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Authors: Keith Houghton

No Coming Back

BOOK: No Coming Back
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ALSO BY KEITH HOUGHTON

G
ABE
Q
UINN
T
HRILLERS

Killing Hope

Crossing Lines

Taking Liberty

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2015 Keith Houghton

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781503947481

ISBN-10: 1503947483

 

Cover design by bürosüd
o
Munich,
www.buerosued.de

For Jason

 

My son—who sadly passed away during the writing of this novel.

 

A beautiful comet,

That blazed brightly but briefly in our lives,

Before returning to the heavens,

To shine among the stars,

Evermore.

‘Some secrets are better left buried.’

Prologue

Life rarely turns out how we expect it to.

As far back as I remember I wanted to be something I wasn’t. It didn’t matter what, providing it got me noticed, mentioned in the press, or at the very least put me on a level
pegging
with my brother.

Aaron was everything to me.

Although he was shorter by a head, I looked up to him. The golden child—excelling without effort—three years my senior, with three times my stature. He was able to elicit praise from my fat
her without breaking a sweat.

In many ways, I loved him. In many ways, I envied him.

My father ran a tight ship. He was ex-navy and as hard-headed as an icebreaker. He grew land legs after meeting my mother, and together they dropped anchor in Harper, my father’s hometown, living in the house built by my grandfather before buckshot blew out his brains. My mother was a photographer by day and my father’s keeper by night. She was the gentle to his rough, the salve to his salt. By the time my beautiful brother came along, my parents were respected members of the community, integrated, happy. For a while they led a picture-postcard lifestyle, the three of them, in their cookie-cutter home, in their little bubble of bliss.

Then one day it popped, and nothing was ever the same again.

I was a mistake, unplanned, unequal, and, as such, unloved by my father. My big brother’s little brother, physically longer, taller, maybe even smarter, but never measuring up in my father’s eyes. My mother did her best. My father did his worst. Together they canceled each other out.

From day one I was plagued with illness. An unhealthy child, God’s reject, weak and gawky. A freak. I grew up quickly and sickly, all of it in my brother’s shadow—in that cool slipstream where the sun never shines—and the pride in my father’s eyes soured
whenever
they fell on me. I was the second son of second-
generation
immigrants
. Raised on tough love and scraps. Sunday sermons delivered with absolute gusto and manners metered out with the back of a hand. Ours was a hammer-and-nails home, built on hard work and ‘be-grateful-for-small-mercies’ footings. From the moment I could suckle, I had hand-me-downs and issues.

Darkness became my only shelter.

As we grew older, Aaron taught me to pick a cause and to believe in it. Carry it to the ends of the Earth if need be. Embrace it. See it through to its conclusion.

Aaron was everything to me.

In my eyes, he could do no wrong. He was the living embodiment of perfection. Saintly. Worshipped by our father and adored by all. I didn’t just want to be like him, I wanted to be him.

Sometimes we don’t get to choose.

Sometimes life has other plans.

Chapter One

W
ould you be so quick to dig your own grave and then to lie down in it?” a well-meaning counselor asked, eighteen years ago, when I was trapped in that awkward metamorphosis between child and man.

I was midway through a private therapy session at the time, with nobody eavesdropping at the door, and no one videoing for posterity or being overly judgmental. The counselor was a goodhearted man, keen to fix me. It wasn’t our first rewiring session and it wouldn’t be our last. We were both invested, focused. New medication and a month of intensive psychiatry had me itching to talk, to offload. I wanted to share, needed to.

For as long as I could remember there had been something dark and bottomless inside me. An abyss, swirling with black smoke and thorny sparks. His sessions had brought me to the brink, and all I wanted to do was to let go.

But he held me back, hand raised, halting my imminent confession. “Save it for your priest,” he said. “I don’t need to feel the weight of your burden to know it’s pulling you down into hell. Some secrets are better left buried.”

I never fully appreciated what he meant, until now.

It’s after three in the morning and blacker than tar in northeast Minnesota. Cold enough to bite off skin. I am at my family home on the outskirts of Harper, scooping away shovelfuls of snow from the frozen backyard, digging for the hatch that leads to my grandfather’s defunct bomb shelter. Even in the dead of night and after an absence that stretches through all my adulthood I have every right being here, but I shouldn’t be. A backhanded invitation never makes for a warm welcome. The insides of Satan’s snow globe, that’s what this place is to me. Hell frozen over.

The shovel strikes metal, sending shockwaves up my arms.

