Ragged Lake

By Ron Corbett

Ragged Lake
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Gruesome murders, a northern secret, and a buried past

While working one afternoon on the Northern Divide, a young tree-marker makes a grisly discovery: in a squatter’s cabin near an old mill town, a family has been murdered.

An army vet coming off a successful turn leading ... Read more


Overview

Gruesome murders, a northern secret, and a buried past

While working one afternoon on the Northern Divide, a young tree-marker makes a grisly discovery: in a squatter’s cabin near an old mill town, a family has been murdered.

An army vet coming off a successful turn leading a task force that took down infamous biker criminals, Detective Frank Yakabuski arrives in Ragged Lake, a nearly abandoned village, to solve the family’s murder. But no one is willing to talk. With a winter storm coming, Yakabuski sequesters the locals in a fishing lodge as he investigates the area with his two junior officers. Before long, he is fighting not only to solve the crime but also to stay alive and protect the few innocents left living in the desolate woods.

A richly atmospheric mystery with sweeping backdrops, explosive action, and memorable villains, Ragged Lake will keep you guessing — about the violent crime, the nature of family, and secret deeds done long ago on abandoned frontiers.

Ron Corbett

Ron Corbett is an author, journalist, and broadcaster living in Ottawa. The author of seven non-fiction books, this is his first novel. He is married to award-winning photojournalist Julie Oliver.

Excerpt

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Yakabuski glassed the Mattamy. Still no lights. No sign of anyone moving inside. The tree-marker had another pair of binoculars and was watching possible approaches behind them — the shoreline of the lake, the lake itself. Yakabuski told him twice not to forget the lake. It would be smart to come in that way.

For the longest time no one spoke. O’Keefe had asked what he could do, and Yakabuski had told him to sit there and do nothing. A nerve in O’Keefe’s left cheek had started to twitch, and it wasn’t hard to figure out that the Sport was used to giving the orders. Saw a role for himself in any situation greater than that of passive observer.

When it looked like he was going to complain, Yakabuski said, “Absolutely nothing. I don’t want you even moving without checking with me first. Are we clear on that, Mr. O’Keefe?”

Both cheeks started twitching, but O’Keefe nodded his head and stared out at the Mattamy, wishing he had a pair of binoculars, but not saying anything.

They waited more than an hour before Yakabuski finally saw a man with long hair pass before a window of the lodge. It was not the sort of day when you would be happy about anything, so relief is the better word to describe how Yakabuski felt right then. Relief to know the bikers were inside the lodge. Not outside hunting them down. Relief that was pretty close to happiness.

The feeling lasted only seconds. As Yakabuski watched the Mattamy, the front door opened and Tommy Bangles walked outside. Yakabuski could see his face easily with the binoculars. Could almost count each teardrop tattoo. He had suspected, but now he knew.

Tommy Bangles unzipped his parka, pushed back his hair, and yelled out, “Yak! It’s been a while. Why don’t you come in for a beer?” He started laughing. Stared down at the body of Matt Downey and gave it a little push. “Take a shot at me right now and everyone in this lodge is dead,” he yelled, still looking at Downey. “Everyone with you is dead. They will be hunted down and quartered over a cook fire. Are we clear on that, Yak?”

Bangles raised his head and stared into the storm. Seemed to rise on the balls of his feet and cock his head. Then he turned to look at the front door of the Mattamy, gave a wave of his hand, and continued. “This is the drill, Yak.” When he said that, John Holly walked through the door, pushing Gaetan Tremblay in front of him. The old man’s hands were tied behind his back. His John Deere cap was missing and his head was bald except for wisps of grey hair around the edges that blew in the wind.

Bangles walked up to the old man and placed his hands upon his shoulders. Bent to talk to him, a gesture that seemed almost gentle. After talking a few seconds, Bangles braced the man and pushed him down, forcing him to his knees. Than he drew a handgun from the pocket of his parka, and walked behind him. Stroked the old man’s head, another oddly gentle gesture.

“It’s a one-hour drill, Yak,” he shouted. “I think I’m being generous.” With that, Bangles’ hand twitched almost imperceptibly and Tremblay pitched forward. The old man fell with drill-parade precision, his two legs flipping up at a forty-five-degree angle so precise it looked geometric. Then the old man’s legs lost inertia, collapsed to the snow, and the symmetry was lost.

Bangles gave a little salute with his gun hand and strode back inside the lodge. Holly followed him.

. . .

