The Terror of Living

A Novel


By Urban Waite

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Phil Hunt is in deep trouble.

Hunt is on the run from two men: Drake, the deputy sheriff who intends to catch him, and Grady, the vicious hitman who means to kill him.

For twenty years Hunt has lived in Washington State, raising horses with his wife on his small farm. He’s tried to stay out of trouble, wanting only to make a living and taking the occasional illicit job in order to do so.

Then his last delivery goes horribly wrong, and the chase is on from the mountains down into the Puget lowlands. To have any chance of rescuing his quiet life, Hunt will have to deal with deputy sheriff Bobby Drake, a good man determined to make up for his father’s tainted legacy and Grady Fisher, a very bad man intent on making a name for himself in the most violent ways. With a fondness for blood, Grady takes pleasure in the use of knives, taking Hunt’s life apart piece by piece, all the while leaving a trail of victims across the state.

Relentless and gorgeously written, with original characters and a vividly powerful sense of place, The Terror of Living heralds the arrival of a writer who will be compared with the great suspense novelists.


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THE KID HAD TAKEN A BUS NORTH FROM SEATTLE and stood outside studying the bar for a long time, weighing the options. A gust of wind brought the smell of sun-warmed tar from a patch of cracked pavement, the day changing warm to cold, airplanes passing overhead in the afternoon, the sound of jet engines firing and planes taking off from the nearby field. The bar wasn't much to look at, just a two-story clapboard with a rock-and-pebble parking strip. He toed a piece of gravel, thinking it over, then went in.

He took a drink off his beer, looked around the bar, and put the glass back down. With his elbows pushed out on either side, he was leaning hard up against the bar. It was the type of place he used to come to when he was underage—a short bar, dim light, with customers of questionable means—using his older brother's ID and hoping to get laid. He'd been out of the world for two years on a vehicular manslaughter charge. He'd been lucky about it, too; young as he was, the judge had gone easy on him. On his thin frame he wore a red shirt, so worn the material had turned the color of a dried peach. Locked up, he hadn't worn the old shirt in years. The smell of him, in his new old clothes, was something of dust, something of mildew and dark, locked-away places, so deep it seemed to come from his skin itself.

He looked the beer over, better than the piss-pot stuff they brewed in Monroe, half-fruit, half-saliva, like some sort of Amazon moonshine. He took another swallow. It was his first legal drink and he sat staring at it, watching how the air condensed against the side of the glass and collected around the base in a watery circle.

Don't fuck this up, he said to himself, looking around at the other customers. Don't do a stupid thing like that.

When Eddie came up to the bar and sat down, the kid was taking in that dreamy glow of being somewhere he'd never been before. The two were separated by a seat between them, the kid looking down into his beer, staring hard at the way the bubbles bounced against the surface, then sloughed off to one side and collected.

Eddie ordered a beer from the bartender and waited for the man to pour it. The kid raised an eye to study Eddie, watching him as he waited for the beer to be delivered. After the bartender had gone, Eddie turned to look out on the bar and take it all in. There were two pool tables in the back, one occupied, an assortment of low tables near the wall with two or three chairs at each. Eddie turned back and spoke to the beer in front of him. "I guess you're my man."

The kid stared at Eddie for a moment and then looked away. Eddie wasn't what the kid had been expecting, a squat, dark-skinned Mexican, his cheeks chewed up with acne scars, and a thin trail of hair along his lip.

"Kind of young, aren't you?" Eddie said.

"Old enough," the kid said, drawing himself up on the stool. He knew what he looked like, a kid of twenty-two, barely old enough to be there. Two years of prison had thinned him out, tightened up his muscles. His time there had toughened him, but he knew he still looked like a kid, Adam's apple big as a newborn's fist, the patch of a beard below his chin, drawn in like a child's scribblings.

"I don't think I need to tell you this," Eddie said, "but it's best you understand from the start that there are no mistakes. I was told you were looking for something and here I am. I wouldn't even be here if someone hadn't put his own life out there for you. You understand?"

