An exclusive excerpt of chapters 1-3 of James W. Hall’s new Thorn thriller, Dead Last.
April Moss writes obituaries for the Miami Herald. Her son, Sawyer, also a writer, has been scripting a cable TV series called “Miami Ops” and has been using his mother’s work as a central element of the show’s storyline. In “Miami Ops,” a serial killer is using obituaries published in the local paper as a blueprint for selecting his next victims.
But midway through the season, a copycat appears off-screen, a real-life killer who is using the same strategy to select victims. The reclusive Thorn has no choice but to leave his sanctuary in Key Largo and join forces with a young policewoman from Oklahoma who is investigating the murders, especially when his deceased wife’s obit appears next to one of the bodies.
Thorn tracks the serial killer into a hotbed of entertainment business intrigue. This loner from Key Largo has brought down his share of killers, but this pursuit will be his most costly yet. . .
The intruder is wearing a blue stretchy catsuit that covers every inch of flesh as if he’d been dipped in indigo wax. He’s tall, slender, with wide shoulders and narrow hips—an elﬁn creature slipping down the murky hallway.
The bodysuit’s slippery sheen plays tricks with the frail light, making the prowler appear and disappear like a bashful spirit as he steals through the shadows, moving down the corridor past one shut door after another.
This could be a shabby hotel, or some other failed institution—a VA hospital, a public housing project gone to seed. The ceilings are high, the plaster walls pitted and peeling. Mounted high on the walls, brass sconces cast gloomy light toward the ceiling.
When the intruder reaches a large mirror hanging on the wall, he halts and seems captivated by his own shadowy reflection. He reaches toward the mirror, a finger extended. He touches the glass, tip meeting tip.
A breeze, salt-heavy and breathless, moans through the building.
The blue man breaks away from his reflection and moves on. Somewhere down the hall a television is playing—a cop show with gunﬁre and sirens. Overheated dialogue punctuated with the yelps and cries of an actress simulating mortal danger.
In his left hand the blue man carries a slip of paper the size of a dinner check. His other hand is empty.
Halfway down the corridor the blue man stops before a shut door and leans close to examine the card ﬁxed to it—the name of the occupant.
The blue man gathers himself, then opens the door and slides into the room. Several night-lights illuminate the room. Their yellow light glints off the guardrails of the bed and gives the room a sickly cast.
The blue man, sleek and lithe, draws close to the bed and looks down at the codger lying there. The sheets are drawn to his throat. Spun white hair halos his head. His face is wan. Dark splotches on his cheeks and forehead. His eyes are shut.
Blue Man places the paper on the bedside table, then takes a cautious grip of the pillow beneath Slattery’s head. He tightens his Lycra fingers and snatches the pillow free.
Slattery blinks and stares up at the faceless man.
The intruder holds the pillow to his chest and is silent while the old man blinks again to clear his vision. Is he still asleep? Is this a dream? Then he cracks a toothless smile.
“Hey, buddy, why so blue?”
Maybe Slattery’s old and frail, but he’s still a joker.
When the blue man does not reply, the old guy’s eyes tighten, the humor drains away. He turns to his bedside table and sees the clipping. The blue man holds still.
“Aw, cripes, you’re the obituary guy. Fuck me if you aren’t.”
Blue Man is silent, unmoving.
“You gotta be joking. Old fart like me? Come on, kid, why bother? Cancer’s taking me down soon enough.”
Is that a noise in the hallway? The blue man looks at the door. But after a moment he seems satisﬁed it’s nothing and turns back to Slattery.
“Listen, sonny, you won’t believe this, but just today I was talking about you. I was saying to my buddies what you need is first-rate PR guy. And hey, guess what? Just so happens I was in that racket for fifty years. Here in Miami. Promoted some big names out on the beach. Godfrey, Sullivan, hell, I got the Beatles their first stateside gig. You heard of them, right? The Beatles?”
Now the blue man seems to be listening, which emboldens Slattery.
“Like I say, you got the goods, this act, you could parlay this into something big. It’s creepy shtick, leaving an obit at each scene, taunting the cops. Got the FBI and the TV talking heads lathered up over what the hell the obits mean.
“That’s ﬂair, buddy, but hell, you’re not reaching your full potential. Keeping it in South Florida, hey, that’s penny ante, if you’ll pardon my candor. What you need, you need to make a splash. Put yourself on the big stage, go national, make your mark in Chicago, Dallas, L.A. You’re a hustler, right? You want money, notoriety, whatever. We’re all hustlers, right?”
The blue man is finished listening and he raises the pillow.
Slattery stiffens, saying, “Come on, let’s work this through. I’m being frank. You got something going, a gift for the ghoulish. No offense, Mr. Blue, you aren’t getting the audience you deserve.”
When he sees what’s coming, Slattery starts to yell for help, but the pillow crushes against his face, cutting him off, and the blue man leans his weight into it.
The sheets bulge and ripple. The old man’s hands break free and he ﬂails his skinny arms, clawing wildly. He’s a fighter, but no match for the blue man, who bears down until Slattery’s arms slow, and finally drift back to the sheets.
Still the blue man applies pressure. Seconds pass and Slattery’s body relaxes against the mattress.
The blue man raises the pillow and drops it at the foot of the bed. He stands still for a moment surveying his work, then picks up the paper from the bedside table and tacks it to the corkboard on the wall beside Slattery’s bed. It’s a newspaper clipping with jagged edges like the blade of a circular saw.
He turns to leave, but something in the bed catches his attention. A noise? Movement? The blue man returns to his victim’s side and bends low, presses a Lycra finger to Slattery’s throat. Could he be alive? Was he faking?
He tips his head down to peer into the dead man’s face.
Slattery erupts. He’s upright, huffing, lashing his right hand, then his left, a catfighter with his claws out. He snatches at the blue man’s face. Stuns him momentarily, then the blue man punches Slattery ﬂat in the nose, but the blow only revs the old man’s thrashing hands.
The blue man draws back his fist for another strike, Slattery slapping and slashing, when one of the old man’s fingers snags the seam at the blue man’s throat— where hood meets bodysuit.
Slattery freezes. Weighing the consequences.
