About the Author

Andrew Pyper

ANDREW PYPER is the author of Lost Girls, his highly acclaimed first novel that was a bestseller in Canada, in the Top 10 on the TimesUK paperback list and in the Top 30 of The New York Times paperback bestseller list. The novel was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by The Globe and Mail and The New York Times and is currently being adapted for the screen. His second novel, The Trade Mission, was selected as a Top 10 Best Book of the Year by the Toronto Star and was published in Canada, the US and the UK to great acclaim. Pyper is also theauthor of Kiss Me, a collection of short stories. While researching and writing The Wildfire Season, he spent three of the past five summers living in the Yukon. His home is in Toronto. Visit his website at www.andrewpyper.com.

Books by this Author
Breaking And Entering

Breaking And Entering

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Call Roxanne

Call Roxanne

Short Story
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Camp Sacred Heart

Camp Sacred Heart

Short Story
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Dime Bag Girl

Dime Bag Girl

Short Story
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House Of Mirrors

House Of Mirrors

Short Story
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Lost Girls

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Magnificent

Magnificent

Short Story
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Sausage Stew

Sausage Stew

Short Story
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The Guardians

The Guardians

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tagged : thrillers
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Excerpt

[ I ]
 
 
The call comes in the middle of the night, as the worst sort do.
 
The phone so close I can read the numbers on its green-glowing face, see the swirled fingerprint I’d left on its message window. A simple matter of reaching and grabbing. Yet I lie still. It is my motor-facility impairment (as one of my fussily unhelpful physicians calls it) that pins me for eighteen rings before I manage to hook the receiver onto my chest.
 
“I don’t even know what time it is. But it’s late, isn’t it?”
 
A familiar voice, faintly slurred, helium-pitched between laughter and sobs. Randy Toller. A friend since high school—a time that even Randy, on the phone, calls “a million years ago.” And though it was only twenty-four years, his estimate feels more accurate.
 
As Randy apologizes for waking me, and blathers on about how strange he feels “doing this,” I am trying to think of an understanding but firm way of saying no when he finally gets around to asking for money. He has done it before, following the unfairly lost auditions, the furniture-stealing girlfriends, the vodka-smoothed rough patches of his past tough-luck decade. But in the end Randy surprises me when he takes a rattling, effortful breath and says, “Ben’s dead, Trev.”
 
Trev?
 
This is my first, not-quite-awake thought. Nobody’s called me that since high school, including Randy.
 
“How?”
 
“A rope,” Randy says.
 
“Rope?”
 
“Hanging. I mean, he hung himself. In his mom’s house.”
 
“He never went outside. Where else could he have done it?”
 
“I’m saying he did it in his room. Up in the attic where he’d sit by the window, you know, watching.”
 
“Did his mom find him?”
 
“It was a kid walking by on the street. Looked up to see if that weird McAuliffe guy was in the window as usual, and saw him swinging there.”
 
I’m quiet for a while after this. We both are. But there is our breath being traded back and forth down the line. Reminders that we aren’t alone in recalling the details of Ben’s room, a place we’d spent a quarter of our youth wasting our time in. Of how it would have looked with the grown-up Ben in it, attached to the oak beam that ran the length of the ceiling.
 
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Randy says finally.
 
“Take that back.”
 
“I didn’t—it’s just—”
 
“Take that stupid bullshit back.”
 
“Fine. Sorry.”
 
Randy has led the kind of life that has made him used to apologizing for saying the wrong thing, and the contrite tone he uses now is one I’ve heard after dozens of defaulted IOUs and nights spent sleeping on my sofa between stints in rented rooms. But then, in little more than a whisper, he says something else.
 
“You know it’s sort of true, Trev.”
 
He’s right. It is sort of true that with the news of Ben McAuliffe’s suicide there came, among a hundred other reactions, a shameful twinge of relief.
 
Ben was a friend of mine. Of ours. A best friend, though I hadn’t seen him in years, and spoke to him only slightly more often. It’s because he stayed behind, I suppose. In Grimshaw, our hometown, from which all of us but Ben had escaped the first chance we had. Or maybe it’s because he was sick. Mentally ill, as even he called himself, though sarcastically, as if his mind was the last thing wrong with him. This would be over the phone, on the rare occasions I called. (Each time I did his mother would answer, and when I told her it was me calling her voice would rise an octave in the false hope that a good chat with an old friend might lift the dark spell that had been cast on her son.) When we spoke, neither Ben nor I pretended we would ever see each other again. We might as well have been separated by an ocean, or an even greater barrier, as impossible to cross as the chasm between planets, as death. I had made a promise to never go back to Grimshaw, and Ben could never leave it. A pair of traps we had set for ourselves.
 
