Read the First Three Chapters of The Drifter

In Nicolas Petrie's explosive thriller debut, we meet Peter Ash, a veteran who finds that the demons of war aren’t easily left behind.

The drifter

CHAPTER 1

There was a pit bull under the front porch and it didn’t want to come out.

Young Charlie Johnson said, “That dang dog’s been there for weeks, sir. It already ate up all the cats and dogs around here. I can’t even let my dang little brother out the front door no more.”

The hundred-year-old house sat on a narrow lot on the edge of a battered Milwaukee neighborhood that, like the house, had seen better days. It was early November, not warm, not even by Wisconsin standards. The leaves had already fallen from the skeletal trees that towered overhead.

But the sun was out, which counted for something. And the sky was a high pale morning blue. Not a morning for static. Not at all.

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Peter Ash said, “Just how big is this dog?”

Charlie shook his head. “Never seen it up close, sir, and never in daylight. But it’s awfully dang big, I can tell you that.”

“Didn’t you call animal control?”

“Oh, my mama called,” said Charlie. “Two men came, took one look under there, got right back in their truck and drove away.”

Charlie wore a school uniform, light-blue permanent-press dress shirt, dark-blue polyester dress pants and giant polished black shoes on his oversized feet, the kind of skinny, big-eared, twelve-year-old kid who could eat six meals a day and still be hungry.

But his eyes were older than his years. They didn’t miss a thing.

He was watching Peter Ash now.

Peter sat on the closed lid of a wooden toolbox, his wide, knuckly hands on the work-worn knees of his carpenter’s jeans, peering through the narrow access hatch cut into the rotted pine slats enclosing the space under the porch. He had to admit the dog sounded big. He could hear it growling back there in the darkness. Like a tank engine on idle, only louder.

He had a .45 under the seat of his pickup, but he didn’t want to use it. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, not really. It was hungry and scared and alone, and all it had was its teeth.

On the other hand, Peter had told Charlie’s mother, Dinah, that he would fix the rotting supports beneath her ancient porch.

She hadn’t mentioned the dog.

Peter really couldn’t blame her.

Her husband had killed himself.

And it was Peter’s fault.

 

Peter was lean and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra. His long face was angular, the tips of his ears slightly pointed, his dark hair the unruly shag of a buzz cut grown wild. He had the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change.

Some part of him was always in motion – even now, sitting on that toolbox, peering under that porch, his knee bobbed in time to some interior metronome that never ceased.

He’d fought two wars over eight years with more deployments than he cared to remember. The tip of the spear. He’d be thirty-one in January.

As he bent to look through the narrow access hatch under the porch, he could feel the white static fizz and pop at the base of his skull. That was his name for the fine-grained sensation he lived with now, the white static. A vague, crackling unease, a dissonant noise at the edge of hearing. It wasn’t quite uncomfortable, not yet. The static was just reminding him that it didn’t want him to go inside.

Peter knew it would get worse before he was done.

So he might as well get to it.

The space under the porch was about three feet high. Maybe twelve feet wide and twelve deep, with a dirt floor. About the size of four freshly dug graves, laid sideways. The smell was rank, worse than a sergeant’s feet after two months in a combat outpost. But not as bad as a two-week-old corpse.

Light trickled in through the slatted sides of the porch, but shadows shrouded the far corner, some kind of cast-off crap back there. And that growl he could just about feel through the soles of his boots.

It would be good to do this without being chewed on too much.

He went back out to his truck and found a cordless trouble light, some good rope, and a length of old handrail. White oak, an inch and three-quarters thick, maybe eighteen inches long. Nice and solid in the hand. Which was a help when you were contemplating something spectacularly stupid.

Serenaded by the growls from the crawl space, he sat back down on the toolbox and took out his knife while young Charlie Johnson watched.

Not that Peter wanted an audience. This certainly could get ugly.

“Don’t you have someplace to go, Charlie? School or something?”

Charlie glanced at a cheap black digital watch strapped to his skinny wrist. “No sir,” he said. “Not yet I don’t.”

