The Prison Guard’s Son
Search for monsters long enough and you might become one.
Thirty years ago Jacob Vance and Raymond Turner committed a gruesome crime that shocked a small West Virginia town. Only nine years old themselves, they kidnapped and murdered four-year-old Josh Baker.
The two boys were quickly arrested, tried and convicted, but were released after serving only eight years in a juvenile detention facility. Because of the heinousness of their crime and the town’s thirst for retribution, the government gave Vance and Turner new identities and relocated them to parts unknown.
Now, the victim’s father has hired Finn Harding to find his son’s killers so he can levy the justice that was denied so long ago. Along the way, Finn clashes with a tenacious US Marshal determined to protect the killers’ new identities and crosses paths with an infamous triggerman hired to do what the courts didn’t.
What begins as a typical job for Finn quickly spirals into a moral struggle between revenge and forgiveness as he learns details about the lives Vance and Turner have been living.
As he fights with his conscience, Finn learns that monsters truly exist, you can’t hide from your past, and some cases should stay buried.
MONSTERS ARE REAL. THEY HIDE behind familiar names and faces, and they’re capable of entering your safe little world anytime and turning your life upside down. And they can vanish as quickly as they appeared. You may never cross paths with pure evil, but sometimes you do.
Sometimes these monsters walk down your street.
Sometimes they notice you.
And sometimes they follow you home.
SINCE LOSING MY PI LICENSE and taking my practice underground three years ago, I had made enough cash and built a solid enough reputation I no longer hustled for work. These days it falls in my lap. That’s what happened when Willie Baker called me. He found me the same way all my clients do. Word of mouth. He knew someone who knew someone who put him in touch with me, and here I sat in a city park in Parkersburg, West Virginia, across from the Parkersburg Correctional Facility. It was a fitting location considering Willie was going to ask me to do something illegal, and if I played my cards wrong I might end up in the very building that stood on the other side of the impenetrable razor-wire fence.
Willie had given me enough detail over the phone to entice me to drive the two-hundred miles to Parkersburg, but what he told me in the next fifteen minutes would determine whether I took his case or not.
I arrived twenty minutes early and grabbed a seat at a park bench under a giant oak tree. It was mid November and many of the trees had already dropped their leaves. Those trees that hadn’t yet surrendered to fall painted a backdrop of orange, yellow and red hues. A group of children collected a pile of downed leaves and plowed through them, their arms spread wide and their heads tilted back, mouths open laughing. They looked like airplanes flying through vibrant-colored clouds. Their mothers looked on and smiled, probably wanting to join in.
A moment later loose gravel popped under a vehicle’s tires. It was a Ford Econoline van with a prison logo on the door. It belonged to the large gray building across the street, the one with the shitty views and the bars on the doors. The van parked next to my Lincoln Navigator and an older man stepped out of the vehicle. He closed the door and without locking it limped across the parking lot toward me. A gray Walmart shopping bag dangled from his right hand. The bag sagged under the weight of the papers inside, some of which had pierced the thin lining in an attempt to escape, and I thought the bottom might fall out before he made it to the bench.
“Mr. Finn?” he said.
I slid to my left. “Have a seat.”
He shook my hand and sat down. “It’s nice to meet you. Thanks for helping me.”
“I haven’t agreed to help you yet, Mr. Baker. But I am anxious to learn more about your situation.”
From our call, I knew the man sitting next to me in the unwashed blue prison guard uniform and Carhartt work jacket wanted me to find the two men who murdered his son, Josh, in 1984. He explained how the two men responsible were arrested, tried and convicted, and how they were released in 1992 after serving only eight years in some detention center for fuckups.
Willie Baker, much like the rest of Parkersburg, felt eight years was a bit light for what they did to his son, and now he wanted to levy his own justice. I didn’t discuss details over the phone, which is why we sat next to each other feeling the November breeze whip across the playground.
“Start from the beginning,” I said. “Just so I know I didn’t misunderstand you on our first call.”
Baker grabbed his left pants leg with his right hand and pulled it up so his left leg crossed the other. He leaned back against the hard park bench and drew in a deep breath.
“It was in eighty-four. My wife had taken Josh to the mall to do some Christmas shopping. They were in a store when my wife turned around and Josh was gone.” He crinkled the bag between his fingers. “My wife was always so careful with him, and she only turned her back for a minute. But that’s all it took. He was gone. Mitz and the saleswoman tore the store upside down, but they didn’t find him. He had wandered out into the mall and disappeared.”
“How old was your son when all this happened?”
“He was four.” Baker paused. “He would have been thirty-seven next month.”
“Go on,” I said.
“It was a weekend and I was home working on our car. It was the only car we had and Mitz had to borrow my brother’s Impala to go to the mall. She was gone for a few hours. Then she comes home and jumps that Impala over the curb and almost hits the tree in our front yard. She runs into the garage yelling about how they took Josh. I get her to calm down enough so that she can tell me what happened. She’s crying and she yells ‘they can’t find him.’ I’m listening to her but I’m not putting it all together. Then I notice Josh isn’t in the car and it hits me. She tells me he wandered off. Said she went to the mall security office. They asked around, made an announcement over the PA, talked to the clerks to see if anyone remembered seeing him, but there was nothing. He was gone. One minute he’s there and the next, he’s not. Gone into thin air.”
“So she went to the police?”
“The mall called the police. Mitz called me several times but I was under the car in the garage and didn’t hear the phone ring.”
“What did the police do?” I said.
“They interviewed my wife and me. She told them the same story I just told you. That night they put Josh’s picture on the TV. On the local news. Then they called us at home the next day to tell us they found him.” He dropped his head and grabbed the bag with his hands so tight I thought he might rip it in two. “They found his body next to an abandoned tobacco shack a few miles from our house.”
