Jason Maxfield didn’t hesitate when the bus door opened and he got off in Moscow, Idaho. It had been more than ten years since his last brief visit home, and it didn’t seem like much had changed about the Podunk little town. It still had the same small-town feel, though there were a few more stores.
The bus dropped him off in front of the University of Idaho. There were few places it could have left him that weren’t in front of the university since it seemed to take up more than a quarter of the town.
Jason expected FBI agents to swarm out of nowhere and arrest him. Or perhaps a local police officer might stop to talk with him, thinking he looked familiar from a wanted poster.
But nobody noticed or even glanced his way.
Was Jason tempting fate?
Perhaps there had been some local chatter after his escape. Maybe pictures had been put up on telephone poles just in case he returned.
It’s not too late to turn back, he thought as he hitched his backpack over both shoulders.
But he pushed forward into the cold, buttoning up his flannel shirt. He’d have to take out his jacket if it got much colder.
He was here. He might as well make the most of it. His parents’ place was a few miles from town. It would take a while to walk there along Highway 8.
He soon came to a bicycle path he could follow almost the entire way.
He passed many people. Walking, riding, skating, and jogging. He was careful to avoid eye contact with everybody, keeping his hat low.
Nobody seemed to recognize him. Every step he took made him wonder if he was making a terrible mistake.
There had been few letters and phone calls during the final years of his time in prison, even though he’d written home at least once a month.
His parents had rarely come to visit.
It had been a year and a half since he’d escaped custody, and he’d been on the run ever since, somehow continuing to get by while having only minor brushes with trouble.
He’d covered a lot of ground but had done little.
On the day he’d escaped, there had been a vague notion of proving his innocence, but he had no idea how to do that.
Phil Taft was now in prison.
There had been no mention in the news of how Taft had framed Jason. Jason doubted if anybody in law enforcement had even looked into it. The only thing they wanted was to put Jason back in prison. And this time, it would be for a long time.
After Billings, Jason had gotten the idea he wanted to help people in need.
That he was a man looking for a mission.
At least, that’s how he thought of himself and justified his status as a fugitive.
He’d done some of that, but it brought peril. There was always the risk somebody might recognize him and turn him over to the cops. He helped when he discovered somebody with a problem, but more often than not, he found himself washing dishes at some run-down restaurant for a night or two, hoping to make a few extra dollars on top of a meal and bed before heading back to the road.
He always felt safest on the move.
He checked the news as often as possible and hadn’t found any mention of him or what he’d done in Billings. The last time he’d looked was a month back at a public library in Provo, Utah, so maybe he’d find something the next time he checked.
He assumed law enforcement had covered up the story, thinking he might get comfortable and would make mistakes that enabled them to locate him. So he tried not to think he was a step or two ahead.
He assumed he was running several steps behind.
Perhaps that was why he was so slow to make this trip to northern Idaho. Maybe that’s why he’d been reluctant to even attempt the journey.
But he had to know why his parents had stopped writing to him before his escape.
He needed answers.
And there was only one way to find them.
He also wanted to figure out where his ex-wife and daughter had gone. He’d never met his daughter, and he wanted to at least do that before he returned to prison.
Amber was supposedly her name.
Jason didn’t quite believe it, even though Harper Stetson was his source. He’d been fooled before, so he didn’t dare hope he knew something about his daughter.
If he were arrested again, it was guaranteed his daughter would never visit. He didn’t know for sure, but Jason’s ex-wife, Jessica, had probably told his daughter he was dead.
Maybe it was better for his daughter to not have a father.
But it wasn’t better for Jason.
He wanted to meet her. He’d never held her in his arms as a baby. He didn’t know what she looked like. He didn’t know a thing about her.
Sometimes he became overwhelmed, thinking about everything he’d missed. The regrets came from circumstances beyond his control, but that didn’t stop him from feeling guilty.
I should’ve been there, Jason thought, shaking his head while stopping to look around.
He was in no hurry.
Caution was his best friend.
Every moment he paused gave him an opportunity to see if he had a tail.
