Kate held up admirably until Claire’s mother got up to speak. Jeannie Ross, in a gray sweater and slacks, told a story about her daughter going sledding with friends as a little girl, and her soft words demolished Kate’s composure. The uncle of the deceased, in an elegant brown coat, flecks of gray in his sideburns, put his arm around Kate’s shoulders. Even though she’d just met the guy an hour ago, she found herself sobbing into his chest. Later, as the mourners began to scatter, she apologized to him. He held his hands up, palms out—all forgiven—but he seemed unable to say anything. Kate let him be and wandered off by herself, leaving the church through a rear exit, hands shoved in coat pockets.
She’d arrived at the memorial service a few minutes before it began and had stared at the program before going inside. No viewing. Claire’s body was still at the morgue, further investigation pending. There had been people at the service Kate remembered, in addition to Claire’s family, some touched more by the years than others. Classmates, former acquaintances. She’d pretended not to recognize them, and they’d pretended not to recognize her. Or maybe they weren’t pretending. It didn’t much matter to her.
Now, outside the old church in the crisp and sunny afternoon, she decided to go for a walk. She moved briskly, breaking into a jog to cross streets, pulling her thick knit cap, a gift from a friend, down tight over her ears.
After a while she turned off the pavement, slowed down, and descended a familiar slope. Frost broke under her boots, crackling against the still-green grass, and she walked for an hour, finding herself near the quietly rushing river. The sun had sunk low, and she flipped up the collar of her jacket, lifted the zipper toward her throat. A tinge of wood smoke came into the air.
Claire murdered—this was something Kate couldn’t figure out, couldn’t wrap her mind around. Killed by her own husband, no less. The event seemed horrid and shocking and unsurprising all at once. It was Claire’s brother, Daniel, who had called her on the phone and told her Claire was dead. Found on the bed in the house, shot four times in the chest, and her husband, Phil, pulled over going eighty-five on his way out of town, a gun in the glove compartment. Apparently, said Daniel, he’d had absolutely nothing to say to the police.
Do you know how fast you were going?
Is this your gun?
Did you shoot your wife?
Wordless, a wild look in his eyes.
It made Kate feel sick. Eventually she found her way back to her car, the last one in the lot. She drove down Fifth, and the first thing she noticed was that the streetlights were still the same dim orange. Then it dawned on her. Everything was just as she remembered, except for the new flood wall, its white brick extending from the south cemetery all the way to the main dike downtown. “How long has it been since you’ve been home?” she muttered to herself, knowing in the back of her mind where she was going, wanting to see the house where she’d grown up but also not wanting. There was so much to remember and not to remember, especially with the looming specter of Claire’s death. Childhood best friend no more, after a brief and tragic adulthood.
Kate made it halfway to the old house but then, stopped at a light, decided she wouldn’t go after all, not now. She’d visit tomorrow, before heading to the airport. Now she was too tired, or too upset, or something. Besides, it was dark. She found a restaurant, pulled in, and ordered dinner. Noticing the time, she felt surprised by how long she’d walked in the cold weather.
A waitress brought her a chicken salad and hot tea. Kate picked at the salad. It took a while for her face to start feeling warm again. Eat the meat at least, she told herself, spearing a piece of tough and over-cooked chicken with a cheap, bendy fork. Food for strength. The fork seemed made of tin. The waitress brought her more tea, and she sat silently for a while, alternating between watching people come and go and staring at her phone.
“You doing okay?” asked the waitress.
“Not really, no.”
The girl gave her an exaggerated look of surprised concern. “Oh, I’m sorry, can I get you anything?”
“Oh, no, no, tea’s great, fine, sorry. Sorry.”
She drove to her hotel, went up to her room, undressed, and went to bed. She wasn’t sure how long she lay there in the dark, looking at shadows. Finally she got up, dressed, and went down to the bar.
