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Authors: Brian Freeman

Thief River Falls (9 page)

BOOK: Thief River Falls
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9

Human trafficking.

Lisa thought about the police showing up at her house with their guns out in the middle of the night. And about Purdue, injured, escaping from somewhere, with no memory of the trauma that had brought him to her. Maybe the real danger to the boy was from a stranger in the shadows. A criminal, out to recapture a child who’d escaped from his web.

She hiked down the Lancaster driveway back to her pickup truck. When she glanced in the window, she saw that Purdue had drifted to sleep while waiting for her. She got into the truck quietly, trying not to wake him, and she drove out on the empty roads again. She wondered if she’d made a mistake by not going to the police right away. It occurred to her that the best thing to do was to go back home and wait for the two deputies to return and hand the boy over to them.

And yet. And yet.

Something stopped her. Purdue’s panic about the police still gave her pause.

Kill the boy.

She continued north for a couple of miles to the next intersection, and then she turned left toward the main highway. But she needed a place to think. When she spotted a dirt road, she slowed and turned, hidden by the cover of the trees. Even the jostling of the truck on the
uneven road didn’t wake Purdue. She continued until the trees ended at a small swimming pond that she knew well. The weeds near the shore were crushed where others had parked here before her. Out on the water, rain dimpled the black surface. It was getting colder, and she could see a hint of texture in the rain, as if it was threatening to become snow.

Beside her, Purdue twitched like a puppy. She heard him making noises in his sleep, as if he was caught in a bad dream. She reached over and gently put a hand on his knee, but at the barest touch, he jolted awake, screaming. He lashed out with his tiny fists; his legs kicked; his blue eyes were frozen with fear. When he looked at her, she saw no recognition in his eyes. He grabbed for the door handle and was halfway out of the truck when she threw her arms around him and pulled him back.

“Wait! Purdue, wait, it’s me, it’s Lisa. Everything’s okay.”

She held him tightly, trying to calm him. He strained against her, as slippery and hard to hold as a snake. Then, slowly, his nightmare yielded. He looked around, at the truck, at the trees, at the lake, at her. His breathing slowed, and he let her ease him back onto the seat of the pickup. The door still hung ajar, wind and rain blowing inside.

“It was just a dream,” she told him.

“Yeah.”

“Dreams can feel pretty real, but you’re all right.”

Purdue scrambled across the seat and hugged her around the neck. It was an unexpected gesture, but she liked how it made her feel. Needed. Wanted. Loved. And more than anything, not alone anymore. The stress of her life somehow evaporated in that moment, as if his heartbeat could somehow slow hers down.

“Tell me about your dream,” she said.

He let go of her but stayed very close. “It was really bad.”

“Well, talking about a dream usually makes it less scary.”

“I was being chased,” he said.

“By a man?”

The boy shook his head. “By an alligator! A white alligator. All white, big long white teeth, white body, everything white except for these black eyes staring at me. And it was fast. Really fast. I kept running, but it kept getting closer. Its mouth was snapping up and down. He was going to eat me.”

“You’re right—that’s pretty scary. Was it daytime or nighttime in this dream?”

“It was night, and it was cold.”

“Do you remember where you were going? Where were you running to?”

The answer seemed to pop into his head. “Home.”

“Where’s home?”

“I don’t know.”

She slipped an arm around his shoulder. “Well, don’t worry; you’re awake now. No more alligators.”

He leaned his head into her shoulder, and they sat there quietly. The door was still open, making the truck cold, but she didn’t care. The tiny pond in front of the truck had whitecaps. The trees twisted like dancers. Out in the distance of the field, she saw a deer picking its way through the golden underbrush. It looked young, hardly able to stand on its own. She didn’t see a mother deer anywhere around.

Lisa thought about Purdue’s dream. Something about it made her sad. She realized that she felt a little forlorn hearing him talk about going home. It was good, it was inevitable, it was what had to happen, but it reminded her that at the end of the day, Purdue had a place to be that wasn’t with her.

His name, whatever it was, was not Purdue.

“The woman in the house told me some things,” Lisa said.