It’s a standoff, neither moving. Then, slowly, the blue man raises a hand and takes hold of Slattery’s frail wrist, and begins to pry the man’s hand away.
But no. With a wild grunt, Slattery strips off the hood.
Revealing a woman with short platinum hair.
Slattery slumps back. Breathing hard, nothing left.
The woman has winter-gray eyes, skin as pale as sun-bleached bone. She has a high forehead, arched eyebrows, severe cheekbones, and swollen lips. She’s exotic, a stunner with the dramatic bone structure and imperious bearing of a runway goddess who has grown immune to cameras, harsh lights, and prying stares.
She lets Slattery drink her in. He’s shocked, too exhausted to speak.
She moves her blue hands to his throat and closes her fingers.
“It’s all right,” she says in a soothing voice. “I’ll be gentle.”
Her hands tighten and the old guy makes a feeble swat at her arms, but he’s got nothing left. As the seconds count away, his eyes close. The vigor drains from his features.
When the woman is done, she settles Slattery’s head on the pillow. Just so. Arranging him to look as serene as a strangled man can appear.
She straightens his hair with a gentle blue hand. There’s a postcoital poignancy to her gestures, as if the intimacy they shared has touched her.
Finished, she pulls the hood back on and tugs it into place.
She turns to the corkboard and straightens the page, admires it.
It’s an obituary from the newspaper, a three-paragraph summary of the life of some girl named Annie Woodburne. The headline reads
Molecular Biology Student, Planned to Teach
The woman in blue turns from the obituary and walks from the room. The door closes. Slattery is motionless. His expression ﬂat.
A beat, another beat.
Gus Dollimore rose from his canvas chair, pulled off his earphones, draped them around his neck, and looked around at the assembled cast and crew, then raised his ﬁst and pumped it twice.
“Terriﬁc stuff. A real nut-grabber. You guys killed it.”
Sawyer Moss held back a smile. Gus was hamming it up for their visitor—the guy sitting next to Sawyer with this week’s script open in his lap.
The usual turmoil resumed. Two dozen crew members hustling and bustling, making ready for the next scene. The unit production manager was on his handheld radio barking orders, first assistant director on the cell with some off-site problem. Grips, gaffer, camera guys, the cable draggers and equipment haulers, the makeup and hair assistants, the stand-ins, assorted construction men and prop people. Guys taking down the lights, carrying off the bounce boards.
The DP, Bernie Bernard, consulted with Mills, who was still strapped in the leather harness carrying the weight of the Steadicam. It was Mills, head cameraman, who’d trailed the killer down the hallway, staying tight on the blue suit, playing with the shadows.
Bernie and Mills huddled at the monitor, studying the playback of the last few seconds. The hand-fighting, hood ripped off, the actors’ expressions.
“Tell me we got it, Bernie,” Dollimore said. “Tell me it’s perfect.”
“Could’ve opened the lens half a crack more. A few shadows I don’t like. But it’s decent. Good enough for cable TV.”
Mills chuckled; the best boy and one of the electricians hid their smiles in deference to the outsider.
Sawyer unfolded his call sheet to check the next setup. A dozen more scenes to shoot before they punched out tonight. Next up was an exterior in the courtyard—murder aftermath, patrol cars and EMTs arriving, Miami patrol officers, then the homicide guys shuffling in, rumpled, with their thimbles of Cuban coffee. Some dialogue with the owner of the nursing home—she’s horrified at Slattery’s death. Nothing dramatic, but a necessary bridge.
Sawyer Moss rose from the canvas chair where he’d watched the scene play out. To his left their visitor stayed put.
Everybody else on the set, men and women, were dressed in cargo shorts or ratty jeans, T-shirts, running shoes, lots of baseball hats, as scruffy as a bunch of carneys at the county fair.
But not their visitor, who was decked out in beige slacks, shiny loafers, a teal guayabera embroidered with palm trees, and Louis Vuitton shades cocked up into his curly black hair. A California dork’s notion of Miami chic.
Murray Danson had ﬂown in last night from L.A. to watch them shoot the tenth episode. The studio’s rep, Danson was there to go over the books, but mainly to deliver a face-to-face update. Where the ratings stood, what the sponsors were saying, how much longer Gus Dollimore and his merry band had left before cancellation.
Not long, is what Sawyer Moss guessed, seeing Danson’s grim look.
Sawyer was head writer for Miami Ops. His break into the ﬁlm biz was less than a year old and already it was in serious danger. A nasty black mark about to be entered on his permanent record. The writer of a ﬂop.
The season’s main storyline was Sawyer’s invention: A killer has a fanatical obsession with The Miami Herald’s female obituary writer, whom he considers his personal oracle. Apparently he’s found secret codes hidden in her obits, codes he uses as blueprints for his killings.
The Miami homicide detectives investigating the killings are stumped, and the geniuses at the FBI put only one guy on the obit case, some old schlub who’s counting the days till retirement.
Meanwhile, the killer is wicked smart, leaving behind at each scene the very obit that guided him to this particular victim. No one’s managed to find the link between the obits and the victims. Even the two crack Miami Ops agents can’t figure out what’s steering the killer. Every trap they set has failed, every lead dead- ended. In the four episodes aired so far, the Ops team has wrapped up a dozen flamboyant criminal enterprises, the usual whacked-out Miami bullshit, but their ongoing investigation of the obit killer has them stymied.
They always seem to be two steps behind. The guy’s onto their every move. Naturally they suspect a leak. But where?
This week’s big reveal was that hood coming off. The killer’s identity exposed. Badda-bing. First of all it’s a she. And second, this particular she is Valerie, the blond twin of Madeline Braun, one of the two Ops agents. Identical twin. Two gorgeous Brauns, one dark haired, one blond, one good, one evil. There’s your leak. And a juicy twist.
A year ago when Sawyer pitched the obit plot, the studio bright boys were unmoved, and Gus was only lukewarm, saying, “Serial killers are boring, an exhausted vein, clichéd, done to death.” But pigheaded Sawyer believed he’d found a new angle and fought for the concept and kept tweaking, adding the bodysuit and some kinky sex, until finally Gus came around and convinced the faint-hearts at the Expo Channel.