The lights were dim and country music was playing, just as you’d expect. Her phone said five minutes to midnight. She sat on a chair facing a wobbly high-top table and thought about Claire’s husband, Phil. She thought about that time, five weeks before Kate had left for Seattle, left home for good, when she’d gone over to Claire’s house at three in the morning to pick up her friend. Claire had run out into the spring humidity with one kid on her hip and the other in tow. Phil had hit her seven months previously, on her neck and face, with the edges of his hands. This time he’d hit her in the face with his fist. A welt was already starting to form on her cheek, the eye socket swelling. He’d knocked her into the fridge, and she’d fallen on the floor, more out of surprise than anything else, lights flashing in her head. After several pre-dawn hours of swearing she’d leave him, after a week of planning a divorce, she’d forgiven him again and gone back. And now here was Kate, mourning at the end of the sad, inevitable tale. She put her face in her hands.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
She looked up. The bartender looked like a college kid, an athletic guy, tallish, with one of those stupid haircuts where one side of his head was shaved and the rest of his brown hair combed over the top.
“Yeah, I don’t know, a brandy. I just…I can’t sleep.”
“Yeah, sure, brandy. Ice?”
She looked down at her phone again and saw she had a message. She thought about checking it. The bartender brought brandy on ice, along with a half-finished bottle of beer for himself, and sat down across from her. She raised an eyebrow.
He shrugged. “You look like you could use company.”
“Wait a second.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, yeah, I’m not the bartender.”
She shook her head. “I’m way too miserable to flirt, trust me.”
“It’s just that I’ve never seen you in here before. You don’t look like the normal clientele.”
“Here’s where you ask me, ‘What’s the usual clientele.’”
The actual bartender had put a tiny straw in her brandy, as if it were a cocktail, and she took it out and dropped it on the table. It made its way in a slow, wet roll to the table’s edge and fell into oblivion. She lifted the glass to her lips for a long sip, sweet and pleasantly burning. Then she set down the glass with a clunk. “What’s the usual clientele?”
“Families on vacation, people on business trips. The handful of regular alcoholics who have their drink-special timing down pat. An occasional couple having an affair. But single, attractive women here alone in the middle of the night? Not so much.”
She nodded. “So this has me wondering.”
He took a long sip of his beer. “Yeah?”
“Why are you here, then?”
“Well, I’m thinking your wife isn’t out watching your kids at the pool.”
He shook his head.
“You look too young to be on a business trip.”
“Plus I’m wearing jeans, don’t own a suit, and am still drinking at midnight on a Thursday.”
The brandy spread warmth through her body. She decided that she’d be able to go to sleep after one more. “That actually sounds like the people I work with.”
He made an open-handed gesture. “Point taken. But no—no business trip.”
“And if you’re looking to start an affair, you’re way too young for me.”
“Hey, I’m not that young.”
“Young enough to be my kid.”
He snorted. “Yeah, if you gave birth at what, nine?”
“I’m guessing more like thirteen, but okay. I hear it happens in remote parts of the world.”
She downed the rest of her brandy, and he got up, went to the bar, and came back with another one.
“I’m paying for these,” she said.
“Already paid for.”
“Seriously, I’m too miserable to flirt.”
“My best friend from childhood was murdered by her husband.”
Clearly he was unprepared for this. His eyebrows went up, and he looked a little embarrassed. “Geez, sorry.”
“It’s fine. Just let me pay for my drinks and I’ll be out of your hair.” She fished her wallet out of her purse and thrust two fives at him.
He frowned. “No, hey, a gesture of friendship.”
“Okay. If you insist, I’m done arguing. But after this one I’m going up to my room.”
He slid his phone across the table. “Maybe give me your number?”
She shook her head. “Tomorrow I leave on a plane, and I am not coming back to this town again, not ever.”
Before the guy could respond, a new voice spoke. It sounded familiar. “Hey, kid, get out of here.”
“What?” said the kid. “Who are you?”
“I need to talk to her.”
“Well, I happen to be sitting here. I happen to be talking to her.”
“Yeah, and you’re doing such a good job, aren’t you.”
Kate looked up at the man and let her jaw drop. She picked up the new brandy, gulped half of it, and blinked rapidly. “Sean? Jesus.”
