Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris
The Last Secret
The Lost Mother
A Hole in the Universe
Songs in Ordinary Time
A Dangerous Woman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary McGarry Morris
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Selected material has been reprinted from
by Major W. E. Fairbairn, with permission from Paladin Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Morris, Mary McGarry.
Light from a distant star : a novel / Mary McGarry Morris.—1st ed.
1. Child witnesses—Fiction. 2. Murder—Fiction. I. Title.
Title page photograph by Bernard Jaubert/Getty Images
Jacket design by Monica Gurevich/Julie Metz Design
Jacket photograph by Lia G/Arcangel Images
Zachary M. Starkweather
Harrison D. Starkweather
Frank E. Starkweather
Michael D. Starkweather
Joseph M. Danisch
Margaret L. Danisch
John T. Danisch
William J. Pannos
Kristen P. Copell
Alexander W. Pannos
Timothy V. Morris
Katherine A. Morris
Mary Joan Lonergan
Jane M. Lonergan
And you still think so? Even after all this time?
How can you be so sure?
OU KNOW HOW YOU JUST KNOW ABOUT A PERSON SOMETIMES
? He doesn’t even have to look you in the eye or say a word, and you know. Now, exactly what it is you know might not be clear, but you still know. You just do.
That’s the way it always was. Even as a kid. It wasn’t any kind of higher power or sixth sense, just her own God-given bullshit detector. What surprised Nellie most was how few people had one. Or if they did, how few bothered to use it—or trust it.
Like the first time she met Max Devaney in her grandfather’s junkyard, though it wasn’t until all the trouble that she even knew his last name. She and her brother, Henry, were bringing Charlie his supper that day. Charlie Campbell was their grandfather, but they always called him Charlie, along with everyone else in town. In fact, his was a household name in Springvale then. Once something broke down or was of little use anymore, you’d say, “It’s Charlie’s now.”
Charlie’s house had always reminded Nellie of a choked weed, struggling its way up through the junkyard’s rusted mountains of scrap metal. Close by was the tar paper–sided barn where his flinty transactions took place, the few there were anymore. The junkyard was right in the middle of town and so it was considered a blight, especially by newer stores in the area. But with Charlie’s own rumors of a big national chain looking at his three prime acres, no one dared push the old man too hard. Walmart, he’d tell people, angling for a groundswell of interest—from someone,
, Nellie’s mother said. Yes, sir, it was the only company he’d deal with, he liked to brag, basking in his own self-empowerment. Of the fancied negotiations, one newspaper article quoted him as saying, “A few more details, and they can do whatever
the (…) they want, put up a (…) ferris wheel for all the (…) I care.” The selectmen immediately appointed an advisory committee to study the impact of Walmarts that may have opened in other downtown business districts. Most of the junkyard was hidden by a sagging wooden fence, its rotted posts braced by random boards. An eyesore, but it did keep out intruders, real and imagined. Charlie thought everyone wanted to steal his stuff.
Nellie and her brother found Charlie in the barn that day, in the dim horse stall he called his office. Because of his personality and full thatch of wavy white hair, he had always seemed big to her—and scary. But her gangly six-inch spurt in the last few months had left her nearly as tall. Height, and stronger lenses in her glasses to keep her eye from turning, had given her new perspective on just about everything. Especially Charlie. What seemed a permanent sunburn was, she realized, a web of tiny broken veins in his nose and cheeks, and shining in the corner of his mouth was a thin trickle of spit. For the briefest fraction of a millisecond she felt bad for him.
“Here you go, Charlie.” She held out the warm, foil-wrapped plate.
