2015 Anthony Award Nominee for Best Mystery Novel
In a frigid New Hampshire winter, Jay Porter is trying to eke out a living and maintain some semblance of a relationship with his former girlfriend and their two-year-old son. When he receives an urgent call that Chris, his drug-addicted brother, is being questioned by the sheriff about his missing junkie business partner, Jay feels obliged to come to his rescue. After Jay negotiates his brother's release from the county jail, Chris disappears into the night. As Jay begins to search for him, he is plunged into a cauldron of ugly lies and long-kept secrets that could tear apart his small hometown and threaten the lives of Jay and all those he holds dear. Powerful forces come into play that will stop at nothing until Chris is dead and the information he harbors is destroyed.
About the Author
From homeless junkie to successful author, Joe Clifford has dedicated his life to education and the craft of writing and helping other ex-junkies find a voice and a platform for their creative energies. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including Lamentation and December Boys in the Jay Porter series. He lives with this wife and two sons in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Read an Excerpt
By Joe Clifford
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2014 Joe Clifford
All rights reserved.
I had ducked inside the pantry to see what else we could sell when I tripped over a cord of wood and snared the back of my work coat on an old, rusty nail. The sharp point tore through the thick padding and ripped a hole in my long johns, all the way through my undershirt. I hurried to the sink and peeled off the layers. Just a surface cut. Thankfully, unlike the heat and power, the water was still on. I dabbed at the wound. Last thing I needed was lockjaw. I hadn't had a tetanus shot in twelve years. The estate clearing business was big in Ashton, and my boss, Tom Gable, a good guy, but it's not like the gig came with health insurance.
All afternoon I'd been up at Ben Saunders' place, a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the foothills, cherry picking through the dead man's belongings, loading the U-Haul for trips to flea markets and swap shops in southern New England. Saunders had lived alone and was a packrat. The cancer finally got him around Thanksgiving. Most of his stuff was junk. A dumpster sat in the snow-covered driveway overflowing with waterlogged pads of fiberglass, chunks of splintered wood, jagged shards of glass, trash bags jam-packed with leftovers that didn't quite translate to dollars and cents. I was almost done, and I'd be glad for the day to end. If I wrapped up soon enough, I'd have time to shoot across town to catch Jenny before she put our son to bed. I hadn't seen him all week.
Out the kitchen window, thick, black storm clouds roiled over Lamentation Mountain, churning like the gears to a violent machine, steamrolling the summit and sucking all light from the landscape, pastures and stonewalls shrouded in dense fields of leaden smoke. Cold winds rustled through broken windows. The flapping insulation sounded like a plastic bag held out a speeding car on the highway.
The big, empty farmhouse smelled of abandon. Night was settling, and the snow began to fall heavier. It had been one of the worst winters on record. Certainly, the worst since the accident.
Twenty years had passed but my parents' crash felt closer to last week. I stared in the direction of Lamentation Bridge, even though I couldn't see much through the evening gloaming, freezing my ass off, making no effort to get redressed. I knew that somewhere in the dark lay the exact spot where their brakes had failed, and they plunged into the frigid gray water of Echo Lake; the night everything had changed for my older brother, Chris, and me. I could feel death's presence lurking the entire week I'd been working there, a pall hanging over the place. It was the monkey on my back. The elephant in the room. The crazy little bird chirping in my ear.
The headlights from Tom's truck fanned up the gravel drive, slicing through snowy pines and shining into my eyes.
I pulled my ripped shirt over my head and bundled back up, then headed outside to greet him.
Tom climbed down from the cab and lumbered over, broad shoulders curled, hands jammed in pockets. I could hear my untied work boots crunching frozen dirt and snow as harsh winds raced through the valley.
"Almost done," I shouted above the din of engine and storm, nodding back at the old farmhouse. "Maybe one and a half, two hours left."
Tom gestured for me to follow him back to his idling Ford F-350, which rumbled like a washing machine stuck with an uneven load. We hoisted ourselves into the warm cab, welcoming the hot air blasting through the vents.
I pulled the Marlboros from my coat and cupped my hands to light one. The radio softly hummed. The Allman Brothers, "Sweet Melissa." That song had been playing the first time I kissed Jenny in Steve Ryba's basement back in high school. Always hit me hard. Tom offered me the other half of a ham and cheese from the Gas 'n' Go, but I shook him off. Last time I'd made the mistake of eating a gas station sandwich, I spent half the night with my face stuck in the toilet.
