Familiar Lies by Brian J. Jarrett by Brian J. Jarrett - Read Online

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Familiar Lies - Brian J. Jarrett

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Acknowledgements

Familiar Lies

a novel

Brian J. Jarrett

Copyright © 2016 Brian J. Jarrett

Elegy Publishing, LLC

St. Louis, MO

Original cover image by Briancweed, Dreamstime.com

All rights reserved by the author. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the written consent of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Any names, people, locales, or events are purely a product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to any person (either living or dead), to any event, or to any locale is coincidental or used fictitiously.

2016.FL.1.1

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Chapter One

When Max Williamson’s son died, his world collapsed.

Josh had been the glue that held their family together and without him around Max’s wife, Katie, drifted away. Six months after they’d put their son in the ground she’d shacked up with a man she’d met on an Internet dating site, leaving Max all alone in the house they’d built together.

Ghosts surrounded him now; everything in the house was a reminder of their life before. The family photos hanging on the wall of the dining room, the closed door to Josh’s room, the Dr. Pepper sodas that only Josh drank still in the fridge. The single earring without a mate, sitting where she’d left it on the bureau Katie had picked out so many years before. Josh’s old clothes lying in the corner of the basement laundry room, untouched since the day they’d learned of the accident that took his life.

The house was like an old photograph; the image remained the same, but the paper grew yellow and brittle as the years passed.

Max sat on Josh’s bed, staring at the wall. The bed had been made by Josh the morning before he died and Max didn’t have the heart or the nerve to disturb it. He looked at the calendar on the wall. Josh had crossed out each day of the month, ending on June 14th. He always crossed out the completed day before bed, a ritual he’d subscribed to ever since he was a small child.

Josh died on the morning of June 15th, one year ago on this day.

Max thought that entering Josh’s room would have made him feel closer to his son, but the truth was he felt further away than ever. The room only reminded him of that terrible day, of that terrible phone call. The kind of phone call every parent fears more than anything else in the world.

Rock climbing had been Josh’s latest passion; it had also been the death of him. He’d gone climbing the morning of June 15th, a Saturday Max remembered all too well. The call had come just after lunch while Max ate a lunch consisting of ham and cheese on wheat. Odd, the details one remembers when one’s life is irrevocably changed.

The rope had somehow snapped and Josh fell five hundred feet to his death.

Katie had never wanted her son to take up the sport and had fought against it tooth and nail. Max, however, had always obliged the boy his hobbies and made no exception in the case of rock climbing. He was almost eighteen, after all. Almost a man.

To say that Max felt responsible for his son’s death would have been an understatement.

The climbing equipment had been returned to them after the police finished their investigation. Max left it in the corner of the garage and hadn’t been in there since. He simply parked the car in front of the house now. In fact, he used very little of the house these days; the kitchen, the bathroom and occasionally the bedroom, though most days he opted to sleep on the couch. There were just too many memories in the bedroom he and Katie had shared for nineteen years.

Max looked around the room. Baseball trophies sat on the dresser, the dust covering them made them look like artifacts from a previous civilization. Josh’s laptop sat on the small desk he used for doing homework, the lid closed and the power off, the way he always left it.

School books sat on the nightstand beside Josh’s bed; a high school science book on the bottom of the stack, with a math book and an English book on top. The school had never asked for them back again. Max wouldn’t have returned them even if they had.

The hope that he’d find some solace in this room one year after the death of his only son faded away, replaced by terrible yet familiar despair. Max Williamson and sadness had become close friends over the past year. Whiskey had staved off the worst of it right after the accident, but it only postponed the inevitable and the thinly veiled truth.

He didn’t drink much these days. He slept often and some days he couldn’t get out of bed. Work allowed him his grief, though Max suspected that was a less than altruistic act and more of a safety net to avoid a lawsuit. Max did his job, though he admittedly phoned it in over the past year. To fire a man who’d lost his only son would be bad for the company’s image, so they allowed him his mediocrity and reassigned his clients to his peers. Max didn’t care enough to complain.

The grief came on sudden and strong as he sat, as it so often did. It took hold of him like a giant’s fist and gripped him hard and fast. He doubled over, placing his face in his hands and weeping openly into them. Tears blurred his vision as he sobbed, unable to stop the convulsions the grief brought with it. At that moment he wished he was dead. If he had any guts at all he would have done the job himself, but he was a coward; forced to endure the never ending pain of his loss with no chance of escape.

After the worst of the sobbing had passed, Max opened his eyes. He wiped the tears away, glancing toward Josh’s homework desk. There he saw a slip of paper sticking out from under the large drawer located on the side of the desk. It had been tucked away beneath it, with only the slightest corner of the sheet exposed.

