The city of Spearfish Lake is a fairly large town, as towns in that part of the world go. It has about 8,000 people in the winter in the town itself, and about half that many living in the townships just outside the town in areas around the lake. The city sits at the root of the north side of a point jutting east into the lake itself. The population of the area balloons in the summer, as much of the north and west shores of the lake are lined with summer cottages. Lumber and wood products are still the main source of the economy, even though the area was largely cut over in the great white pine clear cut of the late 1800s; trees of the caliber harvested then are pretty rare anymore. The forest today consists of scrubbier trees, second-growth poplar, birch, maple, aspen, red pine, and a dozen others, useful in making paper and other wood products. The latter is the stock in trade of the city's largest industry, Clark Plywood, which is a little misnamed since it actually stopped making plywood in 1984, and has since concentrated on various composition boards. While there are other industries in town, the privately owned Clark Plywood has been the most pivotal industry in the area since the 1930s.
Spearfish Lake is a pretty normal town in most respects; it has the stores and markets and services you'd expect in a town that size anywhere. The Spearfish Lake Super Market is the largest grocery store, a full-service market in every respect, and there are several smaller convenience stores. The school system is considered to be pretty good, and the school's sports teams, the Marlins, are usually better than average, although critics contend the local fans are a little too crazy about football.
The schools are located on the south side of town on a large, grassy, mostly modern campus. Like most schools, they are not architectural masterpieces; just collections of block and mortar that had been added onto haphazardly. The oldest parts of both the elementary and high schools date from the baby boom of the fifties and sixties, although additions and remodels have nearly doubled the original size. It was all pretty reminiscent of Ackerman High in Camden, where Brenda had spent four uncomfortable years, and would be happy to never see again. Trying to suppress the negative memories that welled up inside her, Brenda parked her car outside. Maybe it would be a little different; after all, she wasn't a student anymore, and that would help.
At that, Brenda wasn't real sure what she was doing there, as she knew nobody – all she had was Falconswing's rather oblique tipoff, and it didn't give any hint of the problem – if there was one. It might have been different if she'd been around for a while, knew someone who knew what was going on, but she didn't know anyone there. Well, that wasn't quite true. She'd met Mike's son, Henry; he'd helped Mike the day Brenda had moved into the apartment, and she'd met him again the evening of her first day of work, at the fire out on the point, where he'd showed up with a camera. The drill was anyone at the paper who heard about a fire responded with a camera, just to make sure someone got there, and when the fire call went off, Henry told his folks he wasn't doing anything and would catch it. The Record-Herald was almost a family business, after all, and Henry told her he'd covered his first fire for the paper when he was in the fifth grade. He was a student here at the high school, but Brenda was a little reluctant to take the question to him without already knowing what was going on, for her knowledge or lack of it was sure to be reported to Mike. But, she'd do it if she had to, for Henry – and Falconswing, for what that was worth – were her only non-official contacts in the school.
For right now, then, all she had to work with were the official contacts, for what they were worth. And that pretty much meant the principal, Harold Hekkinan. She'd met him once at a board workshop meeting, her second week on the job, and hadn't been terribly impressed. "Those who can, do," the saying goes. "Those who can't, teach. And, those who can't teach become administrators." Hekkinan seemed like the archetype of the rather dumb phys. ed. teachers who couldn't hack it in a real classroom, so go into administration. Brenda had learned from the Reporter's Handbook that Hekkinan had taught political science for twenty years before becoming principal – but he was mostly remembered for being the football coach during those twenty years, too. Another damn jock-sniffer principal, she'd thought. The kids might learn something if they had somebody running the place who was interested in education, just like at Ackerman.
As she sat in his office, Hekkinan seemed like a friendly enough guy, but Brenda couldn't get over the feeling – and the memory – of being called into the office by the principal for a reading off. She was on the defensive right from the first, even though she knew in her head that she wasn't going to learn much. It was just a friendly visit, she told him, just trying to learn her way around the town. They talked about the school a bit, spending more time than she wanted on sports – Hekkinan doubled as the athletic administrator – but it left her no more enlightened than before.
Still wondering what Falconswing had been talking about, she decided that she'd better probe a little. "Is there ever much trouble around here?" she asked.
"What do you mean, trouble?" Hekkinan replied.
"Hey, I went to an urban school," Brenda said. "Drugs all over the place, fights, stuff like that."
"I'm sure there are kids here that use drugs," Hekkinan said. "But I don't hear a lot about it. We have a no-tolerance policy, and I don't mess around. That keeps the druggie's heads down pretty good."
"How about fights?"
"They happen," Hekkinan grunted. "Not often. We had an incident yesterday. Kid pulled a knife on a couple other kids. Fortunately, I was right around the corner and managed to break it up."
