Arctic Restitution (Arctic Absolution #3)
by

As he approaches his twenty-second birthday, the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack in an alley that nearly cost him his life in a few different ways, Jaye Larson thinks he’s left behind the ghosts from his years spent incarcerated, but when he’s delivered a mysterious letter with terrifying implications, old monsters rear their ugly heads. His normal new life in remote Zus, Alaska, with his lover, Dixon Rowe, the heart of a found-family that supports Jaye in ways he’s never before dreamed possible, is threatened by old deals and ties he begins to fear may never be broken. While old alliances strive to draw Jaye backward, Dixon and the rest of their family are called to step up to keep him steady. When the letter turns out to be just the first clue in a chain leading both Jaye and Dixon back inside the walls of the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon, all of them are left facing carefully-held secrets and terrible new truths that refuse to be ignored. (M/M)

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Chapter 3: The Letter


Dixon found the envelope addressed to Johnny Larson in the inside pocket of Jaye’s coat. It was crumpled and folded in half twice. It bore no return address and the street address wasn’t just incorrect, it was for a street that didn’t even exist — Memory Lane. Jaye’s P.O. Box number was correctly listed, though. Just looking at the outside with its hand-carved writing gave Dixon the creeps.

No wonder Jaye had wandered off into the field.

Time and experience had given Dixon tools, though. He understood Jaye better than he had, and a lot better than anyone else did.

Before daring to open the envelope’s flap, Dixon returned to the bed upon which Jaye was curled in a fetal position under several layers of sheets and blankets. Only some of the short, dark curls at the top of his head were visible. Laying a hand on what seemed to be Jaye’s lower leg, Dixon promised, “There’s no one else here. We’re partners, aren’t we? You and me? We handle things together. We’re a team. And this is just a letter.”

“It’s not just a letter,” Jaye said ominously.

That morning, Jaye had woken much earlier than needed in order to cook chocolate chip pancakes with plenty of syrup. He’d served them with a smile and flirty laugh, wearing nothing but a pair of too-loose and soft pajama pants slung low on his slim hips, while straddling Dixon’s lap to face him at the table and hand-feeding him small bites, letting Dixon lick the syrup and melted chocolate from his fingers.

The change in Jaye compared to how he had been just that morning was jarring. Witnessing Jaye’s hopelessness, turmoil, and pain made Dixon frantic, desperate to help but unsure how to do it. Knowing Jaye well only assisted Dixon so much in his understanding of how to tackle the problem. The period of Jaye’s life lived in FCI Sheridan was still murky and clouded for Dixon. Jaye gave him glimpses, but hid most. Dixon didn’t pry in order to spare Jaye more pain, wanting to allow time for him to feel comfortable opening up on his own. Now, Dixon missed not having that insight. He could tell Jaye was just trying to protect him from something, but what? It wasn’t only a sense of loyalty to Dixon causing this mood shift. Jaye was being torn up inside. It left Dixon scrambling to stop a process well beyond his reach.

Not for the first time, Dixon thought of Cash, an inmate Jaye had paired up with in order to stay alive while incarcerated. In Dixon’s mind, Cash was nothing but a meathead thug using a vulnerable young kid, breaking him down, and taking advantage in ways that might not ever completely heal for Jaye.

Dixon had trouble picturing the man Jaye had been while with Cash and in prison. He’d gotten glimpses of that version of his personality when they’d first met — the cockiness, seduction, bravado, and miserable certainty that no one could help him in any way that mattered. Every time he began to sense what that implied for Jaye’s mental state while with Cash, Dixon’s anxiety spiked. It was a feeling built of fear and helplessness which he’d become an expert in while with Marcus. The sense of having no way out, that no one in the entire world understood or cared enough to make a difference, was a prison of its own. Dixon hated imagining Jaye feeling that way, especially because the solution wasn’t as apparent as it had been with Marcus. Then, Dixon had needed to figure out a way to escape and get Marcus out of his life for good. Jaye had helped that happen, and now Marcus was really gone.

But Jaye wasn’t trying to escape in the same way Dixon had been. Jaye was no longer locked up. Cash and Ecker and all of the rest of them were out of his life.

Weren’t they?

Before Dixon found the nerve to open the envelope, he saw the blankets push back a little. Chewing at his lip, worry painted all over his beautiful face, Jaye watched the paper in Dixon’s hand like he expected it to catch fire at any moment.

Dixon looked at the writing on the envelope spelling out Johnny Larson. He blew out an uneasy, sickly breath. He knew what it meant as well as Jaye did. Some of the pieces started to come together for Dixon, just a little — why Jaye was so upset, why something so seemingly insignificant had so much power over him.

The piece of mail had been sent from Portland, Oregon. Setting the envelope aside, Dixon cleared his throat and turned his attention to the letter.

He unfolded the paper with one hand, pressing it flat against his right thigh.

It wasn’t a letter. Jaye was right about that. Inside the folded paper were two things — a newspaper clipping and a printed transcript. The newspaper clipping’s headline caught Dixon’s attention first, due to the size and boldness of the type.

