The Exiled


By Christopher Charles

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Can anyone ever truly outrun his past?

Back in the 1980s, Wes Raney was an ambitious New York City Narcotics Detective with a growing drug habit of his own. While working undercover on a high-risk case, he made decisions that ultimately cost him not only his career, but also his family. Disgraced, Raney fled-but history is finally catching up with him.

Now in his early forties, Raney has been living in exile, the sole homicide investigator covering a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert in New Mexico. His solitude is his salvation-but it ends when a brutal drug deal gone wrong results in a triple murder. Staged in a locked underground bunker, the crime reawakens Raney’s haunted and violent past.

From the vast, unforgiving landscape of the American west to the mean streets of New York, The Exiled is at once a riveting murder mystery and a brilliant portrait of a man on the run from himself, an unforgettable thriller that is “impossible to put down” (Frank Bill).



The Wilkins ranch covered a thousand acres of piñon-dotted slopes rolling into mountains capped year-round with snow. Raney drove the access road, crossed a dry creek bed, crested a hill, and came out in the clearing Bay had described. The sheriff was leaning against his squad car, smoking a cigarillo and watching the lab techs unload their van.

“Sheriff Bay,” Raney called. “It’s been a while.”

“You’re all they sent?” Bay said.

“Budget cuts. Not enough bodies to justify the manpower.”

“This oughta help.”

Bay pointed to a clapboard shed on the far side of the clearing.

“Scene’s under there,” he said. “We kept our distance with the vehicles.”

They started across, Raney a hundred pounds leaner and a foot shorter than Bay, sleek in his blazer and jeans, his black ankle boots a compromise between city and country; Bay towering in his Stetson, his sheriff’s belt tugging his pants below the waistline.

“Beautiful country,” Raney said.

“You hold that thought.”


“This one’s right out of your past life.”


“That’s part of it.”

The shed was no bigger than an outhouse. The door had been torn from its hinges and dumped in a strip of broom sage.

“Your work?” Raney asked.

“Someone done it for us.”

Raney leaned inside, discovered an open trapdoor and an extension ladder descending into a concrete bunker.

“We took up the false floor,” Bay said. “And put in some lights down there. Otherwise, it’s like we found it. Coyotes must have caught the smell. You can see where they clawed at the boards.”

He handed Raney a surgical mask and a pair of latex gloves.

“You coming?” Raney asked.

“I’ve looked all I care to. The one by the ladder is Jack Wilkins. I’ve known him and his wife forty years. He owns—owned—this place. Never saw the Hispanics before today.”

“All right,” Raney said.

The stench cut through his mask before he’d reached the bottom rung. Battery-powered lamps lit the space like a photographer’s studio. He stood for a moment, taking stock. It was a large and solid room, built to be lived in once the bomb dropped, then repurposed sometime after the Wall fell. At the center was a cutting table lined with razor blades, clear Baggies, a wooden salad bowl brimming with a gray, granular substance. The floor was covered end to end in uncooked grains of rice. Empty burlap sacks lay in a heap near the table.

Three dead: Wilkins sprawled faceup near the exit; two Hispanics—one male, one female—slumped against the far wall. Wilkins with a hole in his chest and his throat slit wide, blood and rice mixing to form a claylike halo above his head. His right hand clutched at the trigger guard of a break-action shotgun. His left eye had been gouged, the eyeball partially dislodged. Long scratches disappeared into his white beard. There were half a dozen shell casings scattered around his feet.

Raney crossed the bunker, rice cracking under his heels. Wilkins’s fellow deceased were young and shared similar broad features. Siblings, maybe twins. The girl had been shot in the stomach, her throat cut with the same stroke that finished Wilkins. She died pressing a balled-up T-shirt to her wound. Her blouse and underwear were torn, one breast exposed, bite marks around the nipple. She wore a short denim skirt, no leggings, sandals with a thick heel. Toenails striped the colors of the Mexican flag. A faded contusion on her left cheek, lipstick smeared, short white hairs mixed with the blood under her fingernails. Raney knelt as close as he could without disrupting the scene, looked for bruising on her thighs, found none.

