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Authors: Sam Millar

Black's Creek

BOOK: Black's Creek
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‘Sam Millar didn't invent the noir crime novel but, as Black's Creek indicates, he might as well have. This wondrously written and terrifically told tale is a book with a heart, however dark, that will evoke comparisons with Lorenzo Carcatera's Sleepers, John Hart's The Last Child and Dennis Lehane's seminal Mystic River. Millar is more than up to the task of following in such lofty footsteps, and Black's Creek will haunt you long after the final page is turned. Powerful. Not to be missed!'

 

Jon Land,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Strong at the Break and Betrayal

Black's Creek is a profoundly disturbing, psychological coming-of-age thriller filled with enigmatic characters and astonishing scenes of originality. Millar brilliantly executes a combination of suspense and terror from beginning to end, with just the right balance of dark humor to calm the nerves. Terrific page-turning noir.'

 

James Thompson, bestselling crime writer,
Snow Angels: An Inspector Vaara Novel

‘Reminiscent of Steven King's classic, Stand by Me, and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, crime writer Sam Millar's Black's Creek is an atmospheric must-read, page-turning book.'

 

New York Journal of Books

‘Sam Millar's latest novel – Black's Creek – kicks off with suspense and mystery on page one, and doesn't let the reader off the hook until the shocking denouement on the last page. A powerful story of murder and revenge, brilliantly told.'

 

Gordon Ferris, bestselling crime author,
The Hanging Shed

‘Black's Creek will have you breathless from start to finish. An unputdownable crime story from a truly great writer of the genre. Loved it.'

 

Sheila Quigley, bestselling crime author,
Thorn In My Side

‘Black's Creek is evidence of a writer performing at his peak. Millar's finely crafted tale grips from the first taut line and never lets go. It's difficult to fault a book that has it all: economic prose, fully-realized characters, suspense, pace and every act of alchemy that makes a work great. Well done, Mr. Millar. I'd take my hat off to you if it hadn't been blown away with the rest of me somewhere around the first chapter.'

 

Tony Black, bestselling crime writer,
Murder Mile

‘Noir favorite Sam Millar is in terrific form with his latest book of murder and revenge. Black's Creek is an original page-turner of a book, shockingly told with brutal honesty, in Millar's usual dark and edgy voice. Yet, for all this, it remains hauntingly beautiful, and perhaps his best book to date. A genuine tour-de-force, superbly plotted by Ireland's king of crime writing.'

 

Noir Journal,
USA

DEDICATION

For Bernie. My wife. My rock. My best friend. My love.

 
 

APPRECIATION

Many thanks to all my fellow authors for their kind words on Black's Creek. A special thank-you to all the crew at The O'Brien Press, especially Eoin O'Brien for his patience and dedication to the book.

Contents
  1. Reviews
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Prologue
  5.  
  6. Chapter One: Darkness in the Afternoon
  7. Chapter Two: A Gathering of Conspirators
  8. Chapter Three: Sweet Lemonade and Thoughts of Murder
  9. Chapter Four: Secrets of Biblical Proportion
  10. Chapter Five: Meeting Mean Man Maxwell
  11. Chapter Six: The Bloody Plan
  12. Chapter Seven: Into the Fiend's Lair
  13. Chapter Eight: The Enchantress
  14. Chapter Nine: Under Her Spell
  15. Chapter Ten: The Kiss of Death
  16. Chapter Eleven: Painted Confusion
  17. Chapter Twelve: Hare-Raising Experience
  18. Chapter Thirteen: The Hulk and the Thing Pulped to a Pulp
  19. Chapter Fourteen: Blood Brothers Spill Blood
  20. Chapter Fifteen: Death in the Early Hours
  21. Chapter Sixteen: The Monster Caged
  22. Chapter Seventeen: Blood Gone Bad
  23. Chapter Eighteen: Trial and Revelation
  24. Chapter Nineteen: Sharp as a Knife
  25. Chapter Twenty: In Stitches and Needled
  26. Chapter Twenty-One: Scapegoats Aplenty
  27. Chapter Twenty-Two: Beneath the Icy World
  28. Chapter Twenty-Three: Mad Momma's Murky Mystery
  29. Chapter Twenty-Four: Guilt. Love. Motherly Smells.
  30. Chapter Twenty-Five: Guardian Angel
  31. Chapter Twenty-Six: The Dummy Exposed
  32. Chapter Twenty-Seven: Who's the Real Dummy Now?
  33. Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Monster Again
  34. Chapter Twenty-Nine: Preparing to Hunt the Monster
  35. Chapter Thirty: Bloody Revenge
  36. Chapter Thirty-One: The Monster Slain
  37. Chapter Thirty-Two: An Unusual Suspect
  38. Chapter Thirty-Three: The Perfect Killer
  39. Chapter Thirty-Four: Puzzle Solved. Sort Of.
  40.  
  41. Epilogue
  42. About the Author
  43. Also by Sam Millar
  44. Copyright
  45. Other Books

Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

Jules Verne,
Journey to the Centre of the Earth

‘B
lack's Creek Murder To Be Reopened' screams the region section in this morning's
New York Times
, the moment I sit down to breakfast. As I read further, my stomach does an involuntary little somersault; one of those pre-indigestion alerts sent out when getting mugged by the unexpected. For a second, I become dizzy. My brain burns in a bad way. Blue and red flashes cloud my vision. To make matters worse, the scar beneath my lower lip and the one above my left eyebrow begin throbbing. For a second, the darkness of my past hits me like a Muhammad Ali special, forcing me to think of the two people who caused those scars and the connection we had with the murder.

‘Tom?' Concern etches my wife's beautiful face. ‘You okay?'

‘Huh? Oh! I'm fine. Just heartburn, Belinda.' I try to sound calm, but the words come out jagged, rehearsed. I can tell she's not convinced. She's worried that it could be the start of one of my blackouts.

The blackouts have become more frequent, less predictable. My last major one occurred about a month ago, while doing a reading from my latest crime book,
The Darkness of Night
, at a bookstore in Astoria, Queens, a few blocks from where I live. I heard about it later, of course. I had been reading the final chapter, where the protagonist shoots the murderous crime boss, right smack in the middle of the forehead. The small gathering of fans applauded, thinking it was part of the act, as I crumpled to the ground, banging my head solidly on the store's solid oak floor.

On the bright side, I sold more books that night than at any other book-signing event. My agent, Tina Winters, suggested I do the head-banging manoeuvre at all future signings, as sales had been criminally low of late. I'd been doing everything
but
making a killing from all my killings.

‘You're pale, Tom,' Belinda says, bringing her face closer to mine. ‘Sure you're okay?'

‘Sure I'm sure.' I force a smile.

She returns the smile. Small. False. Just like mine – but at least it's a smile of sorts. She reaches out, touching my face. Her tender touch has a calming influence, but only for a few seconds.

I go back to reading about the investigation, dreading each dark word that marches along the paper's paleness.

DNA Evidence Reopens Murder Case

Prosecutors say they have obtained new DNA evidence concerning the murder of a suspected pedophile and child murderer, over twenty years ago. They have reopened the cold case, hoping to make arrests …

Despite the summer warmth in the room, dry ice brushes the stepping-stones of my spine. I immediately stop reading.

‘I'll finish the coffee in the garden, sweetheart.'

I stand, folding the newspaper and tucking it under my arm. I feel sweat stains developing exactly where I've snuggled the newspaper. ‘The caffeine'll give me a boost on how to finish that brain-numbing chapter I've been working on.'

‘Stop being so hard on yourself.' Belinda gives me an encouraging look. I see pity in it. ‘The words will come to you. They eventually do.'

‘Such a fibber, but I love you anyway.' I reach over and kiss her forehead.

‘I love you, too. I'll be out in a few minutes to join you.'

In the garden, the early-morning sun is melting away the slime-like mist on the grass. It's going to be a scorcher of a day; the kind of day that always manages to make you feel glad to be alive, even if the opposite has become a closer relative.

Finding a comfortable place in the shade, I sit down to read the story, fearing what new evidence the police have uncovered. After all these years, the past has caught up with me. I can hear its footsteps. The only question is: how near are they?