Despite this, we were still close. There was a love between us too. A sexless, stillborn love, yet just as fierce as the other kinds. The common but largely undocumented love between men who forged their friendship in late childhood.
 
But this wasn’t the thing that bridged the long absence that lay between our adult lives. What connected Ben and me was a secret. A whole inbred family of secrets. Some of them so wilfully forgotten they were unknown even to ourselves.
 
 
Only after I’ve hung up do I notice that, for the entire time I was on the phone with Randy, my hands were still. I didn’t even have to concentrate on it, play the increasingly unwinnable game of Mind Over Muscles.
 
Don’t move.
 
It’s like hypnosis. And like hypnosis, it usually doesn’t work.
 
Everything’s okay. Just stay where you are. Relax. Be still.
 
Now, in the orange dust of city light that sneaks through the blinds, I watch as the tremor returns to my limbs. Delicate flutterings at first. Nervous and quick as a sparrow dunking its head in a puddle. An index finger that abruptly stiffens, points with alarm at the chair in the corner—and then collapses, asleep. A thumb standing in a Fonzie salute before turtling back inside a fist.
 
You know what I need? A week in Bermuda.
 
These were the sort of thoughts I had when the twitches showed up.
 
I need to eat more whole grains.
 
I need a drink.
 
The hand-jerks and finger-flicks were just the normal flaws, the software glitches the body has to work through when first booting up after a certain age. I had just turned forty, after all. There was a price to be paid—a small, concealable impediment to be endured for all the fun I’d had up until now. But it was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t a real problem of the kind suffered by the wheelchaired souls you wish away from your line of sight in restaurants, your appetite spoiled.
 
But then, a few months ago, the acceptable irregularities of the body inched into something less acceptable. Something wrong.
 
I went to the doctor. Who sent me to another doctor. Who confirmed her diagnosis after a conversation with a third doctor. And then, once the doctors had that straightened out, all of them said there was next to nothing they could do, wished me well and buggered off.
 
What I have, after all, is one of those inoperable, medically unsexy conditions. It has all the worst qualities of the non-fatal disease: chronic, progressive, cruelly erosive of one’s “quality of life.” It can go fast or slow. What’s certain is that it will get worse. I could name it now but I’m not in the mood. I hate its falsely personal surnamed quality, the possessive aspect of the capital P. And I hate the way it doesn’t kill you. Until it does.
 
 
I spoke to a therapist about it. Once.
 
She was nice—seemed nice, though this may have been only performance, an obligation included in her lawyer-like hourly fee—and was ready to see me “all the way through what’s coming.” But I couldn’t go back. I just sat in her pleasant, fern-filled room and caught a whiff of the coconut exfoliant she’d used that morning to scrub at the liver spots on her arms and knew I would never return. She was the sort of woman in the sort of office giving off the sort of scent designed to provoke confessions. I could have trusted her. And trusting a stranger is against the rules.
 
(There was something else I didn’t like. I didn’t like how, when she asked if I had entertained any suicidal thoughts since the diagnosis and I, after a blubbery moment, admitted that I had, she offered nothing more than a businesslike smile and a tidy check mark in her notepad.)
 
One useful suggestion came out of our meeting, nevertheless. For the purposes of recording my thoughts so that they might be figured out later, she recommended I keep a diary chronicling the progress of my disease. Not that she used that word. Instead, she referred to the unstoppable damage being done to me as an “experience,” as if it were a trip to Paraguay or sex with twins. And it wasn’t a journal of sickness I was to keep, but a “Life Diary,” her affirmative nods meant to show that I wasn’t dying. Yet. That was there too. Remember, Trevor: You’re not quite dead yet.
 
“Your Life Diary is more than a document of events,” she explained. “It can, for some of my clients, turn out to be your best friend.”
 
But I already have best friends. And they don’t live in my present life so much as in the past. So that’s what I’ve ended up writing down. A recollection of the winter everything changed for us. A pocket-sized journal containing horrors that surprised even me as I returned to them. And then, after the pen refused to stand still in my hand, it has become a story I tell into a Dictaphone. My voice. Sounding weaker than it does in my own ears, someone else’s voice altogether.
 