I hope you were spared that much, he thought.

Her brother, the apparent knifeman, lay bare-chested beside her. His physique put him somewhere between seventeen and twenty. He’d OD’d, hemorrhaged internally, bled out through his eyes, mouth, ears. The syringe had fallen from his right arm. A Glock 18, a metal spoon, a Bic lighter, and a sprung stiletto lay in a pond of blood between the bodies. The brother’s pockets were turned out, as though someone had thought to save Raney the trouble.

Traces of white powder spotted the cutting table. Raney crouched down, sniffed. Cocaine, pure enough to step on several times over. Eighteen years clean, and still he felt a surge, the slight tingle of a phantom limb. He peeled off a glove, dipped his pinkie in the salad bowl, touched the tip of his finger to his tongue. Baby laxative. He spit hard into his sleeve. He looked more closely at the bowl, spotted a plastic edge poking through the surface. He pulled it free, brushed it off. A full dimebag. Sifting through the bowl with the blade of his penknife, he discovered two more bags. He wrapped these in a handkerchief, buried the handkerchief in his blazer pocket. He left the third bag for the lab techs to find.

The shipment was gone. Judging by the empty sacks, Raney estimated ten kilos, maybe more.

He stood on a chair, surveyed the blood trails. They told a confused story: the most he could determine on his own was that no one had died instantly, that people had moved and/or been moved after their wounds were inflicted.

Fact: they’d been locked down here for days before they died (proof: quantity of urine and excrement stewing in a bucket at the back of the room). Fact: Jack lost an eye assaulting the girl. Fact: Jack shot the girl (to avenge his lost eye?).

Scenario: the brother either fell asleep, was coldcocked by Wilkins, or faded into a drug nod. Wilkins attacked the girl. The girl fought back. Wilkins shot her. The blast or its echo woke the brother, who shot Wilkins, then slit his throat (some kind of signature?). Brother tended to sister. When it was clear she wouldn’t live, he euthanized her. Probability: she begged for it.

Raney climbed back out of the bunker, stopped to inspect the trapdoor. It was forged of a heavy metal and coated with tin; one hasp on the interior, another on the exterior. An open padlock with the key inside lay on the ground a few feet away. Raney saw now where the remaining shells had gone: Wilkins had been firing into the underside of the door, looking to blast his way free.


Bay hovered a few yards from the shed, rolling a fresh cigarette.

“Well?” he asked.

“Wilkins had a side business.”

“Figures. He always was a shit rancher. You see a single cow on your way up here?”

Bay kicked at the dirt. Raney stared at a spot somewhere above the tree line.

“Where’s the widow?”

“Mavis? At the house. I got my deputy with her.”

“I’d like to talk to her.”

“She’s shook up, Wes.”

“I guess she would be.”

“What do you think happened?”

“They were trapped. They turned on one another. Then someone came back for the supply.”

“How long you figure they been down there?”

“Hard to say. The dry and dark would have slowed the decomp. A while, I’d guess. Whoever locked them in wouldn’t risk coming back early.”

“Goddamn,” Bay said.

Raney searched the clearing. Apart from his sedan and Bay’s squad car there was only the county van.

“Their vehicle is gone,” he said.

“The Mexies’?”

Raney nodded.

“Probably burned to shit in a ditch somewhere.”


“This how it was in New York?” Bay asked.

Raney shrugged, shifted his gaze back to the mountains.


They drove in tandem down the dirt road cutting through Wilkins’s property. Bay was right: not a cow anywhere. Raney slowed to a crawl at the creek bed. Bay flashed his lights. Raney glanced in the rearview mirror, saw Bay smiling.