Peter just shook his head. He didn’t like it, but he understood. He figured he wasn’t that far from twelve years old himself.

He cut three short lengths from his rope and left the remainder long, ten or twelve feet. Tied one end of a short piece of rope tight to each end of the oak rail. Looped the last short rope and the remainder through his belt a single time, so he could get at it quickly.

Then looked up at Charlie again. “You better get out of here, kid. If this goes bad, you don’t want to be around.”

Charlie said, “I’m not a dang kid. Sir. I’m the man of the family.” He reached inside the door, brought out an aluminum baseball bat, and demonstrated his swing. “That’s my dang porch. My little brother, too. I ain’t going nowhere.”

Charlie’s dad always had the same look behind the Humvee’s .50 turret gun. Eyes wide open and ready for trouble. Daring any motherfucker to pop up with an RPG or Kalashnikov or whatever. But when his wife Dinah sent cookies, Big Jimmy Johnson – known inevitably to the platoon’s jokers as Big Johnson, or just plain Big – was always the last to eat one.

Peter missed him.

He missed them all. The dead and the living.

He said, “Okay, Charlie. I can respect that.” He put his eyes on the boy and held them there. “But if that dog gets loose you get your butt in that house, you hear me? And if you hit me with that bat I’m going to be seriously pissed.”

“Yessir.” Charlie nodded. “Can’t promise anything, sir. But I’ll do my best.”

Peter smiled to himself. At least the kid was honest.

After that there was nothing more to do but lean back and kick out the slats on one side of the porch, letting in more daylight. The space was still small. The tank engine back in the shadows got louder. But no sign of the dog. Must be back in that trash pile in the far corner.

Not that it mattered. He wasn’t turning away from the challenge. He was just planning how to succeed.

The familiar taste filled his mouth, a coppery flavor, like blood. He felt the adrenaline lift and carry him forward. It was similar to the static, rising. The body’s preparation for fight or flight. It was useful.

He peered under the porch, and the static rose higher still. The static didn’t care about the snarling dog. It cared about the enclosure. It jangled his nerves, raced his heart, tightened his chest and generally clamored for his attention. It wanted him to stay outside in the open air, in the daylight.

Breathing deeply, Peter took the piece of oak and banged it on the wood frame of the porch. It rang like a primitive musical instrument.

Despite everything, he was smiling.

“Hey dog,” he called into the darkness. “Watch your ass, I’m coming in!”

And in he went, head-first on his elbows and knees, the stick in one hand and the trouble light in the other.

What, you want to live forever?

 

It was dark and musty under the porch, the smell of weeds and forgotten things, with an animal stink on top. Not a dog smell, but something wilder. Something feral. The smell of the monsters in the oldest of fairy tales, the ones where the monsters sometimes won.

Narrow bars of November sunshine slanted through the gaps and made it hard to read the space. The dim yellow pool cast by his trouble light wasn’t much help. The debris pile in the back corner looked more substantial from this vantage point. There was all kinds of crap in there. Carpet scraps, boxes, old lumber. The splintered bones of missing mailmen.

The growl might have come from anywhere. It seemed to vibrate up through the soil. Peter’s little piece of handrail and a few thin ropes didn’t seem like much. It would be smart to beat a tactical retreat, get the hell out of there, and come back with a shotgun. Or a grenade launcher.

But he didn’t.

He kept moving forward on elbows and knees, white sparks flaring high. Stick in one hand, light in the other. Alive, alive. I am alive.

“Here, doggy. Who’s a good doggy?”

 

The animal waited until Peter was most of the way inside.

Then it came out of hiding in a snarling hurry, teeth flashing white in the darkness. It was big.

Fuck, it was huge and fast and coming right for Peter’s face.

When those big jaws opened to tear his head off, Peter reached forward at speed and got that piece of hard oak jammed in there tight, ropes trailing. Now the jaws couldn’t snap shut, and couldn’t open further.