Tom reached in his coat and passed along an envelope.
By its heft, I could tell that there had to be at least a grand in there.
Tom was a good boss and treated me well. But the nature of estate clearing meant nothing was permanent, and the brutal winters often made it difficult to transport merchandise. Which frequently spelled downtime for me — downtime I didn't want. A thousand bucks said we were looking at another one of those times.
"That should hold you over a few," he said.
"If it doesn't," I said, tucking the envelope into my coat, "that's not your problem."
"Yeah, it is. You're the best guy I got, Jay. I hate doing this to you, but everything slows down this time of year. You know that."
"Might have another place up in Berlin. But that won't be for at least three weeks. Finding somewhere to sell the shit, that's another matter." He forced a laugh. "Helluva place to run antiques." His frost-burned cheeks winced a grin through the bushy beard that covered two-thirds of his face.
I gazed out the window. Distant lights flickered on the range like fireflies in a jar in the summer, as families retreated safely inside to batten down hatches and weather the latest storm.
I made for the handle. "Still a few things inside I have to pack. I've got a pair of floodlights in my truck I can use. I want to wrap this up for you today."
"Don't worry about it," Tom said. "I'll take care of it."
I didn't like the way he looked when he said that. Because I knew what was coming next. I'd been getting that look since my mom and dad had died, ever since my brother had turned into what he'd become. It spelled a long night of aggravation.
"Turley's looking for you," he said.
He didn't need to add the next part, but he did anyway. "They got Chris down at the station."CHAPTER 2
Lamentation Mountain was a misnomer, since it wasn't actually one mountain but a whole range of them, divided by the main thoroughfare of the Desmond Turnpike, which ran south all the way to Concord and north across the border into Montreal. There were no roads out of town to the east, and the only route west traversed the treacherous Ragged Pass, an icy deathtrap most of the year.
The Ashton Police Station was deep in the flats, across Camel's Back and past Axel Rod Road. As I descended the ridge, snow dumped in big clumps, glopping on everything like wet, sticky rice, obscuring traffic lights and stop signs. The sporadic streetlamps couldn't make a dent in the dark, which made the short ride take a lot longer than it should have. Not that I was in any rush to get there.
I'd lost count of how many times I'd picked up my asshole brother over the years. Shoplifting at the Price Chopper. Dealing at the TC Truck Stop. Garden-variety vagrancy. We were a small town, and people rarely pressed charges, but, still, it was embarrassing. Usually, they'd stick my big brother in a tiny cell for a night or two, then release him to me. Who else were they going to call? Chris was Ashton's village idiot. And he was my problem.
The police station was brand-spanking new, part of the recently remodeled Town Centre. A few years ago, Ashton placed a measure on the ballot to allocate more police funds. Lombardi Construction got behind it, so it passed without a fight. Why wouldn't Lombardi support the measure? They'd be building the damned thing. With Michael Lombardi in the state senate and Adam Lombardi running the construction business, the family was the closest thing to royalty we had. Their dad, Gerry, even coached the high school wrestling team, on which Chris used to star back in the day, and the old man served on the board of UpStart, a mentoring program for at-risk boys throughout northern New Hampshire. Whenever he'd had too much to drink, Chris invariably would evoke the slight of having been left off the All-State team as the reason for his downfall. My brother never ran out of injustices to blame.
Besides the precinct, the renovated Centre also included a senior living facility, the library, and town hall. In a town of under three thousand, adding extra squad cars and a new holding cell smacked of overkill. But the drug epidemic up here was getting out of hand. At least that had been the posturing by local media. A recent poll in the Herald claimed that over half of high school students had admitted to trying some narcotic before tenth grade, if nothing more than popping the occasional painkiller from mom's stash. According to the paper, drug use had become "a blight and a scourge on the community." That may've been hyperbole, but it didn't take much to put the fear of God into God-fearing people.
Not that there wasn't a drug problem, especially at the truck stop, which was where most of those people seemed to congregate, setting up shop next door at the Maple Motor Inn, or in one of the sleazy motels along the Desmond Turnpike, waiting for their welfare checks on the first and fifteenth of every month. I'd seen firsthand the drug problem in Ashton, but giving cops shiny new toys to play with wasn't going to change anything; people were going to do whatever the hell they wanted to do.
