Kill Devil Falls by Brian Klingborg is a debut novel that follows U.S. Marshal Helen Morrissey as she tracks a fugitive bank robber to a town with some dangerous secrets.
When U.S. Marshal Helen Morrissey is tasked with collecting a fugitive bank robber from a remote town in the Sierra Nevadas, she braces for a rough trip. After all, with a name like Kill Devil Falls, her destination must be a real hellhole.
Turns out that it’s worse than she imagined. Much worse. After barely surviving a white-knuckle drive in what she suspects is a sabotaged car, she’s stuck in a virtual ghost town populated by a handful of oddballs and outcasts. But it’s not until her prisoner turns up dead that Helen realizes she’s in real trouble. There are secrets buried below the surface of Kill Devil Falls. Secrets worth killing for.
Before she walked through the door, Lee Larimer had never once laid eyes on Helen Morrissey. Didn’t know her from Adam. Could be, she was a real sweetheart. Active in the local church. Volunteered at an old folk’s home, emptying bed pans, spooning baby food into toothless mouths. Rescued stray kittens. Lee could give a good goddamn.
Within two minutes of her arrival, he’d pegged her for a cop. And decided, odds were, she was going to die.
Rosa’s Café (Home of the Chili Cheese Fries Burger!) sat on the outskirts of a slowly decaying town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, just off Highway 80. It was a ramshackle structure, approximately the size of a shoe-box, reeking of old bacon grease, frequented by three kinds of clientele: long-haul truckers, geriatric gamblers heading to Reno for the nickel slots, and unwashed backpackers.
When Helen entered, the only other customers, aside from Lee, were two truck drivers in nearly identical flannel shirts, down vests and fly-specked ball caps. The one sitting closest to the door was thickset, with Popeye forearms, aviator sunglasses and a mustache. The other was rail thin, apart from an almost perfectly rounded gut, like a python who’d just swallowed a kid goat.
Helen was dressed in dark pants, a blue shirt, a medium-weight coat, and black tactical boots. Her hair was drawn into a tight pony tail. She wore a trace of lipstick, and sensibly modest gold studs in her earlobes. Lee guessed she was thirty or so. Her features were a tad sharp to be considered beautiful, yet she was striking in a tightly-wound sort of way.
Lee’s impression: given the surroundings, the lady stuck out like a diamond in a mangy dog’s asshole.
Helen paused in the doorway, her eyes sweeping the cafe, noting the patched vinyl booths on the left (the one farthest from the entrance occupied by Lee), a bathroom door in the corner, a peeling Formica counter on the right where the two truckers slouched, the swinging door leading to the kitchen behind it.
As her gaze fell on Lee, he lowered his head and shoveled a wet forkful of eggs, dripping yolk and tabasco sauce, into his mouth.
He was wearing one of his many thrift-store disguises. Enough to not look himself, but not so much he garnered unwanted attention. His normally longish, jet-black hair was cut short and speckled with gray, aging him a good ten years. His customary week-old scruff was shaved clean. He wore glasses with black plastic frames. A touch of bronzer darkened his complexion.
The piece de resistance were his Operation Enduring Freedom camouflage fatigues. Military personnel were a common enough sight in small-town America these days. Nobody batted an eye, or gave a soldier a hard time. Quite the contrary. Most folks bent over backwards for a man in uniform. Accorded him an extra measure of respect. Didn’t ask too many questions, just thanked him shyly for his service on behalf of the country.
Already, the waitress had refilled his drink twice without being asked.
Lee certainly didn’t resemble his mug shots or the grainy surveillance photos released to the media. Still, it was always better to be safe than sorry. He switched the fork to his left hand, slipped his right beneath his coat.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Lee glanced up from his plate.
Helen was frowning at the Formica counter. The seat closest to the front door was free, but frigid air leaked through the poorly sealed window facing the parking lot. She hesitated a moment, then walked over and slid onto the open stool sandwiched between the two truckers.
Lee let out a breath. If she had any clue who he was, no way she’d take a seat with her back to him. Maybe she was just a real estate agent checking out summer rentals. Or a bank employee in town to foreclose on some unemployed single mother’s house.
Whatever. As long as she wasn’t there for him.
