Chicago cop Dean Wister takes a forced vacation when he is on the brink of a breakdown after the death of his wife. During his summer solstice in Jackson Hole, where he met her years before, he is called in to consult by local police when a notorious Chicago mobster is found dead in the Snake River. Dean’s investigation threatens to uncover the secrets of a group of memorable suspects, ranging from rich tycoons to modern day cowboys, and threatens to derail the Presidential prospects of the Senator from Wyoming. As Dean follows the leads from Wyoming to Chicago to Washington D.C., he also struggles to cope with the personal loss that threatens his mental stability, as the nocturnal visits from his deceased wife suppress his will to let her go and make him question his purpose in life. The climactic scenes contain reveals the reader will never see coming. A funny, romantic, sexy, roller coaster thriller.
THE FIRST TIME Dean Wister had visited the Tetons was twelve years ago, the summer before his senior year in college. Although he said it was adventure he was looking for, it was escape that he was really seeking when he answered an ad to guide for one of the rafting companies that run whitewater trips down the Snake River, just south of Teton National Park. It was a grueling twenty-four-hour drive from his home in Chicago to Jackson Hole, the mountain town at the foot of the spectacular Teton Range, and the route that he was taking, I-90 across Illinois, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, was one of the most monotonous and boring stretches of highway across America. Hour after hour he would stare at the road between truck stops, trying to keep alert for the highway patrol and the erratic driving of drowsy long-distance truckers. He tried listening to music and audio books, but his mind wouldn’t let him focus. Lately, he had a lot of trouble focusing. He’d once tried meditation, taking a Transcendental Meditation workshop with his wife, Sara, but meditation wasn’t for him. His mind would inevitably wander from the rhythm of his breathing to some problem from work that he was trying to solve. Dean had always been more of a ruminator than a meditator. And so he ruminated for hour after hour. He ruminated about all that had happened over the last twelve years. He ruminated about the horror of the last year. And he ruminated about what the future might, or more importantly, might not, hold.
That first trip had also been a time of transition for him. His mother died after his freshman year in high school, and his dad was killed in a work accident at the lumber yard just before Dean started college. As an only child he had led a solitary existence growing up, but by the time he left for college he was officially an orphan, no parents to cheer him as the starting safety on the University of Illinois football team, and no siblings to share the empty and confused feelings of losing the only responsible adults he had ever known. His hometown of Summersville, West Virginia, was near the banks of the Gauley River, one of the most famous whitewater-rafting rivers in the East, and the gray, small-minded, and cruel little town resembled what Mayberry may have looked like if Andy hadn’t been born. Until he was seventeen, Dean had never met a college graduate outside of a classroom, and growing up with his nose stuck in a book most of the time, his peers, and even most of the adults he knew, looked down on his habit as a sign of either homosexuality, laziness, or both. Maybe it was resentment for not living the fantastic and interesting life of the characters in the books that he read, or maybe it was the bullying that he experienced from his literature-averse peers, or maybe it was his sense of insecurity and inferiority from his hillbilly background, or maybe it was just his nature— for whatever reason, there was a well of anger deep inside of Dean.
The bullying stopped the first time he stepped on a football field. He loved to play defense, and putting the hammer to the ball carrier or receiver was equally pleasurable to him, whether in practice or during an actual game. He loved the rush of power he felt when a body crushed beneath him as he delivered the blow. As he would take aim at his target coming across the field, he imagined his body as a sledge hammer and he would launch himself, helmet first, at his opponents, relishing the pain he received nearly as much as the pain he delivered. As his scrawny adolescent body matured into a six-foot, one-hundred-ninety-pound defensive back, his football hits became ever more fearsome, and attracted the attention of a recruiter for the University of Illinois. Football would end for him upon college graduation for, as a pro scout told him, “Son, you sure have the meanness for pro football, but not the speed.” But that was all right; football had served its purpose.