To pinch pennies, they made Gus show runner, executive producer, and full-time director. Gus Dollimore, man for all seasons. If the show’s a hit, Gus is superman. If it fails, good luck ﬁnding work in the TV biz anytime soon.
Season starts, they’re cruising. Gus is all in, the actors are digging their parts, crew’s onboard, then pow! Day after the premiere, the critics let loose. Reviews ranged from brutal to bloodthirsty, and the ratings flatlined. Last week in its Thursday time slot the show was running dead last. And against the other three TV series shot in Miami, same thing. Dead last.
Today, July 1, with the fifth episode airing tonight and four more already shot, edited, and in the can, there was no turning back on the storyline. Episode ten, the one they were shooting this week, would air in five weeks. If it sucked, it sucked. But they were locked in to the obit plot.
Oh, sure, Sawyer could fine-tune the four season-ending scripts, amp up the sex, ﬂash some bare ass, blow some shit up, but with the breakneck pace of production, shooting an episode a week while prepping for the coming week’s shoot, there wasn’t time for major course corrections.
And now, after having a long look at Murray Danson, the guy’s humorless L.A. face, Sawyer thought, Shit, this was what doom looked like. Sawyer’s ﬁlm career was about to crash and burn.
Danson stood up, yawned like he was bored silly, then flicked his hand at Dollimore. Outside. They needed to talk.
The big moment coming.
Sawyer waited for Gus to wave him over to join in, but he didn’t. The two left the room, disappeared down the hallway.
Dee Dee walked up, still in the blue Lycra, hood off, blond wig gone, finger-combing her short black hair. Scrubbed of makeup and without the lighting effects, Dee Dee was no longer a brutally gorgeous goddess. She was back to being simply a svelte hottie with an edgy vibe.
“That was cute,” she said. “Slattery’s line about the killer not getting the audience he deserved. A nod to our shitty ratings.”
“Glad somebody noticed. Gus didn’t say a word.”
“Gus has more on his mind than navel gazing.”
Smiling at him while she gave him shit. She could get away with it, being one of the show’s stars and because, okay, Dee Dee was also Sawyer’s erotically gifted girl. Not to mention Gus Dollimore’s precious daughter. Yeah, yeah, Sawyer knew that all added up to a risky incestuous stew. But hell, in the last few years complicated relationships had become his specialty.
“Slattery’s speech,” Dee Dee said, “it runs long. Felt padded.”
“I thought it had a nice rhythm. Guy’s trying to talk his way out of getting iced, using the only skill he has. But the huckster’s lost his magic.”
“I was tapping my foot. It took forever.”
“You could’ve said something on one of the early takes.”
“In front of Danson? Come on.”
“Well, we can’t reshoot.” Sawyer glanced at the empty door. “We’re two thousand over budget for the week, with all that overtime last night.”
“Who’s the star of this show, sweetie? Me or Slattery?”
“You got major minutes, Dee Dee. Your face was the payoff.”
“But he got the kickass speech. That scene was about him.”
“All right. I’ll bring it up with Gus.”
“All those horny males in our demographic, who do they want to see? Me in a catsuit with my perky tits, or a sad old guy in a hospital bed?”
“You’re right, Dee Dee.”
She leaned close.
“What’s your gut saying?”
She nodded toward the hallway where Danson and Gus were talking.
“Danson is not a happy cowboy.”
She smoothed a blue hand over her ripped abs. Dee, the fitness freak.
“Maybe his chaps are chafing.”
“Yeah, maybe they are.”
“I could take him back to his hotel, loosen them a notch.”
“The hell you will.”
She gave him her don’t-get-possessive glare. Half serious, half not.
Flynn Moss drifted over, still in his street clothes, no scenes for him till the afternoon shoot. Khaki shorts, white T-shirt, flip-ﬂops. Dee Dee’s costar, Flynn played Janus, the ruthless rogue cop, master of disguise.
Flynn was Sawyer’s twin. Maybe a smidge shorter but otherwise they were duplicates. In every nonphysical way, however, they were galaxies apart. Sawyer, the brainy one, calm and measured, a loner by instinct. Flynn, the action figure, ballsy, down and dirty, the last one to leave the party. The guy with a hundred hangover remedies.
And Flynn Moss was most definitely not a fan of Dee Dee Dollimore’s. Zero respect for her acting skills, and totally unmoved by her sexual allure. Feelings that were bitterly mutual.
Dee Dee gave Flynn a mock smile, then turned and flounced away.
“Nice creep factor, Sawyer.” Then he slipped into a perfect impression of Dee Dee’s voice. “ ‘It’s all right, I’ll be gentle.’ ”
“Glad you liked it.”
“Then boom, she strangles the geezer. Good work, bro. Finally embracing your dark side.”
“Dee Dee thought Slattery’s part was padded. She wanted more lines.”
“Fuck her, she always wants more lines. If she had her way the show would be one long soliloquy by Princess Dee Dee. The rest of us standing around worshiping her twitchy butt.”
“You’re too hard on her, man. She wants what’s good for the show. Like the rest of us.”
“And you’re majorly pussy whipped. Sure, she’s yummy and all that, but the girl is killing our box office all by her lonesome. Less she talks, the better. Keep her in that suit, hood on, ﬂaunt that bod, give her six words per episode max—or better yet, gag her with a jockstrap—and watch our ratings climb.”
“Cool it, Flynn.”
“Kidding, man. Just kidding.”
“Sure you are.”
Gus walked back into the room alone and everyone lowered the volume. The verdict was in. The crew sneaking looks to get a clue.
He stood there a minute, organizing his thoughts.
Gus Dollimore had the emaciated hardness of a man grimly determined to purge every ounce of flab. Around his eyes the skin was pinched, and his cheeks were as taut as boiled meat. He wore his jet black hair in a military crew cut. In a forgiving light, Gus might be mistaken for a hard-living forty-five instead of a man at war with sixty. He wore a black jersey and white silky trousers that swished around his long legs like luminous smoke as he walked over to Sawyer.
“Give us a minute,” he told Flynn as he took Sawyer’s arm and steered him to the far corner of the room.
Flynn made a sloppy salute, did an about-face, and marched off. A little pissed, though Flynn damn well knew the chain of command. Until he was a bigger star, he was below the line, down with the rest of the hired help.