But as Helen shifted into a more comfortable position on the stool, her coat bunched up and Lee spotted the squared tip of a black leather holster dangling down her hip. Judging from its size, he guessed she was carrying something standard issue, like a Glock 17. A dependable, rugged little gun. A favorite of cops and Feds alike.
Lee fondled the smooth, cold surface of the enormous revolver resting on his lap; it was a Smith and Wesson X-Frame, with an 8 and 3/8ths-inch barrel. The X-Frame possessed the highest muzzle velocity of any mass-produced revolver on the market. It fired .200 grain, .460 caliber rounds at two thousand three hundred feet per second. If Lee were to line up everyone in the diner single-file, including the waitress, line cook and even the Mexican dishwasher, a single bullet from the X-Frame would punch right through all of them. And still have enough zip to knock the black off a crow on the other side.
Lee leaned sideways to peer through the ice-streaked front window. Down in the valley, spring was slowly prying at winter’s blue-tipped fingers, but at six thousand feet, daytime temperatures remained in the thirties and patches of black snow clung stubbornly to sidewalks and gutters.
Only two cars occupied Rosa’s tiny parking lot. His, a shit-brown Honda Accord (stolen, plates switched with an unsuspecting soccer mom’s Highlander in a Safeway parking lot); and hers, a slightly battered white Dodge Charger.
Lee was envious of the Charger. A V6 engine, zero to sixty in 6.6 seconds, more than enough horsepower for climbing mountain roads. He’d be lucky to squeeze a top speed of forty MPH from the Honda on a steep upgrade.
He didn’t see any police cruisers. No Crown Vics or vehicles with suspicious antenna clusters. Just two eighteen-wheelers parked on the street, no doubt property of the truckers sitting at the counter.
Turning his attention back to the Charger, however, he spied a metal screen extending across the width of the cab behind the front seats. A cage. The kind you put criminals in when hauling them to jail.
Lee wiped his mouth with a napkin, tossed it on his plate. He was no longer hungry.
Helen rested her forearms on the counter. Her goal was a quick bite, and then back on the road. She desperately wanted to make it up the mountain and down again before dark.
Her left hand landed in a patch of something moist and sticky. She lifted her palm – grape jelly. She tugged a few napkins from a metal dispenser.
The trucker to her right chuckled. “Got a little jam on ya?”
He was in his late fifties, with a purplish nose that looked to have been broken more than once. An ancient scar ran diagonally across the sun-roughened skin of his chin. Physically, he reminded her a bit of her father. Probably the toughest kid on his block growing up, now getting older, but refusing to do so gracefully, beating back Father Time with desperate hooks and savage uppercuts.
Of course, her father wasn’t nearly as solicitous as the trucker. Didn’t matter if it was jam, blood or tears, he would’ve just told her to stop being such a complainer, wipe it off, and get on with her day.
“Yeah.” She wiped her palm with the napkins.
“You want to save the napkin, I could lick it off for ya.”
Helen stopped wiping. “Excuse me?”
A waitress pushed through the kitchen door. “Hi, Hon.” She smiled broadly, revealing a wad of gum squeezed between her pre-molars.
Still processing the trucker’s offer, it took Helen a moment to answer. “Hi.”
The waitress slipped a laminated menu on the counter. “Something to drink?”
“Cream and sugar?”
“Just black, thanks.”
Helen finished cleaning her hand, crumpled the napkin, dropped it on the counter. She decided to ignore the trucker.
The waitress set down a chipped brown mug, filled it with coffee. She was around forty, a bleach-blond, her hair parted down the middle and feathered. Probably the same haircut since seventh grade.
“Know what you want, Hon?”
Helen scanned the menu. “How’s the Greek Omelet?”
The waitress scrunched her nose. “Butch, the cook? Closest he’s been to Greece is the gyro place on the other side of town. Try something else.”
“I’ll go with two eggs, over hard, wheat toast, side of bacon, crispy.”
“Okay. Even Butch can’t fudge that up.”
Helen’s coat pocket buzzed. She pulled out her cell phone. The caller ID read Chowder.
She slipped off the stool and answered the phone as she headed for the front door. “Morrissey.”
Supervisory Deputy Marshal Rick Choder, whom Helen called Chowder, but not to his face, wheezed into the mouthpiece.
“Where you at, Morrissey?”
She pushed through the front door of the diner and stepped into the parking lot. An icy breeze snatched at her coat. She squeezed the cell phone between her shoulder and ear and zipped up.
