The sixth novel in William Kent Krueger's award-winning suspense series finds Cork O'Connor running for his life -- straight into a murderous conspiracy involving teenage runaways.
In well-crafted settings that are beautiful and unforgiving, with unforgettable characters and jaw-dropping surprises, William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor thrillers have drawn a flood of awards and praise. The latest in the series finds the sheriff running for his life from professional hit men who have already put a bullet through his leg. Desperate, he finds sanctuary outside a small town called Bodine on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in an old resort owned by his cousin, Jewell DuBois. Though Jewell, a bitter widow whose husband may have been killed by cops, keeps Cork at arm's length, her fourteen-year-old son, Ren, is looking for a friend. But being a father figure to Ren will prove more difficult than Cork could possibly imagine.
When the body of a young girl surfaces along the banks of the Copper River and another teenager vanishes, Cork must choose between helping to solve these deadly mysteries and thwarting the hit men who draw closer to him with every hour. Recklessly, he turns from his own worries and focuses on tracking the conspiracy of killers before Ren and his best friend, Charlie, fall victim. It's an error -- one a good man might make -- but as the contract killers who are hunting him close in, Cork realizes too late that it may be the last mistake he'll ever make.
The trail left by the dead girl eventually leads to a shelter for homeless youth and into the grim reality of children lost and abandoned, who become easy prey for the perverted appetites of human predators. All small towns have buried secrets but, as Cork soon learns, this one has more than its share.
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Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide, might tell the story this way.
He might begin by saying that the earth is alive, that all things on it -- water, air, plants, rocks, even dead trees -- have spirit. In the absence of wind, the grass still trembles. On days when the clouds are dense as gray wool, flowers still understand how to track the sun. Trees, when they bend, whisper to one another. In such a community of spirits, nothing goes unnoticed. Would not the forest, therefore, know that a child is about to die?
She is fourteen years, nine months, twenty-seven days old. She has never had a period, never had a boyfriend, never even had a real date. She has never eaten in a restaurant more formal than McDonald's. She has never seen a city larger than Marquette, Michigan.
She cannot remember a night when she wasn't awakened by nightmares, some dreamed, many horribly real. She cannot remember a day she was happy, although she has always been hopeful that she might find happiness, discover it like a diamond in the dust at her feet. Through all the horror of her life, she has, miraculously, held to that hope.
Now, though she is only fourteen, she is about to die. And she knows it.
Somewhere among the trees below her, the man she calls Scorpio is coming for her.
She cringes behind a pile of brush in the middle of a clear-cut hillside studded with stumps like gravestones. The morning sun has just climbed above the tops of the poplar trees that outline the clearing. The chill bite of autumn is in the air. From where she crouches high on the hill, she can see the gleam of Lake Superior miles to the north. The great inland sea beckons, and she imagines sailing away on all that empty blue, alone on a boat taking her toward a place where someone waits for her and worries, a place she has never been.
She shivers violently. Before fleeing, she grabbed a thin brown blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders. Her feet are bare, gone numb in the long, cold night. They bleed, wounded during her flight through the woods, but she no longer feels any pain. They've become stones at the end of her ankles.
In the trees far below, a dog barks, cracking the morning calm. The girl focuses on a place two hundred yards distant where, half an hour earlier, she'd emerged from the forest and started to climb the logged-over hillside. An hour after dawn, Scorpio's dog had begun baying. When she heard the hungry sound, she knew he'd got hold of her scent. What little hope she'd held to melted instantly. After that, it was a frantic run trying to stay ahead.
Scorpio steps from the shadow of the trees. He's like a whip, thin and cruel and electric in the sunlight. She can see the glint off the blue barrel of the rifle he cradles. Snatch, his black and tan German shepherd, pads before him, nose to the earth, tracking her through the graveyard of stumps. Scorpio scans the hillside above. She thinks she can see him smile, a gash of white.
