“Thanks, Wanda,” I said.
“Hey, you,” she said. She took a step toward me and lowered her voice. “When you come back later, don’t bring him.”
We were back inside the Neon, working our way to the freeway.
Sykora said, “So are you going back?”
“No, I’m not.”
He smirked as if he didn’t believe me, and I had to resist the urge to pop him one.
We were on Highway 212 heading north to the Twin Cities when Sykora said, “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why you’re here.”
“I told you. I’m here for Pen.”
“No, I mean, from the very beginning. Most people would have let it go, what happened to your friends. Most people would have let the police handle it.”
“Probably I would have, too. Except the fix was in.”
Sykora hesitated for a moment, like he was selecting his words carefully. He said, “Sometimes you need to make choices. Sometimes you need to let one guy go in order to catch a worse guy.”
“Is that how you rationalize it?”
“There are a lot of murderers walking around free.”
“None that killed any of my friends.”
“Your friends are special?”
“Every damn one.”
His mouth worked as if there was something he wanted to tell me, but apparently he decided to leave it unsaid. Just as well. Time was getting away from us. It was past 9:30. Even without traffic, from the wrong side of the Twin Cities it would take us nearly three hours to get to Whitefish Lake.
I told Sykora, “Maybe now’s a good time to start talking about what we’re going to do.”
“I guess that depends on what we find when we get to Brucie’s cabin.”
“Now that we know where they are, we should arrange for backup.”
“From a much maligned organization called the FBI.”
“Not a chance.”
“Why not? Kidnapping is a federal offense.”
Sykora turned in his seat and looked at me. “No,” he said. At that same instant we passed under a light. I caught only a glimpse of his eyes, but it told me everything I needed to know. Sykora was going to kill Frank, and he didn’t want anyone or anything getting in the way. Including me.
This was my cue to tell him something about revenge. Maybe repeat what the Reverend Winfield had told me. But seriously, who was I to talk?
Mille Lacs was probably the most important lake in Minnesota if not the biggest. Near the center of the state, it had long been a focal point in discussions ranging from Native American treaty rights to sportsman’s rights to conservation to property taxes to the best place to catch walleye. In the winter, it would take you over an hour to drive across its ice. In the summer, you can’t see where the lake ends and the sky begins. At night, it looks like it’s full of stars.
Whitefish Lake—not to be confused with Upper Whitefish Lake, or Lower Whitefish Lake, or Little Whitefish Lake, or the other five Whitefish lakes in Minnesota—was located on the west side of Mille Lacs, near Wigwam Bay, so close that at one time it had probably been part of the larger lake. Even now it was pretty good size, about seven hundred acres. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a place there. But while I knew where the lake was—I pass it when I drive to my own place up north—I didn’t know my way around it, and Wanda’s directions proved less than precise. Eventually we began searching for someone who might give us a more accurate course to follow. Stopping for directions isn’t something I normally do, but we were on the clock. It was already 12:30.
The lights were still blazing at Big Oak Resort & Cafe, so we stopped there. It turned out to be one of those ma-and-pa operations that made most of its money between Memorial Day and Labor Day renting cabins and boats, selling bait and tackle, and serving food and drinks from a weathered lodge that looked like it had been standing since the Great Sioux Uprising. But that was the outside. Inside was new wood—floors, walls, tables, bar—all covered with a thick shellac that reflected light, making the room as bright as an operating theater. On the wall was a large poster featuring the names and profiles of all the fish catchable in Whitefish Lake—walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, rock bass, crappies, sunfish, bowfin, bullhead, perch, shiners, suckers. Next to it was a large map of the lake and surrounding area. Sykora made a beeline for it.
“Gentlemen, you’re just in time for last call,” a woman said from behind the pristine bar. If she wondered what two guys wearing sports jackets were doing in a fishing resort after midnight, she didn’t let on.
“Couple of Leinies,” I told her.