In this sequel to the “gritty, brash, and totally gripping” ( The Real Book Spy ) thriller Bad Axe County , Sheriff Heidi Kick is investigating an illicit cage fighting ring with ties to white nationalism when her husband suddenly goes missing. It’s a time for celebration in Bad Axe County as the town gathers for the annual Syttende Mai—Norwegian Independence Day—festival. During this rollicking family-oriented event filled with dancing and food, Sheriff Heidi Kick discovers a dark and shocking event—a migrant worker has been savagely beaten but refuses to explain what happened. Then, a sudden murder of a band member shatters the festival. Something is deeply wrong in Bad Axe County. As she looks for answers, Heidi plunges into a secret underworld where high-stakes cage fights double as combat training for the White Nationalist movement. Then all hell breaks loose for Heidi when her husband disappears and a secret he’s been keeping from Heidi is revealed. “Given current tensions and deep divisions in the United States, Dead Man Dancing takes on an electrifying relevance” ( BookPage) with its vividly drawn characters and unforgettable twists and turns.
Release date: May 11, 2021
Publisher: Atria Books
Print pages: 304
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Dead Man Dancing
March 24, 2018
Bad Axe County, Wisconsin
As she watched the shivering band set up to play the farmers market at the corner of Kickapoo and Main, Bad Axe County sheriff Heidi Kick found herself counting days again.
How many days since she had danced?
Pink-cheeked Augustus Pfaff was the bandleader. His cold hands were full of tuba, so he shot the sheriff a nod and a wink. She waved back, recalling that the last time she had hopped and twirled to a polka was to Pfaff’s band at the bowling alley, with Harley, her husband, at Family Fest on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
So, that was—to calculate, she used an app on her phone—eighty-one days.
The number made her wince. She loved to polka. She needed to polka. Polka was sheer and simple joy.
Sheriff Kick sighed, feeling she had lost track of herself. She and Harley had been banging heads lately. Last night things had gotten heated. Then she had a nightmare. At times like these, she tried to take a hard, clear look. Wow Long time, no polka.
Augustus Pfaff, tuning up, pushed a lungful of air out his old silver tuba and delivered the first oompah of spring. She smiled and made a decision. OK, then: today.
Hungry for a two-step, her feet drifted. She found herself gazing at a bushel of yellow onions that had overwintered in an Amish root cellar and were not too awfully shriveled. Right. Today. She always looked for markers in time—points after which things would be different—and Mr. Pfaff’s oompah would mark a new beginning. Family repair begins today. For real this time Keep it simple. No new conflicts.
“I’ll take a half dozen onions. Not the muddy ones, though.”
“Dem muddies dunna kept better.” An Amish boy, one of the Schrock kids, with a dirty face and bright blue eyes, looked behind him for the support of his granddad. “Eh, Dawdy? Ent dem muddies dunna kept better?” The elder Schrock nodded.
“OK, I’ll take a half dozen muddy ones.”
Sheriff Kick passed the boy a five-dollar bill. He passed it to his sister. She showed it to the granddad, who pointed a bent finger across the market, and the girl sprinted away with the bill gripped tight and her bonnet strings and long black dress flapping.
Waiting for her change, the sheriff used her phone app again.
She put in April 15, 2016. The app came back with 707.
So it had been 707 days since she had shot Baron Ripp, a local guy who had been rearing back to club her with a steel fence post. Secretly, improperly, she had shot to maim, and she hadn’t killed Ripp, who deserved worse than death. He had lost his left leg at mid-thigh before heading off to manage two life sentences as a one-legged rapist, sex trafficker, and killer of other people’s daughters. She hoped he was popular.
The little Amish girl, breathless and smiling, put three one-dollar bills back in her hand.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.”
She had been the interim sheriff at the time, and three months later, the Ripp case had swayed a special election in her favor. Now she put the date of the election into her app and it came back with 619. So anywhere between 707 and 619 days is exactly how long she and Harley had been debating the impact of her job, the drain of her workload and her trauma, the fallout from her absence, on the family.
As if to score a point for Harley, their daughter, Ophelia, tugged on the cuff of the sheriff’s new dusty-rose Carhartt jacket.
“Did you forget me? I said I’m cold.”
“I know, hon.” She marked the place in her thoughts. “How about chase the boys? That’ll warm you up. We’ll go inside the library in a few minutes.”