The first time his dad had taken him along to run the rapids of the Gauley he was only nine years old, but after that he was addicted to the river. Working as a gofer for one of the rafting companies, imagining himself as one of the cocky swaggering guides, he would do anything to be near the river. The owner of the company took a liking to him, and broke the rules to put him on as a guide at sixteen. He worked on the Gauley through high school and college. But, with the death of his father, West Virginia held too many painful memories; he needed to get away. He heard from some fellow guides that the Snake River in Wyoming, south of Jackson, could be fun. Sure, its mostly Class 2 and 3 rapids were nothing compared to the Gauley, but he had always wanted to see the Rockies, and it was about as far away from West Virginia as he could imagine. That summer on the Snake, in the Tetons, revealed another side that he didn’t know he had. He learned how to cap that well of anger, to regulate the flow, to use it instead of letting it use him, and for the next decade was able to let it out only when his job demanded it. He discovered that there was another well, an untapped well, within him. A well of love and sweetness, of kindness and generosity. And the auger that tapped that well was Sara.
He’d just sent some food back at the Pioneer Grill, the coffee shop in Jackson Lake Lodge in Teton National Park. His order of sautéed Rocky Mountain rainbow trout appeared on his plate as buffalo meatloaf. His anger rising at this inexcusable display of disrespect and incompetence, he called over the pretty blonde server and pointed at the food in front of him. “Miss, do you think you would recognize a Rocky Mountain rainbow trout if you saw one?” She’d looked first at the gravy-smothered brown glob, and then directly into his twisted angry face, and behind her best smile said, “Apparently not, but I can recognize an asshole when I see one.”
Dean was overmatched by the spunky girl with eyes of a deeper blue than the summer skies over the Grand Tetons, and he fell in love on the spot. They laughed at the story forever, and she still called him “meatloaf asshole” on occasion, either when she was feeling especially fond or, more often, particularly annoyed with him. She loved to tease him and ridicule his quirks, calling him “schizo” for the many paradoxical elements in his personality: jock/ intellectual, hot head/ sentimentalist, loner/ showoff. But when she would call him “schizo” and flash him her irresistible smile, it would always soften his mood, and he was able to laugh at himself.
As a trust-fund baby of a power couple in Chicago’s legal community, Sara’s suburban childhood was exactly the opposite of Dean’s. Her bookworm ways were admired by her parents, friends, and her community. The vivacious blond with the sharp wit and the ability to fit in with every social group was a psych major at the University of Chicago, less than a two-hour drive up the interstate from Champaign if you are a hormone-crazed college boy, more like three hours for everyone else. Her well of anger was only a fraction of Dean’s and reserved exclusively for bullies and people who abused children, animals, and the less fortunate. But if you happened to occupy that territory, her fierceness could make even Dean flinch.
When he thought of their first summer, it played back in his head like some film made from a Nicolas Sparks novel. As he watched the movie, alone in the theater seat of his Jeep Cherokee, he smiled at the “meet cute” first scene in the coffee shop, marveled at the on-location, awe-inspiring backdrops of the Snake and the Tetons, was moved to tears by the scene where he makes love to Sara for the first time. And he couldn’t criticize the filmmaker’s decision to leave every sex scene of the summer in the movie. There they are making love on the window seat in the tiny apartment shared by Dean and his four other river rat roommates. There they are making love after a picnic at Schwabacher’s landing, the Tetons reflected like a painting in the beaver pond. And there they are on their last day of the summer, on a picnic in the alpine meadow they had discovered on their long hike into the mountains. The meadow they had named “Sara’s Meadow.” The meadow where Dean proposed. The meadow they pledged to return to each year on their anniversary. They talked of it often, and relived the moment every year on that special day. But they never came back. Life, and careers, and bullshit got in the way.
Careers included the single-minded ambition they shared. Dean’s resulted in a meteoric rise to detective in the Chicago Police Department and, after being handpicked to join the Midwest Organized Crime Task Force as the only local police detective among FBI and ATF agents, his days and weeks became an unending blur of clues, criminals, and cases. Sara’s graduate degree at Northwestern led to a tenure track appointment at Loyola University. But tenure track meant running never-ending, back-to-back-to-back marathons of teaching, research, and publishing. Their career ambitions allowed no room for children, or travel, or a return to Sara’s Meadow.