The dog, confused, reversed course and tried to spit out the stick. It would use its paws in a moment. Peter went sideways quick and crablike, releasing the stick with one hand long enough to get his arm wrapped around the dog’s heavy neck. Caught up the other end of the stick again and trapped it hard in the dog’s jaw. Then with the stick as a lever and his arm as the fulcrum, he threw the dog onto its side and laid his weight on its chest, holding the animal to the ground.

Big dang dog is right, Charlie.

Hundred and forty, hundred and fifty pounds. At least.

The dog went silent. Conserving its energy to escape, to get rid of this weight, white eyes rolled back, thrashing and fighting with all of its considerable muscle and will.

But Peter weighed almost two hundred pounds himself, and he was smarter than the dog. He hoped.

His initial plan, if you want to call it that, had been to tie the ropes around the dog’s neck to keep the stick in place while holding the dog down with his body.

Not much of a plan, he had to admit now. The dog didn’t seem to care much for it either, still throwing around its big bullet-shaped head, lips pulled back in a silent snarl, spit flying everywhere.

And it stunk like holy hell. Like fear and rage and shit and death, all wrapped up into one horrible reek that made Peter’s eyes water and his sinuses clear.

The stink wouldn’t eat his face the way this dog wanted to.

What Peter needed was a third hand.

But Charlie was just twelve. And he was wearing his school clothes. And he was Jimmy’s oldest boy. That family had enough damage done.

So Peter was on his own under that porch.

He moved his leg up slowly, carefully, until his knee was on the dog’s shoulder, then the neck. He bore down. He didn’t want to hurt the animal, but he sure as hell didn’t want those bone-cracking teeth to get free, either. The dog’s back legs scrabbled in the dirt, trying to get itself out of the situation, but Peter was too heavy.

“Hey, dog,” said Peter in a calm voice. “What’s your name?”

The dog scrabbled with its long nails, but its big bullet-shaped head was caught now between the pressure of the stick and the weight of the man’s knee.

“Somebody probably called you Fang or Spike or something, didn’t they?” asked Peter gently. Remembering how his father had talked to the horses. A nice calm, conversational tone. The way Jimmy had talked to any in-country local who didn’t speak English. “But you’re not a mean dog, are you? No, you’re a nice puppy. A good puppy. Your name should be Daisy. Or Cupcake.”

The dog’s eyes rolled back, showing white in the semi-dark of the crawl space, and it was panting hard, the great chest heaving. Its legs slowed their scrabbling in the dirt as the man’s deep voice worked its way through the fury and panic. Finally it stopped struggling, and the long tongue lolled out between the murderous teeth. Man and beast lay in the dirt together and caught their breath.

“Uh, sir, you okay in there?” Charlie’s voice floated under the porch.

“Never better,” said Peter, keeping his voice low and even. The dog panted, but the eye was staring at Peter’s face.

“So…” said Charlie.

“Kid. Give me a minute, okay?”

Peter still held the ends of the stick in his hands. Focused despite the static. He had a few minutes, no more. He worked his hands out to the ropes and slid the knots in close to the dog’s jaws.

The dog began to growl again.

Peter could feel the vibrations in his own chest, that tank engine revving slow. It was like laying on a vibrating bed in a cheap motel, but with teeth.

The eye stared at him, waiting.

Waiting for the man to make a mistake.

With the ropes back in his hands, Peter carefully crossed them over the bone-crushing jaws, then wrapped them under, over and under, again and again. Snug but not tight, trapping that stick in there like some kind of hillbilly art project. Then he carefully tied the ends in a series of half-hitches, ending in a square knot. Super-duper double extra secure.

The remaining long and short ropes were still tucked into his belt. He tied the long rope around the dog’s neck as a collar and leash. He shifted his weight, turned to the hind end with the short rope, and tied its back legs together.

Without allowing himself to think about it, he rolled off the dog and grabbed the rope at the hind legs, then backed out of the crawl space, pulling the scrabbling dog behind him.

“Sweet holy Jesus,” said Charlie, dancing backward in his polished shoes as the Peter and the snarling hogtied animal emerged from the crawl space into the light. “That’s one damn Jesus big goddamn dog.”

Peter felt the open air and high blue sky like a balm.