With an emphatic roll of her eyes, Ophelia, they called her Opie, seven going on seventeen, rejected the suggestion to chase her twin little brothers around the first farmers market of the season. She had chosen not to wear her winter coat because the coat, like her mother’s new jacket, was also pink. So either Opie was no longer liking pink, or she was no longer liking her mother, or both. Whatever it was, life was choices, and the oldest Kick child had chosen to be cold.
Augustus Pfaff’s entire band was tuning now, bleating and plinking, wheezing, thumping and rattling—five goose-bumpy old men in lederhosen and short-sleeved white blouses—tuba, clarinet, banjo, accordion, bass drum, and snare—the Principals of Polka.
“Or, sweetheart,” the sheriff suggested, “how about you go sit in Rosie Glick’s buggy? I’m sure that would be OK. You’d be out of the wind.”
Opie glowered her refusal. Against the trembling girl shoved a raw wind from the northeast. On fields beyond the parking lot, sunshine strove against the last dregs of snow. Flocks of starlings whorled above the muddy void. Opie turned her blue-lipped scowl toward Main Street. The state highway as it bisected the town of Farmstead was winter-fatigued, rimed with sand and broken into chuckholes by heavy trucks barreling elsewhere. The banners installed last summer by the Chamber of Commerce—VELKOMMEN! WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE!—snapped and frayed against their poles.
“Or,” Sheriff Kick tried, realizing Opie might have heard her fight last night with Harley, “you could think about how much Daddy and I love you and your brothers, no matter what. But maybe that would make you so hot from love you would sweat.”
She returned to her thoughts: her workload, her trauma, her absence… and the pressure on her to perform, Harley had reiterated last night. In the special election, she had defeated “Olaf the Handsome”—her popular chief deputy, Olaf Yttri, a good guy and a great deputy—by eleven votes to become the first-ever female elected sheriff in Wisconsin. Olaf the Handsome had left the Bad Axe to become a police chief up north. He was mourned and missed by the same people who judged and tested Sheriff Heidi Kick.
“Two rhubarb jams, please,” she told Eli Glick. “And two quarts of mustard pickles.”
The granddad of Rosie, Opie’s Amish friend, nodded and through his bushy salt-and-pepper beard muttered something inaudible but no doubt pleasant.
She moved on to the beekeeper, Amos Yoder, and his honey. Then the Zwickle family and their maple syrup. Opie tagged unhappily along in jeans and an old flannel shirt that was actually a pajama top because she didn’t have a real flannel shirt, yet she was determined to wear one. Her brothers, Taylor and Dylan, now four, were dressed as if for sledding and played happily on the parking cleats, leaping between them.
“Eins, zwei, drei!” whooped Augustus Pfaff, and his chilly little band burst into “Happy Valley Polka.”
But instead of tickling her feet, the tune sent Sheriff Kick right back to numbers. A lack of happiness at home, in their own little valley, was her issue. Last night Harley had complained that she “never” took days off. He had wondered: Was it that she couldn’t take days off? Was she not capable?
“Never is a big word,” she had told him. “Never is a fighting word.”
Like the baseball guy he was, he had answered, “Bring it. Hit me with the stats.”
Well, by light of day, her contract with Bad Axe County gave her two of every ten days off, so in the 619 days since her election, that came to 124 days—a far cry from “never.”
“Let’s see,” she said next to Sara Bontrager. “I think I’m out of butter.”
She was never out of butter. Opie snorted, crossed her arms and shivered.
“I’ll take five pounds.”
It seemed like a good comeback: 124 days is a far cry from “never.” But just after she imagined this response, a text the sheriff had been waiting for arrived, from her night dispatcher, Denise Halverson. She had called Denise at 3:00 a.m. in a post-fight lather and asked her, when she had time, to count up the days that she had actually taken off. Denise had needed to check with Payroll at the county clerk’s office, open nine to noon today.
Denise’s text said: 27 total out of 124
The sheriff stared, not believing.
Denise added: Only 6 so far this year
That could not be right. She reached to take her five pounds of Amish butter, a roll wrapped in wax paper. But no, that could not be correct.
Yes, hon, that is correct… and not good for you
Then her phone rang.
“OK, Heidi,” Denise said, sounding nervous, “I have to tell you something that I swore I wouldn’t tell you, but now, since you asked for these numbers, and you and Harley are having this fight, I feel I have to tell you.”
Sheriff Kick turned away from Opie.
“Tell me what?” she said. She bit her lip and felt her pulse speed. Denise was a good friend who watched her back.
“I shouldn’t… Oh, shit. Heidi, I know it’s not my business. But you’re my business. OK. Well, I saw Harley with somebody up at the Ring Hollow Dam.”