The murdered man's name appears on the first paragraph, and a sickening
déjà vu kicks me
back through all those years; to a time I had hoped would remain buried, days and nights filled with madness and nightmares, when I was barely a teenager, with cold-blooded murder in mind …

… the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.

Mary Shelley,
Frankenstein

F
ourth of July. Friday afternoon. Our town – Black's Creek, a small enclave in upstate New York – found itself in the middle of a brain-melting heatwave. Some inhabitants barbecued hotdogs and hamburgers in their garden, while others indulged in barbecuing themselves at the local beach, or residing in cool bars with cold beers. Not me, though. I – along with my two pals, Brent Fleming and Charlie ‘Horseshoe' Cooper – continued working on the cheaper, more exciting alternative of skinny-dipping in Jackson's Lake and drinking Coke chilled in the lake's belly.

Jackson's Lake was a stretch of filthy water surrounded by a forest, barely a mile from where I lived. Most times, the lake coiled out like a black ribbon of silence, but when it willed, it could be crafty in its nature, lassoing the unsuspecting with a ripple. Trees from the forest threw charcoal shadows across the lake's edge, helping to entrap the unsuspecting. Further up, the lake cleaved the hunting area of the forest in two, where carcasses of rusted household goods festered alongside piles of animal dung from adjacent farms.

Police danger signs were posted along the lip of the lake, warning people to stay away, that under no circumstances should they go swimming in it. Of course, this only heightened the adrenaline thrill for us naked teenagers, and we dutifully disobeyed.

The heat that particular Friday afternoon was oppressive. I'd just stepped naked out of the lake when I spotted a lone figure on top of the dusty hill, a small distance away.

‘That looks like Joey Maxwell,' I said, pointing to the hill, as the hot sun dried my skin.

Brent – de facto leader of our motley crew – stopped sipping the Coke we'd got from Gino's Bar and Grill, and glanced towards the hill. He'd been reading
The Amazing Spider-Man
, having just won the important argument with Horseshoe on which artist was best at drawing the webbed hero. Horseshoe had championed Steve Ditko, but Brent loved John Romita's rendering. As for myself, I was more a DC Comics
aficionado, believing them more superior and intelligent to Marvel. Secretly, I read
Gold Key
also, but limited my collection to
Magnus Robot Fighter, Doctor Solar Man of the Atom
and
Space Family Robinson
. I never told Brent or Horseshoe my terrible secret, as every other comic book outside DC or Marvel was frowned upon as sacrilege and betrayal. Perhaps even borderline sissy.

‘Yeah, you're right Tommy, it is Joey,' Brent said, plucking one of his mom's pilfered cigarettes and Zippo from his jeans resting on the ground. He fired up the Zippo, its flame long and thin, and gave life to the cig. Releasing a prayer of smoke from his nostrils, he nodded to himself with satisfaction, just like the Marlboro Man in the snowy wilderness.

I didn't smoke, except for once the year before when Brent coerced me into trying weed. Realistically, I had neither inclination nor balls for smoking. Mom would have killed me if she suspected I'd even entertained the thought.

‘Joey always creeps me out, the way he just stares and stares,' Horseshoe said, as he added some shading to a drawing of a superhero in his gray sketchpad. Horseshoe was good, his drawings so life-like you swore to god they were coming right at you off the page. He'd gained the nickname Horseshoe because he was so lucky. He had everything – from the talent to draw so beautifully, to plenty of money and the best of everything else. A nice family, good looks … So damn lucky in life, we kidded he was born with a horseshoe shoved up his ass.

‘He creeps
everyone
out,' Brent said, spitting a splinter of tobacco from his mouth.

‘Why the hell doesn't he listen, Tommy, and stop trying to hang out with us?' Horseshoe added.

‘Who the hell knows?' I said, shrugging my shoulders before grabbing a sweating Coke. ‘Joey doesn't listen to anyone.'

Joey was twelve – two years younger than the rest of us – so there was no way we could be seen with him. As well as becoming the laughing stock of the town, our status as tough guys would have been destroyed. Besides, the horrible incident from last year was still fresh in our minds. Even though it wasn't Joey's fault, we no longer felt comfortable when he was anywhere near us.