The tree-marker was in shock. Yakabuski wasn’t sure about O’Keefe. It was hard to tell with him.

“You can’t lose it, gentlemen,” he hissed. “Cannot lose it. That’s what they’re hoping for. You cannot give them an easy win.”

He put his arm on the tree-marker’s back to make sure the boy did not rise and do something foolish.

“Can’t lose it, gentlemen,” he said one more time. “We can’t make it easy for these bastards. I’m not going to let you make it easy.”

No one spoke for a moment, and then O’Keefe asked, “What did he mean, it’s a one-hour drill?”

“He means we have one hour before he brings someone else onto that porch.”

“One hour?”

“Fifty-five minutes now.”

Yakabuski laid out his plan. The tree-marker didn’t understand how the cop’s instructions could be so detailed, how he could not ask any questions, or hesitate even once, everything said in a low whisper that did not change pitch so much as half a tone, that did not inflect or add drama, that could have been reciting the best way to reach a nearby grocery. When Yakabuski finished talking, he began to crawl away, leaving the tree-marker and the Sport hiding behind the snowdrift.

. . .

Yakabuski had seen a one-hour drill once before. In a farmhouse in the Laurentians. It was the sort of drill used by bikers and criminals for the most part, not so much by warlords and mercenaries. In war zones, you played for some distant endgame, with politics thrown into the mix, so there were advantages to holding onto a captive, sometimes for years, before you executed them.

Bikers either were interested in retribution and intimidation or needed to know something right away. So everything was a little hopped up. In that farmhouse in the Laurentians, seven men were locked in a bedroom. They were the full-patch members of the Sherbrooke Popeyes chapter, and after numerous transgressions and outright breaches of the Popeyes’ code of conduct (all seven were intravenous drug users), Papa Paquette had issued a cull order against the chapter.

They could have been lined up and shot together, but Papa wanted to know where they had been buying their heroin, so the one-hour drill was held, one man brought out of the room every hour.

The executions happened in the living room of the farmhouse, a dump of a room with overstuffed furniture and overflowing ashtrays, a lacquered pine floor that had long ago lost its sheen. Each man was forced to kneel before Papa on the dung-coloured floor. Late afternoon sunlight through the spruce and red pine that surrounded the farmhouse cast long thin shadows across the floor. Each man pled for his life, had walked into the room believing he could strike a deal with Paquette, that his life mattered, that God would make an exception — believing this even though the dead bodies of the men who had gone before were lying by the kitchen door, stacked like cord wood, waiting to be weighted down and thrown into the lake.

Not one of the captured men had known the supplier; the only one who had was the head of the Sherbrooke chapter, who had been tipped off about the cull order and had flown to Mexico the day before.

Yakabuski had sat in that living room for all seven executions. It was the crime that would send Paquette away for life when Yakabuski, sitting behind a green screen with his voice altered, testified via video about what he had seen. Not that any of the precautions had made a difference. Paquette had known his true name and identity within six hours of being arrested.

During cross-examination, Yakabuski was asked repeatedly, by Papa’s lawyer and then by each lawyer for each of the six men charged with him, how he could have sat there and done nothing during the Sherbrooke Cull. As though they would have done something different, would have stood up in the middle of that farmhouse living room and said, “I’m a cop, I can’t let this continue.”

It was a stupid argument and Yakabuski had said as much on the stand, careful to let only a little of his anger show — not the seething anger he felt when he heard the question, for it was one of the few good questions any of the lawyers had to ask.

How could he have sat there and done nothing? Even though it was seven bikers who were killed, each one deserving to have that as his final chapter, and even though he had been trained in the Third Battalion for just such situations — human shields and civilian executions being the norm for a while in Bosnia and Afghanistan — the question wouldn’t disappear the way logic said it should.

Yakabuski ran a little faster through the snowstorm. Logic would be no help to him that morning if he were late. He knew the next person to be executed was not a biker but an elderly Cree woman, widowed for less than an hour.

. . .

Yakabuski had been surprised to find her at the end of his run. Sitting in her Morris chair, rocking back and forth, a pair of old binoculars in her lap. She had been watching what was happening at the Mattamy and knew he was coming.

Bangles should have gone and collected her. Or killed her where she lived. Yakabuski ran the entire distance, not knowing if he was wasting his time, and when he reached the cabin, he was panting and couldn’t speak for a minute.

Finally, he said, “We need your help, Madame.”

“You will need my gun?”

“Yes.”

“Should I get dressed?”