“I stopped for a quick bite. I think I’m about an hour from Donnersville.”
“Well, you’re not going to Donnersville anymore.”
She felt a flush of hope. “You mean I can turn around?”
Choder’s laugh betrayed a hint of spite. “You wish. The sheriff wasn’t able to run Crawford to the county jail, so you’ll have to pick her up where she was apprehended.”
Helen took the phone from her shoulder with her left hand, slipped the right into her coat pocket. “What happened to the sheriff?”
“He got an emergency call and had to take it.”
“Why can’t one of the deputies transport her to Donnersville?”
“I don’t know. I’m not your social secretary. Just do your job and go get her, okay, Deputy?”
Helen clenched her fist, nails digging painfully into her palm. She pictured Choder, stupid cowboy boots he affected propped on a corner of his desk, wet grin on his punch-worthy face.
“Where am I going now?”
“Little town another forty-five minutes past Donnersville.”
“Suck it,” she muttered.
“What did you just say?”
Helen was nominally a Catholic, and still suffered a twinge of guilt each time she swore, which, since her recent assignment to the U.S. Marshal’s Sacramento office, with its high school locker room ambience, had become excessive. For the past few weeks, she had been making an effort to curb her potty mouth, substituting favorite curse words with more benign expressions.
Hence, suck it, instead of go fuck yourself, Chowder.
“Nothing, Sir. You have directions?”
“I’ll email them.”
“Can you do it now? Cell coverage seems pretty intermittent up here.”
Chowder. She suspected he’d designated her for this crap duty out of pure vindictiveness. Because she refused to sleep with him. Or date him, or have a drink with him, or interact with him in any way at all outside the bounds of their professional relationship.
“What’s the name of the town?”
Again, that malicious little laugh.
“Get this. It’s called Kill Devil Falls.”
Lee watched Helen’s body language through the window as she spoke on the phone. He saw her shoulders hunch, her angry pacing. She didn’t care for what the person on the other end of the line was telling her. And she didn’t even glance in his direction when she came back inside. The lady was either a hell of an actress, or she truly had no clue a wanted man was sitting five feet away.
Lee removed a roll of cash from his pocket, peeled off a twenty and laid it on the table. He thought about it, took back the twenty and replaced it with a ten and a five.
Here’s what bothered him: If she was a cop, but wasn’t after him, it was a hell of a coincidence they’d both ended up in the same crappy diner in a jerkwater town half-way up the Sierra Nevadas. One hell of a coincidence.
Like the saying goes, it’s a small world. But not that small. She must be bound for the same place he was.
And now Lee had to make sure she never got there.
Helen’s plate of eggs arrived just as she resumed her seat at the counter. She picked up her fork and took a bite. The trucker on her left leafed through the Chronicle’s sports pages. The waitress busied herself wiping menus with a wet dishcloth. The trucker on her right leaned over and murmured into her ear.
“Like a man,” he said. “Your coffee. You drink it like a man.”
Helen lowered her fork. “Really? How do you mean? Through a hole in my dick?”
The waitress looked up from her menus, made a little O with her mouth.
“Black. You drink it black. That’s what I meant.”
“Oh. Gotcha. Thanks for clarifying.”
The trucker chewed a corner of his mustache, watched her take a bite of bacon. “Why? You got one?”
Helen sighed. “What?”
“A dick. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’ll be happy to lend you mine for a spell.”
“Hey, now,” the waitress said.
“That’s okay,” Helen said, holding a hand out to the waitress. She finished chewing her bacon, swallowed, turned to the trucker.
“Sir, consider this a warning. You have just surpassed your allowable limit for douchbaggery. Any further unwanted sexual advances will incur severe penalties, including, but not limited to: a slap across the face, a kick in the ass, and a hot cup of coffee dumped directly onto your ball sack. Please acknowledge this message by saying, ‘I understand.’”
The trucker flushed. Helen heard the newspaper rattle sharply behind her.
“Say it. ‘I understand.’”
The trucker outweighed Helen by a hundred pounds, at minimum. He was thirty years older, but built like a Sherman tank. And if those forearms were any indication, he pumped heaps of iron.
