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Authors: Brian Freeman

Thief River Falls (6 page)

BOOK: Thief River Falls
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He wondered, Was this the day?

Gillian wouldn’t miss him if he left her. Some relationships recover from loss, and some don’t, and theirs fell into the latter category. If he asked her about it, she’d probably tell him to do whatever he wanted, but to do it outside, please, where the blood wouldn’t get on the carpet and the walls. That was the extent of her concern with whether he lived or died.

No. It wasn’t that day yet.

Denis closed the drawer and locked it again. He got up from behind the desk and went to the outside door. His hand-carved walking stick hung on the handle. He opened the door and leaned on the cane as he proceeded into the yard. The grass was sodden below his shoes from the long day of rain. There was a fall chill in the night air, but he didn’t bother with a coat.
He never did. He hiked past Gillian’s flower garden and past the fire pit and mature oak trees out to the boat dock that jutted into the water. The shifting dock was treacherous underfoot, but he didn’t care. He walked to the very end, where the river slouched past him at a lazy pace. He stared into the water and then up at the sky, as if he could find answers there. But there were no answers anywhere. Not tonight.

He took his phone from his pocket. Typically, he kept it powered on all the time, because emergencies were commonplace in his job day or night. But he’d switched it off earlier in the evening and left it that way. He turned it on again by habit, and when the phone acquired a signal, he heard the buzz that told him he had messages. Voice mails. E-mails. Texts. People were trying to reach him, but he had no stomach to talk to them. Everything could wait until daylight. He switched the phone off again and dropped it back in his pocket.

But they wouldn’t leave him in peace. He couldn’t get away from who he was. Behind him, on the east end of Eleventh Street where he lived, he heard the noise of a car engine, which was unusual in this neighborhood late at night. The car stopped in front of his house. He waited, knowing that whoever it was, they were here for him. Not long after, the beam of a flashlight swept across the backyard.

Denis glanced over his shoulder to see who was there. He saw a young man in a deputy’s uniform making his way toward the river. Garrett was his name.

“Mr. Farrell,” the police officer called.

Denis didn’t answer and made no effort to leave his place by the water. Soon heavy footsteps made the boat dock shudder. The cop came up behind him and then stopped when he was a few feet away, as if awaiting permission to come closer. Denis finally turned around and made an impatient gesture with his cane. He didn’t want to be disturbed.

“What is it?”

The cop was stocky and big shouldered like most cops, but he looked ready to sink into the ground. Denis had that effect on people.
Deputy Garrett shifted nervously on his feet, and the sway of the dock nearly threw Denis into the river.

“Be careful!” Denis snapped.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I apologize for bothering you tonight. I know this isn’t a good time.”

“What is it?” Denis demanded again.

“We’ve been trying to reach you,” Garrett told him.

“My phone’s off.”

“Yes, we figured that. I’m sorry.”

“So why are you here?”

“Well, I know this is the last thing you need right now, but I’m afraid we have a problem. We thought you should know.”

“A problem?”

“It’s about the boy.”

Denis felt a roaring in his head. “What about him?”

“The thing is, the boy is . . . well, the boy is missing.”

Denis blinked. He heard the words but didn’t understand them. “Missing? What does that even mean,
missing
? How is that possible?”

“Well, we don’t really know yet, but we can’t find him. He just . . . disappeared. We’ve been looking everywhere, but so far, we’re not sure exactly what happened.”

“How long ago?” Denis asked sharply.

“Several hours,” the cop replied.


Hours?
And you’re only telling me about this now?”

“We didn’t want to interrupt you, sir. We wanted to take care of it without worrying you, but given the situation, we all thought that—”

Denis silenced him with a wave of his hand. He closed his eyes, needing to think clearly. His anger flooded back and gave him a focus. “I don’t want excuses, Deputy Garrett. This is unacceptable. I don’t care what you have to do, but you need to
find that boy
. Am I clear? Find Harlan and bring him back.”