The truth is, I needn’t have come. I have no unpaid debt to clear. No compelling obligation, either moral or emotional. What I do have is every reason to keep my distance, to stay in the Twin Cities, where I am relatively safe and hidden from the ghosts of my past.

Yet, here I am.

I get my first glimpse of the hatch, just as my cell phone starts to sing. I stab the blade into the snow and fumble the phone out of my pocket before the noise wakes the dead and every dog for miles around.

I don’t recognize the number. “If this isn’t the state lottery, I’m hanging up.”

A male voice snickers at my words, rolling down the connection like distant thunder. “Trust me, son, that kind of money is both baggage and a burden. Brings nothing but bad luck and sob stories. And I should know; I wrote most of them myself.”

Even though I haven’t heard it in years, I know this voice. It’s unmistakable—like a funeral dirge:

Lars Grossinger.

Whenever I watch a Lee Marvin movie I can’t help but think of the man who practically owns Harper. They could be siblings, Lars and he. But the real clincher is his gravelly voice. They are one and the same.

“This is a burner phone,” I say. “How’d you get the number?”

“Son, one thing you should know about me is I can get where water can’t. Where there’s a will and a weakness, there’s generally a way.”

I haven’t spoken with Harper’s homegrown marvel since I was seventeen, and I’m not sure I want to speak to him now. I let the impatience show in my tone. “What do you want, Lars? And don’t say to welcome me home. I don’t believe for one second you’re
calling
to chat about the good old days. Not at three o’clock in the morning, and especially seeing as how there never were any good old days.”

He laughs. It sounds like a bulldozer tearing down a church. “That’s my boy. I see age hasn’t blunted that gilded edge of yours. You were always a razor, Jake. It’s one thing I admired. Cut straight through all the bullshit. Despite what you might think, I am glad you’re back. Got to be a blessing, whichever way you slice it. Just a damn pity it’s not under better circumstances.” He clears his throat. “Sentimentality aside, you’re right: this isn’t just a courtesy call, it’s a job offer.”

At this point I should hang up, turn off the phone, and go back to shoveling snow. Better yet, bury the cell along with my childhood memories, here in the backyard of my family home, and walk away, never to return.

But I can’t. Not yet.

My thumb hesitates a fraction too long over the
end call
button and Lars takes advantage of it:

“What’s this? The idea of working for the
Harper Horn
not very appealing anymore? I seem to remember a time you begged me to give you a break. You were all hung up on becoming the next big Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Said you’d do just about anything to get it, too. Sell your soul if you had one.”

“I was a kid.”

“We’ve all been kids, son. Not all of us were as driven as you were at that age. Who knows where you’d be right now if things had turned out differently?”

For a moment I picture a past. One of those color-grained Super 8 recordings of family barbeques and kids learning to ride bikes: images of my wonderful children at milestones from birth to
graduation
; of my lovely wife, Jenna, with her homemaker smile and our big house in upstate New York; of a glittering career of accolades and achievements; of a life bursting with love and hope and happiness, with more glorious years ahead than behind. But it is not my past. It’s not even my life. And I have no right picturing it.

“Don’t renege on me now, son,” Lars says into my silence. “Remember, you owe Lars Grossinger.”

Me, and every damned soul in town.

“Besides, we both know this is not too bad of a deal,” he continues. “So quit with the stalling. I’ve sent someone to come pick you up. Should be with you any minute now. Do us both a favor and take the damn job. Trust me, son, you won’t live to regret it.”

I am still mopping crystallizing sweat from my brow and mulling over Lars’s closing comment when I see the beam from a flashlight scope out the side of the house. A woman’s voice isn’t far behind it:

“Hello? Jake? Jake Olson? You hiding away back here?”

The house is in total darkness, deadened by a canopy of snow, but the backyard is lit by a kerosene lamp. She must have seen the weak glow and come to investigate. The flashlight sweeps across the snowy backyard, searching over dimpled mounds and
icicled
outdoor furniture before finding my face. I squint between gloved fingers, unable to see through the intense glare and my own
condensing
breath.

“I expect you’ve already spoken with Lars,” she says as she approaches, boots crunching snow. “In which case you should already know why I’m here.”

There’s still time to back out, to tell her to take a hike and to stick Lars’s job offer where the sun never shines. But there’s something about her voice that roots me to the spot.

She emerges into the kerosene glow and the flashlight falls from my eyes. She’s about my age, with short blonde hair and a face cut like a diamond. Eyes that look older than the rest of her. She wears a curious expression and a big padded parka with a Stars-and-Stripes stitched on the sleeve.