Gus’s grip on Sawyer’s biceps was rigid.
Not good, Sawyer was thinking. Definitely not good.
“So here’s the deal.” Gus shot a look at a set dresser talking on her cell nearby. He jerked his chin at her and she backed away out of earshot. Gus released Sawyer’s arm just as his hand was going numb.
“We’re cancelled,” Sawyer said.
“No,” Gus said. “Danson gave me a number. A target.”
“A million more.”
“A million new customers,” Gus said, “or we’re on the street.”
“Episode ten, five weeks from today.”
“Bastards want that many eyeballs, they need to run some freaking ads.”
“We know that isn’t going to happen,” Gus said. “This economy.”
“So we’re dead.”
Gus looked at the bed where Dee Dee had strangled Slattery. Eyes taking on a hard glitter. Sawyer could feel the radiation coming off the guy.
“You got an idea?”
“Fuckers want a million,” Gus said. “We give ’em a million.”
“Like it’s that simple.”
“Everything good is simple.”
“So talk to me.”
“Look, kid, I been kissing ass so long, I put myself to sleep every night counting butt cracks. This show tanks, no way I’ll claw my way back.”
“What’s on your mind?”
Dollimore watched two prop guys roll the deathbed from the room. The nursing home where they were shooting would have it back in service in time for afternoon naps.
When Gus spoke again, his voice was barely a whisper.
“Question is, what’re you willing to do to survive?”
“I’ll write my ass off.”
“Cut the Boy Scout shit.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I’m not talking about scribbling, hotshot. I’m asking, are you willing to get your hands dirty to keep us working? Me, your brother, this crew. That shit you had Slattery say, is that just garbage, or do you believe it?”
“Making a splash, all that.”
“I’m not following you.”
Gus grimaced and waved a dismissive hand.
“Tell me what you want, Gus, I’m there.”
Dollimore leaned close, breath to breath, appraising him, Gus’s harsh brown eyes roaming Sawyer’s face. Whatever he saw made him grit his jaw and huff out a disgusted breath. Without a backward glance, Gus stalked offstage.
ACT ONE: SLIPPING INTO SECOND PERSON
It was Saturday, mid-July, and Thorn and Rusty Stabler were drifting through Trout Creek, a half hour west of Key Largo by boat. On the fringes of the Everglades, this northern corner of the Florida Bay was dotted with tiny islands and flats that rose into view at low tide to become vast sandbars where egrets and herons feasted on mollusks and stranded pinfish and shrimp.
Narrow unmarked channels snaked across the grassy bottom and cut close to the mangrove islands, making it a tricky place to navigate even in a shallow draft skiff like theirs. All across this region the turtle grass was scarred with prop trails from novice boaters who’d strayed into the shallows and plowed deep grooves at high speed, leaving their idiotic signatures in the sea floor for decades to come.
The Bogies, Stump Pass, Nest Key, Alligator Bay, Trout Cove, Little Madeira, Long Sound, Joe Bay, Tern, and Eagle keys. The islands and sandbars, bays and coves of this remote area were as familiar to the two of them as the slopes, curves, and soft undulations of a lover’s body.
Unanchored, they rode the tide, their live shrimp jigging past the mangrove roots where the groupers and big snappers lurked. For this mindless sport, none of Rusty’s casting skills or dexterity was required. It was the kind of half-assed fishing that day-tripping tourists indulged in.
Though it was beneath her abilities, Rusty was beyond caring about such things. Today it was the air they were after, the pure, hard summer light, the wayward scent of wilderness. One by one, they were going to hit all her favorite fishing holes, a stations- of-the-cross pilgrimage around the bays and flats and creeks of the upper Keys. Spots both of them had ﬁshed since they were kids.
Rusty Stabler, his lover for the last two years. The longest connection Thorn had ever managed with a woman. Longest and most solid, and now it had become by far the most painful.
He watched Rusty twitch her line, putting action in her bait. Hip cocked against the center console, eyes fixed on the water’s surface, waiting for any riffle, holding the rod with a loose readiness, reflexes alert. Like Rusty of old.
Twenty yards up the creek a trio of dolphins appeared and took their sweet, silky time rolling past. With a quiet smile, Rusty monitored their journey.
To the east, the ruddy flush of dawn crept above the horizon, and its glow seeped upward into the pearl-gray sky. A breeze passing through Joe Bay sent ripples fanning across the creek, keeping the mosquitoes off. Somewhere inside the dense web of mangroves an osprey hit its high strong notes, twelve in a row, a pause, then twelve more haunting cries as if it were making its morning devotions.
He watched as the dolphins moved into the bay, taking their magic elsewhere.
Rusty motioned at the water off the stern. “Heads up.”
Thorn turned as a fish nudged his bait. He popped the line, set the hook, and knew in half a second it was another runt. His third in five minutes.
“You’re on a tear, Thorn.”
He brought it alongside, released the small gray snapper, then fixed another shrimp to the hook. He glanced at Rusty, returned her smile, and pitched the bait close to the mangroves.
“Tide’s picking up; we should do a little better now.”
“When was fishing ever about catching fish?” she said.
Thorn was silent, watching their trailing baits.
“Oh, shit. Listen to me getting all Zen.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said.
As he watched, something hard and ugly shifted inside Rusty’s gut. She winced, closed her eyes, and slumped forward.
He peeled the rod from her hands and set it in a holder.
“All right, that’s enough. We’re going in.”
“And do what? Lie on my back, stare at the ceiling, and wait?”
“Rusty, you’re hurting.”
“I’m okay.” Her face was pale and she swayed as if the boat were wallowing. “I’ll sit down, take a breather. But I’m not ready to go in.”
She turned from him, edged around the console, and settled onto the casting platform. There was a dry rasp in her breathing.
He slid his rod into the holder alongside hers and came over. It was a minute before she had her breath back and looked up. Her hazel eyes were muddied by the drugs and pain but they remained unﬂ inching.
“This was a mistake.”
“Stop it, Thorn. This is exactly right. I can’t imagine a better ending.”
She drew a breath and wiped away the shine of sweat on her neck.
“You know what I mean. Right here, right now. This is perfect, exactly where I should be today, at this stage.”