The kid nodded and looked straight on at the liquor bottles behind the bar. His older brother had been the one to put him up to it. He'd been in the driver's seat two years ago, and the kid had slid over, taking the blame. Scared shitless, but taking the blame for his older brother so he wouldn't go back in. It was a stupid thing to do, but he had done it and his brother had walked away. And now his brother would help him out and it would all be even.

"You don't have to worry about me," the kid said. "There won't be any accidents. I'm as good as they come."

Eddie smiled. "You don't need to tell me. As far as I'm concerned you're in business for yourself. You're a contractor working for a percentage. You don't have to answer to me. I'm just here to tell you that it's in your own best interest not to fuck this up." Eddie got up from the bar, thanked the bartender, and went out through the front door.

On the barstool where he'd been sitting was a set of car keys. The kid leaned over as casually as he could and swiped them off the vinyl. He kept them below the bar, and as he finished his beer he fit his finger into the metal key ring and rolled them over and over again, feeling them swing loose in the air.

DEPUTY BOBBY DRAKE GAVE THE CAR ANOTHER LOOK. Drugs had always been a problem north of Silver Lake, but these days, smugglers would have to be real idiots to take anything across the border crossings. Security had doubled, a real task force going now, after all the years of people passing on through. For a time it was as if the two countries were one, a driver's license the only thing necessary to get up into British Columbia.

The drugs just spread out, finding other ways of crossing, as the borders tightened. If you had the experience or the know-how, it could be a good business. Drake knew that. His father, the former sheriff—locked up now—had known that. This land, these mountains and valleys, carved by glacier and erosion, were about all Drake had left of a former life. A life that had seen horses raised in his father's field, now taken and gone. A life built of apple orchards and fall harvests, sold off and forgotten, nothing there now but a wooden fence melted away with age into the ground, trees left behind as withered and bony as skeletal hands. From one side to the other, Drake's life so cleanly cut in half as to be unrecognizable.

He took out his binoculars and scanned the clear-cut. It was all forestry land, leased out to the big lumber companies. Everything a patchwork of fresh-cut brown or newly planted green. Hills stretched off and became mountains, the white tip of Mount Baker poking up into the high blue. Jumbo jets could get lost in a place like this, he thought.

The deputy propped his door open, letting the mountain air into the cab of the cruiser, sticky smell of pine needles, resin, and damp, windblown earth. He left one leg outside and worked an old basketball injury in his lower thigh. He was tall for the cruiser, and his leg stretched out onto the gravel. Sharp chinned, with thinning brown hair. He was still young enough to push the ball up the court and keep in shape, but he was starting to lose it, starting to get comfortable in this job.

The license plate had come back clean. He stared at the onboard computer, then got up and walked over to the car. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it. No forced entry. It was in the middle of nowhere, just a car on the side of the road. He knelt and fingered the raised edges of a wide double tire track in the soft ground. Drake traced it back to where the tires had come off the road and then walked to the other side and saw how they caught the far edge and made the turn to go back up the road. He guessed it to be something big, a semi without a trailer, or a big Chevy or Ford, something with a tow. He couldn't put his finger on it, couldn't say, but he did know—judging from how the larger tire tracks lay across the smaller—that whatever it was had come after the car had been there, and he knew from driving this road every twenty-four hours that the car hadn't been there for more than a day.

Drake walked back across the road and looked the car over. He cupped his hands and put them to the window. The car was clean. Not even a gum wrapper on the floor. He'd expected an old McDonald's bag, a grocery bag, even a receipt, something.

He watched the wind come down from the mountains along the trees. Heard the rush of it through the branches, evergreens moving all at once, like cresting water on the tip of a wave, rolling smooth and fast down the face. The sky marvelous and clear above, he felt the wind play at the back of his neck. He didn't know what he was doing, why he couldn't just let it go, this car, this feeling, everything. He was battling an old, familiar sense of unease, some loneliness he'd been left with. Just he and his wife living up this way, in his father's house, now theirs, left to them for the keeping while his father was away.