6

Lisa flinched with concern when she saw headlights on the highway, but as the car turned and headed up her driveway, she recognized the red Ford Bronco that Laurel March drove. Relief flooded through her at the thought of her friend arriving. She ran to the front door and hurried down the porch steps and greeted Laurel as she got out of the SUV. Lisa threw her arms around her in a tight hug, and Laurel hugged her stiffly back. They stood like that together in the cold for a silent minute.

“Thank you,” Lisa murmured. “I really appreciate your coming over here like this. I’m sorry it’s so late.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Laurel replied. “I’ve told you before, I’m always around when you need anything. Day or night. Now let’s go inside where we can talk.”

“Can I ask you a favor first?”

“Of course.”

“Can you park your Bronco behind the house? Where no one can see it from the highway?”

Laurel cocked her head. “Okay, but why?”

“I don’t want anyone to know that someone’s here if they drive by. I’ve been keeping the lights off.”

Laurel didn’t protest or ask for an explanation. She got back into her SUV and started the engine again. Lisa heard the radio boom to life, playing a song she knew called “Little Talks.” Laurel routinely traveled
all over the northland for her work, and she liked loud music to keep her company as she drove. She could also provide a half-hour analysis of the lyrics of just about any song. Lisa watched Laurel drive the Bronco onto the wet grass and continue past the house until the vehicle was invisible. Then the music shut down, and Laurel walked back to where Lisa was standing.

“There you go. Is that better?”

“Thanks. I know I sound paranoid.”

Laurel didn’t say anything to that. Lisa kept an arm around her friend’s shoulder as they headed into the house. Inside, Lisa locked the front door and led Laurel into the kitchen. They’d sat together in this room many times over the past two years. The only light came from the clocks glowing on her stainless steel appliances.

“Do you want tea?” Lisa asked.

“Sure.”

Lisa heated an electric kettle. When the water was boiling, she poured it into two mugs and dropped a pouch of pomegranate tea into each one. She brought the mugs to the wooden table and sat across from Laurel.

“I know I was cryptic on the phone,” she said.

“Yes, you were, but I’m here now, so fill me in. What do you think is going on?”

Lisa shook her head. “I wish I knew. A boy showed up outside my house. He’s alone and on the run, and I’m pretty sure he’s in trouble. He may be caught up in something dangerous.”

“Start at the beginning. Tell me everything.”

Lisa got up from the table and paced restlessly. She took a minute to gather her thoughts and then told Laurel what had happened in the past few hours. About the police and their guns and their thoughts of breaking into her house. About hunting for the boy in the backyard and finding him hiding in the barn. About his inability to remember who
he was or what had happened to him. About the spent cartridge she’d found in his pocket.

When she was done she sat down again, feeling breathless. Her headache throbbed.

“Normally, the first thing I’d do is call the police,” Lisa said, “but the boy says the police may be involved in whatever’s going on. I don’t want to risk doing the wrong thing or talking to the wrong person and putting Purdue in more jeopardy.”

“Purdue? As in
Thief River Falls
?”

Lisa gave a short little laugh. “It seemed appropriate.”

Laurel nodded, because she understood the irony. She eased back in the chair and sipped her tea without saying anything right away. That was how she always was. She didn’t rush in; she didn’t speak without thinking through what she was going to say. Laurel conveyed a sense of unflappable calm that Lisa envied, because her own emotions bubbled right below the surface and were always threatening to overflow.

They’d known each other casually for years, enough to say hello and share an occasional lunch. Both of them had worked at the hospital in Thief River Falls, and Laurel still did on a part-time basis. After Lisa’s mother, Madeleine, died in the accident, Laurel had offered to listen if Lisa ever needed to talk. Lisa had resisted for a while, but then she’d decided she needed a friend outside the family, and Laurel had proven to be someone with good ears and a kind heart. They’d grown closer as things in Lisa’s life got worse.

First her mother.

Then her father. Then her brothers.

Laurel was older than Lisa. She’d turned fifty in July, although she hid it behind careful makeup. She was tall and slightly heavyset, with a long, elegant neck. She kept her hair shoulder length and sandy blond, with bangs all the way across her forehead. Her nose and chin were both sharp and pointed. Her pale eyes were as intense as lasers, and she rarely laughed, no matter how much Lisa tried to draw her out with inappropriate jokes.
The most she ever got from Laurel was a gentle smile and a little shake of her head. They were opposites in most ways, but Lisa had always felt that she could trust Laurel with her secrets and her life.

