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Authors: Keith Houghton

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BOOK: No Coming Back
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Ned sees me looking and hands me the picture. “Go ahead.”

I hesitate before taking it fully. He pushes it into my grasp. This is the first time I have held Jenna in half a lifetime.

Jenna!

She looks younger than I remember. A fragile blossom of youth, soon to be crushed underfoot. The image I have of her—the image branded onto my mind’s eye—is all woman, mentally aged over time to keep up with my own passing years. But I am
thirty-fiv
e now, a grown man, and I realize with a start that this is the picture of a girl. It never felt that way at the time. To us we were mature, fully grown. But the reality is, Jenna has remained forever seventeen, and always will.

The clawing unease is back in my gut.

“Belle of the ball,” Ned says with the glimmer of a proud smile. “You caught her at her best there, Jake. It’s one of my favorites.”

I nod, gripping the frame as the photo comes to life in my memory:

“Tell me you got it?” Jenna calls on the day it was taken, as if it’s happening right here and now. She shakes the pompoms fiercely, while her fellow cheerleaders sing out the Bobcat’s praises.

“You’re spoiling the routine,” I call back.

“No way! I promised my dad a really cool picture of me cheerleading. So did you get it?”

I shrug and glance at the camera, as though by doing so I can see if the positive light from Jenna’s beaming smile has worked its magic on the negative inside, like it does with me. “I guess I think so. Want me to take another, just in case?”

“That’s why I bought the film, dum-dum! Take the whole lot!”

And so I do. I snap away, the bristling boyfriend, while Jenna skips and bounces, performing neat choreographed kicks and jumps, flashing her dazzling smiles and exuding infectious energy.

If anyone wonders what a snapshot of heaven looks like, here it is. A perfect moment in time, captured and preserved.

It rips me up on the inside.

Now it’s my turn to feel a consoling hand on my arm.

The Luckmans have strategically positioned other photographs of their daughter around the room, so that she is always in the frame. They all show her at the same age—the age she was lost. Most of them taken by me on that glorious spring day. The last
photos
of her ever taken. There are none of Gavin, her older brother. It’s as though he has been relegated to other parts of the house or
forgotten
entirely. Only dead Jenna dominates the living room.

Science teaches us that matter cannot be destroyed, only altered into something else. I kidded myself for years, thinking she’d come back to me from the grave, as a resurrected spirit, but she never did.

I swallow over a thick throat. “Ned, you do know, if I could go back and undo what was done, I would.”

He smiles. It’s the smile of a man who has been to hell and back. “Life’s all about lessons, Jake. What good would it be if we never made mistakes?” He takes the photo from my lap and
positions
it back on the side table. “Speaking of which, I heard about your old man, and I’m sorry. You got my sympathies there. It’s not going to be easy for you dealing with everything that’s to come.” He notices me pull back slightly from the comment. “You want to talk about it, Jake?”

“Maybe some other time.” I get to my feet, suddenly itching to get out into the cold. “I really ought to be going. It’s been a long night on the back of a long day. Rightly or wrongly, I just thought you should be the first to hear the news. I’ll check in with you again tomorrow, see Nancy while I’m at it, if that’s okay?”

“Sure.” He accompanies me to the front door, feet shuffling on the boards. “One more thing,” he says as I step outside. “He’s still out there: her killer. Walked free all these years. You’re here now. You can do something. Make amends. She deserved a life. We all did. So what are you going to do about it, Jake?”

Chapter Three

O
ne day, when I was seven, my mother walked out the front door and never came back. At the time, I was too young to understand the complex nature of adult relationships, but I was old enough to understand that crossing my father came at a price, and normally any dues owed him were paid in blood.

I think about my mother on the walk back home from the Luckmans’. The sad truth is I have few intact memories of her. Those that do survive are grainy images. Flashes of feelings, evoked by emotion. I am sure that more exist, but they lie shrouded in darkness, deep down, where I don’t dare go.

