Chapter 1: A Quest
Another Grace Creek media statement hit Piper’s inbox. She scowled. Those bastards cost her the job she’d fought so hard to get at the Revel City Review.
When Frankie Carver promised her that big toxic waste story six months ago, they both knew it might mean Piper would get fired, but they also expected it would make her career. What neither remembered at the time was that every major newspaper in the state was owned by the same company. And Leviathan Corporation (seriously, thought Piper, Leviathan?) had close ties with Grace Creek Property Company. This meant Piper was currently all but unemployable in her home state.
Piper’s eyes glazed over as she scrolled through the automated emails from Media Sourcable, scanning media statement after fluffy media statement, trying to find anything worth writing about. There had to be something in this load of bullshit that would make her new job as a freelance reporter pay. She could still sell stories to the handful of independent newspapers and news sites that had not yet been swallowed by the all-encompassing Leviathan, but this meant feature articles, not news. Piper wished she had a beer in her hand. Writing stories from company-issued media statements and pitching them to disinterested editors was soul-destroying. It also meant she had completely run out of money, which led to no beer, another late rent payment, and another goddamn instant noodle dinner.
One of the emails caught her eye. Don Carver. She clicked. It was an announcement about Don Carver’s next tour and included the usual cheesy book release family photo.
Interesting. Don, his new wife Starr―visibly pregnant―and the older daughter Vanessa. But no Francesca.
Piper repressed a shudder as that shocking moment in Augur’s Well came back in a rush. It took a lot to spook her, but seeing Frankie Carver―an apparently normal, straight-laced preacher’s daughter―put on a preternatural burst of speed and scale a six-foot ring-lock fence in the blink of an eye had been … unsettling, to say the least. The image was etched into her memory and although Piper was bound by her promise never to write about Frankie, it didn’t stop her wondering. And by wondering, she meant going to sleep every single night thinking about what the hell kind of secret was being concealed out in Augur’s Well.
She often thought about him, too. The guy who’d picked Frankie up in the van that night at the opening of the Marie-Celeste. Léon, Frankie had called him. He’d been panicking, that much was obvious. Piper replayed the moment. Léon and Frankie had spoken together urgently through the van window before Frankie jumped in and he drove off at about a thousand miles an hour. It had been sunset but not so dark she couldn’t see there was something different about the guy. She’d heard his accent. French. And she saw how hot he was. Like, out of this world hot. Whatever Frankie Carver had going on, she sure knew how to attract hot guys. The other one she’d been with, Cain, was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, too. Not quite as sexy as green-eyed Léon, but close.
Piper had questions. She didn’t cope well when her questions went unanswered.
Maybe she could visit Augur’s Well again. It wasn’t like she had much of a life in Revel City right now. Augur’s Well was considerably cheaper. There was a mobile home park there and her parents would probably cough up for the deposit on a trailer if she could pay the weekly lease. They might even permit her to borrow her brother’s car for a while, seeing as he would be on deployment for at least another three months. The more Piper thought about it, the more sense it made. She wouldn’t break her promise to Frankie, but she needed to know what was going on out there, for God’s sake.
Perhaps she could even seek a little work at the local community paper. It was hard to get cadet journalists out to places like Augur’s Well. They’d rather wait for the city journalist jobs … she knew that better than anyone, having waited over a year to fight tooth and nail for her dream job at Revel City Review. But all Piper needed now was enough to live on. Even a cadetship in the farming town of Augur’s Well would pay better than what she was earning doing this freelancing.
A knock on the door broke her reverie and her landlady’s face appeared through the glass panel. Dammit. Time to think up another excuse to avoid paying rent this week. Piper took a breath and answered the door to Mrs. Stonewall, the sour-faced woman she secretly called the bearded dragon in the bathrobe.
“Hey, Mrs. S.,” she said, her voice somewhere between enthusiastic and apologetic. “I was hoping you’d call by. I wanted to talk to you about―” She stopped when the woman placed an envelope in her hand. “What’s this?”
Mrs. Stonewall’s face was somehow more haggard and grumpy than usual. “An eviction notice.”
Okay. Yep, Augur’s Well sure sounded like a fine place to live right about now.