She looked away, taking a moment to regain the rhythm of her breath. When she turned to him again, her eyes had cleared.
“Ease off, would you. Even if you have to fake it. Okay? It makes things tougher with you tensed up, fighting so hard.”
Thorn was silent. In the last few weeks he’d tried every upbeat phrase he knew, anything to encourage her, brighten the gloom. Then yesterday, with a fierceness she’d never directed at him before, she ordered him to stop. They were past all that bullshit. Three rounds of chemo had done nothing; the morphine wasn’t touching her pain. It was no longer a matter of if.
After her outburst, her voice had steadied and her face had assumed the calm bemusement of one who no longer dreads anything.
Now Rusty reset her Heat cap on her hairless scalp and turned her eyes toward the empty bay.
“Trout Creek,” she said. “I caught my first fish over there. I ever tell you about that?”
“A big-ass grouper. You were nine, came out alone in a plastic boat with a ten-horse Merc. The damn fish towed you for about half an hour before you wore it out. Like Santiago and his marlin. That grouper got you addicted.”
“When did I tell you that?”
“It doesn’t matter, Rusty.”
“When, damn it?”
“I don’t know, ten minutes ago. Maybe fifteen.”
“Shit.” She shook her head, frowning.
“It’s nothing. It’s okay. Everything’s fine. It’s the drugs.”
Gradually her frustration passed, and she sighed and her lips softened again, coming as close to a smile as Thorn had seen from her in weeks.
She rose and opened her arms and Thorn stepped into the embrace. She held him firmly, then eased her head back. The ﬁt of her lips was as flawless as ever, though he could taste the acrid bite of the chemicals lacing her blood.
He pressed deeper and lost himself in the kiss, until finally Rusty drew away. She touched a finger to the stubble on his cheek, drew a slow line down his jaw, and gave him another peck before stepping back and retrieving her rod.
They returned to fishing, watched their baits, and were quiet. The air was radiant and thick with the sweet labors of summer, the swollen moon-driven tide, the scent of hidden orchids and reptiles sunning themselves on the high limbs of the mangroves. On the water’s surface, the lacy shadows of branches and leaves trembled with every breath of breeze.
For the last week the Keys had been under the spell of a confluence of celestial events that caused the bays and ocean currents to swell several feet higher than normal. Around the island, seawater was washing over the rocky beaches and heaving high against seawalls. Thorn’s own dock was three inches below the waterline. Because the moon was in perfect alignment with the earth, at perigee, its closest approach to the southern hemisphere in decades, the increased gravitational pull was tugging at anything with even the slightest water content. A reminder of the bewitching forces calling from deep space, many of them still unnamed, unmeasured, their effects not yet known.
For Thorn the link between the swollen tides and Rusty’s illness was unmistakable. Of course, the idea that earthbound matters could be controlled by invisible powers beyond our realm fueled the religious faithful, stirring them to spiritual awe and devotion to a higher power.
But not Thorn. It only jacked up his rage.
Surrendering was not in his nature, especially to forces that were nameless and intangible. For weeks as Rusty battled her illness, he’d been yearning to take something by the throat and throttle it. To go tooth and claw with Rusty’s tormentor. But there was nothing there.
He was reeling in his line, about to take a break, when something big crashed his bait. The rod jerked from his fingers, clattered across the deck, and was heading overboard when he stabbed at it and found a grip. Twenty feet of line burned off the reel. Out in the creek the buckle of water was closing on the mangrove roots when Thorn yanked it to a halt.
“I think we got your grouper,” he said. “Or one of its grandkids.”
He tightened the drag, won back some line before the fish turned again and bulled back toward its lair. Those roots were coated in barnacles with razory edges, and the slightest brush would slice the lightweight monofilament.
Thorn leaned back and horsed the fish to the right, dipping the rod tip and cranking the slack until he had the fish alongside. As he grabbed the light line and kneeled to unhook it, he caught a flash to his right and looked out in time to see a shark heading toward the helpless grouper.
Ten feet away, it would tear into the fish in seconds.
Thorn jerked the line to his mouth, bit it in two, freeing the fish. Through the clear water he watched the old warrior scoot back to the safety of the mangroves. The shark, a six-foot brown, sailed past, missing it by inches.
But then, as if the natural laws of physics didn’t apply to it, the bulky predator veered right and was on the grouper in half a second. Blood blossomed at the edge of the mangrove roots; the water boiled for a moment and was still.
He watched the shark thrash, inhaling the last of the grouper, then it departed. A moment later a school of glassy minnows swarmed in to mop up the final floating chunks. Seconds after that the creek was still, a freshening breeze sweeping in from the east, the incoming tide flushing away the last signs of carnage. When he turned around, she’d vanished.
He stepped around the center console and found her sprawled facedown. Her head twisted to the side, cheek mashed against the deck. Her eyes were open, milky and unseeing.
Across the creek the osprey screamed and screamed again.
THE MIAMI HERALD
Monday, July 19
Rachel Anne “Rusty” Stabler, At Peace on the Water
By April Moss
Rachel Anne Stabler, who was born in America’s landlocked heartland but came to cherish the watery paradise of her adopted home in the Florida Keys, died at her residence in Key Largo after a short illness. She was 46 years old.
For decades, Rusty explored the waters of the Florida Bay, the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico, first as a youngster in her own skiff, and later as a charter fishing guide, taking anglers onto the saltwater flats or into secluded creeks and bays in search of tarpon, bonefish and other elusive prey.
Born in Starkville, Oklahoma, Rusty Stabler arrived in the Keys at the age of 6 with her single mother, June Ellen Stabler, who had come to those remote islands in search of a fresh start. Rusty completed high school at Coral Shores High in Tavernier, where she struggled with her studies. “As a sophomore she fell in with a tough crew,” said former principal Matthew Shane. “She was flunking most of her classes, then one day she walked into my office and threw down the gauntlet. She said if the high school didn’t start teaching something useful, we were going to lose her and a lot of others like her. She was lit up.”
Frustrated with the lack of response from Shane and other administrators in the school system, Rusty organized students and parents to pressure the Monroe County school board into offering an accredited course in outboard engine repair. Though on repeated occasions the board dismissed her appeals, Rusty persevered, gathering petitions and organizing her fellow students and their parents. Because boating plays such a central role in the Keys economy and its history, Rusty felt the school system was failing to prepare students for island living by neglecting a marine studies curriculum.
