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First Thrills Volume 2
New York Times bestselling author Lee Child and the International Thriller Writers, Inc. present a collection of remarkable stories in First Thrills. From small-town crime stories to sweeping global conspiracies, this is a cross section of today’s hottest thriller-writing talent. This original collection is now split into four e-book volumes, packed with murder, mystery, and mayhem!
First Thrills: Volume 2 contains stories six original stories by:
Wendy Corsi Staub
Grant McKenzieKen Bruen
Lee Child, Stephen Coonts, Heather Graham, Wendy Corsi Staub, Kelli Stanley, Grant McKenzie, Ken Bruen First Thrills Volume 2
Adam Solo wedged himself into the chair at the navigator’s table in the small shack behind the bridge and braced himself against the motion of the ship. Rain beat a tattoo on the roof over his head and wind moaned around the portholes. Although the seas weren’t heavy, the ship rolled, pitched, and corkscrewed viciously because she was not under way; she was riding sea anchors, being held in one place, at the mercy of the swells.
Through the rain-smeared porthole windows Solo could see the flood and spotlights of another ship several hundred feet to port. She was also small, only two hundred forty feet long, roughly the size of the ship Solo was aboard. Carrying massive cranes fore and aft, she was festooned with flood lights that lit the deck and the water between the ships, and was also bobbing like a cork in a maelstrom.
Through the open door to the bridge Solo occasionally heard the ringing of the telegraph as the captain signaled the engine room for power to help hold the little ship where he wanted her.
Johnson was the captain, an overweight, overbearing slob with a sneer engraved on his face and a curse on his lips. Solo ignored the burst of mindless obscenities that reached him during lulls in the wind’s song and concentrated on the newspaper before him.
Possible alien spaceship found in Atlantic Ocean, the headline screamed. Beneath that headline, in slightly smaller type, the subhead read, Famous Evangelist Funds Salvage.
Solo was a trim man with short black hair, even features, and skin that appeared deeply tanned. He was below average in height, just five-and-a-half feet tall, and weighed about 140 pounds. Tonight he was dressed in jeans, work boots, and a dark green Gortex jacket. Looking at him, one would not have guessed that he was a very successful engineer, and the owner of twenty patents.
He read the newspaper story carefully, and was relieved to see that his name wasn’t mentioned. The story told how Jim Bob Bryant, the preachin’ pride of Mud Lick, Arkansas, had raised millions to fund the salvage from the sea floor of the flying saucer discovered six months ago by a oil exploration ship taking core samples. Bryant was quoted extensively. His thesis seemed to be that the flying saucer would lead to a new spiritual renewal worldwide.
On the editorial page Solo saw a column that denounced Bryant as a charlatan promoting a religious hoax. The writer stated that only the ignorant and gullible believed in flying saucers.
Solo had just finished the pundit’s column when the door opened and a heavyset man wearing a suit and tie came in. He tossed a coat on the desk.
“Reverend,” Solo said, in greeting.
The Right Reverend Jim Bob Bryant was so nervous he couldn’t hold still. “This is it, Solo,” he said as he smacked one fist into a palm. “This saucer is the key to wealth and power beyond the wildest dreams of anyone alive.”
“Gettin’ into heaven has always been expensive, and the cost is gonna keep risin’. People who get somethin’ for free don’t value it-that’s human nature. Only value what they pay for, and I’m gonna make ’em pay a lot.”
Bryant braced himself against the roll of the ship and glanced out the porthole at the heaving sea between the ships. “You still think you can make the computers talk to you?”
Solo nodded. “Yes, but you’ve never told me what you want from them.”
“Miracles, man-that’s what I want. I want to learn to do miracles.”
“I don’t know that there are any miracles in the saucer,” Solo said mildly. “We never found any in that saucer we took apart. What we found was extremely advanced technology from another world, another time.” Solo had become Bryant’s right-hand man by convincing him that he had been a lead engineer on the top-secret examination of a saucer the government had secreted in Area 51 in Nevada.
Bryant, a con man himself, had taken a lot of convincing. Solo had drawn diagram after diagram, explained the functioning of every system and the location of every valve, wire, nut, and bolt.
Tonight, Bryant said, “You dig out the technology and I’ll do the miracles. Gonna turn prayer and song into money, Solo, and believe me, that’s the biggest miracle of them all.”
Solo waggled the newspaper. “I thought you were trying to keep the recovery of the saucer a secret.”
“The newshounds sniffed it out,” Bryant said with a shrug. “You gotta admit, after the news of this discovery, it was just a matter of time before someone sailed out here to raise the saucer. We’re here first, which is the important thing. Life is all about timing, Solo.” Bryant turned to the porthole and rubbed the moisture from the glass with his sleeve. “This alien ship may be torn all to hell, smashed into bits, but there’s a sliver of a chance that one or more of the computers is intact, or at least their memory core. If that’s the case, we’re in this with a chance.”
Jim Bob Bryant jammed his hands in his pockets and stared out of the porthole into the night with unseeing eyes. The possibilities were awe-inspiring. Space travel experts all agreed that if man were to attempt a voyage between the stars, aging was going to have to be retarded or prevented altogether for the travelers to arrive alive. The distances were vast beyond any scale that could be grasped by the twenty-first-century mind.
Bryant smacked a fist into the palm of his other hand. “Yes, the people of the saucers must have possessed an anti-aging drug, and the formula might be in this saucer’s computer.” The possibility of using such a drug in religious services gave him the sweats. He could found his own church. He could…
If the saucer crew were people.
Solo had assured him they must have been, based on the design and operation of the government’s secret saucer, the one no government official had ever admitted existed.
He glanced over his shoulder at Solo, who was flipping through the rest of the newspaper. He knew so much… or pretended to.
Bryant sighed. If Solo had been lying all along, he wouldn’t really have lost anything but some credibility, and in truth, he didn’t have much of that beyond the circle of the faithful. This whole expedition was financed with donated money. All Bryant had contributed was his time and lots of hot air.
From his pocket he pulled the photo of the saucer taken by a camera lowered over the side of the salvage ship. In the glow of the camera’s spotlight, he could make out a circular, round disk, thicker toward the middle.
Bryant was staring at the photo when he heard Johnson, the captain, give a shout.
Out of the porthole, Bryant saw a shape even darker than the night sea break the surface for a moment, then ease back under.
“It’s up!” he said excitedly. With that he dashed through the door onto the bridge and charged down the ladder to the main deck.
Adam Solo slowly pulled on a cap and stepped onto the bridge. Ignoring the captain, who was still at the helm, Solo walked to the unprotected wing of the bridge and gazed down into the heaving dark sea as the wind and rain tore at him. The wind threatened to tear his cap from his head, so he removed it. Jim Bob Bryant was at the rail on the main deck, holding on with both hands.
Floodlights from both ships lit the area between the ships and the heavy cables that disappeared into water. From the angle of the cables, it was obvious that what they held was just beneath the surface. Snatches of the commands of the chief on deck shouted to the winch operators reached Solo. Gazing intently at the scene before him, he ignored them.
As Solo watched, swells separated the ships slightly, tightening the cables, and something broke the surface. It was a mound, dark as the black water; swells broke over it.
As quickly as it came into view, the shape disappeared again as the ships rolled toward each other.
It’s real and it’s there. We are so close, he thought, then remembered the other times when he had gotten his hopes up, only to see them dashed to splinters, leaving him bitter and forlorn. Yet perhaps this time…
Over the next five minutes the deck crews aboard both ships tightened their cables, inch by inch, lifting the black shape to the surface again, then higher and higher until finally it was free of the water and hung suspended between the ships. The spotlights played upon it, a black, saucer-shaped object, perfectly round and thickest in the middle, tapering gently to the edges, which were rounded, not sharp. It was huge-the diameter was about ninety feet-and it was heavy-the cables that held it were as taut as violin strings, and the ships listed toward it a noticeable amount.
Solo stepped back into the sheltered area of the bridge and wiped the rain from his hair with his hand, then settled the cap onto his head as he listened to the voices on the bridge loudspeaker. The deck chiefs of this ship and the other vessel were talking to each other on hand-held radios, coordinating their efforts as the saucer was inched over the deck of this ship. The ship’s radio picked up the conversation and piped it here so that captain could listen in and, if he wished, take part.
A moment later Bryant came up the ladder from the main deck.
“Well, we got it up, Reverend,” Captain Johnson said heartily. “And they said it couldn’t be done. Ha! You owe us some serious money.”
“I will when you have it safely on the dock in Newark,” Bryant shot back.
It took twenty minutes for the deck crew to get the dark, ominous disk deposited onto the waiting timbers and lashed down. The saucer was so large it filled the space between the bridge and the forward crane and protruded over both rails. It seemed to dwarf the ship on which it rode, pushing it deeper into the sea. The ship’s floodlights reflected from the wet, black surface as pinpoints of light. From the bridge the canopy on top of the saucer was visible, some kind of clear material, but due to the glare, nothing could be seen inside.
On deck the crewmen were staring at the strange black shape, touching it tentatively, looking in awe…
Solo watched in silence, his face passive, displaying no emotion. On the other hand, Bryant’s excitement was a tangible thing. “Oh, my God,” Bryant whispered. “It’s so big. I thought it would be smaller.”
When the cables that had lifted the saucer from the sea floor had been released, the sea anchors were brought aboard and the ship got under way. Solo felt the ride improve immediately as the screws bit into the dark water. The other ship that had helped raise the saucer had already dissolved into the darkness.
“There you are,” Johnson said heartily to Bryant, who had his nose almost against the window, staring at the spaceship. “Your flying saucer’s settin’ like a hen on her nest, safe and sound, and she ain’t goin’ no place.”
Bryant flashed a grin and dashed for the bridge wing ladder to the main deck.
Solo went back into the navigator’s shack. He emerged seconds later carrying a hard plastic case and descended the ladder to the main deck.
As Bryant watched, Solo opened the case, took out a wand, and adjusted the switches and knobs within, then donned a headset. Carrying the instrument case, he began a careful inspection of the saucer, all of it that he could see from the deck. He even climbed the mast of the forward crane to get a look at the top of it, then returned to the deck. As he walked and climbed around he glanced occasionally at the gauges in his case, but mostly he concentrated on visually inspecting the surface of the ship. He could see no damage whatsoever.
Bryant asked a couple of questions, but Solo didn’t answer, so eventually he stopped asking.
Solo crawled under the saucer and lay there studying his instrument. Finally he took off his headset, stowed it back inside the case, and closed it.
One of the officers squatted down a few feet away. This was the first mate. “No radiation?” he asked Solo. The sailor was in his early thirties, with unkempt windblown hair and acne scars on his face.
“Doesn’t seem to be.”
“Boy, that’s amazing.” The mate reached and placed his hand on the cold black surface immediately over his head. “A real flying saucer… I didn’t think such things existed. Where do you think this one is from?”
“Not from our solar system.”
“Another star…” The mate, whose name was DeVries, retracted his hand suddenly, as if the saucer were too hot to touch.
Solo studied the belly of the saucer as the raw sea wind played with his hair. At least here, under the saucer, he was sheltered from the rain.
“Everything inside is probably torn loose, I figure,” DeVries continued, warming to his subject, “when that thing went into the drink. Scrambled up inside there like a dozen broken eggs. And those aliens inside, squashed flat as road-killed possum and just as dead. Couldn’t nothing or nobody live through a smashup like that. And how about germs, if you open that thing up? What if the bugs get out and kill us or contaminate the world?”
Solo ignored that remark.
The first mate turned to Bryant and asked, “So, Reverend, how come you’re spending all this money raisin’ this flyin’ saucer off the ocean floor?”
Bryant said matter-of-factly, “I intend to make some money with it.”
“Well, I hope,” DeVries said thoughtfully, a remark Bryant let pass without comment.
As those two watched, Adam Solo donned self-contained breathing apparatus. He fiddled with the controls and adjusted the mask until he was satisfied with the airflow, then he motioned the other two back.
They waddled out from under the saucer. Satisfied, he placed his hand on the hatch handle and held it there. Now, after ten seconds or so, he pulled down on one end of the handle and rotated it. The hatch opened above his head. Water began dripping out.
Not much, but some. The saucer had been lying in 250 feet of water; if the integrity of the hull had been broken, seawater under pressure would have filled the interior. This might be leakage from the ship’s tank, or merely condensation. Solo wiped a drip off the hatch lip, jammed his finger under the breathing mask, and tasted it. He was relieved-it wasn’t saltwater.
Now Solo inspected the yawning hole. He stuck the wand inside and studied the panel on his Geiger counter. “Background radiation,” he told Bryant, who had also donned breathing apparatus. The preacher rubbed his hands together vigorously, a gesture that Solo had noticed he used often.
Solo turned off the Geiger counter. He carefully wrapped the cord around the wand and stowed it in the plastic case, then shoved the case up into the dark belly of the saucer.
DeVries craned his neck, trying to see inside the saucer. “Like, when you going to climb into this thing?”
A smile crossed the face of Adam Solo. “Now,” he said. He raised himself through the hatchway into the belly of the ship.
Jim Bob Bryant crawled under the ship, then squirmed up through the entryway. He closed the hatch behind him.
The first mate slowly shook his head. “Glad it was them two and not me,” he said conversationally, although there was no one there to hear him. “My momma didn’t raise no fools. I wouldn’t have crawled into that thing for all the money on Wall Street.”
* * *
The first mate made his way to the bridge. Captain Johnson was still at the helm. “Well, did you ask him?” the captain demanded.
“Wants to make money, Bryant said.”
“I already know that,” the captain said sourly. “Oh, well. As long as we get paid…” After a moment the captain continued, “Solo’s weird. That accent of his-it isn’t much, but it’s there. I can’t place it. Sometimes I think it’s eastern European of one kind or another, then I think it isn’t.”
“All I know,” DeVries said, “is that accent isn’t from Brooklyn.”
The captain didn’t respond to that inanity. He said aloud, musing, “He’s kinda freaky, but nothin’ you can put your finger on. Still, bein’ around him gives me the willies.”
“They got money,” DeVries said simply. In his mind, money excused all peculiarities, an ingrained attitude he had acquired long ago because he didn’t have any.
“Imagine what that thing must have looked like flying.”
They fell silent as they stared at the craft, looked from right to left and back again, trying to take it all in, to understand, as the sea wind whispered and ocean spray occasionally spattered the windows.
DeVries finally broke the silence. “It’s heavy as hell. Like to never got it up. We almost lost it a dozen times.”
“Notice how the ship’s ridin’? Hope we make harbor before the sea kicks up.”
DeVries grunted. After a moment he said, with a touch of wonder in his voice, “A real, honest-to-God flying saucer… Never believed in ’em, y’know?”
“Yeah,” the captain agreed. “Thought it was all bull puckey. Even standing here looking at one of the darn things, I have my doubts.”