“What did she say?”

“She said her husband’s truck made its last stop at the hospital in Thief River Falls. Is that where you sneaked into the back? Is it possible
you were a patient at the hospital? Because if you were, then we should get you back there right away.”

Purdue shook his head. “People die in the hospital,” he told her, which was the same thing he’d said before.

“Yes, I understand, but is that where you were? Did someone take you there after you got hurt?”

“I already told you. I don’t know!”

But this time, he looked like a boy who was keeping secrets from her. A boy who was lying. She wondered how much of his memory loss was an act and whether, for some reason, he was hiding what had really happened to him.

“Mrs. Lancaster also told me that the police were looking for a criminal,” Lisa went on. “A man who hurts kids and takes them away from their families. Do you know anyone like that? Is it possible you’re here because of a man like that? If you remember, it’s okay to tell me. Really. He can’t hurt you while you’re with me.”

“But I don’t,” he protested. “I don’t remember.”

Lisa let the silence draw out before she said anything more. Then she spoke quietly. “I need to take you to the police, Purdue. It’s time. I should have done it last night.”

“No!” The boy looked close to crying again. “No, if you do that, they’ll
kill
me. I told you!”

“I won’t let that happen.”

“Don’t let me go, Lisa. Please. Keep me with you. I want to stay with you!”

He hugged her again, even more tightly than before, and she melted at the idea that he didn’t want to let go of her. She realized that she didn’t want to let go of him, either. Not just yet. For now, they would stick together.

“Well, I’d still like to get some more answers about what’s going on. If that takes another couple of hours, so be it. I haven’t heard anything
from Laurel, but I thought of someone else who may be able to help us. I’m going to call him.”

“Who is he?” Purdue asked.

“He works for the FBI in Minneapolis. His name is Will Woolwich. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I think he’ll remember me. Back when I was doing research for my very first book, I met with him, and he helped me a lot. He gave me behind-the-scenes information about how they deal with their cases. I was just a nobody then, a wannabe writer, so I was very grateful.”

She didn’t add that she’d always suspected that Will was interested in her and that his feelings had contributed to the access he gave her. She’d been a young, pretty twenty-seven-year-old back then, sharp witted and sharp tongued. Will was tall, black, and skinny, a former college basketball player. He was handsome in his perfect suit, the way all the feds were. If she’d been available, she might have thought about dating him, but by the time she met Will, she was already engaged to Danny.

Lisa booted up her phone. She’d kept Will in her contacts all these years, although she’d never reached out to him again. She wondered if his number had changed, but when she dialed him, he answered on the first ring.

“Special Agent Woolwich,” he said, his silky voice still familiar, still conjuring the image of him in her mind.

“Agent Woolwich,” she said with a slight hesitation. “It’s Lisa Power calling.”

There was a pregnant pause on the line. When he spoke again, she could hear the same thing she’d heard in his voice all those years ago. Interest. It gave her the tiniest spark of satisfaction to know she could still elicit that reaction.

“Lisa Power,” Will replied. “Wow, how long has it been? Ten, eleven years now, right?”

“Something like that.”

“You’ve done well for yourself. I’m proud of you. I remember this twenty-something girl telling me all about how she was going to write thrillers for a living, and I thought to myself,
Yeah, we’ll see about that
.”

“Well, you were very nice to that girl. You helped me a lot.”

“It was my pleasure. I’ve followed your career, you know. I’ve read all your books. They’re very good.”

“Thank you. I’m honored.”

“I hear there’s going to be a movie, too.”

“Next summer, hopefully. Reese tells me the filming is done. She says she’s happy with it, so that has to be a good thing, right? I can’t decide whether to see it or not. Writers always tend to be the biggest critics when their work shows up on-screen. I don’t want to be that person.”

“I’ll see it and tell you how it is.”

Lisa smiled. “Thanks.”

“Anyway, I don’t suppose this is a social call. What can I do for you? Are you doing research on a new book?”

“No, not this time. Actually, I don’t know whether you can help me or not, but I don’t feel comfortable going to the local police about this yet. I wasn’t sure who else to talk to, so I called you.”