I call it my “Memory Diary.”
 
 
Randy offered to call Carl, but we both knew I would do it. Informing a friend that someone they’ve known all their life has died was more naturally a Trevor kind of task. Randy would be the one to score dope for a bachelor party, or scratch his key along the side of a Porsche because he took it personally, and hard, that his own odds of ever owning one were fading fast. But I was definitely better suited to be the bearer of bad tidings.
 
I try Carl at the last number I have for him, but the cracked voice that answers tells me he hasn’t lived there for a while. When I ask to have Carl call if he stops by, there is a pause of what might be silent acceptance before the line goes dead. Randy has a couple of earlier numbers, and I try those too, though Carl’s former roommates don’t seem to know where he is now either (and refuse to give me their own names when I ask).
 
“Not much more we can do,” Randy says when I call him back. “The guy is gone, Trev.”
 
There it is again: Trev. A name not addressed to me in over twenty years, and then I get it twice within the last half-hour.
 
I had an idea, as soon as Randy told me Ben had died, that the past was about to spend an unwelcome visit in my present. Going from Trevor to Trev is something I don’t like, but a nostalgic name change is going to be the least of it. Because if I’m getting on a train for Grimshaw in the morning, it’s all coming back.
 
Heather.
 
The coach.
 
The boy.
 
The house.
 
The last of these most of all because it alone is waiting for us. Ready to see us stand on the presumed safety of weed-cracked sidewalk as we had as schoolchildren, daring each other to see who could look longest through its windows without blinking or running away.
 
For twenty-four years this had been Ben’s job. Now it would be ours.

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The Killing Circle
Excerpt

Labour Day, 2007

I didn’t know my son could tell directions from the stars.

Corona Austrina. Lyra. Delphinus.

Sam leaves noseprints on the passenger window as we highway out of the city, reciting the constellations and whispering "South" and "East" and "North" with each turn I make.

"Where’d you learn that?"

He gives me the same look as when I came into his room a couple nights ago and found him sling-shooting a platoon of plastic Marines, one by one, on to the neighbour’s roof. "I’m a terrorist,"he had answered when asked what he thought he was doing.

"Learn what?"

"The stars."

"Books."

"Which books?"

"Just books."

With Sam I know I’ll get no further than this. It’s because both of us are readers. Not by passion necessarily, but by character. Observers. Critics. Interpreters. Readers of books (most recently the later, furious Philip Roth for me, and Robinson Crusoe, told in bedtime snippets, for Sam). But also comics, travel brochures, bathroom-stall graffiti, owner’s manuals, cereal-box recipes. The material doesn’t matter. Reading is how we translate the world into a language we can at least partly understand.

"North,"Sam says, his nose returned to the glass.

The two of us peer at the slab of shadow at the top of the rise. A square monolith jutting out of an Ontario corn field like the last remnant of an ancient wall.

"Mus-tang Drive-in. End of Sea-son. La-bour Day Dusk ’til Dawn,"Sam reads as we pass the sign.

He leans forward to study the neon cowboy on a bucking bronco that is the Mustang’s beacon, directing us in from the night roads.

"I’ve been here before,"he says.

"You remember that?"

"The sign. The man on the horse."

"You were so little then."

"What am I now?"

"Now? Now you’re a book-reading, star-gazing young man."

"No,"he says, grimacing. "I’m eight years old. And I just remember things."

We have come out here, widower and son, to watch the last movie show of the summer at one of the last drive-ins in the country. The last of the lasts.
Tamara - Sam’s mother, my wife - died eight months after Sam was born. Since then, I have found a parental usefulness in moviegoing. In a darkened cinema (or here, in a darkened corn field) Sam and I can find an intimacy without the dangers of talk. There’s something distinctly male about it. The closeness fathers and sons find in passive, mostly silent hobbies, like fly fishing or watching baseball games.

The guy at the admission booth pauses when he spots Sam in the passenger seat. Tonight’s main feature - a spooky Hollywood thriller currently raking in the last of the easy summer dollars - is R-rated. I hand the guy a bill that more than covers full price for two adults. He winks and waves us on, but offers no change.

The place is packed. The best spot left is in front of the concession stand, well off to the side. Sam wanted to try further back, but I know that’s where the high school kids go. Pot and smuggled rye, teenaged boys and girls and all the things they get away with. It’s not concern for Sam’s moral education, but the nostalgic envy that being so close to these crimes would cause in me that makes me stay up here with the rest of the respectables.