* * *
The only light inside the saucer came through the canopy, a dim glow from the salvage vessel’s masthead lights. It took several seconds for Solo’s eyes to adjust.
The room was large, almost eight feet high in the middle, tapering toward the edges. In the rear of the room was a hatch, one that apparently gave entry to the engineering spaces. Facing forward was a raised instrument panel and a pilot’s seat on a pedestal, one with what appeared to be control sticks on each side, in front of armrests. As Solo had told Bryant, the seats were sized for humans. The pilot could look forward and to each side about 120 degrees through a canopy made of an unknown material.
Solo used a small flashlight to inspect the cockpit compartment, then the instrument panel. There were no conventional gauges, merely flat planes where presumably information from the ship’s computers was displayed. There were a few mechanical switches mounted on one panel, but only a few.
Lying carelessly on the panel, where the impact of the crash or the jostling of salvage had carried them, were two headbands, almost an inch wide, capable of being easily expanded to give the wearer a tight fit.
Hope flooded him. At first glance the ship seemed intact. If only the computers and communications systems are in order!
Solo was still standing rooted in his tracks, taking it all in, when Jim Bob Bryant crawled up through the entry and closed the hatch behind him. As he looked around, he said something under the breathing mask that Solo didn’t understand. Solo slowly removed his own mask and laid it on the instrument panel.
Bryant kept glancing at Solo, the mine canary, for almost a minute as he tried to take in his surroundings. Then he removed his mask, too, and stood looking around like a lucky Kmart shopper.
“Amazing,” he said under his breath, then said it again, louder. He reached out to touch things.
Solo moved the flashlight beam around the interior of the ship, inspecting for damage. The cockpit was so Spartan that there was little to damage.
“Does it look like that one the government has in Nevada?” Bryant asked.
“Very similar,” Solo said, nodding.
“Where is the crew? How did they get out with this thing in the ocean?”
Solo took his time answering. “Obviously the crew wasn’t in the saucer when it submerged. I can’t explain it, but that is the only logical explanation.” The flashlight beam continued to rove, pausing here and there for a closer inspection.
“Reverend Bryant, I know you’ve had a long day and have much to think about,” Solo continued. “My examination of the ship will go much faster if you leave me to work in solitude.”
Bryant beamed at Solo. “I didn’t think it could be done,” he admitted. “When you told me you could raise this ship and wring out its secrets, I thought you were lying. I want you to know I was wrong. I admit it, here and now.”
“I leave you to it,” Bryant said. “If you will just open that hatch to let me out.” He took a last glance around. “Simply amazing,” he muttered.
Solo opened the hatch and Bryant carefully climbed through, then Solo closed it again.
Alone at last, Solo’s face relaxed into a wide grin. He stood beside the pilot’s seat, grinning happily, apparently lost in thought.
Finally he came out of his reverie and walked to the back of the compartment, where he opened an access door to the engineering compartment and disappeared inside. He was inside there for an hour before he came out. For the first time, he retrieved a headband from the instrument panel and donned it.
“Hello, Eternal Wanderer. Let us examine the health of your systems.”
Before him, the instrument panel exploded into life.
* * *
The first mate DeVries strolled along the bridge with the helm on autopilot. The rest of the small crew, including the captain, were in their bunks asleep. The rain had stopped and a sliver of moon was peeping through the clouds overhead. The mate had always enjoyed the ethereal beauty of the night and the way the ship rode the restless, living sea. He was soaking in the sensations, occasionally crossing the bridge from one wing to the other, and checking on the radar and compass, when he noticed the glow from the saucer’s cockpit.
The space ship took up so much of the deck that the cockpit canopy was almost even with the bridge windows. As the mate stared into the cockpit, he saw the figure of Adam Solo. He reached for the bridge binoculars. Turned the focus wheel.
Solo’s face appeared, lit by a subdued light source in front of him. The mate assumed that the light came from the instruments-computer presentations-and he was correct. DeVries could see the headband, which looked exactly like the kind the Indians wore in old cowboy movies. Solo’s face was expressionless… no, that wasn’t true, the mate decided. He was concentrating intensely.
Obviously the saucer was more or less intact or it wouldn’t have electrical power. Whoever designed that thing sure knew what he was about. He or she. Or it. Whoever that was, wherever that was…
Finally the mate’s arms tired and he lowered the binoculars.
He snapped the binoculars into their bracket and went back to pacing the bridge. His eyes were repeatedly drawn to the saucer’s glowing cockpit. The moon, the clouds racing overhead, the ship pitching and rolling monotonously-it seemed as if he were trapped in this moment in time and this was all there had ever been or ever would be. It was a curious feeling… almost mystical.
Surprised at his own thoughts, DeVries shook his head and tried to concentrate on his duties.
* * *
This is Eternal Wanderer. I am Adam Solo. Is there anyone out there listening?
Solo didn’t speak the words, he merely thought them. The computer read the tiny impulses as they coursed through his brain, boosted the wattage a billionfold, and broadcasted them into the universe. Yet the thoughts could only travel at the speed of light, so unless there was an interplanetary ship, or a saucer relatively close in space, he might receive no answer for years. Decades. Centuries, perhaps.
Marooned on this savage planet, he had waited so long! So very long.
Solo wiped the perspiration from his forehead as the enormity of the years threatened to reduce him to despair.
He forced himself to take off the headband and leave the pilot’s seat.
Opening the saucer’s hatch, he dropped to the deck. He closed the hatch behind him, just in case, and went below to his cabin. No one was in the passageways. Nor did he expect to find any of the crew there. He glanced into one of the crew’s berthing spaces. The glow of the tiny red lights revealed that every bunk was full, and every man seemed to be snoring. They had had an exhausting day raising the saucer from the seabed.
In his cabin Solo quickly packed his bag. He stripped the blankets from his bunk and, carrying the lot, went back up on deck. Careful to stay out of sight of the bridge, he stowed his gear in the saucer.
A hose lay coiled near a water faucet, one the crew routinely used to wash mud from cables and chains coming aboard. Solo looked at it, then shook his head. The water intake was on top of the saucer; climbing up there would expose him to the man on the bridge, and would be dangerous besides. He couldn’t risk falling overboard, which would doom him to inevitable drowning-certainly not now. Not when he was this close.
He removed the tie-down chains one by one and lowered them gently to the deck so the sound wouldn’t reverberate through the steel ship.
Finally, when he had the last one off, he stood beside the saucer, with it between him and the bridge, and studied the position of the crane and hook, the mast and guy wires. Satisfied, Adam Solo stooped, went under the saucer, and up through the hatch.
* * *
The first mate was checking the GPS position and the recommended course to Sandy Hook when he felt the subtle change in the ship’s motion. An old hand at sea, he noticed it immediately and looked around.
The saucer was there, immediately in front of the bridge. But it was higher, the lighted canopy several feet above where it had previously been. He could see Solo’s head, now seated in the pilot’s chair. And the saucer was moving, rocking back and forth. Actually it was stationary-the ship was moving in the seaway.
DeVries’s first impression was that the ship’s motion had changed because the saucer’s weight was gone, but he was wrong. The antigravity rings in the saucer had pushed it away from the ship, which still supported the entire mass of the machine. The center of gravity was higher, so consequently the ship rolled with more authority.
At that moment Jim Bob Bryant came up the ladder, moving carefully with a cup of coffee in his hand.
He saw DeVries staring out the bridge windows, transfixed.
Bryant turned to follow DeVries’s gaze, and found himself looking at Adam Solo’s head inside the saucer. Solo was too engrossed in what he was doing to even glance at the bridge. The optical illusion that made the saucer appear to be moving gave Bryant the shock of his life. Never, in his wildest imaginings, had he even considered the possibility that the saucer might be capable of flight.
Like DeVries, Bryant stood frozen with his mouth agape.
For only a few more seconds was the saucer suspended over the deck. As the salvage ship came back to an even keel the saucer moved toward the starboard side, rolling the ship dangerously in that direction. Then the saucer went over the rail and the ship, free of the saucer’s weight, and rolled port with authority.
Bryant recovered from his astonishment and roared, “No! No, no no! Come back here, Solo! It’s mine. Mine, I tell you, mine!”
He dropped his coffee cup and strode to the door that led to the wing of the bridge, flung it open, and stepped out. The mate was right behind him. Both men grabbed the rail with both hands as the wind and sea spray tore at them.
The lighted canopy was no longer visible. For a few seconds Bryant and DeVries could see a glint of moonlight reflecting off the dark upper surface of the departing spaceship; then they lost it. The night swallowed the saucer.
It was gone, as if it had never been.
“If that doesn’t take the cake!” exclaimed the Reverend Jim Bob Bryant. “The bastard stole it!”
* * *
“Adam, this is Star Voyager. So good to hear from you.”
“I am alive. I have a saucer. I can meet you above the savage planet.”
The voice from the starship told him when their ship would reach orbit. Solo mentally converted the time units into earth weeks. Three weeks, he thought. Only three more weeks.
“I must pick up the others,” he thought, and the com system broadcast these thoughts.
Adam Solo topped the cloud layer that shrouded the sea and found himself under a sky full of stars.
* * *
STEPHEN COONTS is the author of fifteen New York Times bestsellers, the first of which was the classic flying tale Flight of the Intruder.
Stephen received his Navy wings in August 1969. After completion of fleet replacement training in the A-6 Intruder aircraft, Mr. Coonts reported to Attack Squadron 196 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington. He made two combat cruises aboard USS Enterprise during the final years of the Vietnam War as a member of this squadron. His first novel, Flight of the Intruder, published in September 1986 by the Naval Institute Press, spent twenty-eight weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists in hardcover. A motion picture based on this novel, with the same title, was released nationwide in January 1991. The success of his first novel allowed Mr. Coonts to devote himself to writing full-time; he has been at it ever since. He and his wife, Deborah, enjoy flying and try to do as much of it as possible.
It was eighteen sixty-five when the terror came to Douglas Island.
Eighteen sixty-five when Johnny came home.
Naturally, it was a time when few people cared what was happening on a small, barely inhabited southern island off the coast of South Carolina.
So much tragedy had already come to the country; there were so many dead, dying, maimed, and left without home or sustenance that a strange plague descending upon a distanced population was hardly of note.
Unless you were there, unless you saw, and prayed not just for your life, but your soul.
The war was over, but not the bitterness. Lincoln had been assassinated, and all hope of a loving and swift reunion between the states had been dashed.
Brent Haywood, Johnny’s cousin, had made it home the week before. A government ship-a Federal government ship-had brought him straight to the docks. He limped. He was often in pain. Shrapnel had caught him in the right hip, and he’d be in pain, limping, for the rest of his life.
Brent had been a prisoner a long time, and he told me that he hadn’t seen Johnny since Cold Harbor, and that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Johnny; he hadn’t known that his cousin had survived until we had received the news. “There’s something not-right with Johnny,” he told me.
The world, our world, or that of our country, was in a sad way, desperately sad. On Douglas Island, we had survived many years of the travelers who had come from far and wide to see the beauty of our little place, to ride over the sloping hills, to fish and boat and hunt. The war had barely begun before we had ceased to care who won or lost. Now, far too many people were struggling just to survive. The South was in chaos.
And so it was on the day that Johnny MacFarlane came home.
At first, nearly the whole town came out, two hundred odd of us came to the docks to meet the boat that had brought him home. A letter had been received the previous week, and we knew just when the schooner the Chesapeake was to bring him home. A kindly surgeon Johnny had come upon somewhere in his travels home after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse had written that Johnny MacFarlane was not well, but friends were helping and would be sending him home with all possible speed, and they made arrangements for his travel.
Came the day. I was there with my father, eager, barely able to wait through the moments that would bring him back to me. From the widow’s walk of Johnny’s home, Janey Sue, his sister, had seen the schooner out on the horizon, and so we had gathered. Our town band was playing welcome songs, and it was no matter that he’d been one of the last battered soldiers of Lee’s army, we were one country now, and the band played for him, using all the songs we knew. People sang at the docks, and it was momentous. Federal song, fine. They played, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Except that the schooner stopped far out to sea, and it was strange, for even the music ended by the time Johnny rowed himself to shore in a small boat.
There was deep dockage at the island, and throughout the war, we’d been visited now and then by ships from both sides, and it was only the fact that we were, actually, so small and seeming to offer so little in support or importance that they all passed us by with little interest after docking. Sometimes, sailors wanted to loot the houses, but thanks to my father’s brilliance at hiding all assets, they did not stay. We had never imagined that any ship would eschew the fine docks and send Johnny home in a longboat, but so they did.
Johnny was coming home.
And we watched as he rowed, and we waited until the little boat reached the docks, and then we all raced to him, descended upon him, really, tying up the rowboat, and helping him to the dock. His dear little sister, Janey Sue, immediately threw herself into his arms, nearly knocking him from the dock.
He hugged her in return; over her shoulder, he looked at me.
I was shocked.
Johnny and I had been together forever. We’d both been born and raised on the island. We had dreamed great visions for our future, and in those dreams, we would travel, but always return to our island. He wanted to be a teacher. Knowledge gave a man power and strength, he believed. Oh, Johnny had always been a thinker, and I had loved following the processes in his mind.
But he’d been more than a thinker. Johnny had been a doer, a man who had always been strong, in a way, the typical Southern gentleman of his age. He could drink, ride, and shoot with the best of them, and also been able to repair any leak or damage done to Fairhaven, his estate on the island.
He was a man ahead of his time; he had joined the Confederate forces because he had believed in states rights. He had never believed in slavery-how could one human being, one soul, ever own another?-but he had also believed that change had to come about with laws that would help newly freed individuals make a living-survive, in short.
He had been… Johnny. Beautiful, such a handsome man. Smart, always careful in his thoughts and words. Strong, a man’s man, a woman’s man, independent, powerful, capable.
Johnny was a shell of the man he had been. My father had warned me-war changed people. It brought out their strengths and their weaknesses, but either way, it changed a man for good. We had heard that Lee’s troops had been starving, so his emaciated shape shouldn’t have shocked me. His pallor had come about, certainly, because of his illness.
But I had never expected the look in his eyes.
Once, they had been the blue of the sky on a summer’s day, as brilliant and vital as Johnny himself. Once… they had brightened easily with laughter. Once upon a time, they had looked at me in way that had awakened every raw and erotic thought in my mind, and stirred my heart to a thunderous pounding. Once…
They had been alive.
He looked at me now with recognition, but even the color in his eyes had changed. Now, they seemed so pale a blue as to be almost colorless.
It was as if… the color within them was dead. It was a ghost color, like the remnant of what had once been real and tangible, but now was nothing more than a memory.
