Donald Harstad

The Big Thaw

The third book in the Carl Houseman series, 2000

To Rae and Nick Anderson

Thank you for your encouragement, support, and confidence that good things were going to happen. Most of all, thank you for prying open some doors.


Monday, January 12, 1998, 2309

About a minute after I got settled in bed, I heard a faint scratching sound. It took me a second to realize that I'd left my police walkie-talkie on. It was sitting in its charger, about fifteen feet from the bed. I thought about getting up and turning it off, but there were several reasons I didn't. First, Sue was already asleep beside me, and I didn't want to wake her by moving around some more. Second, the intermittent transmissions by the bored dispatcher were kind of soothing, in a distant way. I could hear her talk, but the volume was set so low, I couldn't make out the words. Perfect. Third, I was just too damned tired to get up.

I was getting to that presleep stage, when the pitch of the dispatcher's voice began to rise. After a moment, she began to speak rapidly, excitedly to cars that were apparently too far away for me to hear. I sat up, and listened for a moment. Still couldn't make out the content, and now I just had to find out. I swung my legs off the bed, got up, and padded over to the little radio. Just in time to be able to make out the Maitland car, which was within a quarter mile of me, asking a question.

'Comm, Twenty-five, what's going on?'

'Twenty-five, Five and Nine are in pursuit of a burglary suspect, out on the old Grange road.'

I knew what was coming, and was reaching for the phone when it rang.

'They want some assistance, and Lamar said to call you, since it might involve a burglary investigation. They started the chase about five minutes ago down by Hell-man's curve, and they've been going up…'

'Okay…' I interrupted, 'just let me get dressed… give me directions after I'm in the car…'

'Ten-four…' She was new, and newbies had a tendency to use ten codes over the phone.

'Wear your long johns, it's getting really cold.'

'Yeah…' as I hung up the phone.

'Who was that?' mumbled Sue.

'Gotta go… they're chasing a guy and need help.' I reached into my drawer and pulled out my long underwear. I pulled it on, and put on two pair of socks.

'Dress warm…' came a mumbled caution from Sue, who was going back to sleep.

'Yep…' I pulled on my uniform trousers, which had the utility belt attached, and were hanging next to the bed. On with the laced Gor-Tex boots, stand, slip on the turtlenecked jersey shirt, grab the uniform shirt, pull the pants up, tuck everything in, pull the 'woolly-pully' sweater over my head, and I was heading down stairs less than three minutes after the phone had rung. On the way to the back door, I grabbed my handgun out of the drawer, and inserted a magazine. I pulled back the slide to chamber a round, pressed the hammer drop, and shoved it into my holster. I pulled my little walkie-talkie out of its charger, and grabbed my recharging flashlight from the shelf by the door as I left the house. When I opened the door, it was like walking into a wall of cold air.

'Boy,' I breathed to myself. Marsha's 'really cold' hadn't done it justice.

I used my sweater sleeve to protect my hand as I opened the car door. Even in the garage, it wasn't smart to touch metal in this weather. I turned the key, and the engine took right off. Back out of the car, unplugging the engine heater, then hit the button to open the door.

In the car, turned on the defroster, set the temperature to high, turned on the headlights, dropped the rechargeable flashlight into its charger on the dash, rear-window defroster to 'on.' I turned on my flashing headlights and red dash and rear-window lights as I backed out. Then the police car radio.

'… onto Willims road, but not sure…' came blasting over the speaker. Sounded like Five's voice.

I waited a beat to make sure the radio traffic was clear, then picked up the mike and told the office that I was back at work. 'Three's ten-eight. Comm,' I said, 'where you want me?' Hopefully I would be able to get ahead of the chase from here in Maitland, and not end up following the pack.

'Stand by, Three,' crackled the voice.

She had no choice, but I was already at the main intersection leading out of Maitland, so I had to stop and wait to be told which way to turn. Frustrating, but not a lot could be done about it. I fastened my seat belt and shoulder harness.

'Five,' she asked, 'where do you want Three to go?'

As luck would have it, he was close enough for me to hear his transmissions, so Marsha wasn't going to have to rebroadcast everything we said.

'Tell him to head north, toward the Whiskey 6 Victor intersection, then west toward the County Line road…'

'Three's direct,' I snapped, saving Marsha and the rest of us a little time.

'Three, Five, Ah've been behind this idiot for almost eight miles. New snow, can't see him anymore, but Ah'm following the tracks and the cloud of snow.' Nine struggled.

'Ten-four.' Been there. With new snow, the first thing you lose in a chase is the taillights of the vehicle you're chasing. Snow packs up on the rear of the suspect vehicle, and they just fade out. Quickly. Then, if the car you're chasing is moving fairly fast, they throw up a rooster tail of snow, and you don't even get to see the reflections from their headlights. The good news is that the tracks they leave make it virtually impossible to lose their direction of travel. It's just that you can't be sure how far ahead they actually are. So, to avoid running into the back of them at a high rate of speed, you tend to get a little cautious. Because of that, they tend to lengthen their lead.

'Any idea how far up he is on you?' I asked.

Five answered. 'Probably not more than a mile. I'm doing about sixty, and it's really hard to stay on the road. His tracks look like he's fishtailing a lot on the curves, so he's probably about sixty too.'

'Ten-four, and where's Nine at?'

'Ah just tried to cut 'em off and missed…' came Nine's familiar drawl. 'Ah'm behind Five somewhere, I think…'

Out of the picture, in other words. Damn.

'You think I can get to the intersection by Ullan's farm, Five, before the suspect gets there?'

'Close…' he said. 'Could be close.'

I was still on paved roads, as opposed to the gravels the chase was on, so I was able to take a few more chances. I pushed it up to about 75 on the straight stretches… but had to back off pretty far on the downhill curves.

I figured I could cut the chase off. I hate that. No lonelier feeling in the world than to have a pursuit coming right at you. It had to be done. If not, the suspect would be in Ossian County in two minutes after turning onto the paving.

'Comm, Three,' I said, after switching the radio to the INFO channel, 'you might see if Ossian County has a car

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