The guy who’d been hitting on her gave up at this point—he stood and gave her a little bow. She nodded at him in dismissal, and Sean took his spot. He was small-boned, medium height, with the same strawberry hair as Kate. But he’d lost thirty pounds or so since she’d least seen him, and he’d obviously been lifting weights, gained a healthy chunk of muscle. His pale eyes still held their wicked gleam, as if he were going to be a Wall Street shark or a fighter pilot.
Only it wasn’t “going to be” anymore. It had been ten years since she’d seen her brother.
“You’re in town too?” was all she could think of to say.
“I imagine for tangential reasons.”
“You didn’t go to Claire’s memorial service.”
“Out of respect for the bereaved. It would have been, at the least, awkward.”
She tried to figure out how he must feel, but he’d always been so hard to read. He could oscillate from tender sensitivity to an almost pathological coldness in a second. She asked quietly, “Did you talk to him?”
“Daniel said he wouldn’t speak.”
“He doesn’t. Just sits there all crazy-eyed.”
“Maybe that’s what I’d do too, if I’d just shot my wife dead.”
“No, sis, you’d be a miserable heap. You’d confess.”
She shrugged. “Probably, yeah. Phil, though?”
Sean put his palms flat on the table. The bartender showed up, and Sean dismissed him with a quick shake of his head. “It’s possible that the act of murder scared him out of his wits, put him in shock. That’s why he doesn’t speak. Anyway, that’s what they say.”
“That’s what they say, yes. It makes sense.”
Sean hunched forward and wrapped his forefinger and thumb around his chin.
“You think something else happened?”
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem right.”
“This happens, Sean. Psychos hit their wives, it gets worse, and eventually they kill them.”
Sean nodded, chin still in his fingers. “If he’d shot himself too, I’d believe it.”
“But because he didn’t, you don’t?”
“I don’t. If Phil killed Claire, give him about four seconds and he wouldn’t want to live anymore either.”
She sighed, not wanting to argue. “How did you find me here, anyway?”
“I’m staying in the hotel. Just came in and saw you and that dweeb. At least, I presume you weren’t interested?”
She shook her head and drained her second drink.
“What are you drinking?”
“Brandy on ice.”
He got up and came back with more brandy and a bourbon, neat. Sitting down, he held his glass out. “To Claire, sis. She was a good woman. A great friend.”
A few tears presented themselves, and Kate sniffed, toasting and drinking. They didn’t speak for a while. She dabbed her eyes and face with a small, square napkin.
Sean asked, “Can I tell you a story?”
“Once Phil and I were hiking. It wasn’t for scouts, we just went. Crazy, middle-of-nowhere Alberta.”
“I remember. You were what, seventeen, eighteen?”
“We all did some reckless things after Mom and Dad died.”
“Anyway, yeah, hiking. It was this bright, sunny day. The air was so cold, but the sun, it was almost hot. Maybe the high elevation, I don’t know. Trees everywhere, just wilderness. We come across, all of a sudden, this baby bear. Cutest thing you ever seen.”
“Yeah, you told me about this. I remember. God, I smacked you so much for almost dying.”
“Right, right, its mother.”
“Came right up and roared at you.”
They didn’t say anything for a while.
“Why’s it been so long?” he asked.
She stuck her pinky finger in her brandy and swirled it around. “I just…I just had to get away from everything. Start over.”
She looked up.
She finished the third brandy, starting to slide into sleepy drunkenness. “What about the bear, then?”
“Well, I told you. The mother pops out of the trees and roars like you’ve never heard in your life. We felt its breath on our faces. We ran like we’ve never run.”
“And it didn’t chase you.”
“If it had, one of us would be dead. Maybe both.”
Her eyelids were heavy. “Sean, I already know this story. I want to keep chatting, but I’m so tired. Are you going to be in town for a while? I’ll get another flight. We can hang out. Heck, let’s call Lucy, she’s not far…”
“Just wait, let me finish the story.”
She almost laughed. “I told you, I’ve heard it.”