Breath smokes from her lips. “Hello, Jake. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Cold enough for you?” She comes over and punches me playfully on the arm. “What’s this? Cat got your tongue? Why the puzzled expression? Don’t you recognize me? We were
inseparable
, once.” She pouts at the crease formed on my forehead. “For the love of Pete, it’s me: Kim. Okay, so I had long mousey hair and Coke-bottle glasses, and maybe that’s why you’re gawking?”

“Partly,” I admit with a stiff nod, “but mostly because you’re a cop.”

The pout plumps into a pucker. “Jeez, you got me there. The uniform gave it away, did it?” She opens her arms, wide. “So how about a big hug for old time’s sake? Come on, don’t be shy. Or would you rather not be seen fraternizing with the enemy?”

The black-and-white Ford Interceptor driven by Sergeant
Kimberly
Krauss of the Harper Police Department smells of mango and leather. I am not a fan of car fresheners; they asphyxiate.

“I hope you won’t hold it against me,” she says as she rolls the steering wheel against the ice-rutted back road. “Being a cop, that is. I’m not completely insensitive; I can imagine how you feel about the whole police thing. If it’s any consolation I didn’t plan on being an officer of the law. It kind of just happened.”

Kimberly Krauss.

I haven’t spoken with her in private since my world imploded. Neither of us were much more than children back then. Restless saplings pulling up roots instead of laying them down, oblivious to what would become of us.

“You never made it out?”

“From Harper? Not through lack of trying. I did escape, for a while. I got as far as college and
this
close to saying goodbye forever. Believe me, after what happened, I had every intention of never coming back.”

“But you did.”

“Sure. But not through choice. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and everything kind of went on the back burner after that.”

“Sorry, Kim; I didn’t know.”

She smirks it off. “How could you? Anyway, during the chemo she needed constant round-the-clock care and I was happy to do my bit. So I came home from college. I’m not complaining; things worked out okay for me, all things considered.”

“You became a cop.”

She glances my way and smiles. “You got me. I suppose,
given the family history, it was inevitable. Walking in my father’s
footsteps
.”

The Interceptor bounces over a pothole, jolting us in our seats.

Everything is frosted on the tree-lined lane, like a scene from a chiller movie. Shadows scurrying from the bright headlights. A month of snowfall has blanched the northern states and turned the side roads into deathtraps. It doesn’t stop Krauss from
driving
dangerously
fast. In a blur, I catch sight of boot prints running along the edge of the roadway, left there no more than an hour before by my own heavy feet.

“Speaking of which, how is your dad? Is he still the police chief round here?”

Another glance. This time there’s a sparkle in her eyes, as though she’s expecting the question and has an answer already lined up. “You’ll be glad to hear not for a long time now. It’s been
eighteen
years, remember? A lot’s changed. As a matter of fact my dad retired the same year you left. We’ve worked our way through two more chiefs since then. These days, Shane Meeks is the big boss. You remember Meeks?”

Another name I haven’t heard in years, or forgotten. Shane Meeks was never a fan of mine and I don’t need to confirm it out loud; Krauss remembers, too, and sees it in my face.

“He’s a good chief,” she says. “He’s changed.”

But wolves rarely make great domesticated dogs.

“I thought he was in it to the death, your dad?”

Her eyes move back to the road. “He was. Then something weird happened. It was his fiftieth birthday, a month or so after you left for St. Paul. We were all there, all the usual suspects, including your aunt and uncle, your dad, everybody having a good time and celebrating, enjoying the party. Then, from out of the blue, he stood up and announced he was quitting the badge. Just like that. It took us all by surprise.”

“Did he say why?”

“Not in so many words.” Krauss chuckles to herself, as if savoring a private joke.

It’s clear she loves her dad. No reason why she shouldn’t. As far as I remember they were as thick as thieves. He did everything in his power to protect his little girl, and probably still does.

“Jake, I’m pretty sure he was having a midlife crisis. In the weeks leading up to his birthday he was in a permanent bad mood, complaining all the time and picking fights with my mom.”

“She survived the cancer?”

“This was the year before her diagnosis. But, yes, she did. If you remember anything about my mom, it should be she’s a fighter. She beat the cancer hands down. But it took both her breasts and her marriage. Sometimes my dad is as shallow as a creek in a drought.”

Krauss is no longer smiling, gaze fixed ahead. I can see it hasn’t been easy on her, and I wish I’d been here to lend my support. Sometimes it’s harder when you’re an only child.

BOOK: No Coming Back
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