He looked back up into the mountains, glassed them with his binoculars. Running his vision along the ridges, pausing to focus, then running on. He stood for a while next to the car. The wind came up off the lake and whipped some of the gravel dust into a dervish. He walked back to the cruiser and called the ranger's station over at Baker.

"You got anyone up from Seattle in the Silver Lake area?"

"No one up there, Deputy."

He read the ranger the license plate. "Anything?"

"That's all clear-cut and logging roads. Don't know why anyone would want to see that."

"Don't know either," Drake said, thanking the ranger.

THE TRAIL CLIMBED STEEP AND JAGGED IN FRONT OF them. It was not a place for the kid, someone who couldn't ride and sat straight-backed in the saddle, unyielding to the horse's steps. Phil Hunt turned to look the kid over. The horses would follow each other up one hill and down the next, but the kid made him nervous.

"You been in this line of work long?" Hunt asked.

"Not long."

"How old are you?"


"That a lie?"


"I'd say you don't look older than twenty-two, twenty-three?"

"That's about right," the kid said. He turned in his saddle to look back down on what had passed before, hemlock and fir trees stretched into the narrow valley. Farther on, a patch of clear-cut and a newborn forest sprouting up in rows. The kid began to drift off to the left.

"Careful now," Hunt said, lowering his hat to shield his eyes from the sun and watching the kid.

"Didn't expect this when I signed up."

Hunt rolled this around in his head and let it rest. The kid couldn't have had much experience for the thing, riding up one ridge, then down into the following valley, just to do it again. Still, the kid reminded him a bit of himself at that age, thirty years ago, a head of brown hair, skin tanned brown as desert soil, a little too cocky, too sure of himself, body lean as a razor blade and with a mouth like one, too. "It's not all cigarette boats and fancy parties," Hunt said. "Maybe down in the Keys that's how they do it. But up here it's a bit different."

"It's been an education."

Hunt thought he heard the kid laugh, but he didn't turn around. It was the last run of the season; soon the mountains would be covered in snow. What had Eddie been thinking, sending the kid up here? A big job like this, and some kid who doesn't know the first thing about the business. He could get killed just riding a horse; one mistake and he'd come up short and throw himself face-first over a cliff.

The horses were Hunt's, two roans he'd raised on the back acre of his property, Hunt feeding them and letting them run—chestnut brown with flecks of white, muscles as beautiful and sculpted as carved rock, rounding the field, divots of earth kicked up under the pounding of their hooves—his wife, Nora, and he taking turns every morning, casting hay through the field, standing at the fence, arms resting, enjoying the playful nicker and whinny of the horses. He didn't know where they'd have been without them. He hated that he needed them for this, that he let them be pulled up one hill and down the next, led by the inexperienced hands of this kid.

Hunt cast a wary eye at the kid, half expecting him to be riding backward in the saddle. Weather beginning to turn cold and the kid wearing nothing but jeans, tennis shoes, and a black nylon jacket that snapped and fluttered in the wind as they came up over the hump of the ridge and descended along a line into the next valley. Hunt wore a pair of leather gloves, jeans, and a thick, padded hunting jacket to keep out the cold, the jacket mottled green to blend in with the forest. On his head he wore a cowboy hat he kept in the back of his truck for jobs like this one. It made him feel official and he liked to tip his hat for his wife and see the smile come across her face. He felt young in the thing, the short-cropped gray of his hair covered by the hat, and the strong lines of his face shadowed by the brim. He'd given the kid one of his baseball caps, an adjustable Mariners cap, and left it at that.

"You been at this long?" the kid asked, leaning back in the saddle as they came down off the ridge, trying to keep himself from tumbling frontwise over the nose of the horse.

"Only thing I can do that makes any money."

"How so?"

"Not much work out there for a man of my history."

"I'd imagine we've been in the same line of work," the kid said, a smile creeping across his face.

