Locust Lane by Stephen Amidon: Featured Excerpt

For fans of Mystic River by Dennis Lehane and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Stephen Amidon’s Locust Lane is a taut and utterly propulsive story about the search for justice and the fault lines of power and influence in a seemingly idyllic town. Can anyone be trusted? Read an excerpt here!

Prologue

Patrick

He hit the dog on Locust. It came out of nowhere, a blur of dark motion. He swerved, but not enough—the bumper’s edge caught the animal’s hindquarters, sending it spinning back into the night. Its yelp harmonized with the shriek of braking tires. And then he’d stopped in the middle of the road, his heart racing, thinking that maybe going out for a drive wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It took him a moment to locate the stricken animal. It had fled back the way it had come, but only made it as far as the nearest lawn, where it was now turning in circles, nipping at its flank, locked in futile pursuit of its pain. It finally lay down and began to lick furiously at the point of impact. The dog was big and black. A Labrador, maybe, or a Labrador and something else. Patrick didn’t know dogs.

He checked the nearby houses to see if lights were flaring as home-owners in robes emerged onto front porches. All was quiet. The dashboard clock read 3:11. It was entirely possible the event had gone unnoticed by the residents of Locust Lane. The setbacks here were deep, the windows tightly sealed. Trees shrouded most of the housefronts. Things that happened on the street were a long way off.

The dog continued to nurse its wound, though its movements suggested a recovery was in progress. Patrick told himself to drive on. He wasn’t at fault. Dogs weren’t allowed to run free in Emerson. Everybody knew that. A six-foot leash was required. There were signs everywhere. And he was not necessarily under the legal limit. The last thing he needed was to wind up walking the sobriety tightrope for some yawning cop. Go home, he thought. Finish the bottle, hit the sack. You know the drill. Dawn will come, followed by another barren day.

But he couldn’t do it. He’d injured a living thing. That made him responsible for it. He had to help. He didn’t need another item in the overladen shopping cart of guilt he was pushing around. He’d made a deal with himself not to abandon decency. He could leave behind everything else, but not that.

He pulled the car to the side of the road. The dog remained curled on the grass, although it was fussing with its flank less avidly. Having committed himself to helping, Patrick now understood that he had no idea what to do. Loading a large, frightened, and potentially bloody creature into his M3 and transporting it to an all-night animal hospital was out of the question. And he certainly wasn’t dragging it back home. Whatever he was going to do would have to be done right here. The best he could come up with was to see if there was a tag on its collar, a number to call.

He got out of the car. The dog watched him, waiting for the human being to define the situation.

“Good boy,” Patrick said, although he had no evidence that the dog was either of these things.

It emitted a brief whine, more of a radar ping than a call for help.

It was taking the measure of this creature who’d brought the pain. Its tail quivered in an unfriendly way. Patrick held out his right hand as a gesture of peace, palm down, fingers dangling, like royalty expecting a kiss. This was more or less the extent of his knowledge of canine communication. He’d never had a dog.

The wounded animal rose shakily, holding its back right paw a few inches off the grass. Standing was a good sign. No spinal damage; presumably no vital organs ruptured. It could limp back home to be cared for by the idiot who let it run free in the middle of the night. Patrick turned back to his car but froze when the dog growled. Low and ominous, like a waste disposal ready for debris. He turned to face it. Previously flat fur on the back of its neck had risen into a staticky bristle. It took a menacing step forward. That injured leg seemed to be getting better by the second.

Okay, Patrick thought. Time to call it a night. He showed the dog his hand again, this time offering his flat palm, a cop stopping traffic. There was no need for drama. Whoever’s name was on that collar could take it from here. Get themselves a six-foot leash and obey the damned law.

He took a backward step. The dog took a mirroring step forward. Patrick wondered if his hand gestures meant something different to the dog than what he’d intended. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder. He’d left the car door open. That was good. Safety was just five quick strides away. He was pretty sure he could make it there before a three-legged dog.

But then the animal turned its head, its attention drawn to something in a thick copse of trees that separated the residential behemoth directly in front of Patrick from the even larger house next door. Patrick followed its gaze. At first, all he could see was varying degrees of nothingness. The trees were dense, knotted together by a network of vines. But then something defined itself. A man-sized delineation of the darkness. A human being—tall, broad shouldered—watching from a hundred feet away.

What the fuck?

“Is this your dog?” Patrick called out.

There was no response.

“Hello?”

Nothing. This made no sense. Why would the dog’s owner be hiding in the trees? The town’s leash law penalties weren’t that harsh. Unless it wasn’t the dog’s owner. But vagabonds and lurkers weren’t exactly common in Emerson. As far as he knew, the town’s homeless population consisted of a small, ever-shifting squad of men cooling their heels at the Hilton after getting booted by aggrieved wives. He should know, having been one of them last year.

He looked back at the dog just as it made up its mind about whomever it had seen in the shadows and turned back to Patrick. At which point it made up its mind about him as well, and not in a positive way. Its growl deepened. It took another ominous step forward, the kind of murderous stealth on display in cable shows about the Serengeti. That injured leg appeared to have undergone a full recovery.