The house is mortuary cold.

I dump my snow-heavy boots on a rubber mat and power up the furnace. The house hasn’t been heated in a week, or more. Frost on the inside of the window panes and ghosts in the shadows.

Four unanswered messages lie in wait on the answering machine in the kitchen. I press the
Play
button and listen to the recordings as I drink week-old milk from the fridge.

Deep in the bowels of the house, the ancient furnace stirs to life. Knocking pipes tapping out the tune from
The Exorcist
.

If Ned has his way he’ll have me chasing down his daughter’s killer, to do unto him that which he did unto her. An eye for an eye. Old Testament retribution brought bang up to date. But Ned hasn’t done it himself. It’s one thing to follow your heart instead of your head, but when it comes to the crunch, killing another human isn’t like swatting a fly. It takes a completely different mindset to deliberately take a life. And once it’s done, there’s no coming back. Their ghost will haunt you for the rest of your life.

The milk is on the verge of turning, but I gulp it down without complaint; I’ve drunk far worse in my time. By the looks of things, there’s not much of anything worth eating in the fridge: some amorphous foodstuffs that have grown fur coats for the
winter
.
Cupboards
offer little more in the way of sustenance. I dig a fist into a box of opened cereal and munch on a handful of stale
cornflakes
as the first answering machine message come
s to life:

 

“Olson, this is Chief Meeks. Long time no see. I heard you were on your way back to town. Call me the minute you get in, and I mean the minute. I’ve got paperwork you need to sign and forms you need to fill out. Plus, I need to lay down some ground rules. Call me. I mean it, Olson. Don’t piss me off and make me come looking for you.”

 

This is the first time I have stood in this kitchen as an adult. It feels smaller, cramped, but otherwise the same. Olive green walls and stained countertops. Everything still in desperate need of updating, fixing. As with the rest of the house, it remains as it was the day my mother walked out, the day my father dived into the bottle and never resurfaced.

The second message is mostly static but contains a background noise that sounds like a TV with the volume turned low. No one speaks into the phone itself. The recording lasts about thirty seconds before it disconnects.

I wash the cereal down as the third message clicks on. A woman’s voice, saying:

 

“This is a message for Jake Olson. Hello, Mr. Olson. My name’s Dr. Beth Townsend. I’m calling about your father. I believe you are the next of kin and you’ve been apprised of the situation. It’s my understanding you’re on your way home. Please return my call on this number as a matter of urgency, or at your earliest convenience. I’m working the night shift at the hospital this weekend, so if you’d like to speak face to face, I’ll be here. Thank you.”

 

In my pocket, my cell phone vibrates. It’s a text message from the same number Lars called me on earlier.

One word:
Well?

With clumsy thumbs I type back
Meet me at
Merrill’s at 7
.

On the answering machine, the fourth and final recording clicks in. It comes with the same indistinct TV noise as the previous anonymous message, but this time a male voice growls through t
he stat
ic:

 

“You knew the rules, duckweed. Come back and you die. I thought I’d made it perfectly clear. Your funeral. Now you’re a dead man walking.”

Chapter Four

T
hese days, Tolstoy was feeling every one of his seventy-three years. Decades of living to excess had finally caught up with him. There were only so many knocks and scrapes a body could take before it was wrecked. But what man thought about becoming dust when he was shining like a diamond?

It was early; not yet dawn. And, typically of late, Tolstoy was sitting astride a toilet, sweating, trying to pee what felt like bits of broken glass through an inflamed urethra.

His wife had reminded him he was no spring chicken. She’d urged him to slow down, to take things a little easier. After all, it wasn’t as though they couldn’t afford the hired help; they were
comfortable
, with bank balances in the black. Shouldn’t he be
sitting
back and enjoying the ride instead of driving down the fast lane with his foot stomped on the gas?

A year ago, she’d warned him to listen to his complaining body or pay the price if he didn’t.

Ten months later, the debt had been called in.