Prison Guard Found Dead Outside of Sheridan

Local prison guard at the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Ned Ecker, was found inside his apartment Tuesday after failing to appear at work for several days. Sheridan officials say there were signs of a struggle following a break-in that likely occurred late Sunday evening. Details about Ecker’s death are being withheld as the investigation continues.

The rest was torn away.

“Jesus,” Dixon muttered, scanning the accompanying transcript before slowing down to read it. He felt nauseous, his skin clammy with a creeping dread he couldn’t shake off.

There was a time stamp at the top: 2:34 am 3-22-16

Yeah, we’ve got one hell of a mess over here. You need to come down and take a look at this shit.

Pre-meditated, definitely. Clean work. Deliberate. Nothing about this is accidental. Whoever did this knew what they were doing, that’s for sure. So far, no fingerprints or physical evidence found at the scene, but we’re still looking.

We figure the struggle happened when they were trying to get the cuffs on and prior to the sexual assault. The damn batons were still in him when he died. They likely stabbed him in the side during the assault, maybe to subdue him. He’s not a small guy, but we don’t know how big or how many were here to take him down. At some point, they cut his throat, ear to ear.

You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but I think they were wearing those shoe covers service people wear when they’re checking out your A/C, because there are smears in the blood, but no clear footprints. Damnedest thing.

Whoever did this had some real beef with this guy. This is some sick shit.

Yeah, we’ll be here a while longer. Okay. Bye.

Shit. Okay, keep looking, people. There’s gotta be something we’re missing here.

Dixon folded the paper and set it aside with the envelope, near the foot of the bed. He took a deep breath and caressed Jaye’s leg, wondering at how small and fragile he looked, curled up like that. Not at all like a thug, or someone capable of handling an entire crew of thugs, though Dixon knew his experience limited his appreciation of just how deep Jaye’s iron will ran.

Dixon just wanted to know what the letter meant, and why they’d mailed that shit to Jaye. Were they trying to frame him for the murder? That was impossible, wasn’t it? Ecker had been back in the lower forty-eight. There was documented proof Jaye hadn’t been in Oregon for almost a year.

But then… what? Why would they send such a cryptic, unsettling communication?

Dixon watched the dark piece of the world he could see through the window, trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure out the best way to protect Jaye from something Dixon didn’t even begin to understand.

Chain Link

Jaye promised to get out of bed and washed up if Dixon agreed to make dinner and give him a little time alone to get his head together about it all before they talked.

A half-hour later, they sat at the small table with plates of reheated stew Brekken had given them the previous weekend to tide them through the days when their schedules didn’t mesh. Jaye thought it was a wonder to have someone like that in his life, without any motive in mind besides wanting to see him and Dixon happy.

The closest Jaye ever had to someone willing to cook pots full of homemade food for him was an elderly neighbor back in Anchorage named Angela Traylor who had known enough of his and Cora’s situation to be concerned Jaye wasn’t getting his proper nutritional allowance of all the food groups every day. Usually when Cora was out at work, Mrs. Traylor would knock at their apartment’s door with a Tupperware container full to the top with warm food inside. She would tell him to eat as much as he wanted, then save the rest for another day. She gave him things like chicken parmesan, fettuccine alfredo, sausage and mashed potatoes, and stir fry. He wasn’t sure why she waited to give Jaye the food directly rather than give it to Cora. Maybe she had tried once, and Cora’s pride had sent the needed food away when Jaye’s growling stomach would have appreciated it. It wasn’t that Cora hadn’t fed him or didn’t make sure there was something in the fridge to eat, but her priorities weren’t entirely organized in those days. Managing life as a working mom while dealing with a gig as a stripper during the nights meant sleeping most of the day, and fighting various drug habits used to keep reality tolerable. Keeping a roof over their heads was as much as Cora could handle. Planning balanced menus for Jaye’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner was mostly beyond her capabilities. It wasn’t her fault, but he’d been glad for people like Mrs. Traylor.

Now, he had Dixon, and Brekken, and Grant. He was getting better at cooking, too, but having loved ones willing to cook for him was a private pleasure that always warmed his heart as well as his stomach.

The stew was full of beef, vegetables, and potatoes with a richly seasoned brown sauce. Dressed in a warm, long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and thick, woolen socks, Jaye sat slightly hunched over in his chair across from Dixon, pushing food around in his bowl with his fork. His sense memory was full of two years’ worth of days in the FCI Sheridan cafeteria, seated at the long table on a hard bench and protecting his tray of bland carbs while surrounded by the Disciples. Meal time meant keeping his guard up, doing as he was told, and acting like everything was fine when it usually wasn’t.

The stew smelled incredibly appealing, but Jaye’s fork wasn’t making it to his mouth. Dealing with Ecker had always zapped Jaye’s appetite. It seemed time hadn’t changed that either.

The ghosts didn’t have him like they used to. He didn’t feel them touching, sliding down his throat or up his ass, but he remembered all of the countless times they did. It had been going on so long, Jaye was left exhausted by it all. The ghosts were part of Ecker’s legacy.

It would have been better to walk while they talked rather than try to eat, but Jaye needed to watch out for Dixon as well as himself, and Dixon had worked a full shift. He needed fuel even if Jaye didn’t want any.