There is no sense in hiding now. In a few minutes, Scorpio will be on her. Grasshopper quick, she pops from the blind of brush and sprints toward the hilltop. Her senseless feet thud against the hard earth. She lets the blanket fall to the ground, leaves it behind her. Starved for sunlight, the skin of her face and arms looks bleached. Beneath her thin, dirty T-shirt her breasts are barely formed, but the small, fleshy mounds rise and fall dramatically as she sucks air in desperate gasps. Behind her, the dog begins a furious barking. He has seen the prey.
She crests the hill and comes to a dead end. Before her the ground falls away, a sheer drop two hundred feet to a river that's a rush of white water between jagged rocks. There is no place left to run. She casts a frenzied eye back. Scorpio lopes toward her with Snatch in the lead. To her left and right, there is only the ragged lip of the cut across the hill.
Only one way for her to go now: down.
The face of the cliff below is a rugged profile offering handholds and small ledges. There are also tufts of brush that cling tenaciously to the stone, rooted in tiny fissures. She spies a shelf ten feet below, barely wider than her foot, but it is enough. She kneels and lowers herself over the edge. Clinging to the brush and the rough knobs of stone that punctuate the cliff, she begins her descent.
The rock scrapes her skin, leaves her arms bleeding. Her toes stretch for a foothold but, numbed, feel almost nothing. Weakened by an ordeal that has gone on longer than she can remember, her strength threatens to fail her, but she does not give up. She has never given up. Whatever the horror in front of her, she has always faced it and pushed ahead. This moment is no different. She wills a place to stand. Her feet find support, a few inches of flat rock on which she eases herself down.
"Come on, sweet thing. Come on back up."
Scorpio's voice is reasonable, almost comforting. She lifts her face. He's smiling, bone-white teeth between thin, bloodless lips. Beside him, the dog snarls and snaps, foam dripping from his purple gums.
"Hush!" Scorpio orders. "Sit."
"Come on, now. Time to end this foolishness."
He lays down his rifle, bends low, and offers his hand.
In the quiet while she considers, she presses herself to the cliff where the stone still holds the cold of night. She can hear far below the hiss and roiling of the white water.
"We'll go back to the cabin," Scorpio says. "Have a little breakfast. Bet you're hungry. Now, doesn't that sound better than running over these woods, ruining those pretty little feet, freezing your ass off?"
He bends lower. His outstretched hand pushes nearer, a hand that has offered only humiliation and pain. On his wrist is a tattoo, a large black scorpion, the reason for the name she has given him in her thinking. She eyes his hairy knuckles, then looks into his face, which at the moment appears deceptively human.
"Think about it. You find a place to perch on that cliff, then what? It's not so bad out here right now. Sun's up, air's calm. But tonight it'll be close to freezing. That means you, too. You want to freeze to death? Hell, it doesn't matter anyway. I'll just leave old Snatch here to make sure you don't climb back up, go get me some rope, and come down there to get you. But I guarantee if I have to do that, I won't be in a forgiving mood. So what do you say?"
Not taking her eyes off him, she seeks a foothold farther down, somewhere out of his reach, but she cannot feel her toes. Finally, she risks a glance below her. In that instant, Scorpio's hand locks around her wrist.
He's strong, his grip powerful. He drags her kicking up the face of the rock. She struggles, screams as he wraps his arms around her. The dog dances back from the edge, barking crazily. Scorpio's breath smells of tobacco and coffee, but there's another smell coming off him, familiar and revolting. The musk odor of his sex.
"Oh, little darling," he croons, "am I going to make you pay."
She puts all her desperation, all her remaining strength, into one last effort, a violent twist that breaks her loose, sends her tumbling backward over the cliff.
The world spins. First there is blue sky, then white water, then blue sky again. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Suddenly she isn't falling but flying. The wind streams across her skin. Her held breath fills her like a smooth balloon. She is weightless.
For one glorious moment in her short, unhappy life, she is absolutely free.