Intrigued, Max knelt before the desk and lifted it slightly, allowing the paper to be removed freely. He pulled it out and sat back on the bed again, inspecting it. Handwriting covered the front of the paper and Max recognized it immediately as written by his son’s hand.

He glanced at the top of the page and found a date: June 1st, nearly two weeks before Josh died.

He read the letter slowly and carefully:

Dear Julie,

I think Gabe is on to us. He knows about the cabin and he knows about the girls. I’m pretty sure he knows about the money, too. I’m afraid that he might have lied to Caldwell about me, setting me up for something real bad. If Caldwell comes after me, you can bet he won’t stop until I’m dead.

Vanessa was a mistake. You know that. I wish I could take it all back, to make it as if nothing had happened. But what’s done is done, right or wrong and wishing won’t make it go away.

I think there are people following me, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going crazy. Somebody called the house last week. They just sat there, breathing on the other end.

How did they figure out where I live?

I’m getting more worried each day.

Please stay safe and keep the little one close by.

Josh

Max sat on the bed, numb, his senses reeling. Gooseflesh broke out all over his body and he shivered. His face flushed hot as he stared at the letter in his hand. Josh had written it, no doubt about that, but the things he said…

Who was Julie? Or Vanessa? What had Josh been up to?

Who was Caldwell? Did he have something to do with Josh’s death?

Questions abounded, flooding his mind and threatening to overtake his sanity. He dropped the letter to the carpeted floor. It floated in the air, flipping over in midair and landing face down on the floor.

Max kept turning the words he’d read over and over again in his mind, questions forming only to spawn more questions. The implications of that letter, the alternate reality that it suggested simply couldn’t exist.

Could it?

Max had the sudden urge for a drink. Many of them. It tugged at him more desperately than ever before, like a pit bull latched onto his leg, thrashing its head from side to side. It demanded his attention and complete commitment.

Still shaking, Max stood. He walked out of Josh’s room, leaving the letter on the floor behind him and closed the door softly. He poured himself a glass of whiskey, replaced the cap and then thought better of it, filling the glass almost to the rim. He had two of those before he passed out in the living room.

Chapter Two

Max awoke the following morning to the blaring ring the alarm on his phone. He silenced it and called work to tell them he was too sick to come in. They accommodated, though it wouldn’t have mattered either way. No way in hell was Max planning on going to work that day.

He slid back down onto the couch and slept another three hours before waking to the mother of all hangovers. He rose slowly, emptying a bladder near the bursting point before downing two aspirin and two Tylenol. He walked back toward the couch, glancing toward Josh’s room.

He stopped and stared at the closed door.

He didn’t have the courage to go in.

Surely the letter had been a bad dream. Some figment of his imagination. Maybe a false memory brought on by too much whiskey. He attempted to take a step toward the door but found himself glued to the spot. His legs refused to move. He felt that same hot chill race over his body, prickling his skin and nauseating his stomach.

Willing himself to move, he forced one leg forward. He followed it with another, slowly walking toward the closed door. He struggled with each step, like a toddler walking through a thick, muddy bog.

He reached the door and touched the knob.

His stomach did a somersault. He thought he might vomit.

He opened the door.

On the floor lay the letter, face down, just as he’d left it.

He tried to steady his breathing as his legs wobbled beneath him. He stepped into the room and picked up the letter, reading the words again, still unable to comprehend what they suggested.

This time, when he left his son’s room, he took the letter with him.

* * *

The hangover subsided by late afternoon. Max left the letter on the end table in the living room, mindlessly watching television as his stomach labored over the decision as to whether or not it should expel its contents. Ultimately it decided to keep them down. The television and nausea kept his mind off the letter for a while, but eventually it crept back into his thoughts again, planting itself there and refusing to leave.

Max flipped off the television and stared at the blank screen for a very long time before going back to sleep again.

Chapter Three

Max awoke the following morning. It was a Tuesday and Max called in once again and, as expected, work obliged. He hit the shower first thing, the hot water waking him up and getting his mind going. He tossed the letter around in his mind as the white noise of the falling water surrounded him, creating a background over which he might place thoughts and ideas.

The shock had worn away, shock that had been nearly as great as the shock he’d endured when he learned his son had died. He was left only with hard reality in the form of a letter written by his own son, just before his death, and the implications it carried with it.

Could Josh have been leading some sort of secret life? Involved with people who Max—his own father—had never met? The possibility couldn’t be denied. Josh had his own car and his own life outside the home, along with the freedom explore it.