Her resolve paid off. In the fall of Rusty’s junior year, an outboard engine repair course was offered to students at Coral Shores for the first time. “Nobody had any idea how popular that course would be,” said retired principal Shane. “Nobody but Rusty.”
After graduation, Stabler devoted herself to building her charter fishing business into a thriving enterprise. According to Ron Marden, president of the Upper Keys Chamber of Commerce, Stabler became one of the top fishing guides in the Florida Keys. “You always got your money’s worth when you went out with Rusty. Her rig, Sunny Daze, wasn’t the slickest skiff out there, but by god, her anglers always caught fish, even when things was dead, and nobody else was getting a bite. That girl just had the gift.”
“When she started out, Rusty was the first girl guide in Islamorada, and the guys on the dock weren’t pleased,” said Captain Harry Sanders, a guide with sixty years’ experience in the Keys. “They hazed her, made her life hell. If it bothered her, she never let on. She had a quiet, modest way about her. She wasn’t some pushy women’s libber, which helped, but what finally won over the guys was the way she put her clients into fish. Day after day Rusty kicked the other guides’ butts. That gal could outfish anybody I ever run across.”
Through Rusty Stabler’s continued efforts and financial contributions, today that single course at her former high school has grown into a complete program consisting of more than two dozen classes in electronics, navigation and marine science. Attracting master mechanics and nautical engineers and university professors from around the globe, many of them Rusty Stabler’s fishing clients, Coral Shores High School has developed one of the premier marine vocational studies programs in the nation.
Rusty was spearheading a fundraising campaign that brought in $600,000, all of it designated for a new wing at her alma mater, space which will be used exclusively for the program her efforts brought to life over three decades ago.
For the last few years, Rusty had put her charter fishing business on hold while she accepted a new challenge as chairman of the board of Bates International. Based in Sarasota, Bates International, the largest family-owned agribusiness in the U.S., is the second- largest landowner in Florida, where its holdings include phosphate mines and sprawling cattle ranches in the central regions of the state. “In a very short time Rusty accomplished some amazing things,” said Jill Montrose, a longtime Bates board member. “Ms. Stabler was turning BI into one of the worldwide leaders in ecologically responsible food production. She had to fight for every inch of gain she made, but she had amazing grit and dedication.”
“Rusty was as strong-willed as anybody I’ve ever met,” said her friend Laurence Sugarman, a Key Largo security professional. “Even towards the end, when things were darkest for her, Rusty was still upbeat. She believed she’d had a magical life. Far richer than anything she ever expected. Her only regret was that in the last couple of years her work with Bates kept her off the water. That was where she was most at peace. Out in her boat.”
In accordance with her wishes, Rusty Stabler’s remains were cremated and her ashes spread at sea after a sunset celebration at the home of her husband of less than a month, Daniel Oliver Thorn.
On your way to the kill, you slip into second person. This happened naturally at the start and felt comfortable, so you stayed with it.
At these moments it becomes the way you think. There’s you and the other you. You speak calmly to yourself, and you listen calmly to yourself speaking. The you in the mirror conversing with the other who stands before it. The two of you doing this together. Both halves of an echo.
After this many times, the process should be easier. But no, you must rehearse, talk your way through each step. Remind yourself to watch the ball, concentrate, stay loose. You are the coach, you are the player.
In most ways each new one is more challenging than those before. As if you’ve used up something you had at the outset, the commitment, the inspiration, and now you must work harder to manage each step. To conjure the act. To keep from fucking up.
These are not thrill kills. Committing the act, watching them die, there is no dark ecstasy. This is, in fact, a challenge beyond anything you’ve ever attempted. But it must be done. When the obituary appears, you wait the proper interval, then go. It is your calling. Your way forward.
This journey is the longest you’ve undertaken for this purpose. You’d rather keep your murders local, but that’s not your choice. The targets are selected for you. There is no free will.
In Dallas you retrieve your checked bag. You ﬁnd an alcove, unzip it, check to see that the weapon has not been tampered with by security. It hasn’t. The paper sack is still stapled shut, the cash receipt undisturbed.
You take the airport shuttle downtown. Go inside, buy a paper, ﬁ nd a seat, pretend to read. You could be a guest, or waiting for a guest to arrive. It is unlikely that anyone will recall you, but it’s possible that a video cam will capture your image and one day the detective pursuing you will attempt to read your purpose in that lobby.
Your goal is to confuse someone you have never met. Of course you know that one day soon they will uncover your crimes, ﬁnd links between the murders. And they will be on your trail, using computer searches and TSA security videos and all the high-tech procedures that track killers. You know all that, but it neither frightens nor deters you. You prepare for that day. You welcome it.
You’re like a ﬁlm actor who understands full well that his every action and gesture will be viewed and dissected in a dark room in some not-so-distant future. This is your art. You are the director, you are the star. You disappear into your part, and watch yourself disappearing.
After a while you exit the hotel, hail a cab, tell the driver to take you to the airport. At the rental car counter you use the second ID you’ve obtained to rent a vehicle. You pay by credit card, using the one you bought on the streets of Miami. These are simple measures, what any smart killer would do. Zigging and zagging, appearing to do one thing but doing something else.
The Lyrca suit is folded up among the clothes in your bag. It compresses to the size of a hardback book. The weapon is still inside the manufacturer’s box, and that box is inside the paper sack from the sporting goods store in Miami where you purchased it. All perfectly legal.
Across the desolate countryside you drive the rental car. Eventually there are signs for Broken Bow, Antlers, Heavener, Blanco. Pioneer names for redneck towns. Farmland, rolling hills, few trees. A scrubby landscape, more browns than greens. You buy gas with cash. You stop for a late lunch at a fast-food place along the highway. You studied the maps, memorized the route.
You arrive at the small town in Oklahoma, drive through the decaying business district, swing by the white frame house where your target lives. A woman in her sixties. She should present no serious physical problems.
