Kent Egeland aimed his sheriff’s cruiser down the black barrel of North Dakota Highway
22 at eighty miles an hour. His knuckles were turning white as he clenched the wheel and
listened to Ricky’s ongoing rant. The weather didn’t care it was March; snowflakes
had started falling thick and fast just minutes earlier, vanishing into the road to build
up hidden slicks of ice. The wind was picking up, too, but Ricky could always shout louder
than the wind.
owe me, man!” Ricky said.
Kent said. “I know. And I’ve paid.”
enough.” Ricky said. “You—”
gust of wind shoved the car over the dividing line, and Ricky shut up as Kent adjusted.
Out the driver-side window, Kent peered through the growing flurries over the endless landscape
of yellow and brown grass dappled with patches of snow. It was nearly the same scenery
he’d seen in Afghanistan this time of year, except for the miles of barbed wire and
the abandoned farmhouses bleached gray by the sun and wind.
never see a wooden house in Kandahar, would you?” Kent said.
calling.” In tuning out Ricky’s yelling, Kent hadn’t heard the dispatcher’s
call. He snatched for the mike to respond.
on,” said Ricky. “It’s a 10-33; just standby.”
A “10-33” was the call for “attention all units.”
A moment later, the hard consonants and penetrating twang of the sheriff department’s
female dispatcher cut through the cab.
up, boys,” Shirley said. “We just lost a 911 call. It came in on a outta state
cell phone number, and it got cut off before we could fix its twenty. This is urgent. Assault
in progress on a female at an unknown location. I’m gonna play back the recording
now. It’s short, so listen.”
came over the radio again, but Kent realized this was the recording:
“911. What is the nature
of your emergency?”
a woman shrieked. “He’s gonna kill me! He’s
got a knife and he’s…oh God, he’s kicking in the door! He’s—NO!”
Her voice morphed into a wordless scream. A man’s voice could be heard shouting stray
words and phrases in the background, “…kill you…open this door…”
“What is your location? Where are you?”
“I’m at Calistin!
the number? Are you in an apartment? Are you—”
The sound of splintering wood came over the radio, followed by another high-pitched scream,
followed by silence.
“That’s all we got, boys,” Shirley
said once the recording ended. “Where is she? Over.”
answered her. She waited five beats.
knows where Calistin is? Who knows what
Calistin is? Over.”
Again there was no
“Hey,” Ricky said to Kent.
“What about Celistina?”
progress, gentlemen. Where is she?” Shirley said.
has to be it!” hissed Ricky. “Answer the call!”
here,” Kent said into the mike he found himself holding. “Could she mean Celistina?
“Celistina; what’s that? Over,”
“The new Fierzman Energy man-camp,”
said Kent. “It’s out on 22 past mile marker…15 or so,” he said.
Man-camp was the local term for any new or
temporary housing for the thousands of oil workers—almost all young, male, and single—who’d
arrived and tripled the county’s population in the previous eighteen months. The
modern-day gold rush of the oil-fracking boom was feeding growth that turned locals into
strangers in their home towns overnight, and the boom was feeding a growth in crime to
go with it.
all we got. Get over there, Kent. Over,” Shirley said.
it. At least ten minutes out. Over,” Kent replied. He flipped on his blues-and-reds
and pulled a sudden U-turn, nearly getting hit by a Chevy diesel with a snow plow on the
front as he swung into the lane heading away from the county seat of Williston and against
the flow of end-of-shift traffic heading toward the Friday bar scene.
can you give back up? Over.” Shirley said.
my way,” Deputy Miller responded over the radio. “Make it twenty minutes. Hang
tight till I get there. Over.”
knew right away it was Celistina,” Ricky said quietly in the cab.
“No, I didn’t. We still don’t know it,” said
Kent. “That call could have come in from Montana for all we know.”
Kent knew any woman under attack in a man-camp
was probably a prostitute, most likely serving a crowd. With temperatures regularly hitting
twenty below zero, the county’s oil boom-towns didn’t have streetwalkers. Instead,
numerous Internet “hostesses” supplied house-call services wherever requested.
The risk was that when things went bad for a young women working alone in a rural area,
a ten-minute wait for the help might as well be ten days for all the good it did her.
faster,” Ricky said. The car was already weaving like a snake through oncoming traffic
and around vehicles pulled to the side on the shoulderless road.
the car won’t save her,” said Kent.
