Haley’s family’s cottage turned out to be half again the size of my parents’ house. Two stories tall, it extended down the Lake Michigan side of the dune.
Cassie and I waited on the wide wooden porch.
Marcus opened the door and let us in. “Come on in. So did you find him?”
The door opened into a living room that seemed to take up half the first floor. Marcus stood next to a pile of boxes. The nearest had the words “Christmas Tree” written on it in black marker. Travis sat on one of the three couches watching ESPN on the big screen television.
“Hey,” Travis said, waving at us.
Noticing my gaze, Marcus said, “We got the keys to the cottage from my aunt because we said we’d bring the Christmas decorations out of the basement.”
“Do you have to put them up too?” I asked.
“Ha,” Travis said. “They’d never trust us with that. We might put something up in the wrong place.”
“I was telling Travis that what we ought to do is start putting things up only we’d deliberately put things up in the wrong place. Like, I don’t know, put the nativity scene up on the top of the fireplace instead of the piano and put the tree in the wrong corner. Aunt Theresa would explode. Seriously. We’d find pieces of her in other rooms.”
“Yeah,” Travis said, “count me out.”
Cassie pulled off her coat and hat. “We might have found him. Who owns the house two doors down?”
Travis got up from the couch and walked over. “North of us? I don’t know his name. He’s a businessman out of Chicago. I’m not sure what he’s in. Garbage, maybe. I can’t see him as much of a hitman though. The guy’s seriously out of shape.”
“Are you sure?” Cassie asked. “There’s some high end exercise equipment in that house.”
“Doesn’t mean he uses it,” Travis said. “The guy’s got asthma or something. Plus he’s got a gut.”
“Maybe he transforms?” Cassie didn’t sound like she believed it even as she said it.
“I’m imagining a magic inhaler,” Marcus said, “and wacky synthesized music and lots of sparkles.”
“I just don’t think he’s our guy,” Travis said. “I don’t know him, but he’s up every other weekend in the summer. Doesn’t the Executioner only appear in the winter?”
“Yeah. Crap. And I was so sure.”
“It could be anyone around here,” Marcus said. “Half the houses on the road aren’t occupied except in the summer. Take the woman next door. I’ve almost never seen her except at Christmas. So here’s the idea, maybe she dresses up as a guy to do a hit. Don’t look at me like that. It could happen. It’d totally throw people off. Think about her build. She’s tall for a woman, doesn’t have a lot of body fat, and it’s pretty obvious she works out. She could pass.”
Cassie raised an eyebrow.
“I draw,” Marcus said. “I notice these things.”
“Sure, Marcus,” Cassie said. “Let’s say that it’s not her and it’s not the businessman in the house we checked on. What do we do next? He’s got to be around here. How do we smoke him out?”
“Christmas day,” Travis said. “Christmas Eve we do traditional family stuff, but Christmas day it turns into a party. Everyone in the neighborhood knows they’re allowed to drop in. Place pretty much fills up for the night. Chances are if he’s in the neighborhood he’ll drop by.”
“That’s three weeks away,” Cassie said. “That’s way too long.”
“I could try to work up some surveillance equipment,” I said. “I might be able to modify the roachbots so they work outside.”
“That’s a start.” Cassie put her hands in the pocket of her sweatshirt. “Is anyone else cold?”
* * *
Haley and I sat in Solid Grounds sipping coffee. Jazz played over the sound system.
“I’m trying to come up with something that works,” I said, “but the roachbots don’t do very well in this weather.”
Outside the window, snow blew.
We weren’t the only ones in the coffee shop. A bunch of goths had pushed together a couple tables on the other side of the shop and were laughing about something.
They sounded like they were having a good time. Not that we weren’t, but our conversation felt a little more serious.
“Do you think Cassie’s a little too into it?” Haley held her cappuccino thoughtfully before taking another sip.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Cassie’s always seemed kind of focused to me. At least on this. Well, now that I think of it, sports too. Really, if she cares, she just goes straight ahead, you know?”
“I know,” she said. “I was just thinking today that if he’s really been coming to our Christmas party all these years that maybe it would be better to wait until after Christmas to try to catch him. If we try before Christmas and we mess up, he’s angry and all my relatives are here. If we wait until after Christmas and we mess up at least some of my relatives will be gone, and if we’re lucky maybe he’ll go someplace else next year.
“I know I don’t sound very heroic,” she said, “but doesn’t this feel a little reckless to you?”