I gave myself a shake. The town was welcoming him, but as he looked at me over his sister’s shoulder, he smiled slowly. A ghost of his old smile, but it was there, and suddenly, as dead as his eyes might appear, I saw that he had never forgotten what we had shared, that he loved me. I told myself that I was crazy. I rushed forward through the crowds, and he took me into his arms. Despite his fragile appearance, he swept me up in strong arms and swirled me around, and held me close.
“Now,” he whispered, “I have come home.”
I smiled at him; I was jubilant. Johnny was home.
* * *
Once he had been greeted by one and all, we helped him into the family carriage and headed to his home, Fairhaven. We were greeted at the door by Brambles, the butler, while in the foyer stood Brent, who had not come to the docks to meet Johnny. Brambles was all over himself, sputtering and crying as he greeted Johnny. Brent was more reserved, shaking his cousin’s hand. He was cordial, but visibly cool. Johnny was polite to everyone, saying all the right things.
When my father, Janey Sue, and Brambles led Johnny on into the dining room where a feast was awaiting his return, I held back, pulling on Brent’s arm. “You are-a horse’s ass!” I hissed to him. “What? Were you wishing that Johnny wouldn’t make it home? What’s the matter with you?”
I had grown up with Brent as well. He was lean and tall like Johnny, dark haired, handsome, light eyed, and he’d been bred with the same ethics. I couldn’t understand him being so bitter and churlish, not about Johnny coming home. I knew he’d taken some hard hits. He’d married a girl in Virginia, and she’d died before any of the family had even managed to meet her. To be sad and even bitter seemed to be one thing; to be so cold to his cousin seemed quite another.
Brent studied me. I couldn’t help but think that his eyes were green-not the beautiful blue Johnny’s had once been. And yet today…
They were alive. Deep set and steady, and somehow, wise beyond all that I had seen before.
“I loved Johnny like a brother,” he told me.
I frowned. “Then give him a hug and a real welcome, and be happy that he is home!” I told him.
He gripped my hands tightly. “Jules,” he said, his voice suddenly heated and passionate, “be careful. Be very careful, please.”
I jerked away from him, staring at him. “Be careful-of Johnny? Brent, you have lost your mind.”
I swept on into the dining room.
Mable, the cook, had gone all out. Johnny’s favorites were all on the table. There was ham, chicken, roasted lamb, cornbread, turnip greens, summer squash, tomatoes, fresh berries, and for dessert, sweet-potato-pecan pie.
Johnny barely touched his food. He thanked Mable and told her how delicious everything on the table tasted.
But he didn’t really eat. He simply pushed his food around the plate.
When the meal had ended, Janey Sue and I gave the gentlemen a few minutes alone in the study for brandy and cigars. She and I were both chafing. Johnny had just come home. And so much that was innocent and traditional had already been lost-why were we delegated to the ladies’ room?
“Time enough!” I said firmly. Janey Sue smiled, and she and I headed to the study.
Johnny was seated in his father’s huge old leatherback chair behind the desk. Brent was at the settee, and my father was standing by the mantle, perplexed as he watched Johnny. “What’s done is done. How would we change anything now?” My father was asking.
Brent seemed to be looking out the window, paying no mind to what was going on.
“Maybe the world needs a clean sweep,” Johnny said. “A mighty flood to rise up, and clear us all out, those who were greedy and made their fortunes on the backs of other men, and those who will sweep down now to make their fortunes on the broken backs of those trying to come to terms with the war. What has been… the past is gone. It can never be relived.”
He stood up. “My dear friends, and family,” Johnny said, glancing tenderly at his sister, glancing at Brent, “I am exhausted. Forgive me.”
Everyone agreed that he must rest. But I raced out into the hall after him. He didn’t mean me, of course. He would need me. Naturally, a Southern lady did not sleep with her beau until they were married.
But such myths had gone away in the river of bloodshed that had been the war. I had lain with Johnny many times. I did not shout it from the rooftops, nor did other Southern women, well aware that their opportunities for intimacy with their loved ones might be limited and quickly ended by a volley of cannon fire.
“Johnny!” I said, stopping, laying my head against his chest. “I will come up later, once we’ve settled for the night. Father will understand that I am staying with Janey Sue, and Janey Sue has long known that I stay with you.”
He pulled away and stared at me, frowning. He shook his head. “No, no, you must go home tonight.”
“Tonight, please. You must.” His hands cupped my face. “You must go home, far from here. You are not… you must. I love you as I have always loved you. But tonight, go home.”
He walked away from me. I stared after him, incredulous. I had missed our nights together. I had dreamed about them time and time again as I had prayed that he would return from the war.
My father emerged from the study. “Jules, we must go home, and let these fine folks rest for the night.”
“But-” I began.
“Jules, please,” my father insisted.
Brent stared at me. He was not going to help me. And even Janey Sue, next to Brent, appeared to be a little lost.
I had no choice but to leave with my father. I was not invited to stay.
The next morning, fishermen from Douglas Island boarded the schooner which had brought Johnny home, but not into the docks.
The schooner was empty. There was not a soul aboard her.
My father, commonly looked upon as the people’s leader on the island as we had no mayor or other governmental structure there, listened gravely to the men, then announced that we’d be going out to Fairhaven to speak with Johnny while he sent other men in one of our fastest ketches to alert the proper authorities on the mainland.
Brambles, deeply distressed, opened the door. He told my father that Johnny was doing poorly. He would get Mr. Brent.
Brent, looking worn, came to the foyer and led us into the study. My father told Brent about the lack of a crew or other passengers on the schooner. Brent listened gravely. I thought his face became more ashen as he did so.
“That’s quite a mystery,” Brent said.
“Surely, Johnny can tell us something!” my father said.
“Johnny is sedated right now; he had a very hard night,” Brent said. He grimaced. “I have laudanum, for my hip, you know. Johnny needed sleep, very badly,” he said.
“Well, I must speak with him. Authorities will come from the mainland, and they will demand to know something,” my father said.
Brent nodded. He looked like a man under torture. Still, I was resentful. I was convinced he was jealous of Johnny, and that he was hiding something.
“May I see Janey Sue?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “She is resting, as well.”
“Brent, damn you-!”
“Jules!” My father said with horror. “The war is over. We will not become animals because it existed, or because it is over!”
Brent looked away. “It’s all right, Mr. Shelby. I realize that my own behavior must appear far less than hospitable. Forgive me.”
I wanted to slap his face. My father, however, had my elbow. He apologized for me, and we were quickly out of the house.
“He’s doing something to Johnny-it’s Brent. Father! Maybe he’s trying to kill him. Brent would probably like to inherit the property. You must stop him!”
My father looked at me. He was grave, but didn’t share my fear or my passion. “Child, war is hard on the women who wait. It is devastating to the men who fight, who stare at their fellow human beings, sometimes look them in their eyes, and shoot them or stab them through with their knives or bayonets. Let it be; we will see. Brent knows that Johnny must answer to me. Give it the day.”
I had no intention of giving it a day. I rode out to Johnny’s beautiful Fairhaven, and I came around the back. I left Mathilda, my horse, behind the stables, grazing on long grasses, and I slipped through the kitchen door. I knew my way around the house, and I looked out for both Brambles and Mable as I climbed the stairs.
What I found horrified me.
Johnny’s room had been boarded; there were nails imbedded in the wooden planks that now walled him in. I walked to the door and called his name.
He did not answer. I tried and tried, and then hurried down the hall to Janey Sue’s room. Her door was not barricaded, but she wasn’t there.
I slipped from the house, furious now. Brent was locking his cousin away! What had he done with Janey Sue?
I rode hard, straight back to my home, determined that my father was going to do something, and do that something now. But he wasn’t there, and as I stood in the parlor of our home on Main Street, not far from the docks, I heard the shouting.
The sound was distant, but so loud it carried on the breeze. I left the house and ran down Main Street until I reached the long boardwalk that stretched out so that the larger ships could avail themselves of the deep harbor, and there, found the reason for the horror. People had backed away, but they were in a circle around something on the dock.
I pushed through the crowd.
And I saw what they saw.
Bodies. White, swollen, and bloated, and torn to shreds. They had been gnawed upon.
“Sharks,” someone cried. “The water is infested!”
“This was not a shark attack,” one of the older fishermen said. He shook his grizzled head, rubbing his chin. “This is not a shark attack. I’ve seen what the big fellows can do to a man left in the water. The bodies are… not missing any limbs. They’ve been chewed by something. But not a shark.”
As I stood there, Brent arrived at the docks. He pushed his way through the crowd until he could stare at the bodies. He became the color of burnt ash, and he turned around without a word, and strode back to his carriage.
I ran after him. I caught him at the end of the dock, grabbed his shoulder, and forced him to face me. He stared at me for a minute as if he didn’t even see me. I slapped him across the face, I was so scared and furious. “What is going on, Brent, damn you, what is going on? I went to the house. I saw what you did to Johnny, and I will not stand for it, do you hear me?”
He did then. The slap had angered him, but it had brought him back to the reality of the moment-and me, forcing the issue, in his face.
“Go away, Jules,” he said duly. “Go away, and lock yourself in your house. Better yet, take your father and go far, far away.”
“You have lost your mind, Brent. What are you going on about? What is happening?”
He hesitated, but then indicated the tavern on Main Street. He set an arm around my shoulder and led me toward it, and around to the benches that sat outdoors to where, in better times, many a fisherman and farmer had gathered together to drink beer and eat their noon meals.
Now, the area was empty, and he made me sit down.
Across from me, he closed his eyes for a moment as if gathering both his strength and his sense of sanity, then, he looked at me. “There’s something really wrong with Johnny.”
“What?” I demanded. “I know he has been at war. I know he might have been injured, I know that many men bear mental wounds, that they’ve seen things, but…”
“You saw the men on the dock,” he said. It wasn’t a question. It was a fact. “I’ve seen just a similar thing-before.”
“Go on,” I said, frowning, and truly puzzled. Maybe Brent had returned more damaged than any of us had imagined.
He let out a breath and looked at the moss dripping from one of the old oaks that bordered the small outdoor dining area. He didn’t want to look at me.
“It was at Cold Harbor,” he said.
I shook my head, still trying desperately to understand what he was talking about. I placed my hands on his. “Brent, Cold Harbor was a victory for Lee. I know that dead men are still dead men, and I know that more than two thousand of your own troops died as well, but-”
He looked at me, dead on. “Men die. It’s how they die that’s terrifying. We were near Bethesda Church, camped out there. Yes, it was a Rebel victory. But on the night of the tenth, there was a break, and two companies of Feds made it through the lines. We might have been slaughtered in our sleep, but Johnny was on guard duty.”
“So he saved your lives!” I told him.
Brent said, “We woke up and found them. At least fifty of them. Torn to pieces. Like the men on the dock. It wasn’t as if they had been killed; it was as if they had been eaten. I don’t know what happened; I never will. They were bloated from the sea, but they were… gnawed. Chewed. Eaten.”
I ripped my hands away from his and stood up. “Brent! You’re trying to say that Johnny did it, that Johnny… ate the men on the schooner? You must be insane! I’m telling my father what you said, I’m… Brent! You’re horrible, don’t you see that? How dare you imply that Johnny could… and where is Janey Sue? She wasn’t at the house.”
He looked up at me, startled. “What?”
“Janey Sue isn’t at the house,” I told him.
Ignoring me, he jumped to his feet, and he was gone down the street. I saw him reach his horse, and in his wake, the road became dust.
I left him to find my father. At the docks, I was horrified to find that he’d left a message for me. He was gone. He had climbed aboard a boat with the bodies to take them back to the mainland.
I was frustrated beyond belief, but it was almost dark. I went back to my house, seething, trying to determine what I could do before he returned.
Finally, I determined that I would wait until the morning. In the daylight, I was going to find one of my father’s friends to accompany me out to Fairhaven, and I would demand that Brent produce Johnny and Janey Sue.
I locked my doors carefully, and I went upstairs to sleep. I tossed about, but finally dozed, and I believed it was Brent’s horrible story that made me dream. And in that dream, Johnny was outside. He was high in the branches of the massive oak beyond my window, begging that I let him in. I opened the window, deliriously happy to know that he was all right, and that he needed me.
But something was wrong with him.
His eyes. The color, the pale blue color, a dead color…
He was cold, although it was June, and he seemed strong, though he shouldn’t have been so strong. He held me, he cradled me, and then he pulled away from me. Suddenly, he seemed tortured, and he pushed me away. “No, God no,” he shouted. “Oh, God, no, oh, God, no!”
Then, he was gone. He leaped through the window, and he was gone.
I had been dreaming, of course. He had never been there. I opened my eyes and roused, and discovered that my window was open.
Through the open window, I heard the screams.
My father owned a Colt; he kept it in his drawer by his bed, and I raced to retrieve it, my fingers shaking as I loaded it with six bullets. I was in my nightdress, but I didn’t care. With slippers on my feet I went tearing from the house and down by the docks.
I didn’t believe what I saw.
Something. Something like a man.
I could hear him. I could hear him eating, hear him drinking, human flesh, for he had torn open one of the dock workers, and another lay at his feet, and a woman was torn in half just a few feet away. The creature, the thing on the docks had picked up human beings and ripped into them like a man might tear into ribs at a barbecue.
I was frozen. Then I came to life. Screaming, I headed for the thing, my father’s very trusty Colt raised high.
I started shooting.
It didn’t fall. It did stop eating. The horrible, frenzied slurping sound stopped.
The thing turned toward me and was staring. Then, with uncanny speed and agility, it was running at me, and running hard.
I was dead. Worse, I was about to be gnawed to death, ripped in half, my flesh consumed before my heart ceased to beat. I was so horrified that I was barely aware of the sound of the horse’s hoof beats behind me, and I couldn’t even scream when I was swept up off the street, and thrown over the neck of a horse.
It was then that I heard Brent, who had rescued me from the road, shouting above the sound of screams and terror. “Get into your houses. Get your swords, you have to remove the head… swords, people, swords, bullets do nothing, aim to decapitate!”
He whirled his horse around, and still, so casually rescued and tossed, I could see little. People came to the streets then bearing their infantry and cavalry swords. One fellow had his machete; he had once worked in the sugarcane fields.
I was righted at last. And I thought he was going to set me upon the ground. He looked at me and then did not. “Sit tight,” he said. He drew his sword and we road hard down the docks, leaping to bit of poor shoreline at the end. I screamed as I saw something rise from the water; Brent did not. He swept his sword out in a mighty arc; the head of the thing went flying, and the body crashed down to the water, lifeless.
I heard screams of triumph, and knew that the island folk were now holding their own.
And then, it was over. Brent called out orders, and people started a bonfire, and the stench in the night air grew sickening. As the body parts were collected for the fire-those killed as well as those who had done the killing-I saw that some of the things had been Federal navy. Men from the schooner.