With watering eyes, Tolstoy caught sight of his ghostly reflection in the bathroom mirror and let out a labored breath. The aging black man glaring back at him was still a hulk by all comparisons, still the stuff of children’s nightmares, but he could see where his affliction had melted muscle, turning hard slabs into sandbags. He wasn’t stupid; he knew it was only a matter of time before he faded away altogether, and the thought made him all the more
determined
to make his final days count.

An acidic trickle drilled its way through and he gasped with pain.

Cussing under his breath, he finished up and then made his way to the back of the house, stooping through doorways as he went. This wasn’t his home and he didn’t know his way in the dark. A man called Blake lived here. Tolstoy didn’t know Blake and Blake didn’t know him, but between them they did know a mutual acquaintance, and that was the reason for the visit. Politely,
Tolstoy
had introduced himself, by profession and
connection
rather than by name, and Blake had been accommodating, to a point.

“Man, I am so sorry about that,” he said to Blake as he entered the dimly lit kitchen. “I got this thing going on, you know? Damn nuisance. And no amount of medication hits the spot.” He ran
himself
a cool glass of water and glugged it down in one. Maybe it would force his bladder to play ball? Probably not.

Blake was standing at the breakfast bar. He was a thin-faced guy with salt-and-pepper hair and shifty eyes. There was no blood on his lips, no blackened eyes or broken teeth, no facial evidence to show he’d been roughed-up, but he had been. Verbally. There was real fear carved into his panicked expression, the kind of fear that causes a grown man to wet himself all over the kitchen floor.

Unexpectedly, Tolstoy was jealous.

“Please,” Blake implored him quietly, “I’m begging you. Don’t wake my wife. She’ll be up anytime soon as it is. You need to be long gone from here before then.”

Tolstoy stuck out a ledge of a lip. “That a fact? So what worries you the most, Mr. B—your lovely lady finding out you spent the rent money on cocaine, or the fact you’ve pissed yourself all over her clean kitchen floor?”

His words came out a shaky whisper: “You don’t need to do this; I said I’ll give you the money.”

“Sure you did. And that’s mightily generous of you. Seeing the error of your ways and wanting to make amends is commendable. Good for you, Mr. B. But it’s my job to make sure you understand the danger you’ve put your wife in. That way, it’ll never
happen
again.” Tolstoy moved closer and Blake visibly cowered. At eight foot tall, and even in his seventies, Tolstoy had the menacing
presence
of a standing bear. “See, I could have just as easily slipped in here, nice and quiet, and slit her throat while you both slept. But I didn’t. This is your one and only warning. You with me, Mr. B?”

Blake let loose a snotty whimper, nodded tightly.

Both of his hands were palm-down on the beech countertop, both pinned in place by steak knives stabbed through the soft
webbing
between the thumbs and the index fingers. Not enough to completely tear the skin into flaps, but sufficient to prevent him from pulling free and calling the cops. Trickles of blood had pooled on the wood.

“Please.” There was a distinct tremor in his voice. “I’ll give you all the money. Every last penny. Just don’t hurt my wife.”

Tolstoy slid Blake’s checkbook across the counter and slapped a pen down next to it. “So write the check and we can both go back to bed.” He reached over and pulled the steak knife out of the Blake’s right hand.

A minute later, Tolstoy was on his way back to his pickup when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He took it out, squinting at the small screen. It was a text message from an old friend:

“Jake Olson is back in town. You know what needs to be done.”

Chapter Five

H
arper isn’t what you might call a pulsating metropolis. At best, the population teeters around the two thousand mark. At worst, that number swells in the summertime into the six figures. The reason? Harper is what’s known as a gateway community. A frontier town, clinging to the edge of the great outdoors. Last call for every East Coast city slicker with a permit and a canoe.