And then, over the last year, came the bullshit. Dean was working eighty-hour weeks on a high-profile case involving government and police corruption, and many of the Chicago cops whom he considered friends turned away from him. And then, just when they thought they were getting close to breaking the case, the investigation was shut down and he was reassigned. He was exhausted, disappointed, stressed, and his friends treated him like a traitor.
And then there was Sara. She had been diagnosed with cancer just as Dean began the investigation from hell. After her initial treatment, she received a clean report, and he was too preoccupied to notice when she continued to lose weight. A check-up a few months later showed that the cancer had returned. The rebound was aggressive, additional treatment failed to stop the spread, and she continued to get weaker and weaker in spite of what she would call “frequent invitations for happy hour cancer cocktails with my oncologist.” She even made up names for the cocktails based on the side effects she would experience afterward. There was the Diarrhea Daiquiri, the Migraine Martini, and the Vomit-rita. No subject was out of bounds for her wicked and irreverent sense of humor. Once, when she was bedridden near the end, Dean asked her how she was feeling, and in her best Sally Field Mama Gump imitation, she said “Well, Forrest, I’ve got the cancer.”
Dean wanted to take a leave to stay at Sara’s bedside, but she made up her mind that that was not an option. And when Sara made up her mind about something, he had learned to let her have her way. So Dean was relegated to spending every hour that he wasn’t working by her side, holding her close, imagining how they would live their lives differently when she was well.
The night she died, she asked him to describe that day in Sara’s Meadow. And when he finished, she said, “Promise we can go there when I get well. Will you take me there next summer?” He nodded, unable to speak. She slept peacefully that night for the first time in quite a while, and in the morning she was gone.
Strangely, although she was the center of his universe, the only person that he could say he ever truly loved, he showed little emotion when she died. He didn’t cry. He felt almost as if he were an outside observer of these terrible events. He experienced only numbness. An unrelenting, withering numbness. A numbness interrupted only by random bursts of anger that disturbed even the hardened cops he worked with. Dean was not unaware of his problem, and tried to channel the anger by hooking up with Manny Cohen, a mixed martial arts coach and self-proclaimed king of “Jew-Jitsu”. He loved the physicality of the MMA bouts, and that the jiu-jitsu moves he learned permitted him to disable much bigger and stronger fighters, even if he was on the ground being pummeled. He justified the training as part of his law-enforcement skills, but he knew what it was really about— the ability to inflict some of the horrible hurt he was feeling on others.
The changes in Dean since Sara’s death were most troubling to his boss, Carlos Alvarez. Carlos had been crushed when, on the verge of busting a Chicago mob guy who had both political and police connections, which evidently reached all the way to Washington, the whole operation had been shut down. In his heart, he knew it was those same connections he was investigating that had defeated him. He looked at Dean and watched one of the most competitive spirits he had ever known flicker out, starved for the oxygen that Sara could no longer supply. The case they had put their hearts and souls into for the last year was ripped out of their hands and Dean, who normally would be just as pissed off as he was, seemed to be only going through the motions.
But the most disturbing problem, as far as he was concerned, was Dean’s refusal to mourn Sara. Carlos watched as Dean’s isolation became extreme, and he refused all offers to talk or socialize. Dean’s robotic demeanor and increasingly unpredictable violent outbursts were scaring him. When Carlos sent him to meet with the psychologist assigned to their department, he refused to cooperate. He insisted that he was fine. But Carlos knew he wasn’t fine. He saw a man on the brink of a breakdown and finally decided that drastic action was needed to rescue the man from himself. One morning he walked into Dean’s office and handed him a letter worded as an authorization, which was actually an order, to take a three-month leave of absence.
“But where will I go? What will I do?” Dean said, seemingly incapable of entertaining any change to his barely functional routine. Carlos looked toward the picture on his desk, the one taken twelve years earlier. It showed Dean standing on a whitewater raft. Sara was sitting in the boat looking up at him with a combination of love and lust in her eyes. In the background, the grandeur of the Tetons loomed. “You have to get out of town. You have to get away from here, from all this. And I know where I would go if I had no obligations and three months off. I’ve been envying that picture since the day you moved in here.”
