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Who are they?
What do they want?
Why do they kill?
Can they be stopped?
You know who they are . . . if you've ever known fear.
In Palmerston, Pennsylvania, two men in long coats walk calmly into a crowded fast-food restaurant--then, slowly and methodically, gun down ...
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Who are they?
What do they want?
Why do they kill?
Can they be stopped?
You know who they are . . . if you've ever known fear.
In Palmerston, Pennsylvania, two men in long coats walk calmly into a crowded fast-food restaurant--then, slowly and methodically, gun down sixty-eight people. They take time to reload.
On the Promenade of Santa Monica, California, a teenage girl gives sightseeing tips to a distinguished English tourist. She won't be going home tonight.
In Dyersburg, Montana, a grief-stricken son tries to make sense of the accident that killed his parents--then finds a note stuffed in his father's favorite chair. It reads, "We're not dead."
Three seemingly unrelated events, these are the first signs of an unimaginable network of fear that will lead one unlikely hero to a chilling confrontation with The Straw Men. No one knows who they are--or why they kill. But they must be stopped. Michael Marshall's electrifying debut novel is an instant masterpiece of modern suspense. An epic thriller for anyone who has feared that someone is watching us.
The funeral was a nice affair, in that it was well-attended and people dressed appropriately and nobody stood up at any point and said 'You realise this means they're dead'. It was held in a church on the edge of town. I had no idea what denomination it might be, still less why it should have been stipulated in the instructions left with Harold Davids. So far as I'd known, my parents had no religious views save a kind of amiable atheism and the unspoken belief that if God did exist he probably drove a nice car, most likely of American manufacture.
Organisation for the event had been efficiently undertaken by Davids' office, leaving me with little to do except wait to turn up. I spent most of the two days in the lounge of the Best Western. I knew I should go up to the house, but I couldn't face it. I read most of a bad novel and leafed through a large number of hotel-style magazines, without learning anything except that you can pay an awful lot of money for a watch. Early each morning I left the hotel, intending to walk along the main street, but got no further than the parking lot. I knew what was on offer along the shopping drag of Dyersburg, Montana, and I was in the market for neither ski gear nor 'art'. I ate in the hotel restaurant in the evenings, had room service sandwiches delivered to the bar at lunch. All meals were accompanied by fries whose texture suggested that a number of industrial processes had intervened between the soil and my plate. It was impossible not to have fries. I discussed the matter on two occasions with the waitresses, but relented in the face of mounting panic in their eyes.
After the preacher had explained to everyone whydeath was not the complete downer it might at first appear, we filed out of the church. I was sorry to leave. It had felt safe in there. Outside it was very cold, and the air was crisp and silent. Behind the graveyard rose the foothills of the Gallatin range, the peaks in the distance muted, as if painted on glass. Two side by side plots had been prepared. There were about fifteen people on hand to witness the burial. Davids was there, and