“No, wait.” He polished off his bourbon conscientiously, looking almost professorial. Then he locked eyes with her. “We ran until we couldn’t run anymore. Feeling like our legs were made of jelly, except also on fire. Gasping for air. We stopped and looked at each other. Phil’s face had this weird rigidity to it. He was in shock from sheer terror. Didn’t speak for days. And that’s the look he had on his face when I visited him in jail. He hasn’t spoken since they picked him up. They can’t get him to talk, plead, whatever. His lawyer’s considering insanity, but he doesn’t think it’ll work considering the history.” Sean leaned closer. “I’m telling you, sis, Phil saw something that scared him so bad, he hasn’t talked in two weeks.”
“So he shot Claire and it scared him. Makes sense to me.”
“Well, yeah, Phil was always prone to rage. Maybe he did shoot her. But I don’t buy it.”
Kate snorted. “Who the fuck else did it? He had the gun in the car.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he did it, though. I think…something else happened.”
“Something else. Whatever.”
“Phil’s my friend, Kate.”
“Phil’s a monster.” But she could forgive Sean for not seeing this. Childhood bonds were childhood bonds. His with Phil were as strong as hers had been with Claire.
Sean relaxed his shoulders, shifted gears. “You said you want to stay in town tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I will if you will. Will you? Can we catch up?”
“Yes, I’d love that. And can I ask you a favor?”
He looked down and folded his hands in front of him. “I’m sure you remember that I’ve been in a little trouble with the police in this town.”
Kate nodded, feeling a gush of sympathy. Unlike Sean, she had directed the rage she’d felt at losing her parents inward instead of outward, and that had meant the difference between a young man committing vandalism and spending a week in jail and a young woman getting her stomach pumped and spending a week in the psych ward.
Sean looked up. “I know this might be hard for you, but I don’t really know anyone around here anymore I could ask. Would you go to Claire and Phil’s house and get that old telescope Dad gave me? I lent it to Phil years ago. It’s not like I want to use it, but I don’t want it to end up in an estate sale or the trash or something. And I really don’t want to go knocking on Detective Lattimore’s door to ask permission, if you get my drift.”
The first thing that went through Kate’s mind was There seriously isn’t anyone else who could do this? But then she thought about seeing the inside of Claire’s house. Maybe it would give her some closure. “I’ll do it, yes.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. They got up and hugged each other tight. Then he walked her up to her room, and she fell asleep seconds after her head touched the pillow.
In her dream, Claire stood in a tank top and pajama pants, her long, straight, mahogany hair flowing over her pale shoulders down to her waist, there in some dimly lit hall—the old house, yes—with a pleading look in her wet eyes…
I wrote A Murder in Winter because I wanted to write a Midwestern Noir—to infuse a dark tale of murder with elements of the town and land where I grew up and have spent my life. Something about the feel of a crisp, chilly night, a bright moon reflecting off a half-frozen river as your boots sink into snow, all mixed with the bleak tones of the genre, appealed to me.
Kate Walsh, a young woman with a past marred by a tragic accident, returns home for the funeral of her childhood best friend, Claire. Kate has been gone for a decade, having abandoned the life, town, and friends she knew growing up. Now, to reference T. S. Eliot, she arrives back where she started and begins to know the place for the first time.
Claire’s abusive husband, rendered mute by the crime, has been arrested. Kate reunites with her siblings, Sean and Lucy, and what begins as one of her brother’s crackpot theories becomes an informal investigation into Claire’s murder. They interview the friends and family of the deceased and uncover layers of secrets, covert relationships, and hidden motivations. Kate’s history with a local police detective, Jim Lattimore, both assists and confounds their efforts, as she finds herself in danger of complicating the detective’s troubled marriage.
In an attempt to stay true to the noir genre, I explore how past trauma affects the human psyche, how people cynically hide their darker motives, and how the tensions surrounding human sexuality can shatter families and lives. Together, three siblings discover a secret that will drive them apart again—this time, possibly, forever.
Jason Bursack is a writer in Fargo, North Dakota. His short stories are on Medium.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020