Read Thief River Falls Online

Authors: Brian Freeman

Thief River Falls (5 page)

That was what her twin brother, Noah, had done, too.

Escape. Run away.

Lisa walked over to her bed and stared down at Purdue, lost in the white blanket and white pillows. He looked small and fragile that way, as if she could blink and he would disappear. Instinctively, she reached down and ran her fingers through his thick hair. He murmured and sighed in his sleep.

The echo of his words rippled through her memory.
Kill the boy.

She didn’t know whether to believe what he’d told her. He gave no indication of lying, and he was injured and clearly terrified of something. And yet it was so easy for children to misread and misunderstand things. Whatever trauma he’d suffered had interfered with his memory, and maybe he’d filled in the gaps with fantasy. She would have assumed that was true if police officers hadn’t showed up outside her house with their guns in their hands.

Purdue’s clothes lay where she’d folded them on the corner of the bed. She realized she hadn’t searched his clothes to see if there were any clues in them about who he was or where he’d come from. She picked up the little bundle, grabbed her phone from the nightstand, and carried all of it out of the bedroom, letting Purdue sleep. Downstairs, she went into her kitchen, turned on the lights, and poured herself a double shot of Absolut Mandarin. When she tasted it, the cold, sweet vodka on an empty stomach went straight to her head.

She examined Purdue’s white T-shirt and white athletic socks. They were standard issue, the kind she would find at any Walmart, including the supercenter in Thief River Falls. His jeans were more interesting. They were stonewashed and featured zippered pockets on the front and back. When she felt the pockets with her fingers, she realized he had things zipped inside, and it gave her hope that maybe some of his secrets were hidden there, too.

Lisa unzipped one of the front pockets and fished out the contents. It was money, a handful of loose change and a few folded dollar bills that were wet from having gone through the wash. She checked the opposite pocket and found a long silver key that looked like it was made for an automobile. There was just the one key and nothing else. She found it strange that Purdue, who was many years too young to drive, had a car key in his jeans but no key for a house.

His back pockets were empty. No wallet. No school ID. No phone. Nothing that would make him anything other than Purdue.

She spotted one more pocket on the side of the boy’s jeans near the knee. It was tiny, barely big enough to hold a credit card, but she realized that something was wedged inside. She yanked open the zipper and scooped out what was in the pocket with one finger. When she held it up, a metal cylinder gleamed in the light. Seeing it, Lisa inhaled sharply.

It was a spent cartridge from a gun.

She held the brass in front of her face and rolled it around in her fingers. The mental image of it being used made her twitch. The bang of the shot. The recoil. The ejected brass flying from the gun.

She wanted to know where Purdue had found it.

She wanted to know who had fired the gun and where the bullet had gone.

At that moment, Lisa realized it was all true. Purdue was in danger.

She finished her vodka in one swallow, and then she gathered up Purdue’s clothes and turned off the kitchen lights. She wanted the house completely dark if anyone showed up here. After she crossed the foyer, she checked the security of the lock and dead bolt on her front door. She went upstairs, where Purdue was still sleeping, and put his T-shirt, socks, and jeans back on the bed. She stuffed the money and car key back into his pockets, but she kept the spent cartridge herself. Then she went into her large walk-in closet and shut the door behind her.

Lisa changed clothes. She anticipated a long, cold day ahead. She found heavy wool socks in a dresser drawer and a pair of dark corduroys.
She grabbed a jean shirt, buttoned it, and left it untucked. She had a white down vest on a hanger, and she took it down by the collar. Finally, she went to the bureau at the far back of the closet and found her gun safe shoved to the rear of the highest shelf. She pulled it into her hands and undid the combination lock and flipped open the top.

Her Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic pistol was inside, along with a loaded ten-round magazine. It was in perfect condition, only a year old. She’d bought it when she moved to this house, because help was far away when you lived out here and strange things had a way of happening so close to the border. Once a month, she fired at the range, and she was obsessive about keeping the gun clean and lubricated. She’d grown up with guns in her family. Pistols. Shotguns. Hunting rifles. Firearms were one of the prerequisites of country life. Even so, there had never been a time when she felt as if she needed to keep her pistol on her person when she was out and about.