You’ve studied the street names from an Internet map. Now you note the streetlights, their locations along the route you’ve chosen. You observe the trees, how densely leaved they are, picturing how much light will be cast along the path you will take. It will be brighter than you’d like, but not as bright as an open city street. The moon is new, so its glow is not a factor.
Because it is hours before dark, you circle back to the interstate and cruise north, then pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, slump in your seat as if napping, and watch to see if anyone pays attention to your car. If they do, you will leave. They don’t.
When the sun sets, you drive back to the area where your victim lives. Because it is a small town, you park your rental in a location where you are least likely to be noticed, where strangers congregate. Tonight your staging spot is a country music bar called Blue Heaven. Five blocks from the target’s house.
In the parking lot, a half-dozen pickup trucks and several family cars, a tow truck and two panel vans. It’s a popular place on this Saturday night. There was no way to know that in advance, but you’re glad it’s busy. You park beside a dark pickup truck. On the other side of your car is a Dumpster.
From your suitcase you take out the Lycra suit.
Wearing it on these occasions makes you strangely beautiful and free. But there is obvious danger. On only your second outing, you were stopped by a cop in an Atlanta neighborhood. It was dark, but his head-lamps caught you in their ﬂare and he pulled over and hailed you, keeping you in the blinding lights. You were wearing the suit, and you carried a butcher knife inside a paper sack.
Your heart was seizing, but you didn’t run. You kept your voice under control and told the ofﬁcer you were simply experimenting by walking around in the suit to see how it felt. A harmless prank. A dare. You pretended to be embarrassed. You were submissive. I didn’t know it was illegal, you said.
The ofﬁcer was a country boy, a know-it-all eager to show off his mastery of law. Drawling as he explained the suit itself was not the problem, it was the hood. You were in violation of Title 16, Chapter 11, Section 38 of the Georgia statutes—the anti-mask law. It was unlawful to wear a mask, hood, or device that concealed the identity of the wearer. Exemptions were made for traditional holiday costumes and persons lawfully engaged in trade and employment or sporting activity for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer, or because of the nature of the occupation or trade. A person could wear a mask intended for a theatrical production or masquerade balls.
Are you, he asked, on the way to a masquerade ball or a holiday party or a sporting event? No, sir, you confessed, you were not.
Didn’t think so, he said. Hellﬁre, boy, what were you thinking?
You don’t know what to say, so you say nothing.
It’s not just Georgia, he explained. Other states had similar statutes, growing out of anti-KKK laws.
You told him you understood. You didn’t realize it was a crime.
He ordered you to remove the hood and without hesitation you pulled it off, showing him the face you prepared for just such an event. You held your hand in front of your eyes to shield the glare of the headlights. You tilted your head just so, and shifted your feet to angle yourself sideways. In that moment you realized how this situation could work to your advantage. This could be the break you need.
You apologized. You intended no harm. You were doing it as a lark. You keep that open hand in front of your eyes.
He could have detained you for prowling. He could have demanded to see your ID. Asked to examine the contents of your shopping bag. But his radio was squawking and he was distracted by it. Bigger ﬁsh elsewhere.
After a silence, he accepted your explanation, and you were allowed to walk away in your black suit.
Two weeks later, here in the parking lot of the cowboy bar, you strip out of your clothes. It requires limberness and patience. You’ve learned to bend and stretch around the steering wheel. Shoes ﬁrst, pants, then underclothes, and last your shirt. You arrange them on the seat beside you, stack them in a tidy pile. When you return in a while you will be jangled and it’s important the clothes are organized. Seeing them will calm you.
When you’re naked you wriggle into the suit. Some people refer to it as a unitard or a catsuit, but the proper name is Zentai. A Japanese word that simply means “bodysuit.”
The stretchy material is skintight, nonreﬂective black. The hood assumes the shape of your face and skull. There are no eyeholes or mouth slits. The material is sufﬁciently thin at those places so your vision is only slightly impaired and breathing is easy. When the suit is in place, you ﬁt on the special shoes. And you are ready.
Your hand is on the door latch when you hear voices, and look into the rearview mirror. A couple is crossing the parking lot. In the outside mirror you watch them stagger, heading toward the pickup beside you. The man wears a string tie and a cowboy hat and the girl a low-cut top and a miniskirt. They are clinging to each other, kissing and groping.
You could duck down and try to hide, but you don’t because this encounter might also prove useful. You’re running out of time. Such risks are becoming more necessary at this stage, so you remain motionless in the seat behind the wheel and wait as they approach. They stop at the tailgate of the cowboy’s pickup and share a sloppy kiss. Then they separate and the girl in the silver skirt and dark top comes down the aisle between the pickup truck and your car.
You take your eyes off the mirror and wait for her approach. You hear the truck’s door open and the cowboy saying something drawly. “Get your sweet ass in my truck right now, woman.” The woman answers: “I don’t know if I like the way you’re speaking to me, sir.”
You turn and look out your window. Her butt is an arm’s length away.
She climbs into the truck and reaches back to close the door, but stops.
She leans toward you. She’s seen something but doesn’t know what it is. It’s dark. She’s drunk, she’s sexed up.
She stares at you for three seconds, four. The cowboy says something you can’t hear. Then she slams the door. The look on her face has changed. She’s not sexy anymore. She’s not drunk. Her mouth is open, eyes large.
The truck starts. It has loud exhausts, a throaty rumble. He backs out of the space, and you turn your head to see her again, staring at you, at the black shape in the front seat of a car, her eyes squinting through the dark.
The two lovers head off into the night. She doesn’t know what she saw. But whatever it was, it scared her.
You have infected her evening. She won’t be able to get you out of her mind. If she tells the cowboy what she thinks she saw, he’ll have a good laugh. He’ll call her loony, a drunk. He’ll screw her anyway, but it won’t be as pleasurable as it might have been. You’ve invaded her imagination and she won’t be able to get rid of you.
You take the weapon out of the suitcase, strip away the packaging. Some minor assembly is required, no tools necessary. You tear the cash receipt into pieces and ball up the brown paper sack. You get out and throw the trash in the Dumpster. You know, of course, this act is sloppy and could lead to your undoing, but you do it anyway.
The parking lot is quiet. No one around, just the thump of the jukebox inside the cowboy bar. As a precaution you decide to relocate your car. You don’t think a cop would take the woman’s story seriously and send a prowl car to the bar. She’s drunk. But you play it safe.