"Doesn't matter what happened," Hekkinan said. "Pull a knife, and you're out on your ass for 180 days. State law. Oh, there has to be an expulsion hearing in front of the board, but the board doesn't really have anything they can do. It's open and shut."
"Any idea what set it off?"
"Can't say," Hekkinan said. "I can't even give you the names of the kids involved. Juveniles, and all. When the law gets involved, I'm pretty limited in what I can say."
"Not even off the record?"
Hekkinan let out a sigh. "Look, Brenda," he said finally. "I don't know you from Adam. If it was Mike that asked me, I'd tell him. But I've known Mike for twenty years, and I know I can trust him. We went through some tough ones together. You know the story about Henry Toivo, don't you?"
"Yeah, I heard about that," Brenda admitted. Henry Toivo had been Kirsten's boyfriend, the Vietnam MIA she'd carried the torch over for so many years.
"I was one of the guys who dug up his body. So was Mike. Point is, I know Mike would know I'm between a rock and a hard spot on this, and he'd know how far to go. I don't know you, and don't know how far to trust you."
"OK, let it go," Brenda said. It was another one of the downsides to being new on the job. Hekkinan probably knew exactly what she was trying to find out, but getting it out of him would be difficult. She could ask Mike if she needed to, of course, but damn it, she was trying to show she was competent and independent, too. If she knew what she were looking for, she'd have no problems with going to Mike, but this was still a fishing expedition, at this point.
"Look, it'll come out," Hekkinan counseled. "You'll probably hear all you want to hear at the board meeting."
"Yeah, well, thanks anyway, Mr. Hekkinan," Brenda conceded. "See you at the board meeting."
That wasn't a threat – Brenda was going to be at the board meeting anyway, and Hekkinan probably knew it – but still, being stonewalled like that sucked. Well, she had learned something from Hekkinan, that an incident had occurred, and he wasn't exactly her only possible source. And, while working for a weekly definitely had its down sides, there were some nice ones, too: the biggest one being that she didn't have to know today. There were five days until she had to write the story, if there was a story there at all. But, it didn't mean she had to wait till the last minute.
Heading back to the Record-Herald, she stopped at the police station. There was a sergeant she didn't know sitting behind the desk; while she hit the police station for the duty log several times a week, it was always first thing in the morning, and she'd become friendly with Sergeant Young, the night guy. "Can I see the duty log?" she asked.
This day guy – she couldn't make out the name tag – must have gotten out of the wrong side of the bed. "What's it to you?" he sneered.
"Hey, I'm Brenda Hodunk, from the Record -Herald," she replied, trying to sound businesslike.
"I don't know that I should show it to you," he replied, an edge to his voice.
"Sergeant, that's public information," she said. "I go through it in the morning, three days a week."
"I don't know," he said. "They don't like just anybody pawing through it."
After the stonewalling she'd gotten from Hekkinan, this runaround got her temper up. "Fine with me," she said, trying to sound businesslike. "Is Chief Novato around?" She knew the Chief, at least a little – he came in early most mornings, and was used to her showing up. A huge guy, pushing sixty, but fit as a fiddle, they'd gotten to the point they could crack a joke or two.
"Oh, all right," the grumpy sergeant said, realizing Brenda had just threatened to go over his head. He grabbed the log sheet off the desk behind the counter and put it up on the counter for her.
Brenda glanced through it. She'd already been through it once, early this morning, but hadn't noticed anything particularly out of line. It had been a pretty quiet couple of days. Nothing new, and not much overnight; she paged back to yesterday. Not much there. Wait, there was a line: 1440 - Disturbance at school. Clear 1532. Well, something did happen; the cops, whoever they were, had been there almost an hour. "What's the deal on this disturbance at school thing yesterday?"
"Some kind of fight, I guess," the sergeant said. "Juveniles involved, so I can't give out the details."
"Yeah, but what happened?"
Brenda knew there had to have been an incident report filed, but as helpful as this guy was being, there was no point in asking for it, especially with the juveniles being involved. Oh, she could file a Freedom of Information Act request for it, and probably get it, in a week or so, with all the names and any useful information blacked out. Might as well back off, she thought. Being a bitch earlier didn't help. I can always wait till Monday and see what I can learn from Chief Novato.
"Can I ask you who responded?"
"That was Officer Roe," the sergeant said reluctantly, but there was no reason to withhold that information; he knew as well as she did that it should have been on the log sheet. "He's off for a few days, went fishing someplace," the sergeant added.
"OK, thanks Sergeant," Brenda said sweetly. No point in being more of a bitch than necessary. "That was all I needed to know."
"You have a good day, miss," he said in a short tone.