Daylight came. Exhausted, Brent sat back at the table outside the tavern again. I took the bench opposite him. He looked up at me miserably. “I think it was a girl in Richmond. Johnny was Johnny then. Soldiers on the street were harassing her, calling her a monster. Johnny stopped them, but the next morning, he looked like hell. He told me that she had been a monster.”
“You still say Johnny did this? The men from schooner did this. I saw their bodies, Brent.”
“And how do you think they became what they are?” he asked me wearily. “I found a doctor, a surgeon, a man with the Union. That’s when I was captured. He’d seen it before; he was trying to find a cure. I prayed that Johnny would die, or that this man would find the cure. But…”
“I don’t believe you,” I told him. “Johnny didn’t do this.”
Brent started when we heard shouting again. He jumped to his feet. We ran back to the place where the smell of burning flesh was so terrible now, where the bonfire burned.
I heard Brent cry out and fall to his knees and I knew why.
He had found Janey Sue. Her throat had been ripped out; her left cheek was gone entirely.
I watched as Brent sobbed, and I was too numb to find tears myself for the girl who had been my best friend throughout the long years of the war.
Brent stood, ordering that she be burned like the rest. I set my hand on his shoulder. “Brent, you can bury her-”
He swung on me. “No, don’t you understand yet? Johnny is-he’s a zombie. And everyone he touches becomes the same.”
I pushed away from him, still refusing to believe. “Stop it, Brent, stop it! Johnny would never, ever, in a thousand years, have hurt his sister.”
It was daylight. I could no longer bear the horrid odor that rose to the fresh summer sky, or the sight of the bodies. I ran back to my house.
A few hours later, I decided that I was leaving. I would find my father. I would take one of the little sailboats, and if there was no wind that day, I would row. I was going in to Charleston.
The sun was falling; it was the perfect time to start the long journey. Night would save me from the heat, and the lighthouse would guide me. At first, my plan was perfect. I caught a bit of a breeze, and the darkness fell, but the air was balmy and I was fine. Then, I felt the first thump against the boat. Then another.
And, in that balmy breeze, with the sea so gentle and the stars blazing in the sky above, the thing crawled aboard. It was Johnny. For a moment, his eyes were dull and dead. He came toward me and I scrambled swiftly, ready to leap overboard. He caught my shoulders, his strength incredible. He opened his mouth, aiming for my throat.
Then he paused. To my astonishment, tears came to his dead eyes. “I don’t want to, I don’t want to, oh, God, I remember you…”
“Johnny, let me go, for the love of God, Johnny,” I begged.
I felt the boat bump again.
Rescue, I thought, somehow, rescue.
Johnny jerked around. I looked past him.
It was another of the things.
I looked hard. My heart sank. It was one of them.
And it was my father.
He leaped at Johnny, rocking the small boat precariously, and I thought he had come to save me. But he wrenched Johnny from me, and then, I saw his eyes.
Dead eyes. Once, a dancing brown shade. Now, dead.
“Father, no!” I screamed in terror and misery. But he would have bitten down upon me, ripping and tearing, if Johnny hadn’t pulled him away. Johnny was still crying, and suddenly, my father was crying, too. But still, they weren’t battling to save me.
They were fighting over their prey.
I was desperate. I leaped off the small boat, though I knew that they could swim. I tried freeing myself from my cumbersome skirt and boots while they fought, unaware that I was gone. Then I set out for the island. I was a good swimmer, but still, I had come far from shore.
I was crying myself, gulping too much water, fighting the numbness of terror. I had left the island, and I had done so with the Colt, but little good that did me now. I’d never had a sword, nor had my father. I had to pray that I could swim hard enough, fast enough.
My exhausted limbs could barely continue moving, but I began to believe that I might make it.
Then, I felt the tug upon my ankle. And gasping for air, I went down. In the dark, murky seawater, I could barely see. But it was Johnny. Dead eyes blank, wide open, blank. No more tears. No sign of life or memory.
He took my shoulders. I was done in. I closed my eyes; he would rip out my throat. It wouldn’t last long.
But I was ripped away from him. No matter; hope didn’t even float in my soul. It would be my father, claiming his portion of the kill.
But I wasn’t ripped to shreds. I was tossed back. I fell hard and realized I was almost on the little patch of beach south of the harbor area. I could stand, and I staggered to my feet. Then I saw Brent. He swung his sword, and Johnny’s head was swiftly severed from his body, and lost to the waves. The headless body stood for a minute, then fell. Brent turned to me. He shouted, and lifted his sword. I thought he meant to kill me; that he believed that I had been bitten, infected, and that he meant to kill me, as well. But he strode past me.
“Don’t look, Jules, don’t look!” he shouted.
I didn’t. I winced. I heard the plop of the head, and then the splash of the body, and I knew that my father was at peace as well.
Soaking, Brent and I staggered from the water together.
“I told you,” he said sadly. “Something wasn’t right with Johnny.”
Federal troops came the next day; the incident was quickly over. At that point in history, none of us had the energy to argue much when the murders on Douglas Island were blamed upon the horror and stress of war.
Brent and I left soon after. We are a strange couple, but we do well enough. We manage in life, and like other couples, we sleep together at night.
Unlike other couples, we both sleep with swords at our sides. Johnny is at rest. But God knows who else might come marching home.
* * *
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author HEATHER GRAHAM was born somewhere in Europe and kidnapped by gypsies when she was a small child. She went on to join the Romanian circus as a trapeze artist and lion tamer. When the circus came to South Florida, she stayed, discovering that she preferred to be a shark- and gator-trainer.
Heather is the child of Scottish and Irish immigrants who met and married in Chicago, and moved to South Florida, where she has spent her life. She majored in theater arts at the University of South Florida. After a stint of several years in dinner theater, backup vocals, and bartending, she stayed home after the birth of her third child and began to write. She has written more than 150 novels and novellas, including category, suspense, historical romance, vampire fiction, time travel, occult, horror, and Christmas family fare.
She is pleased to have been published in approximately twenty-five languages, and has had more than seventy-five million books in print, and is grateful every day of her life that she writes for a living.
“Things aren’t always as they seem,” my father liked to say, and when he said it, I would shake my head as if to say, no, they certainly are not.
Really, I was shaking my head because he was wrong.
Dead-the irony should make me smile, but I don’t dare, because they’re watching me now. Every twitch of my mouth, every word that comes out of it, makes them wonder.
Yes, my father was dead wrong. Most things-and people, too-are, I have learned, exactly as they seem.
Take Abby. Some might assume that beyond the triple chins and homely façade must belie a sparkling wit or a generosity of spirit. Why else would the most eligible bachelor in town-my widowed father-have married her?
Not for her money, though she had enough of it. But then, he does-rather, did-as well.
Not for her well-regarded family name, either. Our own name is equally-if not more-illustrious in this particular corner of the world.
Nor did he marry her to raise his motherless daughters. I was going on five when Abby moved in with us, but my sister was a decade older; she took better care of me than anyone. I have never needed-or wanted-a stepmother.
I barely remembered my own mother, having lost her when I was just a toddler. Yet I have always missed her. Does that make sense?
Never mind; I don’t care if my feelings make sense to anyone other than myself.
My Uncle John told me once that my mother doted on me to the point where people whispered that I was spoiled. But who could blame her for indulging her third daughter when she’d buried her second just two years earlier?
As for her firstborn-if my sister had minded being overshadowed by my birth thirty-odd years ago, she either got over it or hid it very well, because I’ve never sensed resentment from her.
Not even now.
“Are you all right?” she asks anxiously from across the breakfast table, and I’m touched by the concern in her eyes, brown and somber, like our father’s…
A terrible, wonderful fantasy sweeps through me, and then I realize it isn’t a fantasy anymore. It’s a memory now, a fresh one; I indulge it until my sister utters my name and repeats the question.
Do I look all right? I want to say in response, as I freely stir extra sugar into my morning tea; no one to protest that shred of self-indulgence.
I couldn’t be better, I want to assure my sister-without an ounce of sarcasm, as it’s the truth.
But I just nod at her, and I sip the hot, decadently sweet brew.
She arches a dubious brow, because, like most people, she subscribes to the theory that things aren’t always as they seem-and because she herself couldn’t be farther from “all right” on this hot and sunny August morning.
She will be, though, in time. The worst of our nightmare is over at last. What lies ahead is nothing compared to what we’ve been through.
I contemplate helping myself to another biscuit. There’s no reason not to. I break one open and slather it with butter, then drench it in honey.
Before I can sink my teeth into the gloriously rich, sticky crumble, Maggie sticks her red head into the room to ask in her thick brogue, “Shall I open the drapes in the front room?”
“No!” my sister and I say in unison.
“Don’t open the drapes in any room until we tell you otherwise,” I instruct her. “Do you understand, Maggie?”
Something flickers in the housekeeper’s blue eyes-eyes that seem sharper today, as they focus on me, than ever before. She used to look through me, through all of us, as the help should-and vice versa.
But now, as we exchange a glance-mine wary, Maggie’s dangerously shrewd-I wonder whether she understands far more than just my orders to shroud the windows from prying eyes.
She slinks away, and I eat my biscuit in silent contentment. My scalp is soaked beneath my thick auburn hair; it must be ninety-five degrees outside already, and considerably warmer here in the kitchen.
This, however, is nothing compared to yesterday morning, when the red-hot stove threw off additional heat. My sister wasn’t around to ask me why it was blazing away on the steamiest day of the year. Maggie was here, but of course it wasn’t her place to question anything.
In the next room, the clock chimes the half hour.
“It’s almost time.” My sister pushes back her chair. Half past ten.
Nearly twenty-four hours ago, my father unexpectedly came home from the office. He wasn’t feeling well, he said. Sick to his stomach. He was going to take a nap before heading back to work.
He didn’t bother to ask where Abby was.
I didn’t tell him.
“Aren’t you going to come upstairs?” my sister asks from the doorway.
“No need, I’m ready,” I tell her, smoothing my full skirt as I stand up.
My dress is, appropriately, black.
Earlier, I locked my bedroom door before I removed the dress from its designated hook at the back of the wardrobe in my room. Slipped beneath the dark black silk, snug as a lining, was the blue cotton dress I’d had on yesterday morning.
It will obviously have to be dealt with-but not today. So I took a plump goose-down pillow from my bed, remembering how many times I had futilely pulled it over my head to smother ghastly sounds in the dead of night.
Again, the irony.
Even now, left alone in the kitchen, I don’t smile. I am thinking about how I carefully slit open a pillow seam to create an opening just a few inches. After wadding the blue dress into a tight little ball, I tucked it through the opening, pushing it deep into the feathers. When I had carefully stitched the seam closed again, there was no sign of tampering, no telltale lump, even when I patted the pillow hard, all over.
I’m confident that no one will ever find the dress before I have a chance to destroy it.
I eye the cold iron stove.
Unlike fabric-and, for that matter, wood-metal cannot absorb telltale stains. But wood and fabric are so easily transformed to ashes, and ashes tell no tales.
I stood over that blazing stove yesterday morning, sweat pouring down my face with salty tears-not tears of grief, but of sheer relief.
It seemed to take forever to incinerate that wooden handle, its top freshly splintered, and all the while I was aware of father lying there on the sofa in the next room, Abby upstairs, Maggie in her third-floor quarters…
I knew that at any moment all hell could break loose.
It did-but on my terms: when the wooden handle had been thoroughly cremated.
I’m certain fabric will incinerate in no time at all.
I’ll burn the blue dress tomorrow.
Today, wearing funereal black; I must attend to other things.
In the cemetery over on Prospect Street, two freshly dug graves wait in the family plot beside the dead mother I don’t remember and the dead sister I never met.
They’re better off there, I have often thought.
“When you came along, you healed your mother’s grief,” Uncle John told me once, years ago. “She adored you. So did your father-still does, as far as I can tell,” he’d added.
Those words made my stomach churn, yet I said nothing. Neither did my sister, who was there. She didn’t even look at me; there were some things we would never dare to discuss, close as we were.
But she knew. Of course she did. So did Abby, whom my father married not in spite of the fact that she was a fat, dour recluse, but because of it. He correctly assumed she was so grateful to have been spared an old maid’s fate that she’d overlook his miserly flaws; forgive him anything.
I, on the other hand, have never forgiven him. Or her.
Nor would I pretend to; that isn’t my style.
Thus, it’s no secret around town that ours is hardly a warm, cozy household. My father and Abby and my sister and I went about our daily business, merely co-existing under the same roof.
Until yesterday morning.
The night before had been sleepless, as so many are. I lay in my bed, cloaked in a quilt and a high-necked gown despite August heat as oppressive as my own familiar dread. When I was a girl, I would dress in layers and pile on the bedding, in a futile, pathetic attempt to shield myself. I’ve long since realized that was impossible, yet old habits die hard.
Waiting for the creak on the stairs that last night, I wondered whether he would come to my door this time, or to my sister’s.
That I fervently wanted it to be her turn is perhaps the most shameful part in all of this. Yet I can make no apology for my feelings; they are what they are. I suppose it simply means that my hatred for him is even stronger than my love for her.
That night, it was my door he unlocked with the master key he kept in his black overcoat that reeked of sweet tobacco and sour sweat. There he stood, silhouetted in the doorway for a terrifying moment before he crossed the threshold and, as always, locked the door again behind him.
Even now, the memory of the key turning in the lock makes the biscuit churn with burning bile in my gut.
Every single night, for as long as I can remember: the heavy tread of his boots on the stairs, the key in the lock…
I picture my sister waiting in the dark, praying he wouldn’t come to her-or, more likely, that he would, because she’s the better person and would want to spare me.
Then again, when faced with such unspeakable horror, is anyone really capable of such noble behavior? Maybe she was relieved to hear him enter my room and know that she was safe for that night.
I picture her with her head buried beneath her pillow, trying desperately to block out the repulsive sounds that would pierce the thin wall separating our bedrooms and a useless puff of goose down.
Useless no more, I remind myself, thinking of the blue dress as I leave the kitchen.
The first-floor rooms are dim, yet slats of golden sunlight fall across the rugs wherever draperies hang slightly parted.
Outside, wagon wheels rattle along Second Street. Voices rumble faintly from curious bystanders and gleeful ghouls.
Earlier, I peered through an upstairs window at the throng that’s grown steadily since the news broke. The crowd is held at bay not just by our sturdy wooden fence, but by the police officers stationed around the property.
“Why do you think they’re here?” I asked my sister last night.
“To keep the murderer out, should he reappear, I suppose.”
Or perhaps, I thought to myself, to keep the murderess in, should she try to escape.
They must suspect.
Then again, even if they do…
Even if they were to find the broken-off hatchet head I so carefully wiped clean of any trace of blood, or the stained dress hidden deep in my pillow…
Even knowing what they know about our family, and my open contempt for my miserly father and for Abby, whom I haven’t called “mother” in years…
They will never grasp the truth.