"It’s starting!"Sam announces as the floodlights cut out.

It leaves me to pull our chairs and mothballed sleeping bag out of the trunk with only the light of the commercials to see by. I slide along the side of the car keeping my eye on the screen. This, for me, is the best part of the whole drive-in experience: the vintage ad for junk food. A dancing hot dog, leering milkshake, a choir of french fries. And there’s something about the tap-dancing onion ring that always breaks my heart.

I set up Sam’s chair, then my own. Snuggle up next to each other under the sleeping bag.

"En-joy Our Fea-ture Pres-en-ta-tion!"Sam says, reading the screen.

The parked rows await the sky’s final turn from purple to black. A single honk to our right, a minivan rollicking with sugar-freaked little leaguers, brings muffled laughter from the vehicles around us. But there’s something nervous in these sounds - the bleat of alarm, the reply of hollow mirth. To make this impression go away I try at a laugh of my own. A dad laugh. And once it’s out, I inhale the familiar mix of gas fumes, popcorn, burnt hamburger. Along with something else. Something like fear. Faint as the perfume a previous guest leaves on a motel pillow.

The movie starts. A scene of introductory horror: a dark figure pursuing its prey through a field at night. Flashes of desperate movement, swinging arms and boots and jangling keys on a belt. Jump edits between the killer’s certain stride and the other’s panicked run, fall, then sobbing, crab crawl forward. A brief shot of hands dripping with what may be oil, or wet earth, or blood. A close-up scream.

We don’t know who this person is, this certain victim, but we recognize the context of hopeless struggle. It is the dream all of us have had, the one in which our legs refuse to carry us, the ground softened into black syrup, taking us down. And behind us is death. Faceless and sure, suffering no such handicaps.

We’re so close to the screen that to look at anything else forces me to turn all the way around in my chair. An audience of eyes. Looking back at me through bug-spattered windshields.

I sit forward again and tilt my head back. The autumn dome of night, endless and cold, lets me breathe. For a moment. Then even the stars crowd down.

"Dad?"

Sam has turned at all my fidgeting. I force myself to look straight ahead at the actors on the screen. Enormous, inescapable. Their words coming from every direction, as if spoken from within me. Soon the film becomes not just any dream, but a particular one I’ve had a thousand times.

I’m standing before I know I’m out of my chair. The sleeping bag spilling off my knees.

Sam looks up at me. Now, his face half in shadow, I can see his mother in him. It’s what gives him his sweetness, his open vulnerability. Seeing her in his features brings the strange feeling of missing someone who is still here.

"You want anything?"I ask. "Tater tots?"

Sam nods. And when I reach my hand out to him, he takes it.

We shuffle toward the source of the projector’s light. The blue beam and the glimpsed orange of matches lighting ­cigarettes in back seats - along with the dull glow of the quarter moon - the only illumination to see by. And the same dialogue broadcast from the speakers hooked to every car window.

It’s him.
What are you talking about?

The thing that lives under your bed. The eyes in your closet at night, watching you. The dark. Whatever frightens you the most...
Somebody opens the door to the concession stand and a cone of light plays over our feet. Sam runs to stay within it. Pretending that if he touches the unlit gravel before he gets inside he’ll be sucked into another dimension.

Which we are anyway. The Mustang’s snack bar belongs to neither Sam’s generation nor mine, but to whatever time it was when men wore ties to buy cheeseburgers. Just look at the posters on the walls: beaming sixties families stepping from their fin-tailed Fords to purchase treats for adorably ravenous Beaver Cleaver kids. It’s almost enough to put you off the food.

But not quite.

In fact, we need a tray. On to which I pile cardboard boats of taters, foil-wrapped dogs, rings so greasy you can see through the paper plate they sit on, as well as a jumbo soda, two straws.

But before we can leave, we need to pay. The girl at the till is speaking into the air. "No way,"she says, hang-jawed. "No way."And then I notice the cord coming out of her ear. The little mouthpiece thingy under her chin. "For real?"

"I’ll meet you where we’re sitting,"Sam says, grabbing a hot dog off the tray.

"Just watch for cars."

"They’re parked, Dad."

He gives me a pitying smile before running out the door.

Outside, after I’ve paid, the sudden dark leaves me blind. A tater tot leaps off the tray and squashes under my shoe. Where the hell did I park anyway? The movie tells me. The angle I’d been watching it from. Up a bit more, off to the side.