“Please.”

She didn’t say anything more. Pulled her gnome-like body up and out of the Morris chair, padded in her woollen socks to the closet, and took out the shotgun Yakabuski had seen there the day before.

Anita Diamond slid her child-sized feet into a pair of mukluks and took down her parka. As she was doing all this, she listened to Yakabuski explain what they needed to do, already knowing for the most part what he was going to say. Not the details. Not names and places. But what had happened, what needed to be done now — in every way that mattered, she knew.

The tough days had returned. It was a simple enough story to understand. Returned along with the tough decisions that always accompanied the tough days. As she put on her coat, Diamond remembered a cousin who had been making the fall migration down the Francis River one year, leaving the summer fishing beds, going to the inland village of Kashawana. His three sons went with him in the sixteen-foot locked-oar skiff. Halfway home, a rogue wave capsized the boat.

Her cousin had been the last boat out that season. There was no one coming behind them. And there was a six-day hike ahead of them to reach Kashawana. In the fast-moving river, her cousin rescued one son, then a second, but when he swam for the third boy, his dry-goods sack popped up from the river, directly in front of him. Without that bag — which had their fresh water, kindling, flint and food — they would likely die before reaching Kashawana. He reached for it. Knowing it needed to be done. Trusting there would be time to rescue his last son.

But there hadn’t been. Her cousin had watched the boy drift away, listening to him call his father’s name until the boy’s voice could no longer be heard. Her cousin’s heart became so heavy, he had trouble walking to Kashawana. Needed to be supported by his other sons every step of the six-day hike.

The day they reached the village, her cousin killed himself with his favourite hunting rifle. Diamond believed her cousin had known what he was going to do as soon as he grabbed the dry-goods bag. On a good day, she believes the young boy knew as well.

She zipped up her parka, put a toque on her head, pulled the hood of her parka over the toque, and hoisted the shotgun over her shoulders. She looked at Yakabuski and nodded.

“Thank you, Madame,” he said.

“There is no need,” she answered.

. . .

O’Keefe and the tree-marker were crouched behind the snowdrift staring at their watches when Roselyn Tremblay was brought outside. Unlike her husband, the old woman had her arms free. She walked unescorted with short, purposeful steps to where her husband lay. She knelt and turned over his body, held his hands and bent to kiss his face. She paused here, then leaned back and raised her head to the storm.

Behind the old woman were Bangles and Holly. Bangles had a smile on his face. Holly now wore a black balaclava against the storm.

“You just cost me money, Yak,” Bangles yelled. “I bet John here that you would have the balls to come in before we killed this old woman.”

Tremblay did not flinch when Bangles said it. Bangles’ smile grew larger. He looked over at Holly, pointed the gun at the old woman’s head as if to say, “Will you look at that?” and continued talking.

“Yeah, I thought you had the balls. But you’re a cowardly bohunk dick, aren’t you, darliiin? You’d let us kill your own mother if it meant you could save your ass. What do the men standing beside you think about that, Yak? Do they want this old woman to die?”

Bangles placed his gun on the back of Tremblay’s head. Like her husband, her head was uncovered, so her hair blew freely, coiled around the handgun like strands of seaweed in a strong current. No one on the porch moved. It seemed for a second as though they were posing for a photo.

. . .

“Are we really going to let this happen?” The tree-marker looked at the man crouched next to him.

O’Keefe kept his eyes trained on the porch. “You heard what the cop said.”

“I also heard him say he’d be back.”

“You heard him say he’d try to be back. He warned us he might not get back in time.”

“I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You’re going to have to do this, kid.”

“Would you shoot me if I couldn’t?”

“I might.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?”

“To keep you from surrendering. To keep you from giving away our position. Because I don’t know you that well. Take your pick.”

“Shouldn’t surrendering be my call?”

“Almost never.”

“How can you do it? Watch and do nothing?”

“Might not be that hard. It’s doing nothing. Just like you said.”

The tree-marker thought it took courage for him to keep watching. Then thought it was something perverse and maybe it had nothing to do with courage. He was just starting to work his way through a mental list of all the ways courage and perversity were different when Bangles’ hand twitched.

Nothing more than that. Roselyn Tremblay fell over the body of her dead husband. A short woman, she was left perched on his chest, like a teeter-totter, rocking back and forth in the wind, her small feet kicking up drifts of snow you could almost see in the storm.

The tree-marker turned his head and threw up.