What his boss didn’t know, and what Dean couldn’t tell him, or anyone else for that matter, was the real reason that he wouldn’t see the psychologist— something that would make him seem crazy to outsiders. Hell, he often had that thought about himself. Not every evening, but maybe two or three nights a week, he would spend the night with Sara. He would wake up a couple of hours after he went to sleep, and she would be there, sitting in the chair next to his bed. He would get up, and they would talk just like they used to, about everything, what was happening in his life and in his job, or what was going on in the news. They would make love, and it was every bit as passionate and real as before she was sick. When he would wake up in the morning, she would be gone. At first, he tried to convince himself that it was all a dream, until one night he washed the sheets before he went to bed, and the next morning her perfume lingered on the bedding. She was really there, and she was as real as anything he had ever experienced.
He had nothing against psychologists. He had seen a therapist in college after a particularly hard break-up and had found it very helpful. In fact, he visited that same therapist when Carlos was pushing him to see the department shrink— he wasn’t about to have his craziness officially certified to his employer. And his own therapist confirmed what he instinctively knew himself. “Your hallucinations of your dead wife will go away when you allow yourself to fully mourn her.” But that was exactly the problem. Her very real apparition was the only tangible thing he had left of her. Her visits were the only thing that let him get through the day, that kept him from becoming totally out of control, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from him. He was determined to hold on to whatever was left of her, for as long as he could.
Sara was the one that convinced him to take the trip. She told him during one of their nocturnal visits that he could use the time off; that she knew he was stressed out. He agreed on one condition. That she would come with him. She gave him her mischievous smile, the one that had captured him that first day in the coffee shop, and said, “That’s not a problem. I’m not going without sex for three months. And the ghosts here are too creepy to sleep with.”
That first summer twelve years ago, he had come into town from the south, getting off I-80 west of Rock Springs, approaching Jackson via Alpine and driving up through the Snake River canyon so that he could view the whitewater section he would be working. Wyoming is mostly high plains except for the northwestern part, which is an endless vista of scrub grass, prickly pear, sage brush, with occasional red-rock battleships and gargoyles. On that first trip he was able to view the Wind River Range in the distance outside his window, but he didn’t really get a good view of the Teton Range until he reached the outskirts of the town of Jackson. This time he had decided to take the Northern route via I-90, because he wanted to see the Black Hills, one of the few topographic areas of interest that is easily accessible from the interstate. So he was not really prepared for what happened when his Jeep rounded the bend on Route 26, east of Teton National Park, and he looked west. The fragrance hit him first. He had the windows in his Jeep rolled down and, as the road increased in elevation, the air turned cooler and became infused with snow runoff blended into mountain streams and the bouquet of lodgepole pine forests to form the unique perfume that his unconscious associated with his first summer there. He was looking down for a station on the radio when he felt the jolt, as if a switch was flipped in his brain, and when he turned his face back to the road, the windshield was suddenly and magically filled with the panorama of the majestic purple, snow-tipped peaks of the mountain range that symbolized all that had been true and pure in his life. All that was lost and would never ever return. The image struck him like a bullet in his chest, sucking all the air from his body. The next thing he knew, he was out of his car, on the side of the road, on his knees, gasping for air, heaving, sobbing. “Oh, Sara. My sweet, sweet, Sara.”
Excerpt from The Grand by Dennis D. Wilson. Copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. Wilson. Reproduced with permission from Dennis D. Wilson. All rights reserved.
After a career working in an international consulting firm and as a financial executive with two public companies, Dennis D. Wilson returns to the roots he established as a high school literature and writing teacher at the beginning of his career. For his debut novel, he draws upon his experiences from his hometown of Chicago, his years living, working, hiking and climbing in Jackson Hole, and secrets gleaned from time spent in corporate boardrooms to craft a political crime thriller straight from today’s headlines. Dennis lives in suburban Chicago with his wife Paula and Black Lab Jenny, but spends as much time as he can looking for adventure in the mountains and riding his motorcycle.
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