Kent nudged the accelerator, if only to
keep Ricky quiet. Despite the constant stream of bar fights, prostitution busts, and meth
seizures, as a deputy Kent had found more serenity in driving the county roads than he’d
ever known collaring gang bangers and heroin addicts back in the Twin Cities. After more
years with the National Guard in Afghanistan than he’d felt he rightly owed, there
wasn’t anything to go back to in Minneapolis anyway, so he’d jumped at escape
by taking a job he’d hoped was in the middle of nowhere. It turned out Williston
wasn’t nowhere, but sometimes you could see it from there. He’d even felt himself
healing until his former comrade-in-arms had turned up. Ricky’s egging him on to
overreact had already earned Kent two reprimands. And he knew he’d take Ricky’s
bait every time, despite knowing Ricky’s ultimate goal wasn’t help; it was
“You’ll be glad I’m with
you today,” Ricky said.
“I always am.”
was about a half-hour before sunset and the snow was thickening into a blizzard as Kent
made out the three-by-two-foot sign for the Fierzman Energy “Celistina” trailer
park coming into view. Even with new paint, the dozens of pale-white trailers looked grimy
against the swirling snow.
Celistina,” Kent relayed to Shirley. “It’s a trailer park, looks like about
forty units. No office visible. Over.”
the Fierzman HR director on the phone,” Shirley replied. “She’s heading over
but said it’s all men there as far as she knows. No women assigned. She gives you
permission to search any unit you want—it’s in their housing contracts. Over.”
in now. Over.”
Kent turned into
the gravel drive and stopped, but left the lights and sirens still going. There was a single
set of tire tracks in the new snow, telling him he’d beat the day-shifters home.
The trailers were arranged in tight groups of fours and sixes spread over more than an
acre. A gravel roadway wide enough for two cars wound through the clusters. None of the
units showed any lights, but Kent knew that meant little since men who slept days put up
curtains to block out the sun.
left, the door of the trailer nearest to the patrol car opened, and a man in sweatpants,
a bathrobe, and flip-flops gingerly stepped down the metal steps into the snow. Kent cut
the sirens and lowered his window so they could talk.
going on?” the man asked.
“911 call from
a woman. Heard any screaming?”
I haven’t heard a thing. I got the TV turned up. No women here anyhow.”
there any other road out of here?”
Just the one.”
“Step back then.”
put the cruiser in reverse and drove it to block the entrance to the camp. The entranceway
passed over a four-foot diameter culvert pipe covered with gravel that let cars pass into
the court. A steep-sided drainage ditch of the same depth ran in both directions paralleling
the highway. With his car in the way, nothing could drive in or out.
should have kept him in sight at all times,” said Ricky.
parked. He switched off the siren, but left the emergency lights going and got out of the
“What’s the setup here?” he asked
the man in the bathrobe. “Does each group of trailers keep the same schedule? Day
shift, night shift; know what I mean?”
all day-shift here. The whole shebang.”
are you doing here?”
“I got the
flu. Last time I skip my shot, I tell you.”
the man’s breathing; it was raspy but relaxed, even talking to a cop, and he smelt
of cough syrup. The pocket of his bathrobe was overflowing with used tissues and his nose
looked like a frozen chunk of ground beef.
back inside,” Kent told the man. “If another officer comes, tell him to follow
my footprints.” The man started to protest until Kent raised his palm, “Just do
The man nodded submissively and then bounded
back through the snow to his trailer. The wind slammed the door shut hard behind him.
started to speak, but Kent cut him off, “There’s nobody else in there.”
turned and walked between the rows of silent, unlit trailers. The snow-covered road passed
through the first cluster of four trailers on the left and four more on the right, all
set perpendicular to the road. Other than the single set of tire tracks down the middle
of the road, there were no signs the snow had been disturbed. He decided against checking
any of those. The units were packed close enough the boarders would hear each other snoring,
let alone screaming. Most of the oil workers were decent people, not to mention young;
and young guys like to be heroes—if there’d been any screaming and anybody
were home, he’d already be arresting a bloodied john instead of looking for a missing
After the fourth mobile home, the road
turned left. The wind gusted and flurries stung his eyes as Kent walked around the fourth
trailer’s corner. Advancing in the snow-packed wind, he made out clusters of six
trailers each on both the left and right. Unlike the other batches, these twelve were set
longways to the road and had semi-permanent wooden porches with railings tacked on to their
fronts. The tire tracks he was following ended at a four-wheel-drive pickup truck parked
in front of the second trailer on the right. As Kent passed it, he could hear the tick
of the engine cooling and saw the tracks in the snow had barely filled. Whoever lived there
couldn’t have entered the court much earlier than he had, certainly not before the
call was made. Kent kept walking. He was halfway down the row when he heard a door open
behind him and turned to his right.
the snow, he made out a man wearing brown denim coveralls and carrying a rifle coming onto
the porch. The man was eating a sandwich with one hand and struggling against the wind
to close the door with his hand holding the gun. The man didn’t look up and moved
in a methodical, unhurried way. The wind shifted and Kent caught the scent of crude oil
mixed with cigarettes. The smell alone told him the man had just gotten off a shift; roughnecks
would hit the showers the minute they got home.
least unstrap your gun,” hissed Ricky.