Is that guy an arrogant son of a bitch or what, she thought as soon as she got outside. He probably knows everything that happened, everything I want to know. And, piss, just like Hekkinan, he'd probably tell Mike what it was he wanted to know, off the record, anyway – but yeah, she was new, he didn't know her. And hell, even Novato might be sticky, given the fact it was juvies involved. Going to Mike was still an option, one she could exercise if she needed to, but again, there was no rush. The school board meeting was Monday, and then there'd be all day Tuesday if she needed it. And, hell, it still might be only a paragraph in the police report or school board story, anyway. The "kid getting screwed over" that Falconswing had talked about could be something else entirely, anyway.
It's just going to have to wait till Monday, she thought as she got in her car. Maybe it'll come out then. And, maybe over the weekend I can get Falconswing to tell me a little more about what he was talking about.
Even with Carole's recommendation, Brenda wasn't real sure about this Women's Fitness Center thing when she went by to check it out after work on Friday. It all too quickly brought to mind images of gym class, things like dodge ball and being intimidated by the old dyke the school had teaching girls phys. ed. Brenda had hated gym with a passion – still did. It had gone a long way toward turning her off about athletics, and fitness in general, and she'd never taken a minute more of it than she had to. Even now, the idea of getting into shape had the memories of gym class as a main roadblock. She'd seen plenty of stuff on fitness centers on TV, about aerobics classes and people doing calisthenics at the urging of some over-fit instructor with a loud mouth. If that was what the Women's Fitness Center was doing, then being fat and out of shape had its appeal, but she thought she'd check it out on the slow Friday afternoon anyway.
Connie McPherson, the woman who ran the fitness center, didn't come across as an overbearing bull-dyke when Brenda met her. She was short, with a solid build, but the build was all muscle – she obviously had to work out a lot, considering the job – and she was a friendly enough person. Brenda decided to cut right through the bullshit and lay her reservations on the table: "Look, I don't know what you do here, but group calisthenics aren't my thing."
Connie laughed. "You hated gym class, right? Being shouted at by some hard old lesbian who was real nice to the athletes, but the fat kids were beneath contempt?"
"Don't tell me you went to Ackerman High in Camden?" Brenda laughed. Maybe this was going to be different.
"No, Moffat Eastern," Connie laughed. "But I think being an overbearing dyke was part of the job description for girls' phys. ed. teachers, at least back in the old days. A lot of them are still around. No, I was like you, but I got lucky and married a physical fitness nut, and he got me on the right track even before we got married. We do have some group aerobics sessions, but if that's not your thing, it's not your thing. You might get interested as time goes on, but it's up to you. Come on; let me show you around this place."
Connie took her into the back room, past a small locker room and some tanning beds. The fitness center was located in a moderately sized steel building, and there was some room. Around the edge of the large room was a running track, banked on the corners; there were a number of exercise machines of various descriptions, and an open area that was probably used for calisthenics. There was a loudspeaker system, and some heavy-beat Euro-disco was playing; several women were working out on the machines.
"When Barry and I moved up here," Connie explained over the racket, "There was nothing like this. There is a gym outside of town, but it's pretty well oriented toward men. Women aren't as strong, and have different fitness issues, so when we realized we were going to be staying here for a while, I bit the bullet big time and started this place."
"I make the payments," Connie said. "It's been slow to take hold, but enough women are getting the message that it works. Look, let's get out of the noise and talk a bit about what you want to do."
Near the locker room was a small, well-lit lounge. In a few minutes, Connie was able to get Brenda to explain a little about her decision to get in shape, and find out some of how she'd been running after work every day. "That's good," she said. "The decision to make a change in your life is always hard, and it's harder to stick to it, but you've taken the first step. Getting in shape, losing weight, that's the easy part. Staying in shape, that's what really takes the lifestyle change, and somewhere along the way you have to develop the self-discipline to do it."
"That's sort of what Carole Carter told me yesterday," Brenda said.
"She should know," Connie said. "You know her at all?"
"Not really. I just met her and talked to her yesterday."
"Interesting woman," Connie smiled. "One of the nicer people in this town, in spite of everything."
"I probably wouldn't be here if I hadn't talked to her," Brenda admitted. "I lost six pounds in the first two weeks of running, but only a pound after running harder last week. It was really pretty disappointing, but she told me to expect that to happen."
"She's right," Connie nodded. "You're right at the hardest part. You sort of snuck those first few pounds past your body. Now, it's starting to wake up and realize, 'Hey, what's happening here?' and adapting to it. Your mind and your determination are just going to have to overcome your body's inertia until it gets the message. Same thing with her. She told me once that she had a lot of problems at first, until her body learned that it was just going to have to deal with those handcuffs."
"That's kind of weird, you know?" Brenda commented, hoping for a little information on the other reason she was at the Women's Fitness Center.