I am, after all, a woman.
A temperamental, sharp-tongued, spoiled woman trapped in a miserable, miserly household…
But a woman nonetheless.
No matter how damning the circumstantial evidence, should any of it come to light, they’ll be sure to look beyond it. They’ll be certain that things cannot possibly be as they seem. They believe, as my father did, that nothing ever is.
I wander into the parlor and stop short, seeing a figure silhouetted before the sofa. In this faint light, I can’t see the splotched upholstery and spattered wallpaper, but I know they’re there.
“Maggie,” I say, and she jumps, startled, whirling to look at me.
The room is too dim to betray the knowing flash in her eyes, yet it’s palpable as bloodstain.
Will she hurtle an accusation?
If so, I’ll deny it-just as I did yesterday, when the house was crawling with police wanting to know where I was when my stepmother and father were hacked to death so viciously that one of his eyeballs was flung from its socket.
Never again will I see that terrible glint in his brown gaze, betraying his hideous plans for the wee hours.
Never, never again.
The nightmare is over; at last, I am in control.
For a long time, Maggie just looks at me.
Perhaps she, too, suffered sleepless nights. Perhaps she, too, lay awake, listening in dread for the creak of a heavy masculine step on the stairs. Perhaps she, too, fantasized about making it stop.
“My name,” she tells me in her soft brogue, “is not Maggie.”
No, it isn’t. But it’s the only thing my sister Emma and I have ever called her. It was easier that way; the maid before her had been Maggie.
I look her in the eye. “I’m sorry… Bridget.”
She nods, clearly satisfied.
No fool, Bridget Sullivan. She grasps what so many do not: that things are often exactly as they seem.
“I accept your apology, Miss Borden. Old habits die hard, I know.”
At long last, I smile.
“Please,” I tell her, “call me Lizzie.”
* * *
The bestselling author of more than seventy novels, WENDY CORSI STAUB has penned multiple New York Times bestselling adult thrillers under her own name and more than two dozen young adult titles, including the current paranormal suspense series Lily Dale, which has been optioned for television. Her latest thriller, Live to Tell, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and launches a suspense trilogy that will include sequels Scared to Death and Hell to Pay. Under the pseudonym Wendy Markham, she’s a USA Today bestselling author of chick lit and romance.
Industry awards include a Romance Writers of America Rita, three Westchester Library Association Washington Irving Awards for Fiction, the 2007 RWA-NYC Golden Apple for Lifetime Achievement and the 2008 RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award in Suspense. Readers can join her online at www.WendyCorsiStaubcommunity.com.
Golden Gate International Exposition Treasure Island, San Francisco Bay, 1939
Shorty was complaining about the grift around Midget Village when Miranda saw the clown. Sad eyes. No smile. The Gayway wasn’t always gay, even for a clown and the little blonde girl with him, waiting in line for cotton candy.
Too many kids, too many clowns. Monday, April 3, Children’s Day, and Miranda wondered why the fuck she’d come back to the fair on her one day off. Maybe because she had nowhere else to go.
“You take it up with the bulls?” she asked Shorty.
The little man shook his head, the red light of the cigarette dancing at the end of his mouth.
“You know how it is. Don’t take us serious. Come in for a belly laugh and drift over to Sally Rand’s or Artists and Models for a tweak of some tit. Christ Almighty, I can’t blame ’em for that, but we need protection, not a goddamn babysitter.”
Miranda nodded, looking over his head. The clown was crouched at the side of the refreshment booth, talking to the kid, pink sweat dripping on his dirty white collar. Puffs of spun candy hid her face. A stout woman in a green plaid coat smiled at them through her peanuts.
Miranda dropped her Chesterfield and rubbed it out in the dirt next to a wadded-up napkin from Threlkeld’s Scones. “I’ll do what I can. I don’t have much pull with the cops-”
“You got pull where it counts, sister. You got in the papers, you got your shamus license, you caught your boss’s killer. That’s enough for Leland Cutler, and it’s enough for Shorty Glick.”
She bent down to shake the midget’s hand. “I’ll do what I can. Be seeing you, Shorty.”
He nodded, put the ten-gallon hat back on, hoisted up the chaps and kid’s gun belt with dignity, and waddled into the compound. Singer’s Midgets, carted around from sawdust heap to sawdust heap, stared at, laughed at, gee whiz, they’re tiny, Bob, just like kids. Fuck you, too, lady. How’s that for kid talk?
She walked down the fairway, leaned against the wall of Ripley’s Odditorium and lit another Chesterfield, staring down at the line waiting for Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch. Sally’s girls needed protection as much as the midgets, and the only kind they’d get from the cops came with a price. Miranda just charged money.
Women were clutching their hats against the cold Bay wind, and some Spanish flamenco dancers from the Alta California exhibit huddled, laughing, in front of the fortune teller. Miranda pressed herself against the stucco wall, closing her eyes. No fortunes left, not for Spain. Not for Miranda. Fortunes meant future, and she didn’t think about the future anymore, not since ’37. Johnny wasn’t in it.
Poor, tired Spain, poor tired world, tired, so tired of war, and yet more coming, more fucking wars, more corpses, white flesh bloated and ruptured, rotting in farm house wells, mangled bodies on the streets of Madrid. No future, no fortune. No Johnny. Just the carnival. Listen to the calliope and it’ll all go away.
Step right up, folks, one thin dime, neon and fishnets, girls in G-strings, babies in incubators. Welcome to the Gayway, Leland Cutler’s Pageant of the Pacific, pride of 1939, and who gives a fuck if New York has a world’s fair, too.
She blinked, watching the cigarette ash burn closer, Laughing Sal’s mechanical cackle drifting on the wind. No treasure on Treasure Island. Just another world’s fair. Another goddamn calliope.
She walked back again toward Midget Village. The line at the refreshment stand was shorter. The clown and the kid, still in sight, headed toward Heather Row. But the clown was pulling the kid’s arm, the girl crying, upset. Fat lady in green nowhere to be seen.
Miranda gulped the cigarette, nicotine hitting her lungs. Burnett hadn’t taught her much. Wiggle when you walk, Miranda, you know how to be an escort. Fuck being a detective. Wrong again, Burnett, you bastard, rest in fucking peace.
They all needed help, midgets and Sally’s girls and sideshow freaks and monkeys in race cars. She dodged two sailors and a marine, and hurried toward the clown.
You pays your money and you takes your choice.
* * *
Couple of fraternity boys pushed an elderly couple by in the fifty-cent chairs, almost running down Miranda. The clown pulled the kid toward La Plaza Avenue, rounding the corner by the Owl Drug Store and Ghirardelli Chocolate.
A sharpie in a cheap suit pried himself away from a souvenir booth, eyes on Miranda’s snug navy jacket, as if looking would make it go away. She tried to side-step him, but he jumped in front, blocking her.
“Lady, why the hurry? A looker like you-”
“Get out of my way-”
He stroked his thin mustache with one hand, and put his other one on her left shoulder, straight arm, sliding up and down, out and in.
“Sally’s that way, girlie-you could make a bund-”
Miranda shoved his hand off her breast with her right, backhanding him hard in the face with her left. He tumbled, off balance, and hit the dirt.
By the time she heard the angry “Fucking bitch!” the clown and the girl had disappeared.
* * *
Ghirardelli Building, sign of the giant parrot. It perched above the door, hawking chocolate malts and candy. Café sat one hundred, about twenty people were waiting for seats. No clowns. A lot of children.
A blonde in a hat and brown jumper was leaning over the candy belt, watching the chocolate bonbons. Miranda pushed her way through. Not her.
Eight people, understaffed, handing out samples to quiet the kids. Five-year-olds all looked alike.
Miranda’s stomach tightened, started to hurt. She headed for the Owl, checked the lunch counter, toy department, searched the aisles.
* * *
The White Star Tuna Restaurant was quiet, almost empty. Found a table by one of the windows, stared out at the enormous sparkling walls of Vacationland until the tuna-tomato salad and coffee arrived.
It was too early for tuna, too early for the Chicken of the Sea star on top of the bright round building, too early for the “Romance of Tuna” story that hung on the walls and filled a page in the takeaway souvenir menu.
Early didn’t mean much to Miranda. Late night at Sally’s, boyfriend trouble for one of the girls. Now she’d lost the clown. Tuna romance was just the fucking ticket.
Back and forth, back and forth across the knots of people. She looked down at her cup. Kaleidoscope of black. Maybe she was wrong.
Around and around, spinning, shiny, colors too dark. Five years old, first encounter with fingers in wrong places. Hard fingers, hard laps, persistent. Little girl, bouncing on an old professor’s lap, friend of her father. Bouncing hard.
Around again to ten. Old Hatchett asleep, father away, drunk or at an academic conference or both. Escape the dungeon, get out, get out to the streets. Muddy San Francisco, horse shit on Market Street, ten years after the quake. Man in a dirty suit, sudden smile, all in the eyes. Eyes that scared her, hands that scared her, come on, little girl, I’ll give you a present. Don’t you want to play?
Fourteen and she learned how to fight, how to bite a finger, how to squirm out of a grasp, learned where to look and what to look for, curious, but not enough to return to the professor’s lap, or the Santa Claus with his own bag of toys. Around and around she goes, and where she stops…
The kaleidoscope dissolved, carousel no longer turning. No farther, not today.
Miranda drained her coffee, shoved the tuna away untouched, and left half a dollar on the yellow Formica table top. Walked back to the Plaza and lit a Chesterfield, still scanning the crowds. Maybe she’d been wrong.
A uniformed cop was walking up from the Court of Pacifica, heading toward the Gayway, nodded when he saw Miranda.
“You busy, Corbie?”
She inhaled the cigarette, blew a stream of smoke behind her. “It’s my day off. Why?”
His brown eyes were somber. “Lady says her daughter’s been kidnapped. We’re looking for a clown.”
* * *
Silk dress from Magnin’s under a shoulder-length fur, head of a dead animal dangling from the back. Gloved hands. Whiff of My Sin when she sobbed.
She was a little older than Miranda, about thirty-five. Brown hair, more than a touch of henna.
Grogan looked at her, his mouth curled around a cigar, then back over at Miranda.
“You here to add the woman’s touch, Corbie, or because you got something?”
She blew a smoke ring, watched it float behind his left ear. “How about the human touch, Grogan-or is that beyond you?”
He shrugged, eyes on the victim. One of the uniforms coughed.
“Says she turned her back to buy her kid some cotton candy at the Gayway, and next thing she knew the kid was gone. The kid’s name is Susie. I thought Donlevy gave you the low-down.”
“What he knew of it.” She pulled Grogan’s chair from his desk and sat next to the woman.
“Any enemies, Mrs. Hampton? Demands for money, threats?”
The face that jerked toward Miranda was sharp, still pretty. “N-no. Not that I know-and please, don’t tell my husband. He’ll-Geoff is so impetuous, I’m afraid he’ll-don’t tell him!” She gasped, the sable quivering.
Miranda ground the Chesterfield into the arm of Grogan’s chair. Waited for Mrs. Hampton to breathe again.
“Did Susie ever run away-or get lost?”
“No. Please, please, just find her. I don’t even care if you find that-the monster who took her, just find my little girl.”
Miranda leaned forward. “Exactly what happened?”
“I-I told them already. Sergeant, why do I have to-”
“-you don’t have to do nothing, Mrs. Hampton. This here’s Miranda Corbie. She’s what they call a private eye in them fairy tales people read.”
The woman held the handkerchief up to her face.
“Are you going to help get my Susie back?”
“I need the truth, Mrs. Hampton-in your own words.”
The woman took a deep, rattling breath, closed her eyes for a moment. “Cotton candy. Susie likes it. She just turned five last week, I-I was looking for a smaller bill-the man at the counter didn’t have change for a twenty-”
Miranda looked up, exchanged glances with Grogan.
“-and by the time I sorted it all out, I turned around and she was-was gone.”
“Where does the clown come in?”
She closed her eyes again, shaking her head, hand to her heart. “He’d been following us. I’d noticed him, he’d made Susie laugh earlier, and we threw him a dollar. I thought he was just, you know, performing as those people do, but I can see now that he was following us.”
Miranda pulled out the pack of Chesterfields, offered one to Mrs. Hampton. She shook her head. Miranda’s lighter sputtered, and one of the uniforms stepped forward with a lit match, while another one sniggered. Miranda grabbed his hand for a moment, looked up, and said, “Thanks.”
She inhaled, leaning back in Grogan’s chair. Said it casually. “So you didn’t actually see him take Susie.”
Lois Hampton fixed her large brown eyes on Miranda’s, all reproach and a mother’s dignity, surrounded by the faint odor of Choward’s Violets and Sen-Sen.
“Miss Corbie-I didn’t need to see him. I know. My daughter’s in danger.” She bent forward, placing a gloved hand on Miranda’s sleeve. “Please-please help me.”
* * *
Rick wasn’t at the Press Building. Miranda hung up the payphone, watching husbands pull wives into the Ford Building. Hit the receiver, asked the operator to try the San Francisco News. Shook out another Chesterfield from the crumpled pack.
“Rick-Miranda. I’ve got something.”
He paused for a moment then, laughed, Irish lilt always so goddamn irritating.
“It’s not like you ever call and ask me over for a drink. What is it? Need some help with that shiny new PI license of yours?”
She struck a match on Ford’s wall.
“You were over two weeks ago.”
“Don’t worry, honey, you don’t have to ration me. What is it?”
“Little girl kidnapped by a clown.”
He whistled, and she held the phone away.
“Don’t fucking whistle. Woman’s name is Lois Hampton. Lives in the city. Five-year-old daughter, blonde. Susie. Husband is Geoff, they’ve got money. I need you to look her up.”
Silence, while Rick scribbled. “What about the clown?”
“He’s not a clown by now. I tried to tell Grogan to search the restrooms, but he’s still out looking for circus acts. Just check Lois Hampton.”
He hesitated. “Miranda-”
“-should I look for-you know-”
“Molesters? Rapists? Another Albert Fish in a clown costume?” Her voice was heavy, and her hand shook when she brought the cigarette up to her mouth. “Check everything. I’ll call you back in half an hour.”
She hung up the phone, taking a last shuddering inhale of the Chesterfield. Squinted up at the giant National Cash Register, the two-foot numbers marking attendance. Twenty-three thousand and counting. A lot of them five-year-olds.
Children’s Day. Four hundred fucking acres of it.
* * *
She lost them at La Plaza. Nearest restroom was across the road at Vacationland. He’d sneak into the ladies room, use the girl as an excuse.
Clean-shaven, late thirties, dressed oddly. Maybe baggy pants and a souvenir shirt. Unless he’d planned it, and was hiding more than a trick hanky in his clown suit.