In any other town, Merrill’s Diner would be a trendy coffee shop or a fast-food outlet. One of those big-brand clones that have elbowed their way onto every intersection and kicked out the competition. The one thing small towns have in their favor is charm, and it protects them from the big-boy franchises. Merrill’s has stood on the corner of Charlotte and Main for what seems like forever, or at least since jukeboxes ruled the roost, and that in itself is a lifeti
me ago.

I used to come here all the time with Jenna.

It’s impossible not to fill my thoughts with her as I sit here waiting, staring through the window at the street lights holding back the dark. Jenna was my first love. It meant something, sti
ll doe
s. Recently, I think about her more than I have in years—still spellbound by her bright blue eyes and the way the rest of the world dimmed in the brilliance of her smile. Pathetic, I know. A counselor once told me I have a fixation with my feelings for Jenna and an idealistic way of remembering her, both of which act as an overcompensation for her absence. Maybe so. But it doesn’t make me feel or think any differently.

Ned and Nancy aren’t the only ones who have held a torch for her all these years, I realize. Discovering her remains doesn’t just bring closure, it brings finality and has left me on a knife’s edge.

I press achy shoulders against the back of the booth and draw a slow breath. A tall mug of coffee is warming my hands. I think about the messages on the answering machine, especially the anonymous recordings. Unsurprisingly, I have enemies in town. People who’d rather I never came back or, better yet, that I’d died in the Twin Cities and spared everyone the heartache. Any lesser person would run a mile. But I’m not easily scared these days, or deterred.

On the wall, a TV is showing a 24-hour news channel. The scene depicts a Middle East warzone: shelled buildings, speckled with bullet holes; dazed survivors scurrying for cover under the thunder of incoming artillery; dusty babies crying in mothers’ arms; broken bodies mangled in the rubble. It’s the kind of foreign shore where my brother would have defended his country. The clip could be current or ten years old; same scene every day of the week, year in and year out. Far enough from Minnesota to make it somebody else’s problem.

With a sucking noise, the diner’s door opens, allowing a gust of freezing air to blow in and ruffle the napkins. On the back of it comes an old man in a padded parka. One of those Russian-style ushanka fur hats is curled up on his head like a sleeping mink. He walks with the aid of a cane but his gait remains awkward. He is thinner than I remember, as knotty as driftwood. He spots me and pulls off the ushanka to reveal a cap of snowy hair atop a head that seems out of proportion with the rest of his withering frame. He looks every bit the harmless retiree, half the man of my
memories
. But I know looks can be deceptive. You don’t need weight to hav
e gravitas.

“Thanks for your consideration, son,” Lars Grossinger
complains
as he slides into the booth seat and fixes me with a slanted smile. “Have you any idea how deadly it is out there for a guy with a stick?”

I spread my hands. “Neutral territory.”

His gaze scans the deserted diner. “Haven’t been in here in a while. Sure looks like no man’s land. Still, I don’t bite, you know? Not with these teeth.”

“They serve better coffee here.”

“That’s what I’m counting on.”

As if on cue, a young waitress floats over. She’s all of sixteen, pretty in an uncluttered kind of way. She fills the mug in front of Lars and tops mine to the brim. I wonder if she has any inkling about the identity or even the history of the man she’s now
serving
. Lars nods his gratitude, then picks up the sugar dispenser and
proceeds
to load the drink. With a rumble, he orders pancakes with blueberries, syrup, and extra butter.

“How old are you, Lars?”

He pulls off gloves. “Eighty-something. To tell you the truth, by the time you reach my age, it’s a bit of a blur. If it’s my blood sugar you’re worried about, don’t be; I’m not. They have medication for everything these days. Besides, we all got to die sometime, right? The way I figure it, we might as well enjoy ourselves on the run-up.” He nods toward the departing waitress. “You want some breakfast, son? It’s on me.”

I shake my head. I don’t want to owe Lars any more than I already do.

“Okay, so let’s just cut to the chase.” He sets the fur hat on the seat next to him. “One thing I do remember about you is meandering conversation was never your style. So let’s talk business. What’s my story?”