She watched her friend puzzle through what she’d told her.

“Is Purdue familiar to you at all?” Laurel asked. “Can you describe what he looks like? Does he remind you of anyone?”

“You mean, have I seen him before in TRF? No, I haven’t. I’ve spoken at the school several times, but I don’t remember seeing him there. He’s a beautiful child. A little small for his age. Sunny blond hair, amazing blue eyes. And such a strange, serious expression all the time. He’s a smart one. You can probably tell that I like him. I don’t always do well with kids, but Purdue and I seem to click. I guess he brings out the mother in me.”

“Is that so bad?” Laurel asked. “You shouldn’t run away from that feeling.”

Lisa laughed. “Me? We both know I’d make a terrible mother. My books are my kids, and it’s better that way.”

“I don’t know that at all. That’s simply wrong.”

“You’re sweet,” Lisa said. She took a sip of tea, but it was already cold.

“The boy,” Laurel went on. “Is he here? Where is he now?”

“He’s upstairs sleeping. I put him in my bed.”

“Can I see him?”

“Sure, but try not to wake him up. I told him I was going to bring over a friend to talk about what we should do next, but I’m afraid he might be frightened to find a stranger in the room.”

Laurel got up and left the kitchen. Lisa stayed where she was in the darkness. She listened to the thump of her friend’s shoes in the hallway and felt the subtle shifting of the house as Laurel went upstairs. Not long after, the footsteps started downstairs again, and Laurel came back into the kitchen.

“He’s a sweet kid, isn’t he?” Lisa said. “I don’t like to think about what he’s been through.”

Laurel looked thoughtful as she sat down. “When did you first see him?”

“Right after midnight. I saw the police officers first. There were two deputies from Pennington County, but I didn’t recognize them, which is odd. I know pretty much everyone over there. Mostly, I was concerned because they had their guns out.”

“Are you sure about that?” Laurel asked. “It was dark. Maybe you didn’t see what you think you saw.”

Lisa shook her head. “There was a bright moon. I saw it clearly. Seeing the guns made me wonder if they were really cops at all, although the county vehicle looked legit. Anyway, after they left, that’s when I spotted Purdue in the yard. I think he may have been hiding from them.”

“Did anything else unusual happen today?”

Lisa shrugged. “You mean before now? Not that I recall. I was in Thief River Falls all day. I got home pretty late in the evening.”

“What were you doing in town? Where did you go?”

“I was shopping. I still have a long list of things I need for the house. I got back after nine, and then I did a call-in book club with some readers in California.”

“Do you remember anything else about the day? Anything at all?”

“No. Look, I know what you’re getting at, because that was my first thought, too. I wondered whether Purdue stowed away in my pickup sometime during the day while I was in town, but he says no. He claims he was in a different truck and escaped when it stopped. I also don’t think he came here specifically to find
me
. It was just luck that he wandered across the fields and found my house.”

“Luck?”

“Well, luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. Anyway, the question is, What do I do with him? The boy’s here, and he’s all alone. I want to help him. I feel like he needs protection.”

“How about we talk to the police together? You and me. There’s safety in numbers.”

“I appreciate that, but I want to have some idea what’s going on and who’s involved before I do that. Until then, I think it’s better that no one know he’s here.”

“What about going to the hospital?” Laurel asked. “You know everybody there. They’re your friends.”

“Sure, but if we take him there, they’ll have to report it. Plus, I think he’ll run. Hospitals scare him for some reason. He said if he goes there, he’ll die. Why would he say that? What happened to him? There are too many mysteries here, Laurel. I want to get some answers before I’d feel comfortable handing him over to anyone else.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. That’s why I called you. I don’t know what else to do, and I don’t have anybody else who can help me.”

Laurel reached across the table and took Lisa’s hand. “Well, I’m glad you called. I’m always here for you. But it’s
not
true that you don’t have anyone else in your life. You have a brother, too. Have you called Noah?”

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