Bangles stood over Roselyn Tremblay’s body and after staring for a few seconds laughed, lifted his head, and shouted, “You’re a fuckin’ coward, Yak.”

His parka was unzipped and he was wearing long underwear underneath, red, no sweater, his upper chest exposed. He was hopped-up on adrenaline or something more synthetic, the tree-marker thought, hoping it was synthetic, that it was unnatural, because a man standing in a storm like this, killing and laughing and not seeming to notice the elements, was just not right.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised. Papa said you were a sneak-up-on-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night coward. Said he would have respected you if you’d brought him down like a man, drawn a weapon and stood in front of him. But it’s always a trick with you, isn’t it?”

Even from a distance, the tree-marker noticed Bangles’ body change right then. Saw it tense and become rigid. Saw the man’s mouth open and close a few times, and then Bangles spun around, moving in a 360-degree arc, scanning the countryside, as if such a thing could be possible in this storm.

“You mother-fuckin’ bohunk bastard. You’re not even there, are you? Always fuckin’ games with you, Yak.”

Bangles was kicking the body of Matt Downey as he screamed, full-throttle kicks that lifted the young cop’s body several inches off the ground each time, kicked and kicked until Downey was off the porch. Then he grabbed Holly by the arm and the two men ran inside.

The sound of gunfire crossed the distance from the lodge to the tree-marker and O’Keefe. They watched as Bangles and Holly reappeared on the porch, dragging the body of the prisoner from the freezer. After that, the body of the cook. After that, the body of the bartender. Holly dragged each man’s body across the porch and threw it off to land on the one before, Bangles kicking the bodies as they were dragged and making the job more difficult than it needed to be, kicking and stomping and swearing. The tree-marker and O’Keefe could see that Holly was frightened, keeping his distance, positioning himself on the porch so he could jump clear of it with one running step if needed.

“Fuckin’ bohunk bastard. You get half a fuckin’ hour for the waitress, Yak. Half a fuckin’ hour. Then we start the cook fires and hunt you down.” He turned and stormed back into the lodge, kicking at the bodies of Roselyn and Gaetan Tremblay before entering — though not with enough force to fling them off the porch. As though something inside him had been sated. Or the old couple belonged there. It was difficult to tell.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Yakabuski let his body go slack and pitched forward, hoping he would hear another gunshot right then, knowing he would be dead within seconds if he did not.

He heard it. A retort that reverberated through the room with a loud metallic blowback sound that echoed and droned and brought everyone’s attention to the front entrance of the restaurant, where Bobby Chance was standing, looking in surprise at the blood mushrooming from the front of his parka. Another gunshot, and he was flying through the air. He landed with a thud, coming to rest against the foot-rail of the bar. A bloody bubble of mucous formed around his mouth. His eyes were vacant and stupid-looking. Bobby Chance. How he looked when the luck ran out.

Yakabuski saw none of it. As he pitched forward, he slid his hands under the legs of his chair and kept rolling, snatching up Chance’s AR-15 but never stopping — a continuous somersault that saw him throw off the chair, grab the gun, and keep rolling. It was a move that looked as effortless as it had been the last time he’d done it, nearly thirty years ago, when he was handcuffed and held captive in the back room of a cousin’s cottage on Lake Kamiskasing. That time, he’d grabbed a bat to chase the cousin from the room.

Unless you were using military-grade handcuffs fastened to something rooted in poured concrete, Yakabuski always liked his chances of getting free.

Bangles stared at the body of Bobby Chance and then at the front entrance of the restaurant, where Anita Diamond was standing with her shotgun in her small hands. Bangles’ mouth moved but no sound came out. Just beginning to realize where he had gone wrong. Where he had been lazy.

. . .

When the tree-marker had stood and surrendered, Anita Diamond had snuck in the back door of the lodge and hid in a closet. Yakabuski had told her to estimate two hours for the signal. Use common sense and manoeuvre as close as possible to the bar. Wait for the signal.

So many things could have gone wrong. They could have been killed the minute they surrendered. Bangles could have shot him instead of Holly. That was perhaps the riskiest part of the plan, but Yakabuski had figured the odds were slightly in his favour. He couldn’t imagine Bangles liking John Holly.

Bangles reached now for the handgun he had placed on the bar only seconds earlier, as Diamond pumped the shotgun, ejected the casings, took the two shells she had clenched between her teeth, and started to slide them into the breach.