“There isn’t one.”

He gives me
the look
. I know it’s the look Lars makes whenever he feels deceived. Ordinarily, it causes most people to quake in their shoes. Not me, not now.

He leans forward. “Son, let’s you and I get something straight here: there’s always a story. It may not be immediately visible. It may take some digging, some inventive thinking. But there’s always a story. Kim called me after she dropped you at the Luckmans. She told me exactly what you found up there by The Falls and what you believe it means. If that ain’t newsworthy, you better tell me wha
t is.”

This is my chance to tell Lars to keep his job, to prove to him I’m not the malleable kid he remembers. I’ve been away from Harper and my father long enough to grow an iron backbone and a steel skin. Unlike most townsfolk I was never completely in Lars’s pocket. Had I stayed in Harper things might have been different. As it is, I owe him for supporting me in my hour of need, but that doesn’t mean I owe him my life.

Lars blows at his coffee and cautiously takes a sip. “Look, son, I know going up there this morning has probably opened up old wounds and got you on the defensive. It’s understandable. I’m no ogre here. I empathize. But a deal’s a deal, right? You agreed to go out there and get me a story.”

“Even if the truth is it’s yesterday’s news?”

“The truth is what we make it.” He breathes the words, as though by saying them any louder he’ll invoke the devil himself. “Son, are you and I operating on the same frequency here? If your hunch pays off and you’re right about it being Jenna up there, then it’s not just newsworthy, it’s serendipitous. Trust me, son, we need to get this story landed before the sharks get a sniff of it.”

When I was a boy I would never have looked Lars directly in the eye, but I do now. “Kim assured me you’d mellowed with age, but I can see you’re still just as fixated as you always were.”

“That’s because it’s in the blood, son. I’m obsessed with the truth. It’s all we have. It defines us, shapes us. It’s the only thing we take with us beyond the grave. Never mind your chivalry and your patriotism, it’s the truth that keeps men like you and me up at night. Someone needs to be its voice. And that’s our job.”

I’ve heard his little speech before, and I’m still unimpressed.

I lean back in the booth and drop my shoulders. “Lars, it’s been eighteen years. The people had their conviction. No one’s
interested
.”

“And that’s where I beg to differ. There’s no statute of
limitations
on murder, Jake. Not in Minnesota. The people need to know what really happened to Jenna, where it happened, and by whose hand. Do you want the world to go on thinking it was you who kill
ed her?”

Another killer question. The worst one.

With heat rising in my belly, I glance toward the kitchen,
fearing
that the waitress has overheard Lars’s declaration.
Thankfully
, she is nowhere to be seen, and my speeding heartrate slows a little. My reaction is automatic, and one that has been repeated a hundred times over the preceding six months.

“Most of the town believe I killed her,” I say, keeping my voice low, even though I have nothing to be ashamed of. “It’s the way it’s been since I was seventeen and I can’t see it changing just because her remains have been found.”

“It will if you find her real killer. That’s the reason you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Partly.”

“So this is your chance to set the record straight. Give the
people
what they want: the truth. Find her real killer. Expose him. I don’t buy for one second you don’t have intentions to do exactly that.” He sees the darkness in my eyes and adds, “Be its voice, Jake. Work with me. We’re on the same side here. Like it or not. We’re up to our necks in the truth business and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.”

He neglects to say
his version of the truth
business.

A smirk tries to force its way onto my lips, but I hold it back. Provoking a cobra is never a good idea. Thanks to his ownership of the local press, Lars has written what he calls the truth in Harper for over fifty years. That’s a long time to warp perspectives without succumbing to your own hype. Listening to him, I’m not sure he can tell the difference between the truth and a donkey in a dress.