“Somebody? You mean a woman?”
“A woman, yeah.”
“When? Doing what?”
“Last Friday about lunchtime. Remember that day when it was weirdly nice out and we all thought spring was here? Harley and this chick were sitting in the sunshine on that concrete dam spout. It looked like they were having a picnic. Long blond hair—” Denise paused as if to mute herself. “That is completely all I know. I have no idea who she was. Hey… are you at the farmers market?”
“Is that bastard Jim Raha there selling eggs? I cracked one, it had a chicken inside it. I’m sorry, Heidi. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t know. But I said it.”
“I appreciate it, Denise.”
“It’s nothing, I’m sure, because—” She stopped short again. “Well, what do I know? Anyway, do you want to know how to tell if a man is cheating on you?”
The sheriff was fighting a primal scream.
Denise said, “He starts bathing twice a week. Ha! At least the kind of men I hang with. Not Harley, of course. Heidi, I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m so sorry. But it’s nothing.”
“Thanks, Denise.” She ended the call and made her cold lips smile.
“Opie, let’s get a pie. Let’s get two pies. No, three. Take one to Grammy Belle and one to Uncle Kenny. Can you pick out three pies?”
She heard the polka stop abruptly, the way polkas do. That was it for “Happy Valley Polka,” an instrumental, short and sweet. A cold gust carried away the final notes. Augustus Pfaff spoke to the meager crowd through a portable PA system.
“Thanks for coming out and showing winter who’s boss. This next song is to kick the devil in his scrawny patoot on his way out the door. It’s called the ‘Hoop Dee Doo Polka.’?”
As the band rollicked into it, the sheriff turned stiffly to look at Pfaff, a roly-poly retired teacher and high school principal, dancing nimbly with his instrument, man and tuba like an old married couple still in love.
Hoop dee doo,
Hoop dee doo,
I hear a polka and my troubles are through
“Three pies costs twenty dollars, Mommy.”
“That’s OK.” She fished another bill from her jacket pocket. “Give this to Mrs. Zook. Hon, take the wagon with you.”
Last night, on the subject of days off, she had accused Harley of underhandedly complaining about a lack of sex. With the “stats” now on the table—only six days off so far this year—her claim sounded defensive and stupid. Of course her husband wanted more of her. The whole family did, for a whole variety of reasons. And Harley had begun the conversation by talking about Opie’s new issues. He was worried about the possible impacts of an overworking mother on their seven-year-old daughter. That was his stated concern, not how often he was getting laid. It was wrong of her to put words in his mouth. She had been projecting. She missed sex too, and the stats were beyond grim: three and thirty-nine.
They had made love three times this year.
And the last time was thirty-nine days ago, February 13, on Harley’s birthday.
As Opie pulled the wagon back with three pies, the sheriff felt her heart twist. Here was her problem: everybody had to be safe. Everybody. And safety came from action, not reaction. Safety came from leadership, from presence, not from the sirens of her deputies screaming up to a crime scene. Safety was a climate of respect, and climate constantly changed, and constant change kept fear and hate constantly looming in the sky.
As Opie parked the wagon, the sheriff realized she had felt this way for exactly as many days as her polka-dancing drought. The Kicks had come home from Family Fest—eighty-one days ago on New Year’s Eve—and Opie, at the dinner table, through a mouthful of meat loaf, had asked her mom and dad what she had to do to change her name from Ophelia to Oscar.
What do you mean, sweetie?
Because I’m probably a boy.
The sheriff squelched a grimace at the memory. After the shock, she had responded instinctively. In eighty-one days, she had showed her face at every one of twenty-five township board meetings. She had attended either mass or some other event at every church in the county. She had spent time at all the schools. She had driven night-shift patrols, making herself visible to the drinkers and the druggies in the taverns. She had spoken to the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs, she had attended countless wrestling, basketball, and volleyball contests, and she had invaded the den of the Farmstead VFW post, where she was generally not welcome. I am here.
“Whee!” shouted Augustus Pfaff against the chilly breeze. His lips were off the silver tuba in a wide smile. He put them back, puffed out the oompah beat, skipped and twirled and marched in place as the lyrics resumed.
Hoop dee doo,
Hoop dee dee,
This kind of music feels like heaven to me…
She wasn’t done with the market yet—she wanted to look at Hans Lapp’s birdhouses made from gourds—but she took the kids inside the library so that Opie could warm up.