* * *
Meloux would finish gently, pointing out, perhaps, that the fall of the smallest robin is known to the spirits of the earth, that no death goes unnoticed or unmourned, that the river has simply been waiting, and like a mother she has opened wide her arms.
Copyright © 2006 by William Kent Krueger
Reading Group Guide
COPPER RIVER by William Kent Krueger
Book Summary: The sixth novel in William Kent Krueger's award-winning suspense series finds Cork O'Connor on the run from hitmen hired by a crooked Chicago businessman who blames Cork for the death of his son. As he attempts to flee, they manage to wound him in the leg. He's seriously injured but still manages to make it to the resort camp in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, run by his recently widowed cousin, Jewell. While seeking refuge there, Cork stumbles upon a mystery when a local man is killed and the body of a teenage girl is found on the banks of the Copper River. Can these incidents be related? Cork and his former colleague Dina try and help Jewell, her son, and his runaway friend before another body turns up dead.
Questions for Discussion:
1) Copper River, while being a suspenseful thriller, is also about various forms of relationships -- parent to child, friend to friend, colleague to colleague. What do you think of the relationship between Dina and Cork? Do you think it will ever be more than just co-workers? What about the friendship between Charlie and Ren? Ned and Jewell? Even Delmar Bell and Calvin Stokely?
2) The relationship between Dina and Charlie, though brusque at first, becomes quite motherly. In the last chapter, we learn that Dina plans to return to Bodine to see Charlie. On page 308, Cork remarks, "You've only known her a couple of days, Dina." To which she responds, "Her, I've known my whole life." How are these two seemingly different characters alike?
3) Did you suspect Charlie of murdering her father? Given her abusive home life, would she have been justified if she did?
4) How has his father's murder affected Ren? Why do you think Jewell discourages Ren's interest in his Native American background? Do you think Jewell still harbors bad feelings against her cousin, Cork, because he arrested her late husband, Daniel?
5) On page 29, Cork and Ren discuss their fathers and Cork counsels him: "Try to remember that he's never completely gone. He's here." Ren tries to understand his father's heritage and legacy. How does Cork do the same?
6) How important is setting to this story? During their investigation into Sara Wolf's murder, Dina states "Because the river is the key." (p. 217) What does she mean by this? She cites The Odyssey on page 252. How is Odysseus's journey similar to their own?
7) His wife and children are only briefly mentioned in this book, so what can you gather about Cork's relationship with his wife, Jo? Did you think that perhaps he and Dina might get together? Did you want them to?
8) Jewell discovers poetry that Ned Hodder has written for her. Were you surprised when he then became a suspect? Were you relieved when he was cleared? Who did you suspect at that point? Do you think the friendship between Ned and Jewell is a foundation for something more?
9) Did you suspect the recent spate of deaths was connected to the Tom Messinger incident twenty years earlier? Were you surprised by the revelation at the end? Why doesn't Gary Johnson kill himself like he originally planned?
10) This is the sixth book in the Cork O'Connor series. Have you read any of the other books? In the beginning of Copper River, we learn that Cork is on the run from Lou Jacoby who mistakenly thinks Cork is responsible for his son's death. This story was told in the last Cork O'Connor book, Mercy Falls. Now that you have read this one, are you curious to read the others? What do you think about the violence in the story? Did you feel it was appropriate or gratuitous?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1) Many of the characters in Copper River, including Cork O'Connor, are of Ojibwe Indian heritage. You can learn more about this tribe by checking out these websites.
Here, you can learn all about Ojibwe vocabulary: native-languages.org/ojibwe_words.htm You can print this out for your members so everyone can learn a few new words in their dialect.
You can also learn about their customs here: turte-island.com/customs.html
2) Screen Anatomy of a Murder, the 1959 film that was shot in Marquette, Michigan, and compare and contrast to Copper River.
3) Has anyone in your book club ever been to the Upper Peninsula? You can find out more information about the area here:
Or if you live nearby, check out this site for fun activities your book club can do: exploringthenorth.com/mich/mich.html