Lars sits back and lets out a long breath. “Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: the truth is whatever people choose to believe. I accept I’ve played my part in that outcome over the years. God knows there are times I haven’t been completely forthcoming with the unabridged version of it. See, my hands are up. I’m a sinner. We all are. When I was younger I had axes to grind and soapboxes to climb. Stupidly, I believed I could make a difference and that the
Horn
was my way of fixing things. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, isn’t it? When we peel back the layers of lies, the only thing left behind is the truth.”

He spreads his hand. “Look, Jake, let me be perfectly honest with you. I’m too old to fight anymore. My time here on Earth is limited; I’m not getting any younger and God knows I’ve had a good run at things. I need to make peace with my maker while I still can. I’ve made some bad choices over the years. We all do. None of us are angels. Before my time expires, I need to set the record straight—just like you. I know you’re not in my fan club. I respect you for it. A man should have his principles and be willing to stand by them, no matter what. I just want you to know I’ve always done my best by you, son. And that’s the God’s honest truth. This job offer of mine, it’s an olive branch. A new start. I’d like it to be long term. I’m not going to be around forever; I need someone to run the
Horn
after I’m gone. I need someone I can depend on. Someone with sharp eyes and a nose for a good story. Someone o
ut for—”

“Revenge?”

A smile makes a brief appearance. “I was going to say for the good of the people. But if that works, who am I to say otherwise? The truth is, in the short term, I need a dependable reporter and you need a regular paycheck. Whichever way you slice it, this is one heck of a deal for us both, right?” He takes something out of his pocket and slides it across the tabletop. It’s a plain white envelope, thickened by its contents. “Go ahead, count it. There’s a thousand dollars in there. Consider it an advance on your first month’s wage.”

I shake my head. “Keep your charity.”

He leaves the envelope where it is. “Loosen up, son. I know you got your education in prison. Top marks with flying colors. Got that journalism degree, too, I hear. So quit playing hardball and put all that learning to good use. Think about it. Everyone believes you’re a convicted murderer. Who else is going to give you a job round here?” He pushes the envelope to my side of the table. “We’ll get you started on a basic two thousand dollars a month. Plus commission.”

It’s probably double the salary of his last reporter, and I tell him so. Harper isn’t exactly a hubbub of news stories. No high demand for investigative journalism hereabouts.

He dismisses my hesitance with a wave of his liver-spotted hand. “Want to know something? Your mother was the best photo-journalist I ever worked with. She was the best. I owe it to her to make good with you. Besides, I’m cash-heavy these days, and I can’t take any of it with me.”

I take a mouthful of cooling coffee, one eye on the envelope.

The waitress brings his pancakes. Lars tucks an oversized napkin in the neck of his sweater and dives in.

Up until a couple of days ago, I cleaned tables in a mall in St. Paul and bedded down in a hostel. The job wasn’t riveting and the accommodation wasn’t The Ritz. Lars’s job offer is a good one. Generous. Better than the roll of ones dwindling in my pocket. It will provide security and a means to stay in Harper—if that’s wha
t I want.

We all have a price. But do I want to owe Lars my soul?

One thing I am sure of is that being on Lars’s payroll comes with expectations, obligations. Lars never does anything without good reason. Once you’re indebted to him, your life is his to do with as he pleases. Sure, I need the money, but it’s all about the lesser of two evils and what I’m prepared to live with, or not.

It’s hard not to get burned when you’re fascinated by fire.

Lars swallows down a mouthful of pancake. “Must have come as a shock, that scene this morning. Don’t pretend you don’t give a damn, Jake, because I know you better than that.”

“You know nothing about me, Lars.”

“I know enough. I’ve kept track of you over the years. I know you have principles, that you’re loyal, that you’re a survivor. I kno
w yo
u wanted the Luckmans to hear it from your own lips, rather than read about it in the paper. That takes some balls. You got a
conscience
and that’s golden in my line of work.” He wipes whipped cream from his lips. “That discovery this morning, some
might say it’s more than coincidence that this hits the fan the
minute
you walk back into town. If I were a God-fearing man I’d say it’s divinely ordained. So I’ll ask again: what’s my story?”

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