Listen!” Kent’s left fist instinctively snapped up, making the infantry “freeze”
signal. He cocked his ear toward the fourth trailer in the right row: two empty beer bottles
covered in snow sat on the railing. A snow-shovel beside the door was also covered. He
jerked his attention to the third trailer on the left. He struggled to hear the sound again,
but could only hear the wind. His eyes told him more.
it!” Ricky rasped in his ear. “You see it? The third one. She could be dying in
Kent looked long enough to confirm that
what he saw was real, then turned and jogged up to the man, still obliviously fiddling
with the rifle on his porch.
spoke in a hoarse whisper, “Hey…is that thing loaded?”
The man started in surprise as Kent appeared suddenly through the snow.
“Oh…no, officer,” he said. “No, I’m just heading to the dump
“Shoot coyotes,” Kent said.
The man nodded. “Load the gun. Now.”
oil worker laid the remaining bites of his white-bread-and-baloney sandwich on the snowy
porch railing and started thumbing .243 caliber bullets out of the pocket on his left sleeve.
He swallowed and asked, “What’s going on?” His voice was tense but his
hands were steady.
“Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. When
did you get in?” Kent asked.
up,” Ricky muttered.
“A couple minutes
ago,” the man answered Kent. “I left a little early to hunt. My super said
it was okay so—”
the rest of these trailers? They work the same shift as you?”
All of ’em. Both sides.”
listen,” Kent said, pointing across the narrow road. “If anybody comes out of
that trailer, you order them to halt. Keep your finger off the trigger and don’t
fire first. Got it?” The hunter squinted through the snow toward the trailer and
“Let’s do this!” Ricky
“Cover me!” Kent said over
his shoulder as he began running across the snow toward the darkened trailer lying third
in the opposite row. Without slowing his run, he looked again at where someone’s
hand had wiped away a few inches of new snow from the railing. Closing in, the tracks from
at least two sets of man-sized work boots in the snow on the porch also became clear. There
were no tire tracks around the trailer, but at least two people had come out on that porch
in the half hour since the snowstorm had begun.
the seconds it took him to cross the narrow lane, he knew his justification was thin. Such
flimsy suspicions would never support a warrantless entry in Minneapolis, or even in the
Williston that had existed two years ago, now only in memory. It was company-owned housing
and he had permission, but a no-knock entry still reeked of civil rights violations, inadmissible
evidence, and a probable firing. Kent heard all that in his mind, but he heard Ricky yelling
louder: “Go, go, go!”
Gun drawn, Kent burst
through the door, his silhouette backlit by an aura of light and blowing snow. The two
men on the couch jerked up their heads as he suddenly burst in, splinters pelting them
as the door twisted and hung crooked by its top hinge. One was shirtless, the other naked.
The ammonia smell of burning meth filled the room.
move!” Kent shouted.
Eyes adjusting, Kent
saw the third man, on the floor between the other two, lying face down, clothed except
for his buttocks. On either side of his blue-jeaned legs other legs—bare, shaved,
and female—lay feet up. Kent held his gun out to cover both men on the couch as he
lunged forward on his left leg, grabbed the man on the floor by his hair, and yanked up.
“You, get off the woman, now!”
stood up again, pulling so hard on the man’s hair that he lifted him off the ground,
bending his neck backward. The man rocked back on his knees and started to turn, but Kent
cracked him hard over the head with the barrel of his pistol and the man went down hard.
Then the men on the couch ran in different directions —the shirtless one toward the
master bedroom and the naked one toward the bathroom at the opposite end. As they ran,
Kent cast a quick glance down at the woman, naked and unconscious. Her face was bloodied
and flattened, her neck cut and scratched by the electrical cord now wrapped loosely around
it. “Celistina” had been the right place after all.
left!” shouted Ricky. “Get the one in the bathroom!”
Kent knew more than he’d ever wanted to know about trailer interiors
after six months of responding to domestic incidents, wrestling with drunks or crazed
tweakers in their narrow corridors and tiny bathrooms. He knew the bedroom had a window
large enough to climb out of, and perhaps a coat the man could grab before jumping out
into the snow and escaping. The bathroom window was too small for escape—the other
man would have only have gone there for a weapon.
the wavering voice of the roughneck from the road, “Hold it right there!”