 

It took a few minutes to get Charlie to put down the baseball bat, but he was fine by the time Peter tied the leash off to a tree, double-checking the knots, then checking them again. Finally he cut the rope from the back legs and stood away while the dog leaped trembling to its feet, ran to the ten-foot limit of the leash, and turned to growl at the humans.

“He sure is ugly,” said Charlie. “And he smells real bad, too.”

Peter had to agree.

It wasn’t a pit bull, actually. Purebred pit bulls were beautiful, in their own way. Like cruise missiles were beautiful, or a combat knife, if you didn’t stop to consider what they were made to do.

This dog, on the other hand, was a mix of so many breeds you’d have to go back to the caveman era to sort it out.

The result was an animal of unsurpassed hideousness.

It had the bullet-shaped head of a pit bull, but the lean muscled body and long legs of an animal built for chasing down its prey over long distances. Tall upright ears, a long wolfish muzzle. Its matted fur was mostly a kind of deep orange, with brown polka-dots.

And the animal was enormous.

Like a timberwolf run through the wash with a pit bull, a Great Dane, and a fuzzy orange sweatshirt.

Seen out in the open like that, even at a hundred and fifty plus pounds with murderous teeth, it was hard to take the animal too seriously.

What would you name a dog like that?

Maybe Daisy. Or Cupcake.

The thought made him smile.

He got out his water bottle and walked the growling dog down to the end of its rope. Taking hold of the stick, he poured a little water into that deadly mouth. The dog glared at him, the intelligence vivid in those pale blue eyes. But after a moment, its throat began to work as it swallowed. Peter poured until the bottle was empty.

“Sir, what the heck are you doing?” asked Charlie.

Peter shrugged. “Dog’s thirsty.”

Charlie just looked at him. It was a good look. It said the kid had thought he’d seen all the crazy there was in the world until that very moment, but he had been very, very wrong.

All he said was, “I got to go, sir. I miss first period Father Lehane says I’m on the bench on Friday.” Then he left.

And with the dog growling at his back, Peter went to the truck to unpack his tools and get to work.


CHAPTER 2

The porch was sinking into the ground. The bottoms of the original pine posts were turning to mush, and there were no concrete pilings underneath, just a few bricks stacked in the dirt. Fairly typical back in the day. But now the only thing holding up the structure was habit. The porch was used to being there, so it hadn’t collapsed.

It wasn’t the kind of work Peter had imagined while he was studying econ at Northwestern. Or when he turned down Goldman Sachs for the Marine’s Officer Candidate School. It had seemed like a higher calling then, and it still did. Everything else was entirely too theoretical.

But he liked fixing old houses. He’d done it with his dad in northern Wisconsin since he was eight. The job today was simple, a battle he could win using only his mind, his muscles, and a few basic tools. Nobody was likely to die. He could get lost in the challenge, and let the war years fade. And at the end of the day, he could see what he’d accomplished, in wood and concrete, right there in front of him.

He braced up the main beam with some two-by-fours he’d brought, removed the rotted posts, and set about digging holes for new footings. The holes had to be at least forty-two inches deep to get below the frost line, so they wouldn’t move every winter. In that hard Milwaukee clay, forty-two inches seemed deeper than it ought to be. But Peter’s back and shoulders didn’t mind the effort. He liked the fight, how the wood-handled shovel became an extension of his hands. And the white static faded back to a pale hush.

After cutting the rebar and placing it in the bottom of the hole, Peter mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow and poured it into the forms. The dog sat watching, ears up and alert, looking ridiculous with the stick tied into its mouth. When Peter walked past, it fled to the end of its leash and growled at him, that tank engine rumbling strong as ever. When Peter went back to work, the dog sat down to watch again.

It was like a foreman who didn’t make small talk.

But uglier than any foreman Peter had ever met.

Not as ugly as some sergeants, though. Sergeants had the ugly all over that dog.

Lunch was last night’s beef stew, reheated on the little backpacking stove and eaten with crusty wheat bread and cold coffee left over from breakfast. Peter sat in his camp chair on the sidewalk, knee bobbing unconsciously to that ceaseless interior metronome, wondering how he’d feed the dog without offering up a piece of himself. No way he was going to take out that stick.