DEPUTY BOBBY DRAKE HOOKED THE RIFLE STRAP with his thumb and brought it around. He carried a pair of regulation binoculars, but the sight on the rifle was stronger. He carried a .270 for hunting and wore a pair of good mountaineering boots, strong enough for crampons in the winter and light enough to wear in the summer. He carried the pack over his back, lungs working for every step. He was young, just thirty years old. Heart trained for endurance, trained for the long haul of the mountains. Skin colored dark as the earth from a summer of swimming and hiking.

He'd come back to the car the next day, his day off, early. Looked the plates over again. Nothing. He stood out there next to the car, with the big blue waters of Silver Lake stretched out beyond him and the windblown dust from the edge of the road coming up and rolling along the cement. He rapped absently on the glass, perhaps just to make sure the car existed at all, that it wasn't some phantom mirage. He stood there and peered down inside. Nothing had changed. The whole thing made him uneasy.

As he walked, parting bear grass and the low-lying tops of mountain blueberries, his thoughts turned to his wife, whom he'd left behind that morning, Sheri sitting there at the breakfast table, a bowl of Cheerios, the milk turning yellow, sick and sweet in the air. She'd wanted to know what he was doing, what it mattered. He knew what she would say if he told her. They were newlyweds still and the idea of her there every morning, double-checking his life, hadn't quite set in. He couldn't explain why he had packed up his car, strapped on the tent, his rifle, and enough food and clothes to get him through the night. It wasn't like him. None of it was, just running off like that. It was something his father would have done. He walked on, thinking about what type of man he was becoming.

He'd grown up in these mountains. His father had brought him up in them, taking him on weekend trips. The valley leveled off at around two or three thousand, and as Drake hiked through fields of sedge and bluegrass, following the little streams that cut the base of the valley, he looked up to scan the ridges.

He could smell the scent of fall mountain bells, and as he passed he drifted a finger beneath the flowers and caught the wilted pink petals in his hand. He needed to get higher.

HUNT TOOK OUT THE TOPOGRAPHICAL MAP AND HELD it in his gloved hand, giving it a once-over. He checked his watch and found their altitude. They had camped the night before in a thicket of white birch and he'd slept all wrong, with a pebble digging into his back on the uneven ground. For a moment he'd dreamed of being back in prison, that locked-away, lonely feeling worse in his dreams than it had been twenty years ago. Hollow sounds of voices echoing down cement hallways. The poor, eaten-away souls residing there, the weak and starved, blubbering nonsense, rib cages like two claws come together across their sternum. He woke, stunned, his tongue pulled back in his throat, floating back there like something meant to suffocate him. He rolled over, breathing the cool mountain air.

Hunt had parked his truck and trailer a day's ride behind them, far enough back that they wouldn't be found. He held the map in one hand, guiding his horse forward with the other. As they rode, cutting through a stand of fir, he bent to avoid branches, taking in the smell of the horse's coat, the thick sheen of it, dust and oil rising off her and commingling with the air. She was a beautiful girl. He felt pride in her, in what she'd become.

They came down through a tangle of black raspberries, following the edge of a scree chute, the kid eating as he went. Hunt got down off his horse, shielded his eyes, and looked toward the sun. He judged there to be about three more hours of light. "Come on now, get down off your horse and help me out here."

The kid swung his leg over and half slid, half fell off the saddle, holding on the whole while to the pommel.

Hunt took a GPS from his saddlebag and gave the map another look. They were standing in a thicket of low alder, the white bark shining around them and the green moss floating off the trees with the wind. "We're too low," Hunt said, checking the altimeter on the GPS, then looking at his watch to make sure. He handed the GPS to the kid and began walking.

Thick and crooked, the alder stand stretched on up the valley, following a small stream, and this is the way they went, leading the horses.

The kid swore and lifted his foot off a soggy mess of lowland marsh.

"Careful now."

"I didn't think I'd say this, but it would be nice to get back on the horse."

"All we need to do is find an open meadow with a view to the north, we'll set camp and let the horses out for a little while. Just keep your eye on the GPS. We want to keep this latitude if we can."

"There a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow?"

Hunt looked back at the kid, but smiled and said, "If we're lucky there'll be a couple pots."

"Hope you're good at sharing," the kid said.

