TOM Riordan often had trouble falling asleep, but once there, he slept like the dead. So he snored on, unaware, as a violent autumn thunderstorm roared down Highway 7, dumping three inches of rain onto the streets and lawns of the little town of Excelsior in less than an hour. Lightning lashed the clouds to greater effort, thunder cracked and banged and rolled. Trees, their leaves heavy with rain, swayed, bent, and danced under the onslaught of powerful winds. Now and again a branch would wrench loose to tumble through the air. When a bigger limb struck an electrical wire, snapping it, the dazzle of sparks was an echo of the lightning higher in the sky. Power all over town started going out.
Riordan, oblivious, slept on.
Then an ancient elm, its inside long rotted and its roots’ grip weakened by rain, groaned under the wind’s blast, twisted, and fell. It had given welcome shade to Riordan’s house for many summers, but now it slammed into the roof, breaking through the shingles to thrust sopping leaves and wet and broken limbs into Riordan’s bedroom, waking him at last.
MARIANNE Schultz, seventy-eight, was a retired schoolteacher. A spinster, she was tall and thin, active and self-reliant. Now, at four in the morning, she stood in the wet, dark front yard of her house, using a powerful flashlight to look at the damage the storm had done. Power was out all up and down the block, she noted, and probably all over town. Several trees along the avenue were down, one blocking the street. Worst of all, the noble elm that had stood in her backyard for as long as she could remember— longer, probably, to judge by its great height—had fallen onto her neighbor’s roof. It had broken through; shingles and boards littered the ground along with leaves and branches.
Marianne walked to the front of the damaged house, a brick structure two stories high, painted an unlikely rose pink that glowed under her flashlight’s beam. All was silent within, blinds and curtains drawn—but that was generally the case. Mr. Riordan was a very private person, though not a recluse. He was seen everywhere but never invited anyone into his home. She wondered if he was in there.
She went up on the small porch, which felt a trifle insecure under her feet. A pillar missing at one corner had been replaced with a long board. She rapped hard on the front door.
“Mr. Riordan? Are you inside?”
“Mr. Riordan? Are you all right?”
She leaned toward the covered glass insert in the door and cocked her head to listen. Was that a cry for help?
She rapped again. “Mr. Riordan?”
More loudly came the cry. “Help! Help me! There’s a tree, a broken tree on me!”
She backed off the porch and looked up at a shattered window on the second floor. The voice clearly was coming from there.
“Are you hurt, Thomas?” she called.
“Yes, yes! I think my leg is broken! Ow, ow, I can’t move! And my . . . arm . . . head . . . my head . . . Owwwww . . .” His voice faded, and soon all she could hear were incomprehensible sounds.
“Stay where you are! I’m going to get help!”
Marianne hurried back to her own house to call for assistance, but her landline was dead, and the impossibly complicated cell phone her niece had bought her had long since lost its charge.
So she pulled on a jacket—the post-storm air had turned chilly after a week of unseasonably warm weather—and started out on a swift walk toward the police station, six blocks away.
It was a trip complicated by downed trees and flooded streets. She met the occasional resident standing stunned in the ruins of his property or commiserating with a neighbor. She asked if anyone could use his cell phone to call emergency services, but nobody’s cell was working—the cell towers had lost power, too.
In the distance she could hear sirens, and once she caught a whiff of bad-smelling smoke, which meant a house was on fire, though she could not tell where it was coming from. She soaked her feet when she stepped into a gutter full of water running as she crossed the last street to the police station.
She walked into the low brick and stone building to find no one behind the thick glass window that separated the small lobby from the rest of the station. Next to the window there was a black wall phone without a dial, and beside it was a sign: TO TALK WITH A POLICE OFFICER, LIFT THE RECEIVER. Marianne lifted the receiver and a heard a woman’s voice say, “May I help you?”
“Yes, please, this is an emergency. A tree has fallen on my neighbor’s house, and he’s trapped inside, upstairs, and he’s hurt.”
“Where are you?” asked the woman.
“Inside the police station,” replied Marianne.
“No, dear, where are you calling from? What city?”
“Oh. Excelsior. Where are you?”
“I’m a 911 operator in Minneapolis. What’s the address of the house where the injured party is located?”