The house came in and out of focus between the trees. An adobe, well maintained, a garden of wildflowers out back. Mrs. Wilkins owned and ran the town’s crafts store. She fancied herself a painter. The shop doubled as a café, and she had a guest artist giving after-school lessons in a side room. Jack kept to himself. The couple had been married forty years. Jack and Mavis. Their names ran together. That was as much as Bay had told him.

He parked beside the sheriff’s squad car on the gravel between the house and road. Bay started for the front door. Raney held him back.

“Let’s have a look first,” he said.

There was a stand-alone garage a few yards distant. Raney walked over, tried the side door, found it unlocked. Bay followed him in. Fishing tackle and camping gear crowded the rafters; there were two cars on the floor, one a decade-old station wagon, the other covered with a thick plastic tarp. Raney peeled the tarp back, unveiled a gold-colored Jaguar, gleaming, fresh off the lot. Bay whistled, placed a palm on the hood.

“Cool,” he said.

“Wilkins come by any money lately?” Raney asked.

“Not that I know of. But then he wouldn’t have told me.”

They started toward the house.

“I’ll take lead,” Raney said.

“Okay, but remember—Mavis has lived her entire adult life in the middle of nowhere.”


“Keep the fight fair.”

“How much have you told her?”

“Didn’t have to tell her anything,” Bay said. “She went down there herself before she called us. She saw what you saw.”

“That’s a start. How was she when you got here?”

“Disoriented. It was her who called nine-one-one, but she seemed startled, like she’d forgot we were coming. Then she just went quiet.”

“I’d like to hear that nine-one-one call,” Raney said.


Deputy Manning let them in, a lanky twenty-year-old who tried like hell to hide his pimples under a cream three shades darker than his skin.

“How is she?” Bay asked.

“She ain’t saying one way or the other.”

Manning looked at Raney—excited, as though meeting a celebrity.

“Detective Raney, right? From New York? More people per square block than in all of this county. You must find it dull as dirt out here.”

“Not today, son,” Raney said.

Manning blanched, pointed.

“She’s in the kitchen,” he said.

Mavis was sitting at the table, breaking the stems from a bushel of green beans. She didn’t look up.

“Do you mind if we join you for a moment?” Bay said.

“I figured you might.”

Raney took the seat opposite her; Bay sat between them at the head of the table. Mavis kept her hands busy, her eyes on her work. She was in her early sixties, like Bay, but elegant, with high cheekbones and Grace Kelly eyes, a classic beauty who must have made Jack enemies along the way. It seemed to Raney that she knew this interview would be coming sooner or later but had banked on later. The vegetables were a prop, part of a performance she hadn’t had time to rehearse: the meek housewife who couldn’t pull herself from her chores even on the day she found her husband shot to death. Raney studied her and thought: She knew. With that car in the garage. With them driving right past the house. She had to know.

“Mavis,” Bay said, “this is Detective Wes Raney. He covers the county’s homicides. I’ve worked with him before. He’s good people.”

“I wish I was pleased to meet you,” she said.

“I understand,” Raney said. “I’ll try to make this quick. I just have a few questions.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’ll help as best I can.”

“We appreciate that,” Bay said.

“How long have you and your husband lived in this house?” Raney asked.

“Forty-one years. Or it would have been next month.”

“And when did you build the bunker?”

“The year we bought the place. 1961. That summer. There was an army base not far from here. Jack said it was a surefire target. He was worried we wouldn’t have the thing done in time.”

“Jack built it himself?”

“Mostly. He hired day laborers now and then.”

“It’s a good-size shelter.”

“We were planning to have kids. I used to say to Jack, ‘If the world’s ending, why bother?’”

“Did you get any use out of it?”

“The shelter?”


“We stayed down there quite a few times, mostly for drills, but once for real, when the tornado came. We had it fixed up nice then, with canned goods and furniture and magazines and a spare mandolin for Jack. It’s the last instrument you would have thought Jack played, but he was damn good.”

“There’s one thing I’m curious about,” Raney said. “Why put locks on both sides of the door?”