Léon tucked the blanket around Henri and shifted the travel pillow so it supported his little head better. How did he manage to sleep slumped over at that crooked angle? He still had his favorite red matchbox car clutched in his hand. Léon went back to his phone, searching for suitable accommodation in the town ahead. He didn’t like using trailer parks. There were often suspicious characters living there and he could never relax about Henri’s safety. Tourist parks were better, and then Henri had other kids to play with, as well. However, their next destination, an inland farming community, didn’t have any tourist parks. Next time, Léon promised Henri silently, we’ll go somewhere with a lake.
As long as there were no churches close by.
Henri had asked once or twice why they didn’t go to mass anymore. He’d even told his grandmother on speaker phone that they hadn’t been to mass since they left Saint-Antoine. Léon’s mother made an effort to cover her disapproval, explaining to Henri that it wasn’t always easy to get to church when you were travelling around. She asked him about school, too, and Henri told her with delight that he hadn’t been to school since March. Again, the disappointed silence. It made Léon wince.
He flicked to a bookmarked web address in his phone: Don Carver’s website, the About Me page. ‘My Family.’ The girl with long dark curls and bright brown eyes stared out of the screen at him, smiling a fake camera smile. Every part of her face was burned into Léon’s consciousness like he’d stared at the sun too long and she was a black spot in his vision. Francesca Carver. The cause of this nightmare. The cause of this life on the run from the horrific fate that dogged Henri.
Léon closed the website and attempted to put the girl out of his head. He opened his email and found a new message from Sara in his inbox.
I wish I had something else to report but it’s as usual. I hear the striking of a match and the murmur of prayers spoken. The rattle of the box of matches as it is passed from hand to hand. A woman’s voice, saying, ‘Father, may I speak with you a moment.’ And then the priest’s voice, ‘Run along, Henri. Mass commences soon.’ And lastly the rattle of matches in the child’s hand as the priest departs.
I have, however, had another premonition and this one is new. It is a woman’s voice. She says, ‘I have some information you may be interested in.’ I hear the tapping of fingers on a keyboard.
God protect you both.
Léon closed his laptop and, for a few minutes, stared unseeingly at the film playing on the bus’s television screen. The premonitions were always the same. Henri in church. The priest lighting candles and handing the matches to the little boy to hold … but forgetting to retrieve them when distracted by a member of the congregation. No matter how many towns they ran to, how many prayers he said over Henri’s head, how many churches they avoided, the premonitions never altered. How much longer could they continue on this way? Henri needed schooling. He needed a stable home. He needed a father who was not worn down and fraught with constant fear for his son’s life.
Léon closed his eyes. He was so tired. So deeply, overwhelmingly tired.
Chapter 2: Building Connections
Piper phoned the Carver residence before she arrived in town and asked to speak to Frankie. She was informed her message would be passed on, but never got a call back. She didn’t have an email address for Frankie so it looked like a visit to the house would be in order.
She leased a tiny cabin at the Augur’s Well trailer park. The manager, who introduced herself as Bernadette, looked doubtful at first.
“It’s only farmhands and shearers in those cabins, sweets. Rough as all hell. They drink a lot and make a mess. You’ll be surrounded by them and they’ll hassle you, you know. They hassle any good-looking girls … well, any girls at all, really.”
“I know how to handle myself,” Piper answered with a breezy smile.
“Hmm.” The manager looked down at her booking chart again. “Cabin Six is free.” She returned her gaze to Piper, appraising her. “I don’t know …”
“If it gets too much, I can leave. Please. It’s the only place I can afford.”
She shrugged in the end and gave Piper the keys to the cabin and the female ablutions. “Take care. Come and see me if you need help. Or Cain,” she added after giving it a moment’s thought. “He’s in the silver trailer near the outdoor kitchen. He’s a good guy.”
“Cain?” Piper said sharply. “Frankie’s friend Cain?”
Bernadette did a double take. “Yeah, Cain Aleister. He’s dating Frankie Carver. You know him?”
“A little.” Piper thought furiously. This was extraordinarily good luck. “The silver trailer, was it? I’ll stick my head in and say hello to him sometime.”
Bernadette looked a whole lot more chilled now she thought Piper was a friend of Cain’s.