Not until now.

Now her gut told her,
Stay armed
.

She shoved the magazine into the pocket of her corduroys, and then she zipped the Ruger into the right-hand pocket of the down vest. She took the vest with her as she left the closet. Purdue was still asleep, a little boy in a sea of white. When she went back downstairs, she hung the down vest on the hook by the front door, so she could grab it whenever they left the house.

She went into the kitchen again. She kept the lights off.

Her phone was on the table. She stared at it, debating what to do. Her gaze shifted to the clock, and she saw that it was nearly four in the morning. Sunrise was still more than three hours away. She’d heard the police saying they would be back when it was daylight.

Lisa took the phone and dialed Laurel March. It was the middle of the night, and she assumed her friend would be asleep, but Laurel answered the phone immediately, sounding as if she’d already been awake.

“Hello?” her friend said. “Lisa, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me. Laurel, thank God you’re there. I’m sorry to call so late, but I need your help.”

5

The nightmares came for Denis Farrell, just as they had the previous several nights. Whenever he closed his eyes, his dreams tortured him. This one was the worst. He lay in a surgery room on the operating table, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie as if this were just another day at the office. A dozen doctors and nurses in scrubs surrounded him, but masks covered their entire faces, so he couldn’t see who they were. One of the doctors loomed over his body, knife in hand. The knife was on fire, a yellow flame dancing all along the metal of the blade.

“I’m awake,” Denis protested in the dream.

The surgeon acted as if he didn’t hear him. As Denis watched, the doctor slowly brought the flaming knife down to make an incision in his body.

“I’m awake!” he screamed.

But his warning had no effect. The blade seared through his skin, cutting him open from the hollow of his neck to the base of his stomach. Black flaming blood leached from his insides onto his clothes. His shirt and tie caught fire, billowing and steaming along with blood that spurted like a geyser. His organs bubbled and burned deep inside his body. When he breathed, he exhaled fire from his mouth like a dragon. The flames flew up the surgeon’s gown, until the doctor was nothing but a column of fire. With each breath, Denis’s mouth expelled more flames, lighting up the others in the room. Fire shot up every doctor,
every nurse, like they were dry kindling. And then the walls caught fire. And the floor.

His whole world was flame and pain.

Denis cried out and jolted upward in bed, wide awake now. He was bathed in sweat. The sheets beneath him were soaked. His heart pounded so fast that he was afraid he was having a heart attack. He stretched out his arm to take his wife’s hand, but he realized that he was alone. Gillian was gone. The pillows and sheets on her side of the bed hardly looked slept in at all.

He found the strength to roll his legs out of bed. He stood up unsteadily and went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, and he ran his wet hands through the thick, wild nest of gray hair on his head. A glass night-light, a gift from his grandson that was painted with the image of a hummingbird, made him look like a shadowy monster in the mirror. His old tanned skin was a web of wrinkles, and dark half moons sagged below his blue eyes. He hadn’t shaved in days, leaving him with scraggly stubble. He wore a graying V-neck undershirt that made him look like an old man. The fact is, he was an old man. He was seventy years old, and he could see every one of those years written in his face and feel them weighing down his bones.

It was the middle of the night, but Denis got dressed for the workday. He wasn’t going to sleep again. Throughout his life, he’d carefully laid out his clothes for the next day before getting into bed, so his suit was waiting for him. He put on a blue Arrow shirt and wool dress slacks, and he knotted a paisley tie carefully at his neck. He sat down on the bed and bent over with difficulty to tie the laces on his brown leather shoes, and then he slipped his arms into the sleeves of his suit coat. In the bathroom, he tried to tame his hair with a brush. These were the routines that shaped his life day after day, and right now, they were the only thing keeping him sane.