A guide stood outside, buttons still shiny on the uniform. College kid.
She asked: “You see any clowns this morning?”
He rolled his eyes. “Lady, I could tell you-”
“Don’t. This one kidnapped a little girl.”
Jaw dropped. “Geez, lady. I’ve seen maybe three or four. All the kids, you know. Children’s Day.”
“Any come in here?”
“Maybe. I’ve been moving around.”
She headed inside the curve of the building. Women’s and men’s restrooms, side by side, across from the cafeteria and barbershop.
Attendant a slow, stooped woman with a Russian accent. Da, there was a clown. Da, he come in with a child. She stroked the dollar bill like it was a pet.
The other one, younger, dark-haired, lounge help. Another dollar. Yes, miss, told him it ain’t proper. No mother, I says, and he says she’s sick in bed, and he’s off work, needs to wash up. Washed up right there in the sink. Felt sorry for him, miss. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.
Another dollar, help the guilt along.
Little girl was crying, miss. Hungry. Talked about doughnuts. What’s this all about? I ain’t done nothing wrong, miss, I can’t lose my job, gotta feed my own kids. No, don’t remember what he looked like without the face on. I ain’t done nothing wrong. He was just an average Joe, miss. Just an average Joe.
Miranda ran out of the powder room, the door banging behind her.
* * *
Doughnuts meant the Gayway, Maxwell House building, hot coffee and crullers, the Doughnut Tower’s fat red neon stripes slicing through the fog.
Couple of hundred in the restaurant, maybe forty kids. No little blonde girl. No clown, ex or otherwise. No luck. Spilled out like coffee, good to the last drop.
Miranda checked the Penny Arcade next door, then up and down the strip, past the Glass Blowers and Loop-A-Swing, the diving bell and flea circus. Her ankle twisted on a souvenir kewpie doll dirtied from sawdust and cigarette butts. She stopped, breathing hard, picked it up. Maybe from a kid in Children’s Village, the Gayway’s official nanny service, complete with on-duty nurse and riding ponies. Perfect for when the parents ogled nipples at Sally Rand’s.
She stared at the painted face. Midget Village, Chinese Village, Children’s Village. Too many goddamn villages. The clown would be in the big villages by now, San Francisco or Oakland. He’d gotten by her, gotten by them all.
Miranda walked to a phone by the Fun House and dialed Rick. Set the kewpie doll on the phone ledge.
“Sanders? You got anything?”
“Yeah. Half a goddamn hour, Miranda-”
“Fucking tell me.”
He grunted. “Lois Hampton. You said the kid is five, right?”
“Turned five last week. Why?”
“She married Geoff Hampton, finance attorney, four years ago. Methodist service. No parents for the bride. She worked at Emporium-probably counter girl, from what the society column left out.”
“So she married up. And the kid’s not his.”
“Or is, but nobody waited for the license.”
Miranda tapped her second-to-the-last cigarette out of the Chesterfield package. “What else?”
“What the hell do you want for thirty minutes? No child killers. So far.”
She took out the Fair lighter, lit, and inhaled, blowing smoke and watching it drift by the Headless Girl stand.
“See if you can find a birth certificate for Susie. And call Whitney-the concession director. Lean on him for a list of clowns working Treasure Island today.”
Rick hesitated. “Listen, I want her found as much as you do. But I can’t spend all day-”
“Yeah, I know. Give it another hour, Rick. OK?”
He grumbled. “Yeah, Miranda. Don’t I always?”
She hung up the phone, staring at the two giant Ferris wheels turning side by side. Shielded her eyes to make sure. A little blonde girl and a dark-haired man were sitting in a top car, laughing.
* * *
Shoved her way to the front of the line, eyes on Susie, insults behind her.
The operator leered, all teeth. “Your money’s worth, missy. One dime. I’ll make sure you get a good, long ride.”
Miranda showed him her ID. “Stop the goddamn wheel.”
Face red, he pulled one of the long handles. She leaned on his shoulder, the line behind her starting to whisper.
“Step aside when you get to the car with a little blonde girl. I’ll tell you when.”
He nodded, easing the cars to a stop, one at a time, one at a time. Three more to go before Susie.
A fat lady in the car before them had difficulty getting out. Susie’s hat was off. The clown’s hand stroked her hair, greasepaint still filling the cracks in his face.
Their car swung into line. Miranda poked the operator in the back with the kewpie doll, and he opened the gate, got out of the way. The clown gave Susie a small push and she walked forward. Miranda stepped in front of her, held out the doll.
“This is for you, Susie.”
The little girl stared at her, confused. Miranda grabbed Susie’s hand, eyes raised to the clown. He looked from one to the other, panic twisting his face. Then he jumped off the platform, running into the Gayway crowds while a woman behind them screamed.
* * *
It took three minutes to find a cop. She gave him Susie, ran past Greenwich Village toward the opposite end of the zone. Where the hell could a clown go to be inconspicuous? Except he wasn’t a clown anymore.
She stopped in the middle of the grounds, breathing hard. Susie was safe. Not harmed. But the clown…
She looked up at the complex called Children’s Village. And took out her last cigarette.
* * *
He was slapping on greasepaint when she walked in the room. Jumped up, shrank against the wall, eyes large without the makeup, focused on the.22 in her hand. Still sad.
“Please, please, lady. I was just trying to see her. She don’t even know I’m her father.”
She stared at him, smoke from the Chesterfield curling toward the cracked mirror.
“Some fucking father. You expect me to believe you? You kidnapped a little girl, goddamn it-”
“There’s proof. Loie’s got it. She showed it to me. Before-before she got married.”
He wiped his forehead, his hand shaking. Sank slowly into the chair, the bare yellow lightbulb throwing shadows across his face.
“Made me promise never to see her. Susie’s chance. Loie’s chance. My little girl could have the good things… I ain’t never gonna be able to buy her what he can. And I kept my promise. I ain’t seen her since she was a baby.”
Miranda gestured with the.22. “Keep your hands on the counter. I saw Stella Dallas, and it plays better with a woman. You broke your goddamn promise. Why? Got religion, all of a sudden? Or did you figure you’d be Daddy for a day?”
Face, mouth, voice, pleading, looking at her, not the gun. “Loie brought her here, to the Village. I make balloons for the kids… Loie was leaving for Sally’s, didn’t recognize me with the face and all. I stopped her, asked about Susie, but she was worried ’bout people seein’ us together. So’s I took Susie when she left, tried to-to spend a little time with her. Knew they’d probably look for me as soon as Loie figured it out, washed my face, took my street clothes with me.”
Miranda blew a stream of smoke toward the cheap pine wardrobe in the corner, the pistol steady and pointed at the clown.
“What were you going do with her? Tell me that-what were you going to do with her?”
“I weren’t gonna keep her, lady. I just wanted to see my little girl. Give her some fun, something to remember her old man by. She said she likes cotton candy. Please don’t lose me my job. I like kids. I’m good with kids. Ask Anderson-didn’t he tell you? Didn’t he tell you I’m good with-”
“Fuck the job. Worry about San Quentin.”
Face whiter than makeup, shadows under the eyes, dark pools. Hands trembling on the counter. The Tower of the Sun carillon played the hour, “Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.”
His voice croaked, reedy, strong, sure.
“All right. Go ahead. I’m not sorry for tryin’ to see Susie. I’m glad I did it. I’d do it again. And at least she’ll know her old man was willin’ to pay the price for seein’ her.”
Miranda took a long drag on the Chesterfield, studying his face. He met her eyes, breathing hard, defiant. Disturb not her dream…
She said: “Put some makeup on.”
* * *
She thought about Susie, and about what Susie would want. But fuck, Susie was five years old, and it didn’t matter what she’d want. Children’s Day was make-believe, and only once a year.
At least she had a father who loved her. That put her ahead. Put her ahead of Miranda.
She called Lois Hampton, calmed her down. Met with her privately, lunching at the Women’s Club, Susie still holding the kewpie doll. Suggested new terms for Susie’s daddy, especially with Geoff away so much. No, no publicity, Mrs. Hampton. No publicity.
Called Rick. Got a liverwurst sandwich at Maxwell House, walked to the Owl for more cigarettes. Finally strolled over to Midget Village, watching Shorty twirl a six gun for some kids and their parents, the late afternoon sun stretching across the bay, the midgets making long shadows in the sawdust of the corral.
A cop ambled by, stood next to her.
“Hear you found the missing girl, Corbie.”
“Lost the kidnapper, though?”
Miranda shrugged, opened a new package of Chesterfields. “I don’t know, Gillespie. Sometimes a clown is just a clown.”
He stared at her. “What the hell does that mean?”
She blew a smoke ring, watching it rise high on the bay wind, drifting above the Gayway.
“It means Happy Children’s Day.”
He shrugged his shoulders, and moved on.
* * *
KELLI STANLEY is an award-winning author of two crime fiction series. City of Dragons (from Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books in February 2010) continues the story of Miranda Corbie-private investigator in 1940 San Francisco-ex-escort, and the protagonist of Children’s Day. Kelli’s debut novel, Nox Dormienda, set two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain, won a Macavity Award nomination, and the Bruce Alexander Award for best historical mystery of the year. Kelli lives in foggy San Francisco and earned a master’s degree in Classics. Discover more about Kelli and the worlds she writes about at www.kellistanley.com.
Shorty Lemon poked his index finger between tiny nylon teeth and gave it a wiggle. The teeth parted easily and the brass slider ran smooth, but it still took some dexterous finger kung fu to unzip the suitcase from the inside.
Once he negotiated the first awkward corner, the lid opened wide enough for him to peek out.
The compartment was dark and noisy.
Just beyond thin metal walls, a Cummins diesel roared as the transaxle drove eight massive steel-belted radials. On the other side, wind slapped against baggage doors, desperate to force its way inside. And below, the pavement whined as if protesting the weight of twenty-eight thousand pounds of fast-moving steel.
Noise was good. It stopped the passengers in soft seats a short distance above Shorty’s head from hearing his movements.
Shorty finished unzipping the case and stood to stretch. Even at three feet ten and one-quarter inches, a suitcase was a tight fit.
Dressed in black cargo pants and turtleneck, Shorty liked to believe he looked as cool as Steve McQueen in Bullitt. With an excited grin, he pulled on his spelunking lamp, tightened the headband, and flipped the switch. Three super bright LEDs lit up the cabin to reveal a mountain of luggage.
He hoped at least one of them contained chocolate. Milky Swiss was his favorite, but he had to be careful. Two months earlier he wolfed down a full box of festive Irish whisky liqueurs. The alcohol-filled chocolates had sent him into a near sugar coma and he was barely able to zip himself back inside the case before passing out. When his partner retrieved the case at the terminal, he discovered Shorty had puked all over his favorite McQueens.
The memory still made him shudder.
After rubbing his hands together to get the blood flowing, Shorty ripped bags open.
He started with the largest one, but was disappointed to find that all it contained was a collection of old lady clothes. And from the look of them, they would have found more use in a landfill than in somebody’s wardrobe.
He rolled his eyes. “Freakin’ loser.”
He shoved the bag aside.
The second bag contained a slick digital camera, a superthin Mac laptop, and a snack pack of Ritz Crackers with the fake cheese goop in the middle. A nest of rolled socks protected the crackers as though they were some kind of luxury treat.
“Loser number two.”
Shorty crushed the crackers in his hand before sprinkling the disgusting remains over the owner’s clothes. Whoever ate that garbage, he decided, deserved to wear it, too.
He slipped the camera and laptop inside his own suitcase and moved to the next.
Unzipping the bag, he stared at a gun… attached to a hand… pointing at a spot between his eyes.
“Shorty.” A familiar scratchy voice was attached to the hand that was aiming the gun.
“Twinkle?” Shorty lifted his head and exposed the gunman’s face to his headlamp. “What the hell are you doing? You’re Wednesdays on the Washington run.”
Twinkle squinted against the light and his upper lip curled in a sneer. “Change of plans.”
Jonathon “Twinkle” Toews climbed out of the suitcase, his gun never wavering from Shorty’s head. Shorty had heard Twinkle brag he had a quarter-inch on him in the height department, but he suspected the lying dwarf wore lifts.
“Well fuck me blue,” Shorty said with a laugh. “This is some mix-up.”
“No mix-up, Shorty. Big haul on this bus and I want my cut.”
Twinkle snorted. “Don’t play dumb. The horse is trotting cross-country, but it ain’t gonna make the stable.”
Twinkle cocked the hammer. Even amid the blanket of engine noise, it was decidedly menacing.
“Whoa, back up.” Shorty raised his hands in surrender. “I ain’t part of your circus, so what the fuck?”
Twinkle snorted again. “You don’t know, for real?”
Shorty shook his head and the light from his lamp danced around the cabin like the return of E.T.
Twinkle resettled the hammer and lowered the gun. “Guess that’s why you ain’t packing.”
“Exactly,” Shorty agreed. “I’m not packing because…” He hesitated, then sighed. “Really, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Heroin,” said Twinkle. “Sixty keys.”
“That a lot?”
“When it’s pure, uncut bone, baby. One hundred Gs a key.”
Shorty whistled. “Six million dollars. And somebody put it on a bus?”
Twinkle grinned, his Hollywood caps reflecting the light. “Who’s gonna rob a bus?”
Twinkle shook his head. “’Cept you, Shorty. I work Wednesdays, ’member? The Washington run. Ask anybody.”
As the double-crossing realization hit, the blood drained from Shorty’s face. It didn’t have far to go.
“Keep opening bags.” Twinkle lifted his gun into the light as a reminder. “Find me the barking dogs.”
Shorty tossed suitcases and boxes aside, searching for the likeliest suspects, until he discovered four black canvas bags with reinforced seams and heavy-duty zippers.
“Here’s your barkers,” he said.
“Dogs,” corrected Twinkle. He moved in closer. “Heroin is called ‘dog.’”
“Ahh,” said Shorty as if he understood. “Because you have to be barking-mad to use it?”
Twinkle was unamused. “You’re a lost cause. Always have been. Open the damn bags.”
Shorty turned his attention and his headlamp to the bags. They were each locked with a tiny padlock.
“Who, in their right mind, thinks these locks do any good?” he said. “I mean, really. You can get better ones out of a gumball machine.”
“Just open them,” Twinkle growled. “Save the commentary for your eulogy.”
Shorty pulled a pair of folding snips from his pants pocket and snipped off all four locks.
“Open them,” Twinkle ordered.
The first bag contained twenty vacuum-packed squares of white powder. The next two bags contained the same, but the fourth bag held money. Lots of it. One hundred dollar bills, crisp and smooth, bundled in packages of 50. If Shorty’s math was right, and it usually was, there were at least 120 bundles.
Shorty whistled. “That’s not pocket change.”