“We sell basic groceries at the kiosk between eight and nine every morning, and again between five and six p.m. Milk, bread, ice, and a few dry staples, tinned food and stuff like that. Trash collection’s Tuesday so get your rubbish out in time. No noise after nine o’clock please.”
“No problem. Thanks.”
Piper dumped her stuff in the cabin, which was rundown and semi-clean, and plugged in her tablet and hotspot. She ran a search on Cain Aleister. Nothing. The guy was nowhere online. Unusual. It was generally only the elderly or the very poor who had little online background these days. Still, she would keep an eye out for Cain and try to strike up a conversation about Frankie. She might not get much information, especially if Cain was still dating Frankie, but it was worth a shot.
In the morning Piper hovered outside her cabin, hoping Cain would come back to his trailer. He didn’t seem to have been home the night before, but she couldn’t be sure. There had been no vehicle parked near his unlit trailer overnight and this morning, still no car. She attracted the attention of the shearers sitting in fold-out chairs outside a nearby cluster of cabins.
“Morning, lovely,” one of them called. “What’s goin’ on?”
There were mutters and a couple of leers but Piper saw only potential for information. “Hi, guys,” she said with a bright smile. “How are we all this morning? Who’s making coffee?”
There was a surprised pause and a couple of chuckles but one of them said, “I’ll make you a coffee.”
“Thanks. White with two sugars.”
“Two sugars? Jesus.”
“Yeah, I’m still not sweet enough.” She shot the guy a grin and he disappeared into his cabin to make her coffee. “Not working today?” she asked the others.
“Next job starts tomorrow,” one of them informed her. “Where you from?”
“Revel City. I’ve got friends in town so I’m visiting for a while. I’m in-between jobs,” she added with a wry face and they all nodded sympathetically.
One of them asked what she did but Piper pretended to miss the question as she accepted an instant coffee from a tall man who introduced himself as Sean.
“Sean―shorn―and you’re a shearer?” Piper asked with a quick smile.
He rolled his eyes. “Heard it all before.”
“I bet. Hey, you guys might know. Where’s the cheapest place to eat in town?”
“My nonna’s place,” one of them quipped.
Piper laughed with them. “My baba made the best banosh you ever tasted.”
“Ukrainian, eh?” one of them asked. He stuck out his hand. “Nico.”
“Hi, Nico. Piper.”
There was an exchange of Ukrainian grandmother stories before Piper found a convenient pause and remarked, “I haven’t been to Augur’s Well since that toxic waste scare a few months back. Any of you guys staying here then?”
“Nah,” said Nico. “Not me. Sean was, weren’t you, buddy?”
“Yeah,” Sean said. “Load of bullshit. Probably greenie protestors dumping chemicals to scare people off the tannery site.”
Piper knew the truth but she acted dumb, curious about how the rumor mill had worked in town after the clean-up. Did anyone know about Frankie Carver’s involvement?
“Do you know who it was that did it?”
“Got an idea. There was a foreigner in town at the time. I heard he was involved. Bloody Frenchman or something.” He seemed to recall that Piper and Nico were also foreigners―or descended from foreigners―and looked awkward for a moment.
“Did you get sick from the water?” she asked.
“Nope. I only drink beer, anyways.”
She laughed. “So … this French guy might have been involved?”
“Dunno. He was hanging around with some Chinese bloke, I hear. People said maybe there was, like, an environmental terrorism plot, or somethin’.”
Nico scoffed. “Bullshit. I heard the French bloke was round the town with that redhead bitch. Dina. Dana. No. Nadine, that’s it. She used to hang round down the Drover’s Arms but hasn’t been there for ages now. They were together for a while, her and the frog. Then he cleared out. She still walks around town with a face like a slapped ass.”
“Oh, yeah. Nadine whatsername.” Piper feigned memory failure.
“Lawson,” one of them said.
Nadine Lawson. She stored it in her head for research purposes.
“I don’t remember the Frenchman,” she tried. “What was his name?”
Nico and Sean shrugged. “Pepe Le Pew,” one of the others supplied, which caused a raucous general laugh.
Piper grinned and finished her coffee. “Thanks,” she told Sean, handing him the mug. “What time’s happy hour?”
“We’re usually back about four,” Nico told her, looking pleased that she wanted to spend time with them.