His voice turned instantly serious. “What’s going on?”

Lisa glanced across the pickup truck at Purdue. “I was wondering if you’d heard anything about a manhunt underway in Pennington or Kittson Counties involving a human trafficking operation. I was told the police are searching for someone. A fugitive of some kind.”

“A manhunt? I don’t know anything about that off the top of my head, but that wouldn’t be my area of focus. I’m mostly in financial crimes these days.”

She was disappointed. “Yes, I understand.”

“Why can’t you talk to the local cops?”

“It’s a little hard to explain. The story about the manhunt came from the local police, and I’m just not—I just don’t know whether to trust what I’ve been told.”

He didn’t push her for details, and she was grateful. “Well, let me look into it, and I’ll call you back. It may take me some time to get answers out of the local field office, and depending on what I find, there may well be things I’m not able to share if we’re talking about an active investigation. But I’ll do what I can.”

“I really appreciate it, Will.”

“I’ll be in touch as soon as I know something more.”

“It’s very kind of you to help me like this.”

“It’s no problem.”

She waited for him to hang up, but she could hear in his voice that he wasn’t done yet.

“One other thing, Lisa,” Will added.

“What is it?”

“I know this was a long time ago, and we didn’t have a chance to talk back then. I thought about reaching out to you many times, and I’m sorry that I never did.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Will sounded awkward, which wasn’t like him at all. “Well, when we met, I remember you said you were engaged. Later, when I got your first book, I saw some of the interviews you did, and I heard about what happened to Danny. About him passing away.”

“Oh.”

“It sounds like he was quite the hero.”

“Yes. He was.”

“This is very belated, but I wanted to tell you how sorry I am.”

Lisa tried to summon a smile, but it just wasn’t there. “Thank you, Will. That’s sweet of you. But as you say, Danny died a long time ago.”

10

“Who’s Danny?” Purdue asked.

Lisa didn’t answer right away. Danny’s death was part of her past, and there had been so much more loss since then. And yet he was always there with her. Their lives together were like snapshots, photos in her mind of little bits of their history. She saw him wherever she went. Like the pond in front of the pickup where she was now. They’d been here together. When she looked at the water, she still saw herself as a teenager, swimming with Danny and Noah. Drying on towels under the sunshine afterward. Hoping her brother didn’t notice that she and Danny were holding hands.

“How about we go down to the little lake?” Lisa said to Purdue.

“Okay.”

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine.”

They both got out of the truck. She tramped through the weeds, and the boy splashed in the mud the way boys do. Where the pond water slurped around the tall brush, she stopped and put an arm around Purdue’s shoulder. He felt small and vulnerable with those skinny bones of his. The wind whipped his blond hair, and the mist made his face shine. He pointed at an eagle overhead, making high circles above the fields. They both followed its progress as the circles got bigger and wider, until the bird was just a tiny dot lost in the clouds.

“I met Danny in high school,” Lisa told him, when she was finally able to talk about it. “He was a year older than me, but I knew who he was. All the girls did. My brother Noah went out for the baseball team, and Danny was a pitcher. He and Noah became friends, and so Danny and I became friends, too. The three of us started doing everything together. Every evening, every weekend, we’d be hanging out. I don’t really remember when Danny and I started to become more than friends. But at some point, we knew we were in love. We had lots of plans. Get married. Have kids.”

“Did you?” Purdue asked.

“Well, life is a little more complicated than that. We went to different colleges after high school, and we broke up. We didn’t see each other for several years.”

“Why?”

Lisa shrugged at the bad memories. “Danny’s father had big plans of his own for Danny. College, law school, politics. Danny was supposed to be going places, maybe even Congress or governor someday. He didn’t want any of that, but you don’t say no to Danny’s father. I told Danny he had to make a choice, either me or The Plan. He chose The Plan, at least for a while. He went to law school, got a job as a lobbyist at a big firm in Minneapolis. He was on his way. I became a nurse at the hospital in Thief River Falls. I lived with my parents and wrote books. I didn’t sell any of them, but I kept writing.”

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