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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Unwilling

A Novel

John Hart

St. Martin's Press



Daniel Reed knew many things about ex-cops, and one of those things was that not all the cop died when a man quit or took early medical or got fired for smoking weed. Four years of pushing a bus station mop, and he still felt that burn beneath his collar, the prickle of skin that drew his eyes up from the slop bucket and busted tile.

He considered the young people first. They sprawled on a bench, drunk and loud, but that wasn’t the problem. The families and the hippies came next, then the old men and the pregnant woman and the soldiers in uniform. Beyond the glass, the two fifteen from Raleigh idled in the bay as a dozen people waited for suitcases, old Mac sweating in the heat as he hauled them out and lined them up. Daniel had known a thousand days like it, small-city South in a country tired of war. Inevitably, his eyes found the pretty girl in the yellow dress. She was eighteen, maybe, with a shabby suitcase and leather shoes starting to split. He’d watched her, on and off, for an hour: the small walks from one wall to the next, little turns, the tilted head. At the moment, she stood unmoving, lips slightly parted.

Following her gaze, Daniel spotted the young man in a dim recess leading to the bay. Angular and lean, he stopped five feet from the double doors and stood long enough to study the people in the room. Daniel’s first thought was, Vietnam, and not long from the war. Something about the way he stood, the awareness. When he stepped into the light, Daniel got a better look at the Zeppelin T-shirt, the cheekbones, the belt made of black leather, turquoise, and tarnished silver. Faded jeans brushed the tops of old boots; and when he walked past, he smelled like diesel and whiskey and tobacco. “Detective,” he said; but Daniel looked away, ashamed that he was old and stoned and not a cop anymore. He waited until a swinging door flashed sunlight into the room, then asked the ticketing agent if he could please use the phone. She handed it over, and he dialed the station from long memory, requesting a detective by name.

“Just a moment, please.”

Silence rolled onto the line, and Daniel watched the young man cross against traffic, breaking into a jog as he hit the final lane and a truck blew past. In the bright sunlight, he was a blade of a man: the waist, the shoulders, the angle of his jaw. He looked back once and slipped dark glasses across his eyes.

Shit, the old cop thought.

Just … shit.

* * *

Detective French took the call at a phone on his partner’s desk. “French,” he said, and listened. “That seems unlikely.” He listened some more, then thanked the caller and hung up.

“Everything okay?”

French glanced at the familiar lines of his partner’s face. He and Ken Burklow went back twenty years, and had few secrets between them. One was about to come out. “Jason’s back in town. That was Reed, at the bus station.”

“Reed’s a burnout.”

“Not so burned out he wouldn’t know my oldest son.”

Burklow leaned back in his chair, hard-faced and unhappy. “I thought Jason was still in prison.”

“Halfway house in Raleigh. Seven weeks now.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me he was out?”

“I need to call my wife.” French dialed the phone and watched emotions play across his partner’s face. Sadness. Worry. Anger. “She’s not answering.”

“Would he go to the house?”

“Not after the way things ended.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“He wouldn’t do that to his mother. Not after the last time.”

“You say that, but come on. Vietnam. Prison. Who knows what he’ll do. You’ve heard the stories.”

French scrubbed a palm across his face, and sighed unhappily.

Twenty-nine confirmed kills …

That was the story: twenty-nine in his first year.

Dialing a few more numbers, he asked his questions and hung up. “She’s not at the neighbor’s house or with either of her best friends.”

“What about Gibby, then? If Jason’s not going home…”

The sentence trailed off, and French thought of Gibson, his youngest son. “Gibby’s in school. He should be fine.”

“Uh-uh. Senior Skip.”

French did the math, and realized that his partner was right. Senior Skip Day had been tradition since the first year of the draft. Last three Fridays before final exams, the seniors cut school and went to the quarry south of town. Teachers looked away and so did the cops. Gibby would be there, and he should be, they all should. That was the thing about childhood and endings and war in some foreign fucking jungle.

“I’ll check the quarry.” Burklow stood. “That way you can look for your wife, and let her know Jason’s in town. Give her time, you know. Get her ready.”