“What about the dude with the silver trailer?” she asked. “Does he join in, too?”
Sean looked disgusted. “Unfriendly prick. Biker wannabe. He only talks to the manager.”
Piper didn’t hesitate to side with them, not wanting to damage her newly cultivated source of information. “Oh, right. Thought he looked like a bit of a douchebag.” She was rewarded with an emphatic nod from several of the men and a muttered, “You got it.”
“Catch you later for drinks!” she said as she headed to the ablution block.
She hoped it was cleaner than her cabin. She was disappointed.
Cain didn’t return during the morning so Piper drove her brother’s car into town, determined to try her luck with Frankie Carver. Frankie’s exhortation had been that she never write about her or mention her name in connection with the tannery scandal. So far Piper had kept up her end of the bargain … and Frankie never told Piper she couldn’t talk to her again.
She’d assumed the girl lived at her father’s house but when she buzzed the intercom at the Carver residence and asked, a young woman’s voice told her Frankie didn’t live there. The voice wouldn’t tell her where Frankie did live. Piper drove back out onto the road and pulled over to think. Maybe the girl was staying with friends or extended family. That night at the Marie-Celeste, she’d heard Frankie call a man with a moustache ‘Uncle Max.’ Was it possible she lived with her uncle? Piper grabbed her phone and started a search for Augur’s Well Max Car― but before she could finish typing ‘Carver’ her phone’s browser suggested Caravaggio.
Of course. That was Don Carver’s real surname―she knew that from her online stalking of the Carver family. Max must be Don’s brother.
The search revealed Frankie’s Uncle Max was a local GP. Piper didn’t expect the doctor’s home address to be listed in the Augur’s Well residential directory, but it was. Small-town sense of security, she figured. She made her way to the sprawling two-story house and knocked on the door. A woman with a thin black ponytail answered.
Piper hazarded a guess. “Hi, Mrs. Caravaggio. Is Frankie home?”
She gave a gravelly laugh. “I’m the housekeeper. Frankie isn’t here but I can pass on a message.”
“Oh.” Piper allowed her disappointment to show. “I’m a friend of hers. I’m only in town for a couple of days. I’d hoped to catch up with her.”
The woman appraised her but seemed to decide Piper was on the level. “Try down at the Old House,” she said, pointing at a cottage Piper hadn’t even noticed, sitting adjacent to the bigger house.
“Oh, of course!” Piper said gratefully. “She said I should look for the cottage but I missed it from the road. Thanks!”
The housekeeper waved her off and Piper headed across the lawn to the Old House, her excitement rising. Hopefully Frankie would be willing to talk. The door was answered by a young man Piper recognized. He’d been at the Marie-Celeste opening, too. He was quite good-looking, with streaky blonde hair tied back in a man-bun and sparkling black-rimmed glasses. Gangly but hip. Wasn’t he the one who also witnessed Frankie’s super-fast, super-strong display of ability? He squinted as though he was trying to place her, as well.
“Oh, hi … er …”
“Piper,” she supplied. “I was wondering if Frankie’s home?”
“Piper Pavlov, wasn’t it?” He sounded delighted. “The journalist?”
“Pavlich, but close.”
“Piper Pavlich. Is that your superhero alter-ego?” He grinned, and then looked a little awkward.
Interesting. “No, that’s Kendall Clark,” she joked to put him at ease. He laughed, relieved. “So, is Frankie around?”
He shook his head. “College. She’s got finals. Is there something I can help with?”
Piper observed him for a moment. He had a spark in his eye that showed he was interested in her. He wasn’t her type―her mind wandered back to the green-eyed hottie Frenchman―but she liked this guy’s sense of humor. “What’s your name again?”
“Albion … Caravaggio.”
“Oh!” Dammit. She’d failed to keep the surprise from her voice. “Frankie’s … cousin?” she guessed. He nodded. “I assumed you must live up at the other house.”
“That’s Dad’s place. Frankie and I live here.”
Caution came over his face, so Piper gave him her most charming smile. “Don’t worry. I’m not looking for a story. I lost my job at the Revel City Review when I exposed Grace Creek.”
He nodded again, a little sympathy creeping into his expression. “I heard. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I kind of like living on rice and baked beans. The anemia counteracts the scurvy.”