Helen was trained in hand-to-hand combat. Not just the basics she’d learned during her stint in the navy and at the marshal’s academy. She could box, throw a kick, execute a decent hipthrow, rolled Brazilian jiu-jitsu a couple time a week. And she’d been in a brawl or two, but never one-on-one versus a guy who looked like a finalist in the Mr. Senior Olympia powerlifting championships.
Yet, if there was one thing she’d learned as a petite and reasonably attractive female in a work environment positively seething with alpha males, it was to never let an aggressor get the upper hand or assume a position of psychological dominance. Authority must be established right away. Doing so required taking a risk – and sometimes bluffing like a cardsharp down to his last wooden nickel.
Helen slid off her stool.
“Say it,” she growled.
The trucker gave it a few seconds, looked away.
“I ain’t saying a goddamn thing,” he mumbled. But that was it. He was done.
“Fine. You stick to that.”
Helen climbed back onto the stool, picked up her fork, cut into her eggs.
“Stuck up bitch,” the trucker muttered.
He laid money on the counter, got his feet. The waitress gave him the hairy eye as he walked out the door.
“I’m real sorry about that, Hon,” the waitress said when he was gone. “Food’s on the house.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I can handle myself.”
“Well, I guess you can.”
The waitress refilled Helen’s coffee mug. The remaining trucker whistled and went back to his sports page.
After finishing her meal, Helen checked her phone and located Choder’s directions in her email inbox. It looked like a circuitous, but straightforward route: Highway 80 to Route 89 to Route 49, and finally onto a smaller, unnamed, access road. She punched Kill Devil Falls into Google. It showed her Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, but no California town by that name. Not a good sign. She located Route 49 and traced it on the display until it linked to the access road. After that, the access road quickly dead-ended into a splotch of green empty space. What the hell? Even Google didn’t think the place was worth the effort of mapping.
The estimated drive time from her present location to the access road was one hour and forty minutes. It was unlikely she’d reach Kill Devil Falls, collect Crawford, and get back down to the valley before nightfall. She was anxious at the prospect of navigating steep, treacherous and unfamiliar mountain roads in the dark.
Helen paid her bill over the protests of the waitress, used the restroom, and stepped out into the chilly parking lot. She glanced at her cell phone. Already past three. And dusk fell early this time of year.
Her Dodge and a brown Honda occupied neighboring spots in the parking lot. As she was reaching for the Charger’s door handle, a blur of movement flashed kitty-corner though the rear window.
Helen walked around to the back of the car. A man squatted between the Charger and the Honda. She recognized him from the diner. Tall, lanky, combat fatigues. She glanced at the insignia on his jacket, saw that he was a sergeant.
“Hi,” Helen said.
“Hi,” Lee said.
She waited. Lee was holding a small tool with a black plastic handle and long sharp metal shaft. His hands were black with oily dirt. He looked down at the tool, back up at her.
“This looks kinda weird, don’t it?”
“Kinda. What are you doing?”
“I got a hole in my tire. I’m plugging it. Till I can get to a garage.”
“Ah. You need a hand?”
“No, Ma’am. I got it under control.” Lee held up a small brown tube which resembled a Slim Jim. “I just gotta jam this sucker in the hole and I’m good to go.”
Helen took a step forward, leaned down to look at the tire.
“Ingenious,” she said.
“The plug thing. Very clever.”
She wasn’t really interested in his tire. She just wanted to examine her own without being obvious. She gave it a quick once-over as she straightened up and backed away. It seemed fine. But what did she know?
“Can’t be too careful on these mountain roads,” Lee said. “A blowout can send you right over the side of a cliff.”
“You headed up or down?” he asked.
“You headed up or down the mountain?”
“Up,” Helen said. “You?”
“Same. On leave. Visiting family in Reno.”
“You have a long drive.”
“Sure do. That’s why I got to get this tire sorted out. Where you headed?”
“Up,” Helen repeated. “You have a good day.”
Helen walked back to the front of the Charger, climbed inside, started the engine. She checked her side view mirror. The guy stood up, flattened himself against the side panel of the Honda, waved her on. Helen backed slowly out of the parking lot. As she passed by, he flashed a thumbs up sign.
Copyright © 2017 Brian Klingborg.
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Brian Klingborg is a Sr. Vice President at Kumon Publishing. He’s written books on Kung Fu, and he wrote for the Winx Club television series. Kill Devil Falls is his first novel. He lives in New York City.