But the animal had to be hungry. Peter left some of the thick stew broth in the pan to cool.

After lunch, with the cement hardened but not yet cured, he started cutting out the rotten sections of the deck. When he was done, there was almost nothing left. The supporting joists were sagging, half of them rotted or cracked, and all of them undersized to begin with. It would be easier to replace everything. The only wood worth saving was the main beam and the porch roof overhead. And he might as well replace the beam with something rotproof anyway.

It was never simple.

But wasn’t that part of the fun?

When it was time for a trip to the lumberyard, Peter put away his tools. Valuable stuff had a way of walking away when you weren’t around, in a working class neighborhood and every other kind.

He considered the dog for a minute, and decided to leave it where it was.

Who’d want to steal a dog that ugly?

Maybe he’d get lucky and it would escape while he was gone.

But when Peter pulled up in his truck an hour later, there was the dog, ugly as ever, and smelling just as bad. He chased the growling animal to the end of its rope to check the knots, and found that the rope had frayed a little on one side. He found the spot on the tree where faint blue strands showed on the bark, and smiled.

“Good luck, dog,” he said. “That’s climbing rope. Kevlar core.”

When he reached out to pat the dog’s head, the dog shied away. Peter shrugged and went back to work.

He supported the porch roof with long two-by-sixes braced against the ground, then cut out the rest of the deck frame with the sawzall and hauled the pieces to the street. The dog had taken to rubbing its rope-wrapped chin on the front walk. A pretty good strategy, actually. It kept its eyes on Peter the whole time. He could feel the weight of its stare, a hundred and fifty pounds of dog planning to tear his throat out.

It was better than all those Iraqi freedom fighters. Hell, this was just one dog.

What Peter didn’t want to admit was that he almost liked the feeling.

It kept him on his toes. Like old times.

Like the white static was there for a reason.

 

He unloaded the lumber and stacked it on sawhorses. But before he started putting things back together, he had to clear out all the crap that had accumulated under the porch. He stuffed disintegrating cardboard boxes and trash into construction-grade garbage bags. Broken bricks and scrap lumber he carried to the street. At the very back, tucked against the house, behind a stinking dog bed, was an old black hard-sided suitcase. It was heavier than it looked.

There was a little white mold growing on the side, but it didn’t look too bad. There might be some use left in it. Peter didn’t believe in throwing stuff away just because it had a little wear.

He set the suitcase by the side door, and turned away to finish cleaning up. The stoop was cracked, and the suitcase fell over, then bounced down the four steps to the cement walk. When it hit bottom, it popped open.

And money fell out.

Crisp hundred-dollar bills. In plain banded ten-thousand-dollar packets. Forty packets, each a half-inch tall.

Four hundred thousand dollars.

Under Jimmy’s broken-down porch.

 

Peter went back to the suitcase.

It was a smaller Samsonite, about the size of a modern airline carry-on, probably expensive when it was new. But it definitely wasn’t new. They didn’t make suitcases like this any more.

Despite it’s time under that porch, it was in decent shape. Hard to tell if it had been there for thirty years or was bought at Goodwill the month before. Peter picked up one of the stacks of hundreds he’d found inside and flipped through the bills. Mostly newer, with the big Ben Franklin head.

So the suitcase hadn’t been there too long.

There were no identifying marks on the Samsonite’s outside shell, nothing inside to tell where it had come from. But there were four little elastic pockets on the interior.

Inside each pocket was a small brown paper bag, wrinkled and worn with handling. Peter opened one bag and shook the contents out into his hand. A pale rectangular slab stared back up at him. A bit smaller than a paperback book, soft and pliable like modeling clay, smelling slightly of chemicals, with clear plastic sheeting adhered to its faces.

Interesting.

He was pretty sure it wasn’t modeling clay.