Albion seemed charmed and laughed again. “I can tell Frankie you called round, if you like? Leave your number.”
Piper hesitated. “I don’t suppose you want to go for a coffee?”
Albion gazed at her, his intelligent eyes showing he was tempted. He only hesitated a few seconds. “Sure.”
To Piper’s immense relief, Albion paid casually for the coffees they ordered. Her daily budget wouldn’t stretch to buying random guys a macchiato … at least, that was what she thought he said when he ordered, although it sounded kind of like masochisto. They wove through the café, Albion waving to people he recognized, and sat at a table by the wall.
“The coffee here’s better than it used to be,” he told her, although he still sounded rather apologetic. “Every coffee place in town upped their game when the Marie-Celeste opened.”
“Has it reopened yet?” Piper asked, although she knew the answer.
“Yes. Last month, finally.”
“You were with the chef there, weren’t you?” she asked. “I remember the after-party.” Was Albion gay? Or bi? His flirty manner suggested the latter.
“Was,” he answered with a grimace.
He flapped a casual hand. “Don’t be. We were a break up waiting to happen. He hated anything arts or culture so we were running on borrowed time and sexual tension.”
She grinned. “Those are the most fun but the shortest lived relationships.”
That spark flashed in his eyes again and gave her the answer she was looking for. How much she could flirt without pissing him off when she turned him down? It would be a fine line.
“What are you doing back in Augur’s Well if you’re not a reporter anymore?”
“I’m still a journalist. I just don’t have a job. I’m here to take a break from city life.” He narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“Why the hell would you come here? For a break or anything else?”
“Augur’s Well isn’t that bad.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The trailer park.” Knowledge leapt into his face and Piper decided to go for broke. “Cain recommended it.”
“You’re friends with Cain?”
“Yeah.” She knew she was a good liar. Brazen and opportunistic. “He told me where Frankie lives.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Yeah, right.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Protective alpha-boy? Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he doesn’t trust anyone when it comes to his precious Francesca.”
Piper was delighted with this info-spill but pretended casual disinterest. “Well, yeah, of course. But he’s just looking out for her. He’s got to protect her from … idle interest. You know.” She gave him a meaningful look and heard Albion catch his breath.
“What does that mean?”
She shrugged. He knows something. Their orders arrived and Piper added sugar to her coffee, studying Albion covertly.
“You at college, too?” she asked.
“No. Not yet. Probably next academic year.”
“Cool. You staying in town or heading to the city?”
“Haven’t decided.” Albion sounded so disinterested in the idea of studying that Piper abandoned the topic.
“Is there much of a social scene in Augur’s Well? Where can a girl go to meet people on a Friday night?”
“I normally go to a party if there’s one on, but the Drover’s Arms on Main Street is the best pub for meeting anyone under forty.” He eyed her. “You planning on a night out later this week?”
“Possibly. I’ll have to see if I can charm someone into buying me a beer.”
“Look for me,” he said instantly. “You could charm me, no problem.” He flashed her a grin.
Piper grinned back. “You’re funny.” She thought fast. “Will Frankie be there?”
Albion seemed amused. “Er … no. Frankie doesn’t do the Friday night pub scene.”
“Okay. Well, anyway, it sounds cool. I’ll give it a try. The guys at the trailer park will probably be heading into town, anyway.”
He gave her a curious look. “Pretty rough at that trailer park, isn’t it?”
“They’ve been nice to me. The shearers are friendly and they gave me coffee.”
“Just be careful with what they want in return,” he advised.
Piper frowned. “Look past the surface. I reckon they’re decent guys, deep down.”
Albion held up a hand as if to say you win. “Just going off what Frankie’s told me.”
Piper considered that. “Frankie seems quiet. Reserved. Maybe she gets tongue-tied when they talk to her.”
“Compared to you, you mean?” He smiled. “I can’t imagine you getting intimidated.”
Piper was still thinking about Frankie. “Plus she’s pretty gorgeous. I’m not surprised she garnered a bit of attention from the shearers.”
“And you’re not gorgeous?” Albion asked, twitching an eyebrow.
Piper couldn’t help a laugh. “Smooth. When I see Frankie, I’ll tell her just to backchat the shearing boys. It shuts them right up.”
“If you see her.”
“Of course I’ll see her.”
“Like I said, she’s pretty busy these days. And kind of choosy about her friends.”
Piper watched him. “Like Léon?”
Albion coughed into his cup. “Léon! Where’d you hear about him?”
“I saw him with Frankie.” Piper saw Albion’s eyes go distant for a moment. “He was hot. Where’d he go?”
“Home, I guess. Hot, yes, but bad news.”
“Really?” She played it innocent. “He seemed lovely to me.”
“He was lovely. And hot. But unfortunately a psycho.”
“What did he do to deserve that name?”
“Let’s just say it involved restraining a girl against her will.”
Piper went cold. “Rape?”
“No. But he locked her away somewhere. God knows what he would have done if she didn’t get rescued.”
“Are we talking about Frankie?”
Albion’s face became cautious again. “Damn, you’re good,” he said. “So innocent. You nearly had me that time.”
She pretended not to know what he meant but to be safe, Piper changed the subject.
This town was the worst yet. It seemed most of the residents either worked at or were married to someone who worked at a fertilizer plant. If you weren’t connected in some way to Millier & Co. Fertilizers, you might as well be from another country. There was a faint stink of pungent death that sat in the air at all times. It upset Henri.
“I want to swing,” he whined, staring out of the cabin window. “Why does it have to smell so bad?”
“I’m sorry, Henri,” Léon told him, hating himself. “We’ll leave in a day or so. This is just a short stop.”
“What day is it?”
“Sunday the fourteenth.”
“Sunday?” Henri’s face brightened. “There’s a church. I saw it from the bus. Can we go to mass, Papa?”
“Not this week.”
Léon thought about all the reasons why not. The priest. The candles. The matches. The woman who needs to speak to the priest.
“Because it is not our denomination, that church. And today, we are very busy.”
“What are we doing?”
“We are going to build a grand Lego city.”
Henri was torn. He wanted to complain but he also wanted to play Lego with his father. Léon continued before Henri could make up his mind which way to lean.
“I was thinking I might create a giant multi-story undercover parking lot for all your cars.”
Henri’s eyes lit up. “Yes! With ramps!”
They built Lego structures, Henri prattling on about his friends from his old school, especially a boy named Cesare whom Léon knew had been something between a friend and an enemy for Henri. There had been reports home of rivalry and schoolyard scrapping. He listened and constructed the undercover parking lot until Léon could take no more. He sat back and watched Henri line up his little cars with as much precision as his clumsy little five-year-old hands could muster.
“I see you have put all the red ones on the top floor,” he said. “Why are the blue and green ones on the next level and the other colors on the very bottom?”
“Because red is my favorite,” said Henri. “Then I like blue and green. Then the others.”
Léon lay back on the floor, using his arms as a headrest, and watched Henri sort cars. “In some buildings, they have great machines that pick up the cars and lift them up high, and then slip them onto a shelf like a pair of shoes. When you want to get your car, you must ask the machine to go back up, pick up your car and bring it down to you.”
Henri stopped and stared. “Is that true?”
“As true as your favorite color is red. Would you like to see?”
Léon pulled up a video online and showed it to Henri. His son watched the video in awed wonder and insisted he watch it again three more times. Finally, he pushed the laptop away and commenced unloading his cars from the parking lot they’d built.
“Are we packing up?” Léon asked, relieved.
“No, we are building a car shelf with a machine. Can you help, Papa?”
Léon sighed. “Perhaps I shall just watch you, instead?”
Henri shook his head and pushed a load of Lego bricks toward him. “I will need help. You make the bottom shelves and I will do the machine.”
He nearly argued. He’d just played Lego with Henri for almost two hours, and now his son was demanding he play for yet another interminable length of time. But then Léon remembered it was he who’d pulled the boy out of school, and he who’d taken him away from Cesare and all his other friends. He who’d created this life of travelling limbo, he who’d brought them to this stinking town, in which there was nothing for his son to do except play Lego or matchbox cars in a motel room for hours on end.
He set to work on building the bottom shelves.
Unforgivable is available now on pre-order for Kindle. Get your copy here for auto-delivery to your device Thursday June 16, 2016:
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