Denis used the railing on the steps to help him as he limped downstairs. The house was cold. The lights weren’t on in the living room,
but there was enough of a moon to show him Gillian’s silhouette in an armchair by the floor-to-ceiling window that looked out on the backyard. Like him, she was dressed. Her posture was rigid. He spotted a glint of crystal in her hand, which was the last thing he wanted to see. It meant she was drinking again. Ten years ago, she’d nearly drunk herself to death before finally emerging from her downward spiral, and since then, not a drop had crossed her lips. Now the bottle was open again, and there was no such thing as a little slip with Gillian. She’d made the decision, knowing what it meant.

“You couldn’t sleep?” he murmured in the darkness.

“I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again.” Her voice was harsh.

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry.”

He heard the clink of ice cubes as she finished her drink. Languidly, she reached to a bottle of gin on the end table and refilled her glass. It was as if she was daring him to say something, to try to stop her. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t hate what was happening to her, even if he understood the reasons.

“Drinking isn’t the answer,” he said.

“Really? Because I think it’s the only answer.”

“I can take away the bottle, Gillian. Pour it out. I can make sure no one in this town sells you anything. You know that.”

“Go ahead.”

They both knew it was a hollow threat. Yes, he could try to choke off her supply, but she had her ways around that. The last time, every liquor store in Thief River Falls had been under strict orders to keep the booze away from Gillian Farrell, but regardless, he would find the recycling bin stocked every week with the broken glass of half a dozen empty bottles.

“You’re not just hurting yourself by doing this,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Is this hard on you, Denis? Forgive me.” The sarcasm in her voice was as hot and sharp as the knife in his dream.

“You can’t blame me for what happened.”

“I never said I did.”

“No? You’re acting that way.”

“As usual, you make everything about you. This has nothing to do with you.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” he reiterated. “I did everything I could. We both did. In the end, this was up to God.”

“Don’t talk to me about
God
,” his wife snapped. “I don’t want to hear about him. Maybe you think you’re closer than everyone else, but you’re not, are you? All that power over life and death, Denis, and in the end, you’re just as impotent as the rest of us.”

He shook his head in frustration. “You’re not the only one grieving, Gillian. Don’t you realize I’m as devastated by this as you are?”

“You? Devastated? When has that ever been the case? You’d have to be human, Denis. You’d have to have emotions.”

“That’s terribly unfair.”

Gillian took another long drink before answering. “Honestly, I don’t care about being fair right now.”

Denis knew there was no point in arguing with her. She was drunk and going to stay that way. He left her alone with her bottle of gin, and he limped down the hallway to his sanctuary, his library, his office. It was a big room with dark furniture and dark carpet, and it smelled of tobacco and leather. Two walls were made of built-in bookshelves stocked with hardcover first editions that he’d collected throughout his life. A third wall had glass doors that led to the green grass of their backyard and down the slope to a horseshoe bend in the Red Lake River.

He sat behind his huge walnut desk and switched on the brass lamp, which gave a dim yellow glow. An oil painting on the opposite wall mocked him. So did the framed photograph on his desk. Art lasted forever, but people didn’t. He took the picture in his hand, stared at it for a while, and then turned it facedown. He put his palms flat on the desk, which was neatly arranged with file folders. There was plenty of work to do, but he didn’t have the spirit to do any of it.

Some people dealt with grief by crying. Some ran away. Some, like Gillian, drank their troubles down. Denis dealt with his grief by getting angry. He liked control, he liked power, and grief took those things away. Gillian was right; he felt impotent. When he felt that way, he had a need to strike back at whatever was causing his pain. He had to find someone to blame. Not that it took any of the grief away.

Denis unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk. He kept his most important papers there. His financial accounts, statements, and passwords. The deed to the house. His will, which would need to be changed yet again. He dreaded the thought of another meeting with his attorney, his life’s tragic events reduced to a series of codicils.

A gun was in the drawer, too. A revolver, practically antique, with a hardwood grip. It had belonged to his father and then his grandfather before that. Denis stared at it and could almost hear the gun calling to him. He thought about taking it out, caressing the black steel of the barrel, easing back the hammer. He’d always kept it loaded for a circumstance just like this. For the end of the road. He’d never intended to go out slowly, wasting away to nothing, losing control over his body and mind day by day. No, when the time came, this was the way to go about it.

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