While that much was true, it didn’t explain how Josh could have ended up in a situation where he thought someone might be trying to kill him. The very thought of such a thing was absurd. And yet Max had a letter written by his son stating such a thing as truth.

The possibility that it was all some sort of hoax fabricated by his son entered his mind. But to what end? The tone in that note didn’t seem insincere; anything but.

So if it wasn’t a hoax then it had to be real.

Why hadn’t Josh come to him? Why hadn’t he reached out before things got so bad? Max would have helped, no matter the trouble. Surely Josh knew that.

Max turned off the shower and stepped out, looking at himself in the mirror. He looked thin, gaunt even. He hadn’t really noticed before. That could probably be said for a lot of things over the year since Josh died and Katie left him.

Katie. Had she noticed anything odd about their son? Maybe something she dismissed, some strange behavior that she’d not known to look for, not without the aid of that terrible letter?

Max wished for a moment that he’d never found it, but that notion soon passed. If Josh’s death wasn’t accidental, if someone was responsible for it then that person needed to be held accountable.

Max threw on his boxers and stepped into his old slippers. They smelled bad, he noticed. Had they always? It didn’t matter, he had something to do, something important. He stepped out of the bathroom and made his way through the living room, headed toward the attached garage. He walked straight through the kitchen and opened the door leading out and into the garage.

He hadn’t been in there since Josh died, but he knew where he was headed. He knew what he was looking for.

He entered the garage and stepped around the old newspapers and other junk littering the floor as he headed toward the corner. There he found the climbing equipment that the police had returned to them after the investigation. He went to it, picking up the rope and working it through his hands as he searched for the severed end.

After a few moments he found it. He stared at it closely, inspecting the break carefully.

The police report said that the rope broke after being shredded on the edge of a sharp rock near the top of the cliff Josh had been climbing. But the cut didn’t look right. It didn’t look accidental. It looked intentional. Too clean, too neat.

Like it could have been made with a knife.

Not a smoking gun, but enough to plant a new seed into Max’s mind.

Someone might have murdered his son and Max Williamson would go to whatever extreme necessary to find out who did it.

Chapter Four

Max sat in his son’s bedroom at the foot of the neatly made bed reading the letter for what seemed like the hundredth time. By now he pretty much had the thing memorized, for better or worse. It occurred to Max again as he sat there that Josh had made that bed himself, as he always did, the morning he died.

The morning he was killed, a voice in his head added.

Ignoring the voice, Max stared at the laptop for a moment before walking to the desk and taking a seat. He opened the laptop’s lid and pressed the power button. A few clicks and whirs followed, accompanied by a pleasing blue light indicating the machine had powered on. The familiar logo appeared, followed by the desktop wallpaper.

Max felt his heart break again into tiny pieces as the picture of their Grand Canyon trip a few years earlier appeared on the screen. In the photo, Josh stared back at the camera, his arms around Max and Katie. They all looked so happy then.

Max snapped himself out of the past and refocused on the task at hand. If he saw the desktop wallpaper then that meant Josh hadn’t set a password. That was a good thing.

Where to start? Max wondered. He glanced at the letter again for reference and found that he really didn’t need it anymore. All the names had been committed to memory. He opened the address book by clicking on the proper icon and waited for the application to load. When it did, he began searching. Gabe, Caldwell, Vanessa, and Julie; all had been mentioned in the note.

They all came up with no matches, all except for one.

Vanessa.

Max read the name out loud. Vanessa Simmons. His voice sounded odd in the empty room.

Max read on, noting the address. He entered it into his phone and brought up a map with directions. Vanessa Simmons lived four miles away in Camden. A quick trip under any conditions.

Max put the computer to sleep and closed the lid gently. It felt strange, like closing a coffin lid.

He walked out of Josh’s bedroom and into the living room, staring at the small red dot flashing on top of the map on his phone screen. He needed to talk to this girl. He needed to figure out who she was and how she knew Josh.

Vanessa was a mistake, Josh’s letter had said. Had Vanessa been a girlfriend? Max thought hard, trying to remember any girls Josh might have brought home over the year or so before he died. He couldn’t remember any. But he’d been working so much then, a lot of late nights and weekends. Normal for the job. It was entirely possible that Katie might remember this Vanessa girl. Maybe she met her one day after school or had her over for dinner a time or two.

But to ask Katie would mean that he’d have to call her.

He could try that later. Better to talk to Vanessa directly and see what she might know before getting Katie involved. His ex-wife would only complicate things.

He’d need a reason to call on Vanessa; under normal circumstances, a forty-six-year-old man