Chapter 7

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"You better not be here looking for a favor," Herman says. He's wearing his usual attire of T-shirts and trash. Time is speeding up for the deep wrinkles on his face. Holding a staff whittled from a branch, he looks like a cracked out version of Moses, complete with the wrath of God in his eyes.

Zandra always took Herman to be a harmless eccentric drawn to a reclusive life as a means to find some sort of spiritual epiphany. For him to seem that upset is far outside his typical character.

"Well, hello to you, too," Zandra says. She tries to cool Herman's aggressive attitude by offering a cigarette. "Having a bad day?"

Herman scoffs and leans against a stack of old tires. "I don't want your cigarettes or anything else you have. You can leave," he says.

"Something bothering you?" Zandra says. She helps herself to the cigarette.

"Put that thing out. You might flick an ash and burn my place down. You've already done enough damage," Herman says, his agitation growing by the second.

I don't get it. We worked together so well on the Elle Carey case.

Zandra flicks the cigarette to the ground and extinguishes it with the designer shoes Chris bought for her for the TV show shoot. "OK, Herman. Why don't you tell me what's going on?" she says.

Herman closes his eyes and exhales loudly through the brambles of his beard clogging his nostrils. "You ruined everything for me," he says.

"What? How?"

"I should never have helped you when I did," Herman says and opens his eyes. He looks like he might cry. "I was so close to making it upstream again. But after word got out about you and your Elle Carey story, it's been nothing but distractions."

"Upstream" is Herman's reference to the other half of reality that precedes and shapes the physical one using thoughts and information. He claims to have glimpsed this reality for a brief moment years ago during his career as a prosecutor for Portage County, Wisconsin. The experience moved him so much that he sold off everything for a reclusive spiritual life in the woods.

The fact Herman's epiphany came about at the same time some psychedelics went missing from an evidence locker might be more than a mere coincidence.

Herman makes his living now by turning trash into knives. His art sells for thousands of dollars. On top of the money, Herman claims the experience of making art, like knives, brings him closer to that place "upstream."

Zandra knows too much about the power of delusions, so she never bought into Herman's ideas. Regardless, his hoarding and knife making skills proved critical to the Elle Carey case.

"What sorts of distractions?" Zandra says. She's used to Herman's rants, but this is something else.

"It's been a nightmare ever since you made the rounds in the media. Reporters and gawkers and pranksters and all sorts of people've been knocking on my door day and night," Herman says, pointing to the sheet of tin roofing that serves as the entrance to his shack. "They treat me like I'm a joke, and it's just non-stop. Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on my work with all that going on?"

"Come on now, Herman, I can't control what those people do," Zandra says. "If you don't want visitors, put up a sign or something."

"I did, but they just walk right on past it," Herman says and waves toward a No Trespassing sign. It blends right in with the heap of trash it's leaning against.

"Maybe you could move."

"To where?"

"I don't know. Anywhere. It's not like you're real picky," Zandra says, although she hopes he doesn't. Herman is as close to an ally as she has in Stevens Point.

"Or maybe you could move. Give me my peace and quiet back. You seem to be egging on all this attention," Herman says. "I opted out of a normal life so I could paddle upstream, not become a tourist attraction. I thought you felt the same way, and that's why I helped you with that missing girl. But now I see I was wrong."

Although Zandra's face doesn't show it, the words hurt. Friends don't come easy for her. She slips the lawnmower knife out from its sheath up her sleeve.

"Then lets get back to basics," Zandra says and holds the knife out for Herman. "How about freshening up this knife? I could pay you for it this time."

Herman turns his back and starts toward the shack as the sun sinks down over the horizon. "Keep your money. Use it to get out of Stevens Point," he says.

Zandra gnaws on those words as she starts the walk back into town. She thinks about the check from Gene in her pocket.

After today, leaving doesn't sound like the worst idea.

But what she finds waiting for her at Sneak Peek lets her know leaving won't be an option any time soon. 

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