He wasn’t sure what Dixon had made of the contents of the envelope, but Jaye had taken more than enough time to think it all over. There was no question what the real message was. It was only a matter of deciding to follow through or not.

“They must have bugged the room,” Jaye said. “Fuckin’ Cash, man. He’s got some real sons of bitches on his crew. Real fuckin’ professional. He always promised me, but then nothing ever happened. I just… can’t figure out one thing, though. Why now? Why the hell did he do it now? He always said it was impossible. Was it always a lie? And if so, what changed?”

“Cash did this?” Dixon said, watching Jaye, looking lost.

“Remember all of those stories,” Jaye started. He pulled all of the comfort brought of being in their cabin together closely around him like thick armor for strength. “About the guard who’d come to my cell to scare me, as payback against Cash? Then later, when he’d come snatch me up and…” Jaye’s voice broke. He shook his head, shaking it off, or trying to.

“The baton,” Dixon guessed. “The guy who called you piggy.”

He sounded so angry, and it made Jaye want to curl up into a ball again, so all of Dixon’s anger would just wash over him without being able to get through and get at his weak spots to draw out the ghosts again.

“That’s Ecker? Are you shitting me?” Dixon dropped his fork and sat back, the anger pumping him up. He blew out a breath, seemed to try to calm down. “Okay. Okay. You think Cash did this? But he’s still inside. So… it was his crew? The Disciples?”

“Yeah, far as I can tell. Or else he had some people who owed him a favor. A big favor.”

For a minute or so, they just sat there looking at each other across both the table and a gap built of wildly different experiences. On one side was law and order, the other chaos and crime. And all around them was open miles of Alaskan wild, filled with hardly any people or civilization, but only raw nature in all its glory. They were so far away from everything, but then why did the fear make it all seem so close?

Maybe it was because despite how far Jaye had run, way out into nowhere, Cash had still found him. So had Ecker, from beyond the grave and now perhaps even better able to haunt Jaye’s every attempt at recovery.

“They wanted me to know how he died,” Jaye explained.“They killed him like that to let me know they’d done it for me. The rape. The stabbing. The way they’d cut his throat.”

Dixon just sat there, hands on the tabletop, eyes wide, looking ready for anything, but scared as hell.

In a place where there was no sound at all but the wood crackling in the fire, Dixon said quietly to Jaye, “You don’t owe him shit, J-bird. You don’t.”

But that wasn’t true. Cash had followed through. He’d made Ecker pay. Plus, he’d gone out of his way to let Jaye know he’d made Ecker pay.

Jaye owed Cash now.

Jaye was in Cash’s debt.

When Jaye said nothing, Dixon repeated himself, sounding a little frantic. “You don’t!”

“Dix — ” Jaye sighed.

“No,” Dixon said abruptly, cutting him off. “No. He doesn’t get to tug at the leash like that anymore. He doesn’t own you. It was done. He’s fucking… he’s in prison, hundreds of miles away. You’re not his anymore. He doesn’t get to pull this shit and expect you to follow along.”

Jaye closed his eyes. The inviting scent of the stew, the warmth of the flames in the hearth, the softness of his clothes against his skin all held him in a safe place, helping to fortify his spirit. Because no matter how secure he was, physically and mentally, he couldn’t escape the creeping certainty of what needed to happen next.

“You didn’t ask for this!”

“I did, though. I did ask.”

“That was a long time ago,” Dixon argued.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“So… what? Now you go down there and fuck him? Conjugal visit?”

Breathe, Jaye told himself. In. Out. In. Out.

His eyes stung, but he refused to let tears gather. There was a squeezing in his chest, and a feeling of being crushed, of being made smaller and smaller and smaller.

It only got away from him for a second. He started to feel the touching start between his legs, prying them apart and a horrified moan slipped through his defenses.

“Fuck. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Dixon said heavily, in a rush. He got out of the chair, came around. Jaye felt touching. It was real — Dixon crouching down to grasp Jaye’s arm and the side of his jaw. Jaye flinched.

“Don’t.”

“I’m scared, okay? That wasn’t fair to you, and — ”

“No. It was. You’re right. I’m a whore. That’s how I’ve always paid him back, isn’t it?”

“No. You survived by making impossible choices and I know that,” Dixon said, filled with sorrow that Jaye couldn’t let him touch him, or get inside his head. “That world you lived in? That role you played? That’s gone. It can’t affect you if you don’t want it to. Shut it out. We’ll… I don’t know. Burn the fucking letter in the fireplace. Forget it ever came. You’re a different person now. You’re not his. You’re not Johnny.”

From far away, in places only Jaye knew existed, Cash was screaming. So was Tio. So was he. Heavy prison doors slammed and locks engaged. Voices echoed down long corridors. Footsteps squeaked on tile. No one answered the screaming. No one could or even cared.

Slowly, painfully, Jaye opened up just enough to sling his arms behind Dixon’s neck. For months, he’d been nothing but Dixon’s. But as Jaye heard Dixon whisper against his neck, “He can’t have you back,” Jaye knew that, deep down, he’d always be Johnny. Just a little. Just enough. And, after all, a deal was a deal.

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