“You don’t want squatters going in when you aren’t there, and you don’t want them going in when you are there.”

“Smart. When did you stop thinking of it as a shelter?”

“When Jack stopped believing the bombs would come. I hadn’t set foot in that hole for years.”

“You mean before this morning?”


“So you saw what happened? You know what your husband was doing down there?”

“I have an idea.”

“How long have you known?”

“That he was mixed up with Mexicans? Since this morning.”

“Still, can I ask why you didn’t call sooner?”

“What are you talking about? I called Bay right off.”

“But the scene down there isn’t fresh. It’s been a week at least. Why didn’t you report your husband missing?”

“I didn’t think he was missing. Jack said he was going on a fishing trip.”

“Who with?”

“Himself. He went everywhere by himself. Isn’t that so, Sheriff?”

“He wasn’t shy in his own company,” Bay said.

“Why did you decide to look for him in the bunker?”

“You’re going to embarrass me now,” she said. “Sometimes, after we’d had a fight, he’d hole up out there. After a while, it became the one place I wasn’t allowed to go. Jack was peculiar about it. Like I said, he’d never been away that long. I thought maybe he’d gone down there and hurt himself somehow. Maybe he’d had a heart attack.”

“If you thought he was hiding from you, ten days seems like a long time not to look.”

“I told you,” Mavis said. “I thought he’d gone fishing.”

“But his poles, his tackle box, his bucket are all there in the garage.”

“I wouldn’t notice that sort of thing.”


“Really. Bay, where is this going?”

“What’s your question, Raney?”

“Your husband owned a cattle ranch with no cattle on it. You manage an art supply store in a town of fewer than two thousand people. But there’s a brand-new Jaguar in the garage and an add-on to the back of your home. Where did you think the money was coming from?”

“Jack ran into an inheritance.”

“Who from?”

“A cousin.”

“We can check that.”

“It’s what he told me.”

“When did he run into this inheritance?”

“Last year.”

“When last year?”

“It was fall.”

“Early or late?”

“I don’t remember.”

“How much?”

“He didn’t tell me.”

“And you didn’t ask?”

“I’m tired. My husband is dead.”

“And you never noticed a truck driving past your house in the middle of the night? Never noticed Jack getting up and going out?”

“No. Please, I can’t do this right now.”

“He bought a car for himself. Did he buy anything for you?”

Mavis hid her face in her hands.

“Go!” she screamed.

Raney stayed put. Bay tugged his arm.

“All right, Mrs. Wilkins. But we’re going to have to look around. The warrant is signed, if you want to see it.”

“That’s fine.”

“I’m sorry again for your loss,” Raney said.

“You never said sorry a first time.”

Bay leaned forward, touched Mavis’s shoulder. Raney thought he saw the big man’s eyes linger a moment too long.


Their search of the house turned up nothing—no drugs, no ledger, no hint of who Wilkins bought from or sold to—nothing but the portrait of a relationship that had long since become something less than a marriage. Crafts magazines on the nightstand in her bedroom; potboilers on the nightstand in his. In one room, a small arsenal behind a display case, taxidermied bobcats and mountain goats ranging the walls; in another, an outsized loom, an easel holding up a half-finished painting of a wild iris, a picture window framing a hummingbird feeder, Navajo rugs on the floor. His and hers, alternating throughout the house. But what struck Raney was the unflagging sense that the home belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins and no one else. He could find no evidence that Jack and Mavis knew anyone but Jack and Mavis—no photos or postcards magnetically pinned to the fridge, no calendar to keep track of the occasional luncheon, no inscriptions in any of the books he thumbed through. Somehow, this absence seemed in keeping with a pervasive, almost obscene cleanliness. When the lab techs got here they’d be lucky to find a dust mite, let alone a wayward fingerprint. Each room felt like a diorama, a reenactment painstakingly assembled by an anthropologist and then freeze-dried for the edification of future generations.


He found Bay pacing outside, kicking at the gravel, smoking, swearing with every exhale.