He had changed after the incident. Prior to it, he'd been the town clown, willing to do anything for a dare, just to make everyone laugh. Now, he just stared at people with his dead shadowed eyes, saying nothing, creeping everyone out. He had changed from a boisterous, good-humoured kid to a brooding recluse, scary to look at.

‘He's getting closer,' Horseshoe said in a worried voice, as if fearful of being in range of Joey's shadow.

Joey edged closer to the other side of the lake, where disused railway track ran alongside the river. During hot days, heat rose off the tracks in crimped patterns, making them look soft and familiar in the baking distance. Occasionally, Brent and I would challenge each other to a ‘track burn',
resting our hands on the hot metal until one of us shouted uncle. Most times I pulled my hand away first, the blotchy redness covering my palms like a tattoo. But sometimes, on a rare occasion, it was Brent who surrendered to the excruciating pain. Sour in his defeat, he always had a begrudging answer, usually blaming Horseshoe for distracting him, or some other made-up excuse.

‘Joey! What the hell're you doing!' Brent shouted, throwing an empty Coke bottle across the lake in his direction. ‘We don't want you near us! Fuck off!'

Of the three of us, Brent was the only one to ever use the ‘f' word. Horseshoe and I were always terrified to swear, fearful our parents would get wind of it. Mom threatened that if she ever heard I used such language, she would staple my tongue to the inside of my mouth. I remember the day she produced Dad's Swingline stapler.
Click-click
, she had said, clicking the stapler close to my petrified face.
And don't think I won't, Mister. Click-click!

Joey didn't reply to Brent's shouting. Now, he was inching into the lake, the water up to his ankles. Perhaps he hadn't heard him – though I doubted that. Brent's voice sounded like a cannon releasing verbal volleys, and had a similar range.

‘Leave him alone, Brent,' I finally said, bringing the Coke to my mouth. ‘As long as he stays where he is, he's doing no harm.'

As I sipped my drink, Joey made a slight movement with his hand. I thought he was running the hand through his hair – a nervous habit he'd acquired since the incident – but Horseshoe and Brent had different takes on it.

‘He's flipping the bird at us, Tommy. Can you believe his balls?' Horseshoe said, almost in shocked awe.

‘Naw. He's waving. That's all,' Brent said. ‘He knows better than to flip the bird at me. I'd kill the little prick.'

Joey continued walking into the lake, with zombie-like slowness.

‘He's going for a dip, with his clothes on,' Brent said, grinning.

‘You're right, Brent,' Horseshoe agreed, wiping Coke spillage from his mouth. ‘He's trying to give us a laugh, like the old days. Go on, Joey! You can do it!'

‘Joey! Joey! Joey!' Brent chanted.

The deliciously fear-charged entertainment increased every moment, as the lake's surface slid up to Joey's shoulder. It was like watching a magic eraser making his body disappear.

The three of us began counting out, daring him to break Jimmy ‘Fish Face' Nugent's record of one minute and twenty-nine seconds for staying under.

‘One … Two … Three …'

The top of Joey's hair disappeared beneath the skin of water. Seconds later, calmness returned to its surface, as if he had never been there at all.

We cheered louder, continuing our hypnotic drum-roll call.

‘Nineteen … Twenty! … Twenty-one …'

On and on we counted, our voices rising with each fading second.

‘Fifty-nine …
Sixtyyyyyyyyy
! … Sixty-one … Sixty two …'

At seventy, our voices filtered out, leaving an eerie silence. The world was caught in freeze-frame, the silence like sharp stones trapped in the pit of my stomach.

‘Someone's gotta dive in there, see what the little bastard's up to,' Brent said. He looked nervous, probably believing as leader of our gang he might be held accountable for Joey's actions. ‘Tommy? You gotta do it.'

‘Me?' I said, edging away. ‘Why me?'

‘You're the best swimmer by far, that's why.' It was more a plea than a command.

‘You know you are, Tommy,' Horseshoe said, nodding in agreement with Brent's words. ‘You gotta do something. I swim like a rock, otherwise I'd go after him.'