He’d memorized his parents’ cell phone numbers when he went to prison, and he’d called periodically but had rarely gotten an answer. He’d tried both numbers six months ago from two different burner phones. Somebody had picked up the first line, and it hadn’t been either of his parents. He’d hung up without a word.
The answering message at the other number had identified the owner as somebody he didn’t know.
He’d stopped after that.
The surest approach was in person, yet he hesitated, knowing his parents were just as likely to turn him in as talk to him.
He knew nothing about their present lives.
There hadn’t been a word from them during his last six months of imprisonment.
He didn’t know why they’d withdrawn, but he figured it was because of Amber.
His parents had hoped Jessica would allow them to visit their granddaughter, but Jessica had made it clear they were unwelcome after Jason had gone to prison. They’d talked about getting a court order, but they’d eventually decided against it, hoping Jessica would relent and allow them to meet their granddaughter.
As far as Jason knew, she never had.
This was likely why his parents had stopped talking to him. They blamed him for not being able to meet their only grandchild.
If they didn’t want to talk to him, he didn’t want to talk to them, or at least that’s what he’d told himself in prison, even though he’d continued to write.
Now that he was on the run, he could only think of three people.
His parents and his little girl.
He sometimes thought of his ex-wife, but he was angry with her more often than not, so he tried not to think about her, hoping that would keep him in a better mood and help him pay attention to his surroundings.
I should’ve defended myself, Jason thought. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought this, and it wouldn’t be the last. He’d been so focused on saving his ex-wife that when Harper had tried to stand up for Jason, he’d refused to back her.
It’s not like it would have done any good, Jason thought.
A prisoner didn’t have many rights.
A fugitive, even less.
Jason slowed when he arrived at Mill Road.
He was close now.
He hesitated but eventually turned right, walking off to the side of the road, hunching over.
There were old-timers in this area. People he knew when he was a kid. He didn’t want somebody driving by and recognizing him. It was bad enough he was trying this at all.
He also adopted a slight limp. Now that he was close and had gone to such great lengths to get here, he didn’t want anything to get in the way of the conversation he intended to have with his parents.
He couldn’t yet see the house, but he could see the row of trees that lined his parents’ property. Trees were also planted along the driveway, further obstructing his view. The barn was tall enough that it peeked over the treetops. He was soon close enough that he should’ve been able to see his parents’ home. He focused on where the old house should’ve been visible through the foliage.
He saw nothing.
Had something happened to his parents’ place?
A shudder of horror ran down his back that he couldn’t dislodge as he quickened his pace, trying not to be obvious about his concern. Maybe his memory was faulty, and he shouldn’t have been able to see the home from that spot.
He increased his speed. He wasn’t jogging, but he was getting close to it.
Had Phil Taft sought revenge on Jason?
Had he sent a man out to harm Jason’s parents? Was that why their phone numbers now belonged to somebody else?
If Taft had done something to Jason’s family, not even prison could keep Jason away from the man.
Taft had been motivated by revenge, but money had also been a substantial factor. It had eventually come out that Taft had been trying to make a fortune by tanking a company’s stock.
Jason took in a deep breath.
There was probably a perfectly innocent explanation for everything. An explanation that had nothing to do with Phil Taft.
A cold chill froze Jason’s heart several minutes later when he came to a spot where he had a clear view through the trees.
It wasn’t his imagination.
The farmhouse should’ve been the most prominent feature of the farm, but it wasn’t there. It seemed everything else was as it should be. Even the dilapidated old barn.
Jason increased his speed, stopping short of bursting into a run.
There was no emergency.
Whatever had happened was in the past. Running toward his parents’ house might attract the attention he hoped to avoid.
The next half mile took forever.
He forced himself to slow down, taking every opportunity he could to approach the situation from a logical place, even though it was challenging because a voice in the back of his mind kept telling him that something horrible had happened.
He finally arrived at the gravel driveway.
There were so many memories.
Waiting to catch a school bus at the end of the gravel lane. Helping his dad shovel snow in the winter. Clearing out weeds with his mom during the summer.
The entire lane was now so overgrown that a casual passerby might not even notice it was a driveway, something his father would never have let happen.
Jason now had a clear view of where the farmhouse had been. There was no question.
It had burned down.