“Pot roast,” Henry said, surprising her. They’d been working on that. Speaking right up and not waiting to be spoken to. As long as she was going to be saddled with him for the entire summer she didn’t want to be constantly speaking for him or repeating the little he did mumble. In some ways it was like being a translator, though Henry was very intelligent, one of those little boys adults take to right away, all cowlicks and dimpled cheeks. It’s just that then he was the shyest kid, always staring down at the ground when people were around, or when he had to make eye contact, blinking so rapidly they’d look away. She’d made up her mind. This was the summer to toughen Henry up. He had the brains, all he needed was confidence, and she’d recently found the perfect book in her father’s study. Actually called
, it had been written in World War II by Major W. E. Fairbairn to teach hand-to-hand combat to British Commandos and the U.S. Armed Forces. Every day she and her brother practiced new holds and “the various ways of securing a prisoner.” So far, he had only thrown her once. He’d been getting tired of always being pinned, headlocked, and
hip thrown, so to keep him interested, she’d let him take her down in a stranglehold that left marks on her neck for days and got them both in trouble. Now they practiced when no one else was home.
Distracted, Charlie kept peering out into the yard. He gestured for her to put the plate somewhere. She set it on top of one of the junked radiators lining the stall. A shadow darkened the bright doorway.
“Well, what d’ya know,” Charlie said. “I figured that was it.”
The entering man was broad backed and unshaven. There were deep pocks on his forehead and nose. His dark hair was wild and bushy. A black dog trotted alongside. The man didn’t look at Nellie and her brother, but the dog did. His stare was yellow. His thick tail wagged, but hesitantly.
“Took longer’n I thought,” the man said. “But it’s done.”
“Hour’n a half?”
The man shrugged. “Pay what you think, I don’t care.”
Bad move, she knew, seeing Charlie’s grin. This sucker didn’t know what he was up against. Last time here, out by the barn door, she’d found a half-buried quarter that Charlie made her hand over. He insisted it was his—he remembered dropping it in that exact spot. Probably why he had them call him Charlie; that way, he could treat them like everyone else.
Henry raised his shaky hand for the dog to sniff. They’d been working on that, too, biding your time, letting the animal know you weren’t a threat. The dog gave an eager yip and Henry lurched back.
“Boone,” the man’s deep voice warned. “Down.”
Down the dog dropped.
“Scared of his own shadow but pretty damn smart, I’ll give him that,” Charlie said. She thought he meant the dog until he introduced them as his daughter’s kids, no names given.
The man nodded without meeting their gaze.
“How do you do, sir? My name’s Nellie. Nellie Peck.” She reached to shake hands.
He stiffened back. “Pleased to meet you,” he said with a curt nod as if in pained acknowledgment of her far better manners.
“And this is Henry. My brother. And he’s actually very brave.” She
shot a look at her grandfather, who just chuckled in that way he had, under his breath to show he was right and could say more but chose not to.
“That’s good.” Turning his attention to Charlie, the man said he’d piled the copper piping behind the barn, but the door wouldn’t open. The padlock was rusted.
Charlie reached under the desk and gave him a spray can, WD-40, his answer to all life’s problems, according to her mother. “Give it a soak and try later. And here.” He handed over the dinner they’d brought. “Pot roast. Hot off the range.”
His nose to the rim of the foil, the man actually sniffed the plate. She and Henry exchanged looks. Only animals sniffed their food, they’d been taught.
“Go ahead. Go on up before it gets cold,” Charlie said.
HE COULDN’T WAIT
to tell her mother that Charlie had given her delicious dinner away to some guy in the barn. And that he’d scurried up into the loft with it.
“Oh yeah. Max,” her mother said. “So he’s still there, huh? Well, that’s good.”
“Sandy, who’s Max?” her father called over the running water as he washed the last pan. Sharing chores had begun when her mother started working. She cooked and he kept the kitchen clean. He also did laundry and scrubbed the toilets, sinks, tubs, and floors in both bathrooms—small price to pay, she’d say with that edge in her voice. And her father was never a man to argue. With anyone.
“Some guy Charlie hired.” She was still at the table with her coffee and the newspaper. “Creepy, if you ask me, but Charlie says he’s a hard worker. He’s up in the hay loft, that little room.”
“That’s good.” Her father was rinsing the sink with the sprayer, which they weren’t supposed to use. But leaky hoses mattered little. His were larger concerns: peace, kindness, truth, and in their brief time on this planet, the importance of leaving a mark, their imprint, making some difference to benefit those yet to come. “It’s about time Charlie let up a little.”