* * *
When I stepped into the police station lobby, the bright fluorescents stabbed the backs of my eyeballs, and the jacked-up heat gave me an instant headache. Remnants from the holidays adorned the office — homemade Frosty the Snowman cards from Willard Elementary, half a sleigh bell streamer hanging from an eave — even though Christmas had been over a month ago. The septic smells of warmed microwaved foods overpowered the small space and only made my head hurt worse.
I clomped my boots on the mat by the door, drawing the attention of Claire Sizemore, who'd graduated with my brother, ten years ahead of me. She was the only one in the office, sitting at a desk in a neat row of three by the window, doing a sudoku puzzle or something. She gave me a sheepish wave and hefted herself to her feet. Her dull, brown hair frizzed in a do-it-yourself dye job, and her languid eyes drooped like maple syrup from a freshly tapped tree. Each time I saw Claire, I'd recall the time I caught my brother fingering her behind the fried dough booth at the Chesterton Bazaar.
The Chesterton Bazaar's a big deal when you're in the third grade and don't know any better, the rinky-dink rides and games only growing lamer each passing year. I was just a kid and didn't know exactly what Chris had been doing, but by the way Claire squealed it was clear she liked it. The clanking, old Ferris wheel chains chugged overhead and the hot oil of frying dough sizzled, as I watched him probe deeper and deeper. When he finally turned and saw me, my brother didn't look like he was having any fun.
"How are you, Jay?" Claire asked, leaning over the counter. "How's Aiden?"
"Almost, what? Two?"
"I ran into Jenny and Brody the other day at McDonald's. Aiden wasn't with them. Jenny said he was at her mom's?"
"Lynne babysits some mornings so Jenny can catch up on sleep after work."
"That Brody's an interesting character." Claire waited for my response.
I gave a halfhearted nod.
Claire's face sagged like an old hound dog. "I always liked you two together," she said, her voice tinged with sadness. "Jay and Jenny. Sounds cute, don't it?"
She motioned behind her. "Went for some coffee in the break room. Should be back in a minute. You here about your brother?" There was that look again.
I forced a grin, but probably couldn't hide my aggravation. I mean, why the hell else would I be there?
A moment later, Rob Turley rounded the corner, coffee in hand, aw-shucks smirk on his puffy face. Seeing me, he paused to hitch his pants higher, wiggling the belt around his paunch. He tried to look serious as he strode forward with renewed, big-boy purpose.
Never would get used to seeing Turley in his police uniform. Back in high school, that guy dropped more acid than anyone I knew. We used to throw huge parties up at Coal Creek Reservoir. I'm talking four, five kegs, bonfires, boom boxes, the kind of parties that would last three days and wouldn't end until everyone had puked at least once. I remember at one of these parties, Turley was tripping so hard he thought he was an alligator and dove into the reservoir, snapping his teeth and trying to catch invisible fish. This was in the early thaw of spring; water had to be forty degrees. Would've frozen to death if a couple guys from Longmont hadn't jumped in and dragged his fat ass out. He lay on the shore as they tried wrapping him in a blanket, flopping hysterically, his big, white belly pale as the underside of a toad in the harvest moonlight. Now, here he was, one of Ashton's finest.
He stuck out his hand with pretentious formality. When I didn't return the gesture, he slung an arm around my shoulder instead, like my reluctance to touch him had been an invitation for more intimacy. He kept his arm there, pulling me awkwardly closer, luring me down the hall with him.
"Claire," he said over his shoulder, a little too loudly, "I'll be down in Interrogation Room 1 if you need me."
Turley ushered me into a cramped space reminiscent of a small high school classroom. There was even a TV and a DVD player sitting on a rolling cart, the kind you used to be thrilled to see in science or history class because it meant a day of doing nothing. I could picture Turley and the rest of Ashton's tiny force huddled around endless hours of "Amphetamines and You" educational videos, as Sheriff Pat Sumner drew up strategies on the EZ Erase board to combat underage drinking at the strip mall with the simplified Xs and Os of a peewee squad's limited playbook.
"Can I get you something?" he asked. "Coffee?"