It is one thing to be discovered, quite another to be caught.
You get back in, drive a mile east, and park near a school you noted earlier. The white rental car is a common make. It has Texas plates. It blends into the neighborhood.
You open the car door, step out. You absorb the darkness, and the darkness absorbs you. You can feel the warm night air brush across the suit. You are naked but you are not naked.
You listen to the crickets and the call of a distant owl. You reach into the car and take out your weapon. You carry it like a warrior marching into battle. Through the darkness you walk the short distance to your victim’s house. No trafﬁc passes. Most houses along the way are dark. A few have a single light burning inside in this early-to-bed town.
When you reach the house, you ﬁnd it dark as well. You are energized. Naked in the night. But also concealed. An unseen spirit gliding through the summer air, hearing only distant cars, the yowl of a tomcat jousting with a rival, the hum of the power lines, crickets answering crickets. Bats ﬂicker through a streetlight.
You are alive with the fever of the moment.
You circle the house. You are looking for signs of other occupants. Potential trouble. There is only one car in the driveway, an old Volvo. The yard is unkept, grass long, bushes overgrown. No yard furniture. A light glows in a single window. You hear no noise from inside. You return to the front.
You mount the steps, slip inside the small screened porch.
You were planning on ringing the doorbell or knocking. To wake the woman, draw her to the door groggy from sleep, then barge through and do your quick work. But as astonishing as it seems, the door is unlocked. A lazy backwater way of life is still ﬂourishing—at least for one last night. Tomorrow this town will know fear. Locksmiths will be busy.
You step into the stuffy darkness of the foyer. The scent of fried food is in the air. Cigarette smoke, booze. You have formed no image of the woman you’ve come to kill, but these odors make you picture her as fat, wearing curlers. You see her feasting on Doritos and rum and Coke while chain-smoking and watching a late-night talk show.
You dissolve that image. It interferes with your clarity of purpose. It confuses the issue. You do not care about these people. You don’t build a case for them or against them. You don’t interact or engage. Keep contact to a minimum. Kill and leave. These people are pawns. They are nothing.
You locate her bedroom from the slit of light beneath the door and the density of cigarette smoke. You open her door slowly and step inside. By her bed a radio plays classic rock tunes quietly. A brass ashtray is overﬂowing. Her bedspread is littered with ﬁle folders and yellow notepads. She’s propped up on pillows. She looks at you from behind a sheaf of papers that she’s been reading. Gripped between her lips is a ballpoint pen. Purple ink, purple scribbles in the margins of the papers. Her hair is loose, streaked with gray, and it hangs down her back. She wears reading glasses. For someone her age she is attractive. Slim body, alert eyes. With those glasses and the pen in her mouth, she looks scholarly, not the kind of woman you’d expect in this hick town.
You raise the weapon, show it to her. Your purpose should be obvious.
Joni Mitchell sings sweetly. The expression on her lips doesn’t change. Eyes on you, calm, maybe a ﬂicker of interest, but nothing else.
She removes the ballpoint pen and sets it on the bedside table.
“That’s some kinky suit. What’s it called?”
You say nothing.
“Okay, so what’s your beef?”
You’re quiet. You’re not there.
“Well, someone obviously has a problem. The person who sent you.”
You move closer to the foot of the bed.
If she’s frightened, she doesn’t show it. She watches you with her papers propped on her stomach as if waiting for you to leave so she can resume reading. As if strangers wandered into her room all the time, then wandered out again.
“I had my kinky phase,” she says. “Back in the day. Ménage à trois once. Some light bondage with a young fella. Whips, leather restraints. It was interesting for a while. But I got too old for games.”
You move along the edge of her bed, coming closer to her left side. She’s wearing a loose white T-shirt. The bedspread is folded back, exposing the waistband of her pink pajama bottoms. A narrow strip of flesh is showing around her navel.
If this woman was heroic or impetuous, she might try to toss the papers at you and use the distraction to bolt for the door. That appears to be her only hope. Unless there’s a pistol you don’t see, or a knife, or some other weapon hiding beneath the sheets. Which of course is highly doubtful.
In the arm holding the weapon you feel a spring-loaded tension growing. You begin to raise it, choosing your entry spot. Somewhere around her navel.
“I’d love to know who hired you,” the woman says. “It was those abortion nuts in Tulsa, God’s Children. Am I right? No, no. It was that FBI dick in Dallas. It was him, wasn’t it? Jerry Jeff Peters. Go on, tell me. Was it Jerry Jeff? That jerkwad would love to piss on my grave.”
You hesitate. The mention of law enforcement ﬂ usters you.
“Now listen,” the woman says. “Let’s talk this out. Give it a minute, I bet we can mediate this. Shit, you can mediate anything.”
You stand silently, gathering yourself, regaining composure.
As the seconds pass, you watch the amusement in her face drain away, replaced by a more solemn look, even a hint of dread.
“No dice, huh?”
You say nothing.
“You know, it’s funny. I’ve always counted on words—my story winning out over the other guy’s. But words don’t cut it for you, do they? Am I right? You’re way out there beyond the universe of language.”
You wait no longer. You raise the weapon quickly and bring it down. At the last second she makes a wild swat at your hand. But she is too late.
The blade penetrates flannel and flesh. She grunts, emits a single squeal, a high-pitched burst like a schoolgirl with exciting news. Her papers scatter to the floor. She squirms. Her eyes widen, then shut. She writhes. You complete two more strikes. Plunging the final one deep into her body as though you are planting your flag in the soil of a conquered land.
When she is quiet, you turn from the bed. You peel back the suit at your hip and extract the newspaper clipping with the edges cut into a jagged pattern. You lay the obituary on the woman’s bedside table.
Rachel Michelle “Rusty” Stabler, at Peace on the Water
You leave the weapon behind, buried in her flesh. Another gift to the authorities. Let them work with that, see where it leads. You leave the room. Walk from the house. The darkness absorbs you. And you are gone.
James W. Hall is the author of four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and sixteen novels, including Under Cover of Daylight, Tropical Freeze, Bones of Coral, Hell’s Bay, and Silencer.