But she was too slow. The old hands not as quick as they had once been. Bangles’ first bullet caught Diamond in the upper chest, and her shotgun fell uselessly to the floor. The next four landed near the first, lifting the old woman in the air as though on puppeteer’s strings.

Yakabuski was late as well. He tried to aim at Bangles, but the rifle kept slipping in his manacled hands, slipping, slipping, until he pulled the trigger in frustration, not bothering to aim, sticking the gun over the edge of the table he was hiding behind and firing blind, an unnatural thing for him to do, not expecting good things to happen from being so reckless.

But he got lucky. One of the bullets clipped Bangles’s ankle. The biker screamed in pain and fell, his handgun skittering across the floor.

“You motherfuckin’ bohunk! You don’t get this lucky. No fuckin’ way you get this lucky!” Bangles twisted on the floor, reaching for his gun. “You fuckin’ piece of shit. You lying, motherfucking—”

And that’s when Yakabuski ended it. Rose from behind the table, and when Bangles slid his fingers around the gun, he lay down a line of fire that caught the biker flush in the stomach and slid him backwards on the floor, like a hockey player in one of those old children’s games with the slotted tracks. Yakabuski fired until Bangles smashed into the far wall. Offside by a country mile. After that he slumped over and, without bullets to support him, without purpose or future, he slid to the ground, and that was the end of him.

. . .

Yakabuski walked over to Anita Diamond. Bent to look at her wounds. He saw immediately that there was no sense fashioning a tourniquet. He would never be able to staunch this much blood. She would lose consciousness in a couple of minutes. Would bleed out and be dead a few minutes after that. He held the old woman’s hands.

She looked up at him and said, “You are alive, Detective Yakabuski. That must be a good sign.”

“It is. You have saved our lives, Madame.”

“For today at least. I hope you can make good use of the extra time.”

Yakabuski smiled. That was it in a nutshell. People born and raised along the Northern Divide or the Upper Springfield Valley, they were never fooled about what was on offer in this world. You hoped to put together more good days than bad. You hoped if you worked hard, you could take care of your family. You accepted that you lived in a country that could kill you for the slightest of missteps, but you looked forward to waking up in that country every morning because that country never deceived you, never subjugated you, never claimed to be more than what it was. A tough country, but if you paid attention, you could find what you needed.

He squeezed her hands and said, “Yes, Madame, we will make good use of the extra time. I promise you.”

She didn’t say anything more. As life ebbed from her eyes, Yakabuski watched and hoped she had been given enough time herself to travel to the place all old people carry with them, the place they hope to be when the time comes, the memory they hope to leave with. He felt with a certainty that surprised him that Anita Diamond had gone back to Five Mile Camp.

Reviews

Ragged Lake is a beautifully crafted page-turner brimming with finely etched characters and moody atmosphere.” — Rick Mofina, international bestselling author

“Don’t plan on sleeping for a while after you pick up Ragged Lake. You will be mesmerized by the treacherous landscape, layered characters, and world-class villains in this very satisfying read. Luckily Ron Corbett spins a seasoned detective equal to the plot twists: I look forward to meeting Detective Frank Yakabuski again soon.” — Mary Jane Maffini, author of the Camilla MacPhee, Fiona Silk, and Charlotte Adams mysteries

“Corbett's well-crafted first foray into fiction takes the reader into a grisly, claustrophobic world . . . It's a visceral, occasionally blood-soaked tale that unwinds slowly and provides a shocking conclusion. Both the danger and the stark beauty of the place ring true on every level.” — Publishers Weekly

“Like a fire gone to ground, Ragged Lake is slow and steady. For those who like their crime fiction dark, it’s well worth the immersion.” – Murder in Common blog

“In Tommy Bangles, Ron Corbett has created perhaps the most malevolent, nasty character in Canadian literature. The reader wants to jump right into Ragged Lake and join the manhunt.” — Roy MacGregor, bestselling author and award-winning journalist

“Familiar ingredients rarely combined—a starkly etched natural setting, a gung-ho cop, a series of soulful flashbacks, a violent climax—are expertly blended and brought to a full rolling boil.” — Kirkus Reviews

“There is plenty of violence in Corbett’s debut, the first in the Frank Yakabuski series, but it is the gorgeous writing that makes the biggest impression...This is a compelling start to a series set in an unusual location.” — Reviewing the Evidence blog

“Ron Corbett's characters are realistic and multi-dimensional, his descriptions of the beauty and power of nature are excellent . . . Riveting from cover to cover.” — Scene Magazine

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