CHAPTER 3

Peter sat on Dinah Johnson’s back stoop, waiting for her to come home from work. The suitcase stood closed in the shadow of the steps. On his leg, his restless fingertips kept time to that endless interior metronome. Charlie and his little brother Miles were inside, doing whatever boys did in the odd, lonely freedom before their mothers came home from work.

The wind blew hard, another big autumn storm system moving across the continent. No rain, not yet. Early November in Wisconsin, Veterans Day next week. It was dark before suppertime, and getting colder. Frost on the windshield at night. Charlie had already offered Peter hot chocolate twice. He was a good kid. Both concerned and maybe a little relieved that Lieutenant Ash the crazy dog-tamer wouldn’t come inside.

Peter preferred the outdoors.

After mustering out at Pendleton sixteen months before, he drove north to Washington, where Manny Martinez, another of his former sergeants, was roofing houses outside of Seattle. He left his truck in Manny’s driveway, dropped the keys and a note into his mailbox, then hitched a ride east, past Marblemount into the North Cascades. Shouldered the heavy pack and headed uphill alone into the open. Staying off the main trails, above the tree line, away from people, away from everything. He planned to be out for twelve months.

It was an experiment.

 

He was fine overseas. No, not fine. The war sucked, especially for the infantry. A lot of people were trying to kill him and most of his friends. But it was also exhilarating, a series of challenges to overcome, and Peter was very good at it. Did his job, did it well, took care of his people. Even if it cost. And it did.

Leaving aside the dead, the injured. There were plenty of those. Peter’s friends among them.

But the guys still walking around, the guys still in the fight, it wasn’t easy for them either. Some of them had trouble falling asleep, or nightmares when they did. Overwhelming emotion, fits of tears or fury. A few guys really went off their nut, wanted to kill everyone. Peter had his ups and downs, but stayed pretty steady. His captain called him a natural war-fighter. He spent eight years at it, two tours with very little time between deployments. The unit had essential skills, that’s what the brass had said.

So, the war aside, he was fine until he got off the plane at Camp Pendleton for the last time.

Approaching the officers’ quarters, that was when he first felt it. A fine-grained fizzing sensation as he jogged up the barracks steps. A vague feeling of unease somewhere in the bottom of his brain.

As he walked down the hall, opened the door to his quarters, and stepped inside, it flared into a jittery feeling, a quadruple espresso on an empty stomach. Unpacking his ruck, he felt the muscles in his shoulders and back begin to cramp up. He thought he might be getting the flu.

He showered and changed his clothes, sat at the little desk to do paperwork, but the sparks in his head were rising with a panicky feeling that was impossible to ignore. He couldn’t stay in the chair, and he couldn’t focus on the pages in front of him. His shirt felt too close at the neck.

Then his chest began to tighten. He had trouble catching his breath. The walls got closer, the ceiling lower. His heart a sledgehammer in his chest.

He didn’t even bother to put on his socks and boots, just carried them down the hall and out the main door into the open air, where he could begin to breathe. He told himself he needed some exercise, and walked around the base for a few hours. It helped.

When he went to the mess for supper, it happened again. The mess hall was too loud, too crowded, and the fluorescent lights flickered like a horror movie. He cut into line, grabbed a burger and fled. He ate outside, walking around, wondering what was wrong with him.

When he went back to his quarters, the pressure in his head grew faster than ever. He knew after five minutes he’d never manage to sleep in there. So he pulled blanket from the bed and found an empty hilltop out in the scrubland that made up most of the base.

How he made it through the final days of mustering out he didn’t know. Drinking helped, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.

He called it the white static. His very own war souvenir.

 

Which was why he came up with the experiment.

The hypothesis was simple. If the white static came when he went inside a building or a crowd of people, Peter would spend a year outside, alone. Living out of a backpack, up above the tree line where possible, with only the mountains for company.

Maybe give the static a chance to get used to civilian life and fade out completely.

The first days were fine, hiking steeply up through the ancient evergreen forest. As he got tired of listening to nothing but his own thoughts, it got harder. He had no phone, no music player. But after two weeks, his head felt transparent to the world, his thoughts blown from his mind. The static was replaced by the sound of the wind. It occurred to him that he might never go back down to the so-called civilized world.