"Not particularly."

They walked on in silence, leading the horses, Hunt thinking about what could be done with the money ahead. He walked on, adding dollar figures in his head. He thought about this for some time, thinking of his wife, Nora, of their life together, picking his steps with an absent mind. He thought about how they were, about how they'd been in the early years, when they couldn't keep their hands off each other, night and day hot as blood in the vein, famished and pulsing its way back to the heart.

Afterward, in the middle years, life had felt as if they had been trying to fill something in, pour it like cement over the questions of their lives, the answers down there, but the liquid rock just flowing in. Again and again they'd been to the doctor, looking for answers, just to return to the same house, the same spare bedrooms and empty space.

"Do you blame me?" Nora had asked, the two of them lying there in the coal black of their room, shades drawn and not a light on anywhere to tell him the voice he heard was his wife's at all. Turned away from her in the dark, he pretended to be asleep, his eyes wide open, feeling his cowardice grow deep within him, not saying anything. He didn't know what to say. She'd left him then, just got up from bed and left. He heard the car start up and he lay there listening to the night sounds beyond their window, cars passing on the road nearby, the rush of wind wrestling its way through the alder branches. This is it, this is how it ends, he thought. No desperate run for the driveway, no pulling the door open and begging her to come back. Staring up into the darkened room, he felt as if hours passed, and when he got up to wander the house, to find some salvation in the life he'd led, he saw Nora out there beyond the windows, engine running, headlights on, but the car still there.

They'd had nothing then; it had felt as if everything had been taken from them. And the truth—had he anyone to tell it to—was that the possibility of success scared him. They'd worked through much of what had come between them, much of the trouble he'd felt that night, watching her out there in the car.

In the years that followed, he knew they'd reached some plateau of understanding, some partnership that kept them there together. He knew also that money could change things, he knew this, knew it could change for the better or change for the worse. Following the small mountain stream through the woods, thinking this over, he found a line of higher ground and led the kid forward, climbing up until they came into thick stands of pine. It wouldn't be long now, not long at all.

The trees gave way to an open meadow, the stream winding down from somewhere high above and nothing but grass to look at, flat and wide in front of them. From somewhere far away he heard the shrill call of a marmot announcing them to the valley. There was no speaking, just the two men leading the horses, and the gray rock faces of mountains looking down on them, sparse clumps of tree and rock climbing like vines along the tip of the ridge.

The kid looked around, taking it all in. "You always work alone?" he asked, bringing his horse parallel with Hunt's.

"Most of the time," Hunt said, looking for a place to hide their camp beneath the trees. "Why do you ask?"

"I can tell."

"It's not human resources, kid."

"No, it's not," the kid said. "This is a whole different skill set."

WHEN HE CAME UP OUT OF THE TREES AND FOUND a place to set up, Drake laid the .270 out on the ground, took a sleeping pad from his pack, and put it down under him. He checked the sun and then he checked his watch. It was nearly fifteen past five and he hadn't eaten a thing in more than six hours. On the far ridge he could see a hawk or an eagle climbing in the updraft, marmots calling to each other as the predator's shadow passed over the rock. He ate one of his packed sandwiches and brought out his binoculars. "What did you expect?" he said, feeling the contempt rise up. He looked the map over and guessed at where he was on the ridge. He didn't have anything but his own intuition to tell him if he was right or not.

There was a good view of the valley below and the valley he'd just climbed out of. He looked back down the way he'd come and found the little stream and the patch of mountain bells he'd walked through. From where he was lying he had a good view all the way back to Silver Lake. The clear-cut stood out on the far hills, marked with little strips of gravel and dirt where the logging roads passed. He put the binoculars aside and sighted with the rifle, squinting into the scope and hoping to pick out a nice buck shot.

The light overhead was fading and it left ghostly shadows in the meadows below him, whole fields taken up as the jagged fall of light swept across them. His eyes adjusted. The low sun crept onto the edge of the rifle sight, and he found that by shielding the end of the scope and bracing the rifle on a rock, he could better see into the shadows. He figured he had almost twenty hours before he'd need to be back at the station, enough time to buckle down and wait for something to skitter out of the bush. A whole forest and not a thing but the treetops moving.