Time to go. With haste. Resurrecting a move from his wide receiver days, Patrick emphatically stamped his right foot forward, then pivoted and headed in the opposite direction. All he needed to be home free was five strides, a nifty spin into the car, and a slammed door. And he almost made it. His front foot was already in when there was a sharp explosion of pain on his trailing hamstring. The dog had bitten him. Luckily, its jaws didn’t find purchase. Patrick’s momentum allowed him to reach the driver’s seat and pull the door shut behind him. It didn’t latch, however, slamming instead into a cushion of bone and tissue. The dog’s head. There was an ear-shattering yelp, followed by a whimpering retreat. Patrick pulled the door all the way closed as the dog limped off toward that dense copse, where a hidden man had just impassively watched it attack another human being.

Patrick gingerly probed the back of his injured thigh. The trousers were torn but there was no evidence of blood. The adrenaline continued to pump, fueling anger now. What the hell had just happened? Why hadn’t that asshole intervened? Had he given the dog some sort of secret attack command? Patrick turned on his engine and maneuvered until his high beams illuminated the woods. But there was no one there. Just trees and vines. And of course the darkness, patiently waiting for the end of this frantic little interruption of its dominion.

 

Back at the town house, Patrick stripped off his torn pants and inspected the wound. The skin hadn’t been broken, though he suspected there was a nasty bruise to come. He slathered it with antiseptic cream just to be safe, then applied an ice pack. For the relief of pain, a large tumbler of Suntory and two ibuprofen.

It was now approaching four. He should be in bed. He should have been in bed when the dog was biting him. He should have been in bed when he decided to go for a drive. But a dream had awakened him, driving him clean out of the house. Not a dream, really, but a disembodied voice, clearer and closer than any dream could ever be. Dad, can you come get me? It had not been from when Gabi was a girl, sunny and carefree, needing to be picked up from soccer practice or an afternoon at the mall. Nor was it her latter self, pleading and ravaged and shattered, calling from a borrowed burner or reversing the $24.99-a-minute charge from a jailhouse pay phone. No, this call came from the here and now, from the young woman she would have been. Confident and a little impatient. On the cusp of her adult life. Doing her father a favor by allowing him to do this favor for her.

He wasn’t in bed when she spoke to him, but rather in his old recliner, the only piece of furniture he’d extracted from his vanished life. It took him a minute to find his bearings. He wore the clothes he’d changed into after work, Dockers and a polo shirt. There was a tumbler filled with whisky-tinted ice melt and a bowl of pistachio shells on the table beside him. The Discovery Channel was broadcasting a muted show about bearded men on a boat, fighting the elements.

Sleep banished, he’d driven. He followed a random course through town. He turned left, he turned right. It didn’t matter as long as he kept moving. Adams to Cabot; St. James to Smith, and then on to Rockingham. On Centre through the town’s center, where nothing was open but everything was brightly lit. Past the high school, where a lone car sat in the vast lot, sodium light raining down over it like warm drizzle. Past the Mobil Mini Mart, where a Hopperesque figure sat encased in bulletproof glass. And then onto Locust, where the black dog crossed his path.

He should try to get some sleep in the small patch of night remaining, although that wouldn’t come unassisted. Not with the pain in his leg, the residual adrenaline still coursing through his veins. And so he topped up on the Japanese wonder drug and contemplated that figure in the woods. The more he thought about it, the more it pissed him off. He couldn’t imagine anyone in this town failing to intervene as their pet got hit, attacked a stranger, then was pancaked by a slamming car door. That animal had probably had more spent on its well-being than three-quarters of the world’s children. And yet, not a peep from the woods. If the man just happened to be there by coincidence, then what was he doing there? It didn’t add up.

He contemplated calling the police to report a prowler, a dog on the loose. But he could see how such a call would go. They’d listen patiently, send a patrol car to Locust, find nothing. Besides, Patrick wasn’t exactly on the best of terms with the local cops. No, this was over and done with. He decided to allot himself two more drinks. That would do the trick, filling in the three looming hours before he’d have to rise and shine; before the wasteland of the morning would finally creep into view.

Copyright © 2023 by Stephen Amidon. All rights reserved.


About Locust Lane by Stephen Amidon:

On the surface, Emerson, Massachusetts, is just like any other affluent New England suburb. But when a young woman is found dead in the nicest part of town, the powerful neighbors close ranks to keep their families safe. In this searing novel, Eden Perry’s death kicks off an investigation into the three teenagers who were partying with her that night, each a suspect. Hannah, a sweet girl with an unstable history. Jack, the popular kid with a mean streak. Christopher, an outsider desperate to fit in. Their parents, each with motivations of their own, only complicate the picture: they will do anything to protect their children, even at the others’ expense.

With a brilliantly woven, intricately crafted plot that gathers momentum on every page, this is superb storytelling told in terse prose—a dynamic read that is both intensely gripping and deeply affecting.

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