"Tom tell you I called?"
"Why else would I be here, Turley?"
He shifted in his seat and propped up straighter, wiping his expression of any lingering familiarity. I could appreciate what he was trying to do. But it's hard to take someone seriously after you've seen him pretending to be an alligator in his tidy whities.
"Got him cooling in a cell," Turley said, jabbing a thumb backward. "Didn't know what else to do."
"Drugs?" I asked, matter-of-factly.
"Not this time," Turley said, reaching for his Styrofoam cup. "I mean, I'm sure he's gacked to the gills. Your brother usually is."
The fluorescents buzzed overhead.
"Why'd you pick him up then?"
Turley's face twisted up.
"Spit it out, man."
Turley exhaled, rubbing the back of his meaty neck. "Your brother got in a fight with his business partner. Now, the guy ain't been home for a couple days. His mama called us this afternoon, freaking out. Chris was shooting off at the mouth. Made some threats, I guess. Pat had me pick him up, see if I could get to the bottom of it. Found Chris at the Arby's, sitting curbside, no jacket. Had to be fifteen degrees out —"
"Wait a second. Hold on. What business partner?"
"Pete." Turley waited for a reaction. "Pete Naginis?"
I returned a blank stare.
"Don't you talk to your brother no more?"
"Of course I talk to him. He's my brother. But I don't know anything about any business or partner."
The truth was, I avoided Chris as best I could. I insisted he check in periodically with a phone call. A short, to-the-point phone call. Thanks for letting me know that you haven't OD'd. No, you can't have any money. Bye. We didn't get too deep. Still, I found it difficult to believe he could've gotten his shit together enough to start a business. At least one that didn't involve drugs.
"Chris and Pete have a used computer store," Turley said, when it became obvious he needed to fill in the blanks. "Computer Solutions. Run it out of the old Chinese restaurant on the Desmond Turnpike."
"Don't know it."
"Yeah, you do. Way north. Just before Coal Creek. Red building, after that used car lot where they install those inflatable wacky wavers on weekends. No one ever admitted eating there except Woody Morris, and we used to bust his balls for it. Remember? There was that big joke about how all the town's strays had gone missing, and then the health department closed them down that one time because they found out it was true. It's on the way to the reservoir. Passed it a hundred times. You know it."
Excerpted from Lamentation by Joe Clifford. Copyright © 2014 Joe Clifford. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jay struggles to prove his brother is innocent. Chris is a drug addict with a history of psychotic episodes. Jay is unsure what to believe but, he is going to stand by Chris, no matter what. Jay and Chris are characters to fall in love with, or maybe, just relate to. Jay is a “good ole boy” struggling to make a living. Chris has many problems but, he has a huge heart. I was completely wrapped up in their troubles. With many twists and turns, Mr. Clifford leads the reader through a powerful and moving thriller. This tale is not to be missed!!! I love discovering a new author. I cannot wait to read the rest of Joe Clifford’s work.
Very wonderful story
Will try another by this author
I finally had the time to sit down and read this book--it's been at the top of my list for a long time now. I wish I had made the time for it sooner! The writing is clean and brilliant, showing clear evidence of Clifford's commitment to language. It would have been easy for him to make this merely a plot-driven book, given the suspense/thriller genre, but he goes well beyond the limitations of the genre and writes beautiful prose, which is tight and efficient (and even a little poetic at times), and suits the narrative perfectly. This is a hard thing to accomplish. The plot is also very tight, with enough subtle foreshadowing to make the reader have those great "ah-ha" moments where something is revealed that wasn't obvious but that works to make the reader feel, well, smart. And who doesn't like feeling smart? Great job, Joe! Lamentation is both heartbreaking and beautiful.
This is an edgy novel that never allows your mind to wander. The character and place descriptions had me right there in New Hampshire, where Lamentation takes place. Joe Clifford is very frugal with his words, each one counts, and the novel is a spare 201 pages of wonderful writing. Jay and Chris the polar opposite brothers, who are at the center of this noir family saga, will stay with me for a long time; much like Kenzie and Gennaro from Lehane's' series.
This is a great book! . You can feel the characters and the story grabs you in till the very end! Would highly recommend this book and anything else written by Joe! Very talented write!
Really enjoyed this book. Fast paced, great read. Kept me turning the pages.