“The two boys you mentioned on the phone. Tell me about them.”
“Jacob Vance and Raymond Turner. I’ll never forget ’em. Both nine years old at the time. Local boys. They took him from the mall.”
“Did they know your son? Or your family?”
“No. Never seen or heard of them before. The police figured Josh just walked away from Mitz and into the mall and these two boys found him walking by hisself and lured him away.”
“Except for being sick in the head, no.”
“How did the police find them? The boys?”
“A woman saw the TV news the night they showed Josh’s picture. She remembered seeing a neighbor boy from down the road earlier in the day walking with a boy who looked like Josh. She called the police. The cops interviewed him and his buddy–Vance and Turner–and one of them confessed to everything. Confessed about how they took him from the mall and into the woods. And…” He wiped his eyes. “And how…”
“That’s enough,” I said, not wanting him to relive the hell he probably experienced every day since eighty-four. “I don’t need to know anything more about your son, but tell me about the boys. What is it you want me to do?”
“I want them boys dead. I want someone to take a hammer and crush their skulls just like they did to my little boy.”
“I find people, Willie. I don’t kill them.”
“I know. I only want you to find them. I’ve already made arrangements for someone else to kill ’em. All I want you to do is tell me where there are.”
“Seems like a long time to be waiting for revenge,” I said. “Why now? If they’ve been out for so long, why go after them now?”
“After Josh was killed, Mitz and I had to get through everything together. We were all that we had. I knew if I did something stupid the police would take me away, and I wasn’t sure Mitz was strong enough to make it on her own. But she died of ovarian cancer last year. With Mitz gone, I’ve got no reason to hold back anymore. I’d do it myself if I were younger. And if I could find them.”
“If something happens to these two, you’re the first person the police will come for.”
“I know, but I work at the prison six days a week. I’ll have an alibi.” He smacked his leg with his right hand. “And with this bum leg, no one’ll believe I’d be able to catch and kill two men.” He looked at the prison and then back at me. “I’ve got two-hundred-thousand dollars saved up. Most of that was Mitz’s life insurance. I don’t know if it’s enough, but it’s all I got. I want you to tell me where they are. Both of them. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“No offense Willie, but this job seems too easy. You could find any number of PIs who could locate these two for a fraction of what you’re offering me. Why not save your money and go with someone else?”
“These two aren’t going to be easy to find. Trust me, I’ve hired it out before. Just the locating part. I never told anyone about what I wanted done to them. Went through a few other PIs. They turned up nothing.”
“So why me?”
“After Vance and Turner were released in 1992, the state didn’t think they would be safe. That what they did to my boy was so heinous their lives would be in danger. Can you believe that, their lives? Never mind what they did to my family. The government gave them new identities and shipped them off to God knows where. And that’s it. New names and new locations. And I’m stuck back here to mourn my boy who never got the chance to grow up. None of the people I hired came close to finding them because Jacob Vance and Raymond Turner don’t exist anymore. What I need is someone who can find their new identities.” He looked over his shoulder and spoke low. “So I can give my boy the justice he deserves.”
I’d never heard of the government using witness protection to safeguard anyone except federal witnesses. Not our government anyway. “That adds quite the dynamic, Willie.”
“I know it does. That’s why I need someone who can do it right. Those two have to pay the real price for what they did to Josh.” He handed me the plastic bag. “That’s the police file. It’s everything I got. Don’t make your decision without reading it. Look at it and see what those two boys did to my son, and if you want to pass then that’s fine. I’ll look for someone else to help me.”
I took the bag and set it on my knee to keep it from breaking open. The tall tower of the Parkersburg Correctional Facility stared down at me, as if daring me to take the case.
“I’ll review your information, Willie, but you have to be prepared for me to say no. If these guys really are in WITSEC then they’ll be difficult as shit to find.”
“Difficult but not impossible,” said Willie. He stood up. “All I ask is that you consider it. I have to get back to work.”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I can,” I said.
Willie limped across the park moving faster than when he arrived. Maybe he was late for his shift, or maybe he felt lighter having handed off the information on his long dead son, like some burden lifted. Or maybe he moved faster because he was thinking about the two responsible for his son’s death getting what he thought they deserved.
After Willie pulled out of the parking lot I turned to see the group of children still plowing through the hand-raked mounds of leaves a few hundred feet away. Their mothers still looked on with a hint of jealousy. Part of me wanted to stay and watch, but the other part urged me off the bench and into my car. I had some reading to do.
“The Prison Guard’s Son is dark, twisted, and remarkably clever. Trace Conger is establishing himself as one of the most original voices in crime fiction.” – Gregory Petersen, author of Open Mike
“Conger’s writing is direct. It moves clearly and quickly, perfect for thrillers… With Finn, Conger has created a distinctive and most likely enduring main character.” – Ronald Tierney, author of The Deets Shanahan Mysteries
“The Mr. Finn series breathes new life into the PI genre…These are some of the most fully realized characters I’ve encountered in a long time, and this is one of the best detective series I’ve ever read.” – Gumshoes, Gats and Gams
“There are no easy answers in cases that are as complex as the one Finn has taken on in this novel. Trace Conger never sugar-coats things and also presents the moral ambiguity of many characters involved. He shows that there is evil in the world, but also that sometimes what feels like the “right” thing is really just the “easy” thing.” – BOLO Books
“The Prison Guard’s Son is a superbly crafted crime novel. The characters are richly drawn with a rare combination of nuance and depth… This is one of the year’s best books; don’t miss it.” – Mysterious Reviews
“How Finn sets about the trace is as fascinating as it is plausible, made gripping not only by the tale but by the author’s fluid telling. His characters are well-plumbed, original and real… The tension is fine tuned and ever increasing as the story writhes onward to its final twist.” – Bookpostmortem