“I wasn’t expecting any money,” said Twinkle.
“Oh, good. Can I have it?”
Twinkle sneered. “You can’t use it where you’re going.”
Shorty sighed and zipped up the bags. Bigger men than Twinkle had threatened him in his time, but none rankled quite so much.
“So how you getting off?” he asked.
Twinkle nodded toward the large loading doors that ran along the side. “I sure as hell ain’t going all the way to Boston. Open the doors.”
Twinkle lifted the gun and pointed it at Shorty’s crotch.
“I hear you only got one ball, Shorty. Want me to even you up?”
Grumbling to himself, Shorty slipped the snips back into his pocket and returned with a stubby screwdriver that held six different bits. With the flick of his thumb, he made the Torx head shoot out of the compact handle and lock in place. Shorty settled in front of the loading door and worked his magic. Within seconds, the doors were ready to be opened.
“What about the driver?” Shorty asked. “He’s bound to notice.”
Twinkle cut him off with a snort. “He’s gettin’ paid enough to ignore what’s in his mirrors.”
Shorty spun around. “So everybody’s in on this except me?”
Twinkle grinned. “Somebody had to be the fall guy.”
Twinkle brought the gun barrel close enough to caress Shorty’s cheek. “What you waitin’ for?”
Shorty heaved open the doors to bathe the compartment in blinding daylight. A hurricane rushed inside, ripping open the lids of unzipped suitcases and forcing the loose contents to take flight.
Twinkle screamed as a giant pair of old-lady bloomers leeched onto his face. Its breathable cotton crotch stuffed itself into his mouth and became lodged in his throat. When Twinkle finally yanked the choking garment free, Shorty’s clenched fist was closing in.
Shorty hit him with everything he had, sharp knuckles against soft cartilage, powered by arms, legs, feet, and toes. The punch was a beauty.
Twinkle grew two inches, his gun flying from his hand to the rear of the cabin as his nose was crushed against his cheek and his upper teeth pierced his upper lip. He flew backward, landing hard on the four black bags.
Before he could recover, Shorty was on him again. The second punch sent Twinkle’s nose to the other side of his face and the bones in his cheek went crack.
“You were going to kill me, you son of a bitch!” Shorty scored another hit. “How the fuck do you like it?”
Twinkle cowered, his hands rising to cover his ruined face as snot, blood, and tears dripped from his chin.
Shorty wasn’t in the mood for mercy. He raised his fist again, but before he could land a fourth blow, a gunshot pinged off the wall just inches from his head.
Shorty spun to face the open doorway. A black motorbike and convertible sidecar bore down. His ex-girlfriend, LoLa, hung over the side. She fired again.
Shorty dove behind the avalanche of luggage as the second shot ricocheted around the cabin. Cursing his luck, he peered out and felt his heartbeat stutter. LoLa was looking good in tight black leather and a silver helmet with an iconic honeybee painted on its crown. That had always been his nickname for her when they shared an apartment in the Village. She had a singing voice as smooth as honey, but a temper that stung like…
Another bullet whizzed by his head.
“Your ass is grass now, Shorty,” Twinkle mumbled through a bloody mouth. “My sis knows how to hold a grudge.”
Shorty peeked from behind his wall of soft-sided cloth and cheap plastic. LoLa was closing in, her voluptuous pale bosom peeking from the unzipped V of the leather jacket as she strained against the sidecar to gain more reach. The muzzle of her.45 searched the interior for a kill.
LoLa had always possessed an unshakable will. Even when they wandered the country from sea to shining sea, LoLa working the clubs and bringing the house down while Shorty emptied the pockets of enraptured drunks, she was determined to be a star. Shorty always admired that, although he secretly wished she could just be happy with who she was: his passionate little honeybee.
Shorty yanked the lamp off his head and threw it into the darker recesses of the hold. As the headlamp flew through the air, LoLa fired another shot. The light exploded in midair.
Shorty rocked back on his heels. It was one hell of a shot, and Shorty hoped for his own sake it was more luck than skill.
He looked out again and their eyes met. LoLa was smiling behind a transparent visor, her teeth as white and perfect as he had paid for. She flicked her soft, pink tongue, proving she still knew how to use it.
Shorty automatically returned the smile, lost in remembrance of times past when they had adored every quarter-inch of each other. Then, he saw her driver. The man on the motorbike was a hairy monster with a full ginger beard and a grin that was a few kernels shy of a cob. Dressed in full leather biker gear, he must have stood at least five foot six in boots, and the sight churned Shorty’s stomach. LoLa had always liked them full-sized and the memory of catching her cheating ass writhing on top of the rent-to-own portable dishwasher was a sight he wanted burned from his brain.
LoLa shouted, “Give us the bags, Shorty.”
LoLa laughed. “Not anymore. I’ve moved on.”
Shorty heard movement to his left and crawled over the luggage to get a better look. Twinkle had staggered to the open doors, his face a mess and his movements unsteady.
“Get the bags, Twinkle,” LoLa yelled. The motorbike kept perfect pace with the bus.
“I can’t,” Twinkle cried. “He busted me good.”
“Get the fucking bags, brother.”
“I can’t!” Twinkle moved closer to the edge. “I want off this damn bus.”
Shorty yelled: “Hey, Twinkle!”
Shorty swung one of the heavy black bags in the air and let go. “Don’t forget your luggage.”
The bag hit Twinkle square in the chest, knocking him off balance. Twinkle screamed as he fell out the open doorway with the bag clutched in his arms.
LoLa’s driver swerved, but the sidecar still bore the brunt of the impact as Twinkle’s head slammed into the windshield and the bag he was holding burst open in a giant cloud of white powder.
With a fierce determination, the driver managed to maintain control even as the sidecar’s wheel crunched over Twinkle’s broken body. A windowless black van following behind didn’t even attempt to brake.
When the bike caught up to the bus again, its sidecar was dented and its windshield cracked. Streaks of blood dusted in powder flowed over LoLa’s leathers. Even her pretty silver helmet was webbed with gore.
Angry tears filled LoLa’s eyes when she raised her gun again.
Shorty threw a blue backpack at her. With its lightweight aluminum frame, the pack hit the pavement and bounced high, almost removing his former lover’s head from her compact body.
She fired in hasty retaliation, but the bullet pinged harmlessly off the side of the bus.
Shorty followed with a volley of a half-dozen open suitcases: boxer shorts, pajamas, blouses, underwear, a smart tuxedo, and a rubber diving suit all flowed through the doorway and sailed down the freeway.
LoLa and her driver backed off after the bike nearly went into the ditch, when a small blue box exploded and a flock of errant panty liners got stuck on the bearded monster’s goggles.
Best of all, Shorty found a large, unopened Toblerone bar. It was the size of his left arm.
As Shorty contemplated ripping open the triangular packaging, the dark, windowless van pulled up level with the bus. Its side door slid open to reveal three men dressed in head-to-toe body armor, complete with knitted balaclavas that showed only their eyes, and holding paramilitary-style submachine guns.
Shorty gulped and dropped the chocolate. “Y-you want the drugs?”
The three men nodded as one.
Shorty crawled back over the scattered luggage and pulled one of the black bags to the door. The van moved closer to the bus. One of the men grabbed the bag and yanked. Shorty instantly let his end go before he was pulled out of the bus along with it.
“Get the others,” yelled the shortest of the three. It was difficult to tell the man’s exact height, but in Shorty’s estimation anything over four feet was a waste of vertical.
Shorty retrieved the third bag, but this time, when he went to hand it over, the head of the reaching gunman imploded, his balaclava mask becoming a sieve of blood.
Gunfire and broken glass rained from the passenger compartment above. The other two gunmen quickly ducked inside the van and returned fire. Both vehicles swerved and the dead gunman slid out of the van to vanish in a pink mist, but he left something behind snagged in the nylon handle of the drug bag-his submachine gun.
With the sound of two-way automatic gunfire filling the air, Shorty picked up the gun and grunted. It was heavier than he expected.
Shorty had never fired a machine gun before, but he’d seen plenty of movies. Getting used to the weight, he turned it on its side. A small dial marked in red pointed to two symbols. One showed a single bullet, the other showed three. He reasoned this toggled the gun between single-shot and full-auto modes.
Shorty flipped the switch to full-auto and pointed its barrel out the open doorway. People were screaming in their seats above as the bus continued to barrel on at top speed and bullets flew in both directions. Shorty imagined the greedy driver, knuckles white as he gripped the steering wheel, desperately searching for help and cursing the day he met a crooked dwarf with a Hollywood smile and an offer too rich to refuse.
Shorty drew in a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. Rounds spat from the gun like a horde of angry wasps with lead stingers. His first bullets chewed up the road before the gun’s unexpected kick drew the muzzle skyward. Shorty released the trigger before a volley stitched the metal ceiling. Fortunately, the van had been an impossible target to miss. His stray bullets shredded its front tires, windshield, and roof.
Without tires, the van’s front rims dug into the road and its ass end flew into the sky for a series of cartwheels that would have made an overweight gymnast proud. Two screaming bodies flailed into the air as the van exploded. Its flaming carcass careened off the road and rolled down a sharp ravine to a farmer’s field below.
Shorty looked at the gun in surprise. It packed a lot of wallop for such a small-
A bullet smashed through the ceiling and tore a chunk of meat from his arm. Shorty cried out and dropped the gun, only to watch in stunned horror as it bounced once on the floor before sliding out the open doorway.
Shorty’s cries were silenced when another bullet pierced the ceiling and puckered the floor between his legs. It was followed by an angry voice.
“You little bastard! Think you can steal from me?”
Another bullet, this time less than four inches from his head. Shorty dove into the remaining luggage and scrambled toward the rear of the hold… where he found Twinkle’s handgun. He snapped it up in both hands as the drug dealer pumped another hole through the ceiling.
This time, instead of retreating, Shorty sprinted to the fresh hole, jammed his gun against it, and squeezed the trigger.
A loud scream echoed through the hold and a heavy thump hit the ceiling as the gunman fell.
“You shot my fucking bal-”
Shorty aimed his gun where a bump had suddenly appeared in the ceiling and fired again. By the time he ran dry, the screaming had stopped.
“Nice work,” said LoLa. “You always did overcompensate.”
Shorty spun. The motorbike and sidecar was matching pace outside again, while LoLa was armed and pissed and standing in the doorway of the baggage compartment.
“And you were always nimble.” Shorty dropped his empty gun to the floor and cradled his wounded arm.
“So what do we have left?” LoLa asked.
“Between us or-”
Shorty indicated the lone black bag sitting near the open doorway. “Twenty kilograms of uncut heroin. Worth around two million.”
“Hardly seems worth the trouble.”
Despite himself, Shorty grinned. “You’ve come that far up in the world, huh?”
LoLa smiled. “Never walked taller.”
She lifted her gun and fingered the trigger.
Shorty blurted, “There’s a fourth bag.”
LoLa’s smile brightened and she eased off the trigger. “Oh?”
“Six hundred thousand in cash. I figure you take the drugs, leave me the dough. I’ve earned it.”
“Earned it? You cost me four good men, transportation, weapons, and dry-cleaning, not to mention my brother.”
“You never liked Twinkle much.”
“No, but I loved him.”
Shorty and LoLa stared at each other for an endless moment, a thousand memories shared in the blink of an eye.
“We’ll always have Paris,” said Shorty.
LoLa snorted. “A fishbowl fuck in Tennessee doesn’t count, Shorty, don’t you get that? I need more than road trips in a broken-down VW van, nightclubs with putrid toilets, and hiding from the landlord on rent day. You always thought too small. I plan to live large.”
“You’ve gone hard.”
“No, Shorty. The problem is, you’ve stayed soft.” She waved the gun at his chest. “Get me the bag.”
Shorty tilted his chin. “It’s just back there.”
“Do I look like I do heavy lifting? Get it.”
Shorty scrambled over the remains of the unopened luggage and pulled out the last black bag. He hefted it onto his shoulder, wincing at the pain, and returned to the woman he’d once loved.
“Pity it has to end this way, honeybee,” he said.
LoLa thumbed back the hammer.
* * *
When the bus pulled into the Texaco station ten minutes later, a squad of eight patrol cars swarmed around it. The men and women in blue were bundled in armor-plated protection, riot helmets, and enough firepower to ventilate a crack den.
They removed the traumatized passengers first before rushing the luggage compartment.
They didn’t meet any resistance.
Inside was a lone body dressed in head-to-toe black, its lifeblood coating a duffel bag filled with twenty kilos of pure, uncut heroin.
The dead woman had a tiny screwdriver protruding from her chest and half a Toblerone bar stuffed in her mouth.
* * *
GRANT McKENZIE was born in Scotland, lives in Canada, and writes U.S.-based thrillers. As such, he wears a kilt and toque with his six guns. His debut novel, Switch, was lauded by author Ken Bruen as “Harlan Coben on speed” and quickly became a bestseller in Germany. It has been published in seven countries and three languages so far.
Funny how vital that damn word had become in my life.
Had… An Irish mother.
Had… Big plans.
Had… Serious rent due.
Had… To make one major score.
* * *
I’d washed up in Ireland almost a year ago. Let’s just say I had to leave New York in a hurry.
Ireland seemed to be one of the last places on the planet to still love the good ol’ USA.
And, they were under the very erroneous impression that we had money.
Of course, until very recently, they’d had buckets of the green, forgive the pun, themselves. But the recession had killed their Celtic Tiger.
I’d gone to Galway as it was my mother’s hometown and was amazed to find an almost mini-USA. The teenagers all spoke like escapees from The Hills. Wore Converse, baseball T-shirts, chinos. It was like staggering onto a shoot for The Gap.
With my accent, winning smile, and risky credit cards, I’d rented an office in Woodquay, close to the very centre of the city. About a mugging away from the main street. I was supposedly a financial consultant but depending on the client, I could consult on any damn thing you needed. I managed to get the word around that I was an ex-military guy, and had a knack for making problems disappear.
And was not averse to skirting the legal line.
I was just about holding my head above water, but it was getting fraught.
So, yeah, I was open to possibilities.
How I met Sheridan.
I was having a pint of Guinness in McSwiggan’s and no, I wasn’t hallucinating but right in the centre of the pub is a tree.
I was wondering which came first when a guy slid onto the stool beside me. I say slid because that’s exactly how he did it. Like a reptile, he just suddenly crept up on me.
I’ve been around as you’ve gathered and am always aware of exits and who is where, in relation to the danger quota.
I never saw him coming.
Should have taken that as an omen right then.
He said, “You’ll be the Yank I hear about.”
I turned to look at him. He had the appearance of a greyhound recovering from anorexia and a bad case of the speed jags. About thirty-five, with long graying hair, surprisingly unmarked face, not a line there, but the eyes were old.
He’d seen some bad stuff or caused it. How do I know?