“This ain’t right,” he said. “It ain’t like rousting meth heads or busting up bar fights. I’ve known Mavis going on forty years.”

Mavis, Raney thought. A matronly name. Almost an alibi in itself. Bay seemed to read his mind.

“You can’t really think…”

Raney shrugged.

“Death by padlock,” he said. “The new woman’s crime. Cleaner than poison.”

“She couldn’t have known they’d kill each other,” Bay said.


“So she left them down there to starve to death? While she went on about her business?”

“Somebody did. She’s the only one who could have been certain they’d stay down there. Anyone else would have worried the wife might find them.”

“I know her,” Bay said. “Mavis ain’t one to take life for granted. Hers or anyone else’s. It don’t figure.”

“Neither does half of what she said.”

Bay quit pacing, slumped down on the trunk of his car.

“What about the missing coke? No way a lady her size hauls however many bricks out of that bunker and then drives off with them.”

“I agree. Either someone put her up to it or someone helped her afterward. Or both. We need to figure out who. And we need a handle on Jack’s business plan. He gets a package from Mexico, steps on it, and then what? Was he selling to locals, or did he run it up to Albuquerque? Or Denver?”

“The reservation, maybe? There’s money up there now with the casino. There’s money all up in these hills. Everything from big-time ranchers to Hollywood types looking for quiet.”

“ID’ing the Mexicans might give us a clue.”

“Goddamn,” Bay said. “It just don’t make sense. I’ve known her forty years.”

“Jack knew her longer.”

“You’re talking like it’s fact,” Bay said. “You ain’t proved a damn thing.”

“I know. You’re right. So point me in a direction.”

“What kind of direction?”

“Who was Jack close to?”

“Nobody. Jack was a sulker. It’s true what Mavis said—he went everywhere alone.”

“All right, what about Mavis?”

Bay thought it over.

“Clara, that gal working in the shop. They say Mavis is like a mother to her.”

“I’ll go have a word,” Raney said. “One other thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Keep Junior posted outside the house. In a big shiny squad car.”

“Junior? The kid’s half narcoleptic.”

“Rotate him, then.”

“I don’t have anyone to rotate him with,” Bay said. “You worried Mavis might run?”

“I’m more worried about who might come looking. Somebody got double-crossed.”

Bay shook his head.

“Shit,” he said. “This is the day the lord hath made. He can have a do-over if he wants it.”

“Just the one?”

Bay sniggered.

“Where’ve they got you bunking?”

“Hotel on Main.”

“That old brothel? The county spares no expense. They shoulda put you up at the casino. All you can eat, breakfast through dinner.”

Bay pointed to an adobe castle near the top of the foothills. Raney wondered how he’d missed it.


He drove a winding descent toward town. It was July, nearing 7:00 p.m., the sun sharper here than it would be at noon back East. He spotted a clutch of mule deer grazing in a paddock alongside a lone Appaloosa. Bay had called the area a desert, but it wasn’t the type of desert you saw in the movies: it wasn’t deserted, wasn’t desolate. Birds didn’t drop from the sky, dead of heatstroke. There were mountains and trees and a dozen types of grass. The world changed with every jump in altitude. It sometimes rained in the spring, and in the winter it snowed often. Death was everywhere. Raney never went for a hike without coming across bones, skulls, now and again a full skeleton, rarely a fresh kill. But death here seemed governed by natural law. What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban, something from what Bay had called Raney’s past life, something that would have made sense in the basement of a Lower East Side tenement but here was out of joint, a reminder that men fail to act naturally no matter the setting.


On Sale
Apr 19, 2016
Page Count
320 pages
Mulholland Books

christopher charles

Christopher Charles

About the Author

Christopher Charles is the pseudonym of Chris Narozny, author of the novel Jonah Man. Narozny received an M.F.A. from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. He has lived in Normandy, Paris, and Brooklyn, and currently resides in Denver with his wife, the author Nina Shope.

Learn more about this author