“I should handle this myself.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Burklow shrugged into a coat, and checked his weapon. “Not even Superman can be in two places at once.”

* * *

William French was no genius, and was smart enough to know as much. He was steady and solid, a determined man who’d become a better cop than he had a right to be. It was the same with his marriage. Gabrielle was out of his league on the day they’d met, and still there on the day they’d married. He’d asked her once how someone who’d studied literature at Vanderbilt and lit up every room she entered could possibly settle for a college dropout three years into a job that might get him killed. She’d kissed his cheek, put a hand on his heart, and said, “Don’t ever ask me that again.” Three sons and thirty years later, she was still a gift—his whole life—but she’d lost one son already.

Now this …

He parked in front of their house, and thought, as he often did, how empty it felt. That, too, was about the war. They’d buried their oldest son, then watched his twin brother return from the same conflict only to spiral into violence, drugs, and prison. In that regard, Vietnam had killed two of their three boys, Robert with a bullet to the heart, and his brother more insidiously. Jason never talked about the things he’d done in the service of his country, but Burklow had a friend at the Department of Defense. He refused to provide details, but said once that there was war and there was WAR, and that Jason had fought the latter kind.


The silence inside was familiar from all the years of mourning, a large house with parts of its soul carved away. Nearing the bedroom, French heard running water, and stopped where the bathroom door hung open an inch.


She was in the tub and in the dark, but he could see her silhouette against the tile.

“Don’t turn on the light.”

He took his hand from the switch, wondering if she’d known or merely guessed. As his eyes adjusted, he saw more of her shape. Water rose to the curve of her breasts, and her arms were wrapped across her shins.

Without turning, she said, “Is he the reason you’re here?”

“What do you mean?”

Her head tilted, then, and a glint showed in one of her eyes. “You haven’t come home midafternoon since we were newlyweds. I’m asking if Jason is the reason you’re here.”

French sighed unhappily. “Who told you he’s back?”

“Marion called. She saw him at the square. His hair was longer, but she knew him. She said he was pale, that prison cost him twenty pounds.”

“I’m going to handle this, Gabrielle. I promise.”

“Gibby will want to see him, to spend time—”

“I won’t allow that.”

“How will you stop it?”


“He’s dangerous, Bill. He’s a danger to our son. Don’t you see that? Can’t you feel it?”

French sighed again, and knelt by the tub. Gabrielle had tried to make room in her heart for the man Jason had become, but Jason had not made it easy for her. Heroin. Prison. The effect he had on Gibby. Before Jason’s conviction, all Gibby had wanted was to trail in his brother’s shadow, to know about the Marine Corps and war, and whether he, too, should go to Vietnam. “Listen,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you in person that Jason was back, to promise you that I’ll keep Gibson safe.”

“You think I’m silly, don’t you? A silly, overprotective woman.”

“I promise you I don’t.”

“If you were a mother, you’d understand.”

“Jason would never hurt his brother.”

“Not intentionally. Not with malice.”

She left the rest unspoken, but he understood the deeper fears, her worries about corruption, deception, dangerous ideas.

“Gibby’s not in school,” she said. “Did you know that?”

“It’s a skip day. He’ll be at the quarry with his friends. Ken is already looking for him.”

“What if Jason finds him first?”

French looked away from the fear in his wife’s eyes. Gibby was her world, and Jason was a destroyer of worlds. “I’ll go, too,” he said. “I’ll find him.”

“You do that. You bring him home.”

French stood, but didn’t leave. He pushed his hands into his pockets, and looked down on the crown of her head and the curve of a dim, damp shoulder, bits of his wife on an apron of dark water. “Sooner or later Gibson will want to see his brother.”

“Just make sure it’s later.”

“Jason was inside for two years and change. He did his time.”

“Only Gibby matters. I’m sorry, Bill, but that’s the truth.”

“Won’t you at least talk to him?”

“To Jason?”


“About what?” she asked. “Heroin?”

Copyright © 2021 by John Hart.