She sat in a comfortable armchair between the children’s books and the window. The sudden warmth made her groggy. She could still hear the next polka coming from Main Street, even though the window looked out on Pool Street, one block west and parallel to Main. She found herself studying the town that was hers to take care of. Establishments along Pool Street mingled run-down old Farmstead with tentative new Farmstead. Mindy’s Repair had been there forever behind its shabby front. Next door to Mindy’s was River of Oz, something new, a freshly painted sign depicting a wizard on a flying dragon and offering “body work and supplements.” Then there was the Farmstead Eagles Club, Aerie 3409, a dull cinder-block building she had visited just last week. Next door was probably the most exotic place in Farmstead these days, a dingy little grocery, Mercado Chavez, occupying a former insurance office and catering to the influx of Spanish-speaking people who mostly lived in trailers on the grounds of Vista Farms, the factory dairy operation that had appeared last fall on Belgian Ridge.
Staring out at Mercado Chavez, her stomach tightened. Hardly more than a cow-chip toss away on Main Street the banners read, VELKOMMEN! WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE! But there had been friction. She had heard nasty grumbling about “invasion,” about “speak English,” about jobs stolen from locals. Not Harley, but his family—his mother, Belle, and his brother, Kenny—were of that persuasion, she knew.
Pausing for these thoughts had allowed fatigue to catch her, and she spent the next minute fiddling inside her coat pocket and feeling furtive.
As an avowed teetotaler, nothing stronger than coffee, she had a secret, and here was one more tally to note: It had been ninety-eight days since she had bought her first pack of Nicorette gum, in the midst of a marathon search for a runaway junior high school boy. Before she got to day one hundred, she had sworn to herself, she would quit.
She touched the pack secreted in her inner coat pocket. But her kids had a spooky sixth sense about the presence of gum. She didn’t dare.
Without nicotine, she drifted, seeing her face reflected in the cold skin of window glass. Then she sank into sleep, and in sleep she began her nightmare again, inserting Denise’s update that Harley was doing his cheating on the Ring Hollow Dam spout, and the woman had long blond hair. In the dream, it was her zeal for everybody’s safety that had pushed her husband too far, created too much conflict. He was a fucker, not a fighter. She had lost her marriage.
Then Opie was tugging her sleeve.
Opie said in a library whisper, “Uncle Kenny just drove by with a big flag in his truck.”
“That big red flag with the blue-and-white cross and stars on it.”
“He had a flagpole standing up in the back of his truck.”
She roused into a wakeful dread.
More often than she dared to count, Harley’s troublemaking older brother had taken a piss on their marriage. Kenny Kick brawled in the taverns, trespassed and poached, yelled crude things at high school games—always a story, always an excuse—constantly putting his sister-in-law on the spot and pitting her against her husband. Most recently, back in September, she had busted him for OWI at a blood-alcohol level of .09, which Harley had argued was Just one swallow over legal! And you’re his family! As if Kenny wasn’t usually a whole lot drunker behind the wheel, as if laws should not apply when one was related to their enforcer. Harley had assured her that no amount of punishment was ever going to change Kenny. Kenny’s whole life history proved that shaming him would only make him worse.
“Here he comes again,” Opie whispered.
Sheriff Kick gaped in stunned denial at the old two-tone Ford pickup roaring down Pool Street, showing off windshield cracks, rust craters, a mud beard… and a statement. A ranting voice started inside her. Goddamn you, Kenny! You can’t be bullying around Farmstead with a giant Confederate flag posted up in your truck box! The flag caught a cold gust and preened out perfectly behind the truck. Goddamn it, Harley! Your dumbass brother is not really doing this to us! Then Kenny was gone past. What the hell?
“That’s the Nazi flag,” Opie remarked.
“No, hon, it’s not. But.”
“It’s a bad flag.”
“He’s going around and around the block.”
So he was. He was flagging the farmers market. In little Farmstead, Wisconsin, in front of mostly Amish, who were immune to the politics of the English, and in front of a few nice old men playing polka for the love of it, the sheriff’s brother-in-law was making a display of the Southern cross, a symbol that in the North had only one meaning.
The polka stopped dead. In the quiet of the library, the sheriff could hear her brother-in-law rip-snorting south-to-north up Main Street, revving his dirtbag engine and squealing his worn-out tires as he cornered on First Street, cornered on Pool Street…
And now here he came once more, past the library windows, past the Eagles Club and the Mercado Chavez, doing laps.
Opie stomped her foot very quietly but with real force.
“Mommy,” she whispered hotly, “do something.”
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