I see the same look every morning in the mirror.
He was dressed in faded blue jeans, a T-shirt that proclaimed Joey Ramone will never die and a combat jacket that Jack Reacher would have been proud of. He put out a bony hand, all the veins prominent, and said, “I’m Sheridan, lemme buy you a pint.”
I took his hand, surprisingly strong for such a wasted appearance, said, “Good to meet you, I’m Morgan.”
Least that’s what it said on the current credit cards.
He had, as he put it, a slight problem, a guy he owed money to and the how much would it cost to make the guy go away.
I laughed, said, “You’re going to pay me to get rid of a guy who you owe money to? One, why would you think I can do it, and two, how will you pay me?”
He leaned closer, smelled of patchouli, did they still make that old hippy shit? Said, “You’ve got yerself a bit of a rep, Mr Morgan, and how would I pay you, oh, I’d pay you in friendship and trust me, I’m a good friend to have.”
Maybe it was the early pint, or desperation or just for the hell of it, but I asked, “Who’s the guy?”
He told me, gave me his name and address and leaned back; asked, “You think you can help me out here, Mr Morgan?”
I said, “Depends on whether you’re buying me the pint you offered or not.”
As we were leaving, I said, “I’ll be here Friday night; maybe you can buy me another pint.”
Like I said, I didn’t have a whole lot going on so I checked out the guy who was leaning on Sheridan.
No biggie but on the Thursday, his car went into the docks and him in it.
Some skills you never forget.
Friday night, I was in McSwiggan’s; Sheridan appeared as I ordered a pint and he said to the barman, “On me, Sean.”
He gave me a huge smile; his right molar was gold and the rest of his teeth looked like they’d been filed down.
We took our drinks to a corner table and he slapped my shoulder, said, “Sweet fooking job, mate.”
I spread my hands, said, “Bad brakes, what can I tell you.”
He threw back his head, laughed out loud, a strange sound, like a rat being strangled, said, “I love it, bad break. You’re priceless.”
That was the real beginning of our relationship. Notice I don’t say friendship.
I don’t do friends.
And I very much doubt that anyone in their right mind would consider Sheridan a friend.
We did a lot of penny-ante stuff for the next few months, nothing to merit any undue attention but nothing either that was going to bankroll the kind of life I hoped for.
And knock-you-on-your-ass cash.
An oddity, and definitely something I should have paid real attention to. I’d pulled off a minor coup involving some credit cards I had to dump within twenty-four hours. With Sheridan’s help, we scooped a neat five thousand dollars. And at the time when the dollar had finally kicked the Euro’s ass.
See, I do love my country.
You’re thinking, “Which one?”
Semper fi and all that good baloney. It pays the cash, it gets my allegiance.
So, we were having us a celebration; I split it down the middle with him, because I’m a decent guy. We flashed up as Sheridan termed it.
Bearing in mind that the Irish seven-course meal is a six pack and a potato, we went to McDonagh’s, the fish-and-chipper, in Quay Street.
We sat outside in a rare hour of Galway Sun; Sheridan produced a flask of what he called Uisce Beatha, Holy Water. In other words, Irish Moonshine, Poteen.
Phew-oh, the stuff kicks like one mean tempered mule.
Later, we wound up in Feeney’s, one of the last great Irish pubs. Here’s the thing: I’d sometimes wondered if Sheridan had a woman in his life. I didn’t exactly give it a whole lot of thought, but it crossed my mind. As if he was reading my mind he said, “Morgan, what day were you born on?”
I was about to put it down to late night-drink speak, but I was curious, asked, “That’s a weird question, what day, how the hell would I know what day?”
He looked sheepish, and when you add that to his rodent appearance, it was some sight, he said, “See, my girl, she has this thing about the nursery rhyme, you know, Monday’s child is fair of face and am… Thursday’s, is, yeah, has far to go, she judges people on what their day of birth is.”
I was so taken aback by that it took me a moment to ask, “What are you?”
No hesitation, “Thursday’s child.”
We laughed at that and I don’t think either of us really knew why.
I asked, “Who is the girl, why haven’t I met her?”
He looked furtive, hiding something but then, his whole life seemed to be about hiding stuff, he said, “She’s shy, I mean, she knows we’re mates and all, but she wants to know your birth day before she’ll meet you.”
I said, “Next time I talk to Mom, I’ll ask her, ok?”
As Mom had been in the ground for at least five years, it wasn’t likely to be any time soon.
Another round of drinks arrived and we moved on to important issues, like sport. Guy stuff, if ever you reach any sort of intimacy, move to sports, move way past that sucker, that intimacy crap.
I meant to look up the nursery rhyme but, as far as I got, was discovering I was born on a Wednesday.
Told Sheridan it was that day and he said, “I’ll tell her.”
He was distracted when I told him, the speed he took turning him this way and that, like a dead rose in a barren field.
I’d noticed he was becoming increasingly antsy, speed fiends, what can I tell you? But he was building up to something.
It finally came.
We were in Garavan’s, on Shop Street; still has all the old stuff you associate with
Ireland and even… whisper it, Irish staff.
Little portioned off cubicles where you can talk without interruption.
Sheridan was on Jameson; I stay away from spirits, too lethal. He was more feverish than usual; asked, “You up for the big one?”
I feigned ignorance; said, “We’re doing ok.”
He shook his head, looked at me, which is something he rarely did, his eyes usually focused on my forehead, but this was head on; said, “Morgan, We’re alike, we want some serious money and I know how we can get it.”
He said, “Kidnapping.”
Without a beat I said, “Fuck off, that is the dumbest crime on the slate.”
He was electric, actually vibrating; said, “No, listen, this is perfect, we… well me really, snatch a girl, her old man is fooking loaded and you, as the consultant you are and known, as such, you’re the go between; we tell the rich bastard the kidnappers have selected you as the pick up man, you get the cash, we let the girl go and hello, we’re rich.”
I picked up the remnants of my pint; said, “No. Kidnapping never works. Forget it.”
He grabbed my arm, said, “Listen, this is the daughter of Jimmy Flaherty; he owns most of Galway; his daughter, Brona, is the light of his life and he has no love of the cops; he’ll pay, thinking he’ll find us later, but we’ll be in the wind and with a Yank as a broker for the deal; he’ll go along, he’s a Bush admirer.”
I let the Bush bit slide.
I acted like I was considering it, then said, “No, it’s too… out there.”
He let his head fall, dejection in neon, and said, “I’ve already got her.”
It’s hard to surprise me. You live purely on your wits and instincts as I’ve always done; you have envisioned most scenarios. This came out of left field.
I gasped. “You what?”
He gave me a defiant look, then, “I thought you might be reluctant and I already made the call to Flaherty, asked for one million and said I’d only use a neutral intermediary, and suggested that Yank consultant.”
I was almost lost for words.
Said, “So I’m already fucked; you’ve grabbed the girl and told her father I’m the messenger.”
He smiled; said, “Morgan, it’s perfect, you’ll see.”
I was suddenly tired; asked, “Where’s the girl now?”
His smile got wider; he said, “I can’t tell you, see, see the beauty of it, you really are the innocent party and… here’s the lovely bit, he’ll pay you for your help.”
Before I could answer this he continued, “You’ll get a call from him asking you to help, to be the bag man.”
I asked, “What if I tell Mr Flaherty I want no part of this?”
He gave me that golden tooth smile; said, “Ah Morgan, nobody says no to that man; how he got so rich.”
I left early, said to Sheridan, “I don’t like this, not one bit.”
He was still shouting encouragement to me as I left.
I waited outside, in the doorway of the Chinese café a ways along. Sheridan had never told me where he lived, and I figured it was time to find out.
It was an hour or so before he emerged and he’d obviously had a few more Jamesons. A slight stagger to his walk and certainly, he wasn’t a hard mark to follow.
He finally made it to a house by the canal and went in and I waited until he’d turned on the lights.
And I called it a night.
Next morning, I was the right side of two decent coffees, the Financial Times thrown carelessly on my desk, my laptop feeding me information on Mr Flaherty when the door is pushed open.
A heavily built man in a very expensive suit, with hard features and two even heavier men behind him, strode in.
I didn’t need Google search to tell me who this was.
He took the chair opposite me, sat down, opened his jacket, and looked round.
The heavies took position on each side of the desk.
He said, “What a shit hole.”
I asked, “You have an appointment?”
He laughed in total merriment, and the two thugs gave tight smiles; said, “You don’t seem overrun with business.”
I tried. “Most of my business is conducted over the phone, for discretion’s sake.”
He mimicked, “Discretion… hmm, I like that.”
Then suddenly he lunged across the desk, grabbed my tie, and pulled me halfway across, with one hand, I might add. He said, “I like Yanks, otherwise, you’d be picking yer teeth off the floor right now.”
Then he let go.
I managed to get back into my chair, all dignity out the window, and waited.
He said, “I’m Jimmy Flaherty and some bollix has snatched me only child; he wants a million in ransom and says you are to be the go-between.”
He snapped his fingers and one of the thugs dropped a large briefcase on the desk.
He said, “That’s a million.”
I took his word for it.
He took out a large Havana and the other heavy moved to light it; he asked, “Mind if I smoke?”
He blew an almost perfect smoke ring and we watched it linger over the desk like a bird of ill omen till he said, “This fuckhead will contact you and you’re to give him the money.”
He reached in his pocket, tossed a mobile phone on the desk, said, “Soon as you can see my daughter is safe, you call that number and give every single detail of what you observe.”
He stood up; said, “I’m not an unreasonable man, you get my daughter back, and the bastard who took her, I’ll throw one hundred large in your direction.”
He’d obviously watched far too many episodes of The Sopranos and I was tempted to add, “Caprice.”
But reined it in.
I said, “I’ll do my best, sir.”
He rounded on me, near spat. “I said I liked Yanks, but you screw up, you’re dead meat.”
When he was gone, I opened my bottom drawer, took out the small stash, did a few lines, and finally mellowed out.
My mind was in hyper drive.
I had the score.
One freaking million and all I had to do was… skedaddle.
Run like fuck.
Greed is a bastard.
I was already thinking how I’d get that extra hundred-thousand and not have Flaherty looking for me.
That’s the curse of coke, it makes you think you can do anything.
I locked the briefcase in my safe and moved to the bookshelf near the door.
It had impressive looking books, all unread, and moving aside Great Expectations, I pulled out the SIG Sauer.
Tried and tested and of a certain sentimental value.
I’d finalized my divorce with it, so it had a warm history.
I headed for Sheridan’s house on the canal, stopping en route to buy a cheap briefcase, and when the guy offered to remove all the paper padding they put in there, I said, no need.
I got to the house just after two in the afternoon and the curtains were still down.
Sheridan sleeping off the Jameson.
I went round the back and sure enough, the lock was a joke and I had that picked in thirty seconds.
Moved the SIG to the right-hand pocket of my jacket and ventured in. This was the kitchen. I stood for a moment and wondered if there was a basement, where Sheridan might have put the poor girl.
Heard hysterical laughter from upstairs and realized Sheridan was not alone.
“Way to go, lover,” I muttered as I began to climb the stairs.
Sheridan as late afternoon lover had never entered my mind but what the hell, good for him.
I got to the bedroom and it sounded like a fine old time was being had by all.
Hated to interrupt, but business!
Opened the door and said, “Is this a bad time?”
Sheridan’s head emerged from the sheets and he guffawed, said, “Fooking Morgan.”
The woman, I have to admit, a looker, pulled herself upright, her breasts exposed, reached for a cigarette and said, “Is this the famous American?”
There was a half-empty bottle of Jameson on the table beside Sheridan and he reached for it, took a lethal slug, gagged; said, “Buddy, meet Brona.”
She laughed as my jaw literally dropped.
She said, in not too bad an American pastiche, “He’s joining the dots.”
I put the briefcase on the floor and Sheridan roared. “Is that it, fook, is that the million?”
He didn’t enjoy it too long; Brona shot him in the forehead; said, “You come too quick.”
Turned the gun on me and was a little surprised to see my SIG leveled on her belly.
Nicely toned stomach, I’ll admit.
She smiled, said, “Mexican standoff?”
I said, “You put yours on the bed, slowly, and I’ll put mine on the floor, we have to be in harmony on this.”
I asked, “Mind If I have a drink?”
She said, “I’ll join you.”
I got the bottle of Jameson and as she pushed a glass forward, I cracked her skull with it; said, “I think you came too quick.”
I checked her pulse and as I’d hoped, she wasn’t dead. But mainly, she wouldn’t be talking for a while.
I did the requisite cleaning up and now for the really tricky part.
First the good news
I’d got his daughter back and alive.
Managed to kill one of the kidnappers.
Got shot myself in the cluster fuck.
The other kidnapper had gotten away.
And… with the money.
He and his crew were there in jig time.
The shot in my shoulder hurt like a bastard and I hated to part with the SIG, but what can you do.
Wrapped it in Sheridan’s fingers.
I don’t know how long we were there; Flaherty’s men got Brona out of there right away and I had to tell my story to Flaherty about a dozen times.
I think two things saved my ass
1… his beloved daughter was safe.
2… One bad guy was dead.
And I could see him thinking, if I was involved?
Why was I shot?
Why hadn’t I taken off?
I even provided a name for the other kidnapper, a shithead who’d dissed me way back.
He produced a fat envelope; said, “You earned it.”
And was gone
Four days later, I was, as Sheridan said, “In the wind.”
* * *
A few months later, tanned, with a nice unostentatious villa in the South of Spain, a rather fetching beard coming in, as the Brits would say, and a nice senorita who seemed interested in the quiet English writer I’d now become; a sort of middle list cozy author persona. I was as close to happy as it gets.
One evening, with a bag full of fresh-baked baguettes, some fine wine, and all the food for a masterful paella, I got back to the villa a little later than usual; I might even have been humming something from Man of La Mancha.
Opened the door and saw a woman in the corner, the late evening shadows washing over her; I asked, “Bonita?”
Brona, with a sawn off in her lap.
I dropped the bags.
She asked, “What day were you born on?”
I said, “Wednesday.”
She laughed; said, “Complete the rhyme…”
Jesus, what was it?
I acted like I was thinking seriously about that, but mainly I was thinking, how I’d get to the Walther PPK, in the press beside her.
Then she threw the said gun on the floor beside my wilted paella feast, smiled, said, “Here’s a hint, Tuesday’s child is full of Grace… so…”
Now she leveled the sawn off, cocked the hammer; said, “You get one guess.”
* * *
KEN BRUEN was a finalist for the Edgar, Barry, and Macavity Awards, and the Private Eye Writers of America presented him with the Shamus Award for the Best Novel of 2003 for The Guards, the book that introduced Jack Taylor. He lives in Galway, Ireland. To learn more about Ken and his novels go to www.kenbruen.com