Die a Stranger

Steve Hamilton

Die a Stranger

The ninth book in the Alex McKnight series, 2012

To Dave


On a clear, warm night in June, a small airplane is flying low over Lake Huron. It’s a Cessna, a single-engine four-seater. The pilot is flying alone. The back of the plane is filled with the cargo, all wrapped up tight in plastic bags.

The plane’s transponder is turned off. The pilot is flying by sight only. At such a low altitude he is undetectable by radar. As he approaches the airstrip in Sandusky, Michigan, he can barely make out the dark runway. It’s a tiny airport, after all, and it’s been closed for hours. But he does the one simple thing that all pilots know how to do. He keys the microphone five times in a row on the ARCAL frequency. That sends the automatic signal to the beacon on the ground, which then turns on the approach lights, the runway edge lights, and the taxiways. These lights will remain on for exactly fifteen minutes. More than enough time to land and then to take off again. It’s one part of a simple, perfect plan.

A truck is waiting next to the runway, with its lights off. The two men in the truck will transfer the bags to the back of the truck. Working quickly, they can do this in under three minutes. This is also part of the plan. Just as simple and just as perfect.

Except that the two men in the truck are not the two men the pilot is expecting. That’s where the simple, perfect plan begins to break down.

You can only imagine the pilot’s surprise when he lands and finds two strangers waiting for him.

The two men who were originally waiting with the truck, they’ll be found handcuffed to the fence at the end of the runway. When the two newcomers have emptied the plane of its cargo, the pilot will be allowed to leave, with a very simple and very clear message he’ll carry back to Canada, to the people who sent him across the border in the first place.

The deliveries will not stop. Two men handcuffed to a fence, with guns pressed against their heads… Everything that happened on this night will be merely an inconvenience. It will not interrupt the transport of high-grade marijuana into the United States from Canada. Not when there’s so much money to be made.

That’s how this business works, no matter what the product, no matter which border. New business arrangements are made. New partners replace the old partners, if they’re muscled out of the deal. But the planes keep flying.

* * *

It may have been a warm night at that little airport in Sandusky, Michigan. But I was three hundred miles away, due north, sitting in front of the fireplace in Paradise, Michigan, where it was a good twenty degrees cooler. We don’t rush into summer up here. Of course, I had no knowledge of anything happening on that airport’s runway. Or any airport’s runway, for that matter. I found out about it two days later, the same way most other people did. I read the story in the newspaper.

I still pick up the Detroit News most days, even though it’s a world away and it feels to me like a million years ago when I actually lived and worked in the Motor City. But old habits die hard and I need my daily news fix. What the current mayor was up to, how the Tigers were doing and whether they had a chance to go all the way again. Like 1968. Like 1984. The story about the hijacking on the runway caught my eye and I read the whole story, complete with local reaction, how futile it would be to try to stop these small airplanes from landing late at night. How you can’t turn off the automatic runway lights because God forbid an airplane would need to land in a legitimate emergency. How you can’t station somebody at every tiny backwoods airstrip twenty-four hours a day. How long and porous the border was between the States and Canada, and how this kind of smuggling has been going on in one form or another, dating all the way back to Prohibition.

That part was easy to understand. When you had a boat full of liquor coming across the lake, you took your chances that hijackers might be waiting for you. Now it was indoor-grown hydroponic marijuana, at which apparently the Canadians are just as handy as they were for producing those bottles of Old Cabin Whiskey back in the day. Now it was an airplane instead of a wooden motorboat. But the basic idea was the same.

It was the kind of story that made me think back to my own days as a police officer, how it sometimes felt like I was the little Dutch boy trying to plug the hole in the dike. That’s really as much as I thought about it. It was an interesting story, but I forgot about it five minutes after I folded up the paper and had my second cold Molson. How it could have any effect on me or on anybody I knew, that was something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine, even if I had known enough to try.

I had no idea that this incident on a lonely runway three hundred miles away would mark the beginning of that strange roller coaster of a summer for me. But looking back on it now, that was Event Number One.

Event Number Two? That was an Ojibwa funeral.


A funeral shouldn’t take place on a perfect day. I’ve had a strong feeling about that for most of my life. No, funerals should happen only when it’s raining. Or when it’s freezing cold. Or preferably both. It should hurt to be there, is what I mean. It should hurt right down to your bones when you’re standing there on the edge of a grave site, as you’re looking down at the box being lowered into the ground. You should have to hold your coat tight around your neck as you stand there taking the physical punishment for still being alive, for still being able to feel anything at all. While the man says ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the wooden top of the box should be splattered with rain and mud. Instead of tears drying fast on a perfect sunny day.

I haven’t attended any more than most men, but there are two in particular I’ll never forget, and both of them were on days that were heartbreaking enough without having to be so horribly, wrongly beautiful.

Especially up here in the UP. I mean, for God’s sake. You get maybe a dozen picture-perfect days in a year. Maybe twenty if you’re lucky, or if you happen to have an extra-loose definition of picture-perfect. Either way, a day like this is too rare a thing up here to spend crowded under a big white wedding tent that’s been drafted for the occasion. You shouldn’t have to sit there holding a plastic cup of nonalcoholic fruit punch, hot and miserable in your only suit, looking out across the parking lot to where the boats are tied up on the water and feeling like the rope to your own personal anchor has just been cut forever.

Of course, this time it’s not my anchor I’m talking about. Not today. It wasn’t my friends and family gathered under that tent. No, I was there, according to the little booklet they gave me, to “celebrate the long and happy life” of one Hazel Nika LeBlanc, a woman who had been pretty much royalty around here. Hence the huge turnout. She was a direct descendant of the family most responsible for the existence of this place I was standing on. The Bay Mills Indian Community. She had been the living heart and soul of this place, and her influence went well beyond it. As a counselor and adviser. As an oral historian and a resource to Indian colleges all over North America. The kind of person who could spend one hour on the phone and end up with a hundred different people working on that day’s big problem. None of which you’d even suspect just looking at her. So quiet and soft and round and with those big glasses. You wouldn’t find out how much power she could generate unless you happened to be on the other end of it. A place you did not want to find yourself, believe me, if she wasn’t happy with you.

She had been like a mother to the whole reservation, that much was certain. But she was the literal birth mother to four children. Three of them were still alive to mourn her this day. One of them was Vinnie Red Sky LeBlanc.

Vinnie was my neighbor, the only other person to share the old logging road that wound through the woods to my cabins. He was my friend, maybe my best friend, even though he was half a generation younger than me. Even though he’d disappear for days at a time, and I’d drive right past his place with absolutely no idea where he was. Even though there were gaps in his personal history that I could never fill in. Things he wouldn’t talk about, ever.

Even though the friendship had once all but ended, and we’d gone weeks without speaking to each other. He was always there for me, if I really needed him. He’d saved my life more than once. So of course I was here for him today.

I had lost my own mother when I was just a kid, so that much I could relate to. That was the first of those perfect-day funerals. Me standing next to my father, trying to hold it together. I don’t remember much else, but I do remember it being a pretty small affair. Twenty, thirty people? Hell, I don’t know. But it wasn’t like this. It wasn’t the whole town showing up to say goodbye. Or to celebrate a long and happy life, whatever kind of face you want to put on it. It didn’t feel anything remotely like a happy occasion when it was my turn to be ...

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