Outside, a pistol fired once, followed by a rifle firing twice. Continuing forward into
the dimly lit mobile home, Kent turned left and moved down the hall toward the bathroom,
holding his gun out in front of him in a two-armed stance. The first door on the left,
the bathroom door, lay in splinters on the floor. As Kent advanced, the naked man stepped
out through the open doorway. The man’s left hand and most of his body had moved
into the hall before Kent saw the pistol in his right hand. The hand was rising. Kent kept
his eye on his pistol’s front sight as he fired three times into the man’s
chest from six feet away.
later, a half-deafened Kent paused to watch as the gun-smoke wafted over the dead man’s
body like a departing soul before being sucked away through the bullet holes in the wall
by the cleansing prairie wind.
Then he heard Ricky
yelling, “There’s still one outside!”
ran back through the living room. The man he’d pistol whipped wasn’t moving.
The woman was still unconscious. Kent peered out the smashed doorway but couldn’t
see through the blur of wind and snow.
good out there?” he called.
good here.” Kent recognized the oil worker’s voice.
officer coming out. Don’t fire.”
gun first through the shattered door frame onto the porch. The man with the rifle stood
in the gravel road over a shirtless man lying face down in the soppy, reddened snow. The
dead man’s pistol was still in his hand and two large exit wounds had cratered his
“I didn’t have a choice—”
know,” Kent said. He gently squeezed the hunter’s shoulder. “You did good. Go
back to your porch and set the rifle down. More help’s on the way.” Turning
away, Kent put his hand to the microphone on his shoulder and pushed the broadcast button:
“Egeland here. Shots fired. Three suspects down. Four people in need of assistance.
I need immediate backup and ambulances. Approach is clear. Scene is clear. Over.”
heard Shirley relaying his requests but ignored her string of questions as he went back
into the trailer. Inside, the unconscious man seemed to be breathing all right, so Kent
cuffed him. Then he knelt beside the naked woman. Finding her pulse, he was startled by
how cold her skin was. He pulled the ratty blanket off the couch to cover her against the
cold wind blowing in from the shattered doorway. Then he began untwisting the cord from
lived again,” Ricky said. “Feeling proud?”
Kent said. “Just stupid. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, kicking in that door
would’ve been a disaster. But that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
just want what you owe me.”
Kent tuned out Ricky’s
voice again as he focused on removing the cord, and he softly spoke to the woman as she
began to stir. As his hands followed the first-aid methods he’d performed too often
to forget, his mind drifted off to a different winter field…
“Where are they?”
Kent whispered. “I don’t see them.”
“Behind the second house, I think,”
Ricky replied, nodding to the right. “Get ready.”
Kent watched as Ricky lowered his rifle
to detach a grenade from his vest. At that instant, a shape appeared in the alleyway to
their left. Kent was stepping behind Ricky to aim his M4 rifle when another figure appeared
to the right, around the corner of the mud-brick house they’d been watching. Ricky
tossed his grenade past the corner of the house as the shapes on left and right opened
fire on them with AK-47s. Kent shot the man on the left; then he turned to shoot the second
target as the grenade went off at the man’s feet and ripped apart everything below
his knees, spinning him twice with his arms curled over his head like a ballerina as he
wasn’t firing, but when Kent turned to check on
him Ricky shouted, “Get the other one!” Kent ran toward the corner of the house,
colliding with a third man who came rushing from the other side. Kent’s size advantage
made their fight a short one.
He hurried back to Ricky, now on his
back clutching at his sides where the bullets had penetrated his body armor.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” Ricky said.
Kent was pulling out blood-clotting powder to seal the wounds, but
he could tell it was too late. “I had to step around you. Shh…try to be still.”
“You hesitated. Warriors don’t
hesitate…we can’t…warriors……you owe me…”
It had been the last thing Ricky ever
snapped back to the present when the woman started to moan.
he said. “Try to be still.” Over the rushing wind, he could dimly hear the
sirens of what he assumed was Miller’s patrol car arriving at the trailer park’s
entrance. “You’re going to be okay.”
next, boss?” Ricky interrupted.
think…I think this is where we say goodbye, Ricky.” Kent said.
“No way. You need me—your hesitation’s going to get
“Not true. Not then, not now. I’m
a cop. Acting like a soldier—like a lunatic—storming into houses, hitting first
every time, that’s what’ll get me killed.”
still owe me.”
“Dying won’t bring you back.
See this woman we’ve saved? Consider her life payment in full.”
never forgive you.”
I’ll have to forgive us both. Goodbye, Ricky.”
the woman gasped, gripping Kent’s arm. “Don’t leave me…”
I’m right here,” said Kent.
are you talking to?” she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed as she slipped
back into unconsciousness.
he said. “Just you. Be still, I’m staying right here.”
She shivered hard, and Kent slipped under
the blanket, holding his chest to hers to keep her warm and from going into shock. The
wind whistled and moaned through the open doorway at their feet, but the only sounds he
heard were his own gasping sobs that began to convulse him as her arms clasped him tight.
Ricky’s voice was gone.