THE SUNDOWNER ROSE PAST THE RIDGE, THEN STEADIED, dipping its wings as the wind hit and the body of the plane shuddered without warning, everything in night shades of gray and blue, the cockpit blacked out, a thin film of green from the display clinging to the faces of the pilot and co-pilot. Well past midnight, the plane had taken off from a private runway near Reclaim, just north of the border, and flown low and tight to the ground for nearly fifty miles. The pilot checked his GPS, signaling the co-pilot to approach the door and prepare the load.

For a brief moment, all the pilot could see was the next ridge rising up and the blue black night ahead. He bent from side to side, looking down, marking the potential and trying to guess at what lay below. He pulled the controls back and made a wide, looping turn through the valley, highlighting the plane for a moment against the white glaciers farther out. As he came around he could see the flare go up, red and full, sputtering in the crosswind but climbing all the same.

He eased down on the throttle and signaled the co-pilot. The cabin filled with the red beacon light marking the package, and the door opened. Wind rushed in for a moment, and there was the brief bounce as the weight left the aircraft and the co-pilot rolled the door closed. The pilot gave one more turn over the valley, watching the load drift with the wind, the parachute like a giant jellyfish hanging there in the air. The silent red blink of the beacon floating down.

DRAKE WOKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT FOR NO reason. He lay watching the wind rustle the tent walls. He'd always thought, This is how it will be. This is how I will die, in a tent with the wind all around me and no one to know it happened. He stared at the tent a while longer, listening. There was always the idea of being hunted, the nagging indecision about what lay just out of sight. He had been coming into the woods since he was a boy, but never without that fear that clung to him. Bears, cougars, those things that were bigger than him, that could hunt him down. He lay there listening to his own breathing; then he heard it, far out on the wind rising off the valley. The low humming sound of an engine. He heard the throttle drop an octave and he was sure of it now, the thing was climbing, bending out across the valley like a boomerang.

He unzipped the tent and stood barefoot on the cold grass, watching the valley. He heard it again, the whine of an engine. It could have been a lawn mower for all he knew, but he knew it wasn't, not here. The moon was out, brilliant white in a navy sky. Shrouding all the stars into mere dots of light. He could see it now, a plane, running low to the trees, curving around until its dark shape broke free over the glaciers and dipped back into the blackness.

Wind came and lifted his clothes about him, the sensation so alive on his skin and him so alone, standing there over the dark shadow of the valley below. Hadn't he been expecting this? Wasn't this why he was here, some desperate urge to set things right, to capture some piece of a life left behind? From the valley floor a flare shot up, climbing in a spiral into the air. The plane seemed to veer toward it like a trout in the water, inspecting. He heard the chute catch, the big wallop of air as the thing filled and the package floated free, red blinking lights strapped to the side and a dark cloud hanging over it. The plane ducked once through the valley, then headed north, dipping over the ridge. No lights, nothing. The silent darkness out there and the blinking red of the package floating over the valley.

HUNT LED THE KID CRASHING THROUGH THE UNDERbrush. The chute had caught a crosswind and was pulling for the ridge. They'd left the horses in the meadow and climbed, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes with their arms spread out in front of them to catch the branches and shrubs that lay before them.

It could happen this way. It wasn't fine art. They could only guess at how it would play out—one chance, and if it didn't play, that was it. There was always the danger it would get hung up. But Hunt was careful, he'd given the pilot fair warning, shot the flare wide so the pilot could circle and get his bearings.


On Sale
Feb 7, 2011
Page Count
320 pages

Urban Waite

About the Author

Urban Waite grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington on a partial scholarship focused on minority achievement in math and science, preparing him to be the next big Mexican/Italian/Welsh engineer. Instead, he became interested in fiction (where he could make up anything). He went on to study writing at Western Washington U. and Emerson and lives in Seattle with his wife. He is the author of The Terror of Living and Dead If I Don’t.

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