After what he’d seen, he wasn’t that impressed with humanity anyway.

Up in the high country, he lived mostly on lentils and rice, wild greens, and trout caught with his fly rod. Gourmet living. Coffee and hot chocolate were his luxuries. He started with several big caches of food hung from trees in bear-proof cans. He thrived up in the granite and heather for four months without needing to resupply. He walked a vast loop through the North Cascades, keeping off the marked trails. Usually off any trail at all. It made him feel wild and pure and clean. He thought it might cure him.

He made those first supplies last as long as he could before going back to the populated world. Roads and houses. Commerce and government. He hitched a ride on the back of a logger’s pickup and, at the outskirts of town, found a small grocery store.

It was the first test of his hypothesis.

But walking through the parking lot, he already knew. The closer he got to the door, the louder the static sounded in the back of his head. He still needed supplies, so he clenched his teeth in the narrow crowded aisles under the fluorescent lights, trying to get what he needed and back into the open air before the white static turned to sparks and began to rise up inside him.

He went back up into the empty mountains, where the wind washed him clean. South for the winter, north for the summer. Every time he came down for supplies, the static was still there. After a year, he extended the experiment. Give it another four months. Or forever.

Then Jimmy killed himself.

Peter was deep in the backcountry of the Klamath Range in northern California when Manny Martinez heard about Jimmy’s suicide and got on the horn. The informal sergeants’ network had a long reach. Four days later, an off-duty fireman from Klamath Falls walked up to Peter’s campsite with a sorrowful look on his face, and that was the end of that.

 

From his perch on Dinah’s back steps, he saw headlights in the alley, then heard her garage door rolling up. So he was prepared, when he saw her. He stood as she walked the cracked concrete path from the garage. The motion light came on, brightening the yard only a little.

“Oh,” she said, slowing. She looked him up and down, seeing a lean, rangy man in worn carpenter’s jeans and combat boots. The big restless hands at the end of long bony wrists that stuck out past the sleeves in his brown canvas work coat. Her eyes lingered on his angular face, wolfish and unshaven.

Her expression was neutral. It occurred to Peter that maybe he wasn’t quite what she expected in a Marine officer.

She said, “You must be Lieutenant Ash.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate your letting me get started without meeting in person. You said that the front porch was your most pressing repair, and you were correct.” He tried a smile. He wasn’t quite used to people yet. “Please,” he said. “Call me Peter. Jimmy talked about you so much I feel like I know you.”

She didn’t answer. She was tall, almost as tall as Peter, and wrapped in a long wool coat that went past her knees. She carried her keys spiked out from her fist, something Jimmy would have taught her for self-defense. It looked natural.

She measured him with cool eyes, reserving judgment. But polite.

“Please, come in,” she said. “You must be hungry. I’m making supper, if you’d care to stay.”

“I’ll wait outside,” he said. “It’s a nice night.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “It’s cold. Please, come in.”

Peter pointed at the back door, the bottom panel covered with a piece of bare plywood. “Something happen here?” he asked. It looked like a quick repair after someone had kicked in the door.

“We had a break-in,” she said. “Not long after James.” She blinked. “Died.”

“I’m sorry,” said Peter. “I can replace that when I’m done with your porch.”

She turned her key in the lock. “Come inside,” she said. “Get out of the cold.”

He hesitated, but picked up the suitcase and followed her inside.

He had questions.


 

Image credits: Nataliia Romashova/Shutterstock.com.

 

 

 

 

NICK PETRIE received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and his story “At the Laundromat” won the 2006 Short Story Contest in the The Seattle Review, a national literary journal. A husband and father, he runs a home-inspection business in Milwaukee. His previous novels in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter and the forthcoming Burning Bright.

About NICK PETRIE

nick petrie

NICK PETRIE received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and his story “At the Laundromat” won the 2006 Short Story Contest in the The Seattle Review, a national literary journal. A husband and father, he runs a home-inspection business in Milwaukee. His previous novels in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter and the forthcoming Burning Bright.

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