"You stop and think about it, yeah, it is," Connie agreed. "She has her reasons, but it seems to accomplish whatever it is she wants to accomplish, so I don't want to pass judgment. Whatever it is, it works for her."
"Seems that way, but I don't know her that well," Brenda said. "She does seem like an interesting person."
"She is, and she's sharp as a tack," Connie admitted. "But we're getting off course. The important thing is to concentrate on diet and exercise. That's going to have to be an ongoing thing, and we're just going to have to work hard on developing new habits to replace the old ones. That's the hard part. I'll work with you as much as you want, but try to be supportive, and not overbearing."
"Couldn't ask for more," Brenda asked.
"Then let's start thinking about setting some goals. Some to work toward, but some that you can reach, too."
"My goal is to lose fifty pounds. Well, forty-three, now."
"That's good," Connie smiled. "But we need short term and intermediate goals you can reach along the way so you can feel you're making progress. Look, you felt good about being able to run two miles, right?"
"Sure, but I knew it wasn't enough, so I added on another mile."
"And you had a hell of a time making it, but when you could do it at least a little comfortably, you felt better, right?"
"If it weren't raining and nasty out there today, would you be thinking of four miles today?"
"I don't know that I could do four miles. I can barely do three."
"Then you need to be working toward three and a half. When you get there, it's time to be working toward four."
"If I kept that up, I'd be running marathons before long."
"No reason you couldn't if you kept it up," Connie smiled. "Not right away, maybe not in a year. But, in time. And, when that comes, you'll have blown away every goal you could dream of having now. Diet and exercise, Brenda, that's the key. That, and pushing yourself. That's the next hardest part. You know what the hardest part is?"
"Learning the patience to let your body catch up to where your mind wants to take it. It doesn't come overnight, and your body will fight you like hell. But, bottom line, it's mind over matter."
Brenda was aching when she got home that evening. She'd gone down to the Fitness Center after work, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, rather than office clothes. While Connie had her jog a bit, she spent more time on exercise machines, mostly doing a fixed number of reps, finding out what her limits were. It wasn't easy, and really wasn't much fun, either. But, she'd known it wasn't going to come easily.
She hadn't seen Carole at the Fitness Center that evening, although with the rain, she half expected to. But, that didn't mean anything, and frankly, as hard as Brenda had been working, she wouldn't have been able to do much probing, anyway.
She was tired when she got back to the apartment, physically tired, and psychically tired, too. Maybe the crap she'd gotten from Hekkinan and the duty sergeant was just routine anonymity of juvenile incidents, but maybe it wasn't. What really frustrated her was that it was probably all over the damn school, and she didn't know anybody she could ask at the school. Jeez, if she could just talk to a couple kids she'd at least have a name to work with, and could get something out of that. It was one of the downsides of being new in a strange town – you didn't know anybody who could give you the inside scoop. Well, maybe Falconswing, but hell, the knife incident might not even have been what he was talking about.
But, at least it was good to be home. It really wasn't that great of an apartment, but it would do, and it was better than living with her folks like she had done all through college. That had been a drag for a long time; she suspected her mother would be happy to have her out of the house, and her father would be glad to have an end to the constant bickering they'd had at each other.
Commuting to college hadn't been the way she'd wanted to go to school; as far back as middle school she'd looked forward to the break from her family. But, the funds just hadn't been there to send her away to a good four-year college, considering her grades and the lack of aid she'd had available as a result. Her degree may have been from Weatherford, but most of her classes had actually been at Riverside Community College, not far from her home, and her degree was mostly an extension degree. She'd tried to do the best she could, but the commuting and the hassles with her mother had kept the college experience from being a totally happy one.
Brenda had often wished she hadn't been an only child, if for no more reason than it would have given her mother someone else to pick at, to take a share of the load. She'd lost track of the number of times her father had to step into the middle of some argument. She'd back down to her father, who could reason with her, but he'd often said that the main problem between Brenda and her mother was that they were too much alike. They had the same hard head, the same tough, hard-to-break spirit, and both of them tended to be bossy without liking to be bossed around. Neither of them knew how to back off to avoid hassles. Brenda hated being compared with her mother in any way, but at times conceded that her father may have had a point, and besides, having too hard a head to back off sometimes had its good points.
Damn it, she smelled story in this knife thing, and not just a routine school incident. There was in her some reporter's suspicion that things weren't all they seemed. Once again, she felt frustrated that she didn't have any idea of someone to call. Well, there was Falconswing. She got online, checked her Zapmail account, but there was nothing. She checked the chat room, too, but he wasn't there either. She checked back several times, but no sign of him. Finally, frustrated and feeling a bit lonely, she shut down the computer and went to bed.