.
“Son of a bitch,” Darryl said. He shoved the remote back down the bar with his knuckles and lit a cigarette.
Mike felt a dull pang of shame.
Jesus. He’d been out of work since the last week in March, too much of that time spent right here at the Elbow with Darryl, and the days had started running together. He sat back on his stool and rubbed his eyes. Thought: Hell.
“What’s with you two mopes?” Hal put down new beers and changed out their ashtray. No such thing as a smoking ban at the Elbow Room.
“Got a joke for you,” Darryl told him. “Knock knock.”
“Asshole falls asleep driving and kills your kid sister.”
“Asshole falls asleep driving and kills my kid sister who?”
Darryl jetted smoke through his nose. “Some fuckin’ joke, ain’t it?”
Hal looked at Mike.
“I don’t get it either,” Mike said.
After the party had broken up, and the rain tapered off, and most of the others from the dayside crew had found their coats and umbrellas and headed for home, Rose Ann Carmody took the stool next to Maya’s, ordered a Sapphire martini for each of them, and said, “Happy birthday to me.”
Maya smiled. “Happy birthday, Rose Ann. You’re supposed to let us buy the drinks.”
“This one’s not for me, kiddo. It’s for you.”
“What did I do?”
“Hush,” Rose Ann said. “The news is starting.”
Maya glanced at the nearest television. It wasn’t hard to find one; the Fox and Hound sat around the corner from the station, and all umpteen flat screens played the same thing every night at six and ten.
Like clockwork, all around the room, News7 logos came spinning into frame, trumpeted in on a fanfare so familiar by now that Maya imagined she’d need surgery if she wanted it removed. The intro peeled away, revealing Rick Gavigan and Carmen Brashear behind the anchor desk, live, in high-definition, not half a block from where Maya sat—in somewhat less than regular definition, at this point—sipping call gin with Rose Ann. Rick and Carmen had been teetotaling here themselves an hour ago, wishing Rose Ann a happy fiftieth along with everyone else. Maya expected they’d see at least Gavigan back here in the bar in approximately thirty-seven minutes, ready to cover lost ground.
Meanwhile, tonight’s top story: ruptured sewer main in Eden Prairie. Rush-hour traffic held at a standstill.
“The shit we cover,” Rose Ann said.
Maya went back to her drink. At the first commercial, Rose Ann noticed Maya’s glass, already empty, and said, “Oops.” She ordered another.
“Okay,” Maya said. “What do you want?”
“You’re plying me with alcohol for some reason.”
“I’m waiting to make a toast, you lousy sponge.”
Maya narrowed her eyes. “What kind of toast?”
“Good grief, the regular kind,” Rose Ann said. “Or is tomorrow not your anniversary?”
As if Rose Ann had cued it, the broadcast returned: second segment, lead story, Maya Lamb reporting.
“Ah,” Rose Ann said. “Here we are now.”
The story was a follow-up on Becky Morse and Wade Benson. Benson was the local architect who had worked past midnight too many nights in a row, fallen asleep behind the wheel of his Range Rover, and crossed the center line on a stretch of State 169 that normally had a barrier but happened, that rainy spring night five years ago, to be serving as an undivided two-lane due to road construction. Becky Morse had been the Mankato State University sophomore he’d met more or less grille-to-grille in the oncoming lane.
Alcohol hadn’t been a factor on either side, only fatigue and dreadful timing, and the architect had come through with a concussion and minor bang-ups. Becky Morse, on the other hand, had been driving a compact hybrid, and not an expedition-class four-by-four. She’d lingered two days in a coma at the Hennepin County Medical Center before succumbing to her injuries, which included ruptured everything, fractured you-name-it, and massive head trauma.
For years now, the girl’s mother had been pushing for legislation to mandate stiffer sentences for so-called “drowsy driving,” and a version of her bill had finally made it through committee. Five years since the crash that had given the bill its nickname, Becky’s Law now awaited hearing on the Senate floor. Maya had been working on the piece for a few days, tonight’s installment being the first in a two-part package tying in with the state patrol’s Highway Safety Week.
“Well done,” Rose Ann said when it was over. She raised her glass. “Welcome to the Five Minnesota Winters Club.”
Maya was surprised. A little touched, even, in spite of her mood. Becky Morse had been the first story she’d ever covered at News7. Maya hadn’t mentioned this to a soul, but Rose Ann hadn’t missed it.
She clinked stemware with her news director. Thin glass chimed beneath the sports report. After they’d taken their medicine, Maya said, “Tell me something.”
“Happy to,” Rose Ann said.
“When the hell did half a decade go by?”
Rose Ann laughed. “Honey, I stopped counting ’em two decades ago. Now. Speaking of plying a reporter with alcohol.”
Maya followed Rose Ann’s gaze to a booth in the corner, where two other daysiders had lingered. Kimberly Cross, tiny and blond, fresh cosmo in hand, flirting up a storm with Justin Murdock, the hot kid just in from some market in Idaho. Suddenly Maya felt ancient. “Who’s plying whom?”
“I don’t know,” Rose Ann said. “It’s impossible to be certain from this distance.”
They watched. It was a regular National Geographic special over there: The male of the species displays his plumage; the flushed cheeks and tousled forelocks of the female signal her interest. After a minute, Maya said, “Isn’t Kimberly engaged?”
“Mm,” Rose Ann said, sipping her drink.
Maya turned on an elbow. “Isn’t Kimberly engaged to a left defender for the Wild?”
“When last I’d heard,” Rose Ann said. She tilted her head in thought. “That’s a nice smile on our young Justin Murdock. It’d be a shame if someone came along and knocked all his teeth out.”
“Or even most of them,” Maya agreed.
Across the room, in the dim pocket of the booth, Kimberly Cross finally glanced up and noticed her audience. Maya and Rose Ann waved in unison from the bar. Kimberly looked away quickly, the bloom in her creamy cheeks spreading to the rest of her face.
God, Maya thought. She’d been Kimberly’s age when she’d come up to the Cities from Clark Falls, Iowa, ready to take on the world, or at least Minneapolis. The twenty-six-year-old Maya had imagined herself somewhere in New York City by now, a string of Justin Murdocks bobbing in her wake like channel markers in a wide river of accomplishment.
“Cheer up,” Rose Ann said, misreading Maya’s mind. “You’re still young. And we’re leading a 14 market. And you’re the only reporter in town speaking for Becky Morse tonight.”
Is that what I’m doing? Maya thought.
“Becky Morse,” she said, leaning her glass once more toward Rose Ann.
“I was going to say dental insurance,” Rose Ann said, shaking her head sadly at the Cross–Murdock booth. She pinged the rim of her glass against Maya’s. “But whatever makes you feel better.”
Excerpted from Lake Country by Sean Doolittle. Copyright © 2012 by Sean Doolittle. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.