And there it is. My ancient Toyota. A car I should really think about replacing but can’t yet. It’s the lipstick and eye­liner Tamara left in the glove box. Every time I open it to grab my ownership certificate they spill out into my hand and she is with me. Sitting in the passenger seat, pulling down the visor mirror for a last-minute smearing. When we’d arrive at wherever we were headed to, she would turn to me and ask, "Do I look okay?"Every time I said yes, it was true.

I keep my eyes on the Toyota’s outline and stumble toward it, right next to the van of little leaguers. Quiet now. Their attention held by the movie’s suspense.

Why is he doing this? Why not just kill us when he had the chance?

The tray falls from my hands.

It’s not the movie. It’s what’s in front of my car that does it.

There’s our fold-out chairs. The sleeping bag.

Except the sleeping bag is lying on the ground. And both chairs are empty.

A couple of the minivan kids are sniggering at me, pointing at the unsheathed hot dog on the ground, the dixie cups of extra ketchup splashed gore over my pants. I look their way. And whatever shows on my face makes them slide the door shut.

I drift away from the Toyota, scuffing through the aisles between the cars. Slow, deliberate scans in every direction. Poking my head into the vehicles and noting the hundreds of North American lives in recreational progress–the dope-smoking kids, gluttonous adults, the couples slumped under comforters in the backs of pick-up trucks.

But no Sam.

For the first time the idea of calling the police comes to mind. Yet it remains only an idea. Sam’s been gone three minutes at most. He has to be here. What might be happening is not happening. It can’t be. It can’t.
"Sam!"

My son’s name comes to me from someone else. An alarmed third party.

"Sam!"

I start to run. As fast as I can at first. Then, realizing I won’t make it the length of a single row, slow it to a jog. A pushing-forty man trotting his way through the parked cars in the middle of the main feature, rubbernecking this way and that. It’s the sort of thing people notice. A teenager in his dad’s convertible wolf whistles as I go by, and the girls bunched into the front with him offer an ironic wave. Without thinking, I wave back.

When I finish zigzagging all the rows, I start around the perimeter of the lot. Peering into the shadowed fields. Each line of corn another chance of seeing Sam standing there, hiding, waiting for me to find him. This anticipated image of him becomes so particular that I actually spot him a couple of times. But when I stop for a second look, he’s gone.

I make it to the back of the lot where the light from the screen is dimmest, everything bathed in a deep-sea glow. The corn rows seem wider here, and darker. The roof of a distant farmhouse the only interruption on the horizon. No lights in its windows. I try to blink it into better focus, but my eyes are blurred by tears I hadn’t felt coming.

I thought you were a ghost.

I was a ghost. But ghosts don’t get to do things. It’s much better being the monster. The kind you don’t expect is a monster until it’s too late.
I bend over and put my hands on my knees. Sucking air. A pause that lets the panic in. The horrific imaginings. Who he’s with. What they will do. Are doing. How he will never come back.
I saw someone. Looking in the window.
Did you see who it was?
A man. A shadow.
I have already started to run back toward the concession stand when I see it.

A figure disappearing into the stands of corn. As tall as me, if not taller. There. And then not there.

I try to count the rows between where I was and where the figure entered the field. Seven? Eight? No more than ten. When I’ve passed nine I cut right and start in.

The fibrous leaves thrash against my face, the stalks cracking as I punch my way past. It looked like there was more room in the rows from outside, but now that I’m within them there’s not near enough space for a man my size to move without being grabbed at, tripped, cut. Not so much running as swallowed by a constricting throat.

How is whoever I saw going any faster than me? The question makes me stop. I lie down flat and peer through the stalks. Down here, the only light is a grey, celestial dusting. With my open mouth pressed against the earth, it’s as though the moonlight has assumed a taste. The mineral grit of steel shavings.

I teach my body to be still.

The thought occurs to me that I have gone mad between the time I left Sam and now. Sudden-onset insanity. It would explain crashing through a corn field at night. Chasing something that likely wasn’t there in the first place.

And then it’s there.
A pair of boots rushing toward the far end of the field. A hundred feet ahead and a couple rows to the left.

I scramble to my feet. Moaning at my locked knees, the muscles burning in my hips. I use my hands to pull me ahead. Ripping out ears of corn and tossing them to thud like another’s steps behind me.

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Trade Mission

Trade Mission

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X-Ray

X-Ray

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