I doubted Horseshoe would have braved the deeper part of the lake to jump in after Joey, but I didn't want an argument. I wished now I hadn't won all those medals for swimming, at school. I didn't want to be part of anything happening under the water, but I had little choice.

‘Okay, okay! Just shut the hell up!' I said, walking towards the filthy water.

For some inexplicable reason, the water felt colder as my
bare feet touched it. I shuddered before glancing back at Brent and Horseshoe.

‘Hurry!' They kept shouting in unison. ‘Hurry!'

Seconds later, I was in, propelling my body downwards in the foul-tasting and murky thickness. Visibility was virtually nil. Worse than land fog. I went deeper, wishing I had the capability of shouting underwater for Joey.

Don't give up on him
, a pleading voice entered my head.
He's here somewhere. Find him. Please
…

I stayed down until panic started building up inside my burning lungs. I would need to resurface for air – and soon. Then, just as I twisted my body to head upwards, an old wreck of a car came into view. Ghostly green, its smashed windows stared out like the gaping eyes of an old haunted house. I wanted to swim away from its skeletal form, but a strange magnetism drew me closer and closer.

And that's when I spotted Joey.

His body was motionless, standing as if trapped in a giant test tube. He seemed to be holding the car door, as if wanting to get inside.

I went torpedoing forward.

A moment later, I was at his side. I took hold of his arm, pulling on it. He looked around at me, his face expressionless in the godless gloom. Only his eyes seemed to have life. I would never forget how they looked; how they blinked at me in surprise.

Grabbing the back of his shirt, I yanked hard on it.

Nothing. His body resisted. A ton-weight of unmoving mass.

I pulled again on the shirt, but my lungs were on fire. Feeling dizzy, I swam empty-handed to the surface, grateful to be gulping down the beautiful hot summer air.

From the embankment, Brent kept shouting, ‘Where is he, Tommy? Where the fuck's Joey?'

‘Get … help … hurry …' I stuttered, plunging back down into the nightmare.

Under the water, I searched again for the old wreck, but the water had now become black as oil spill. I could find nothing, other than a forest of thick weeds. I tried to swim through them, but they were becoming entwined on my legs. It felt like someone trying to wrestle me down. I pictured Joey grabbing at my ankles.

Panicking, I kicked out at the weeds, but their grip became iron. Water rushed into my mouth, filling my nostrils. I was becoming disorientated. A gathering hurt assembled in my lungs. I held the pain there as long as I could, trying not to breathe, trying to think about anything other than the pain.

No! Not like this!
I screamed in my head.
Don't die like this.

I remember Horseshoe dragging me back to land, and that was all. Later, Horseshoe laughed, saying he wasn't willing to give me the kiss-of-life; that it was lucky for me I didn't need it.

‘He's … he's down there, Horseshoe,' I spluttered, coughing up filthy water. ‘Joey's not moving …'

‘Brent's getting help. Don't worry. It'll be okay …'

But I could tell from the way his hands shook, he understood it wasn't okay.

By the time an ambulance arrived in tandem with a police car, I knew it was too late. Joey was gone. I also knew I was in trouble, as I watched the sheriff emerging from his car. Thin as a line but commandingly tall, he came rushing towards me, rhino-like in his speed.

‘Are you okay, Tommy?' he said, bending down beside me.

I nodded. ‘I'm fine, but Joey's down there, Dad.'

‘Don't worry. We'll find him. In the meantime, don't move from here. One of the ambulance crew'll take you to hospital. Clear?'

I nodded again, not caring about the ambulance crew or about anything else at that moment. I suspected Dad would have more to say to me later on. I was very aware that it was he who had placed most of the danger signs at the lake. I also suspected he'd have something to say about Brent. Dad didn't approve of my friendship with Brent, who he regarded as a future felon, just like Brent's father, doing big time in a south Florida prison for possession of drugs.

‘Sit tight,' Dad said, running off in the direction of the lake.

It took police divers forty minutes to locate Joey, but another two hours to bring his lifeless body to the surface.
He had handcuffed himself to the door of the old wreck; the same handcuffs his father used as a prison guard in the penitentiary.

BOOK: Black's Creek
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