“Let’s see, I’m 712, so he must be 710 Mitchell Avenue. A brick two-story, painted pink, with a big tree mashed into the roof. You can’t miss it. And please hurry, it sounds like his injuries may be serious.”
“You didn’t go in to check on him?”
“I couldn’t, his door is locked. I heard him calling for help through a broken upstairs window.”
“All right, I’m sending help right now. Go back to the house to direct emergency personnel.”
“Yes, all right,” Marianne said. “Thank you.”
* * *
THE whole area around the south end of Lake Minnetonka was a nightmare. The storm had been a big one, sweeping across northern Iowa and halfway up the state of Minnesota, and had formed small pockets of fury. One of those pockets roared up from Saint Bonifacius through Excelsior and Shorewood and on across Lake Minnetonka to Wayzata. Power was out, trees were down, flash floods abounded, houses were damaged—two of them set on fire by lightning strikes.
Every member of the small Excelsior Police Department was out on the street—even the chief. The volunteer fire department was working hard; one of the houses on fire was in Excelsior.
Marianne, of course, didn’t know any of this and had no way of finding out. She went back to her neighborhood and found others out on the street, some talking, some starting to clean up, some just standing and staring at the wreckage. Someone had set four camping lanterns in the middle of the street. They hissed faintly and gave off a brilliant light but also cast dark shadows into corners and behind bushes.
“Did any of you go in to help Mr. Riordan?” she called as she approached his house.
The three who heard her question turned to look at her. They all shook their heads.
“He never answers his door, you know that,” said a balding stout man in robe and slippers.
“Yeah, so how do you know he’s in there?” asked the equally stout woman standing beside him—Mr. and Mrs. Bond, retired grocers. They lived across the street.
“Because I heard him calling for help out that window,” said Marianne, gesturing at the upper story of the pink brick house. “He said he had a broken leg and maybe a head injury and he’s trapped up in his bedroom.”
The couple stared up at the open window.
“I ain’t heard nuthin,” declared the third person, a truculent man in his middle thirties, with the broad shoulders, big hands, and solid paunch of a truck driver. He was Paul Winston, the Bonds’ neighbor, whose wife had walked out with their three children two months ago. Paul had not been completely sober since.
“We haven’t, either,” said Mr. Bond, “and we’ve been out here longer than Paul.”
Mrs. Bond nodded. She would have said something, but a siren interrupted her. The quartet, and other people farther up the street, turned to face the flashing lights of a squad car headed their way.
Marianne lifted her arm to signal the driver and pointed to the Riordan house. The squad car’s siren cut off, but the flashing lights stayed on as it pulled to the curb. A very large policeman in a dark blue uniform climbed out. He was about six four, very fit, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a lot of chin.
“What seems to be the problem here?” he called.
“Oh, Sergeant Larson, I’m glad you’ve come,” said Marianne, hurrying to him. “It’s Tom Riordan. My elm tree fell over in the storm and landed right on the roof of his house, breaking through. I came for a look and heard Tom calling for help. He’s upstairs, probably in his bedroom.”
“Did you go in to see if he’s hurt?” asked Larson, looking thoughtfully up at the smashed roof and broken window.
“The door’s locked,” said Marianne.
“He always keeps his doors locked,” contributed Mrs. Bond.
“I don’t think nobody’s ever been in his house,” added Winston.
“Well, let’s have a look,” said Larson. He walked up onto the little porch and tried the door. It didn’t open. He pushed on it, then stepped back and pounded on it with a mighty fist.
“Yo! Riordan! This is the police! You in there?” he shouted.
There was a pause, then, faintly, they all heard a voice wafting from the upstairs window. “Help me . . . Please, help me.”
“Oh, dear God,” said Mrs. Bond. “He is in there. Do something, Lars!”
Larson went back up on the porch, grabbed the doorknob, and slammed a big shoulder into the door. It trembled, but held. He hit it again. The third time, there was a loud crack and the door opened a few inches. Larson shoved it, hard, with both hands, and it opened the rest of the way.
He turned to the people standing on the sidewalk and said, “Wait here,” in a voice that brooked no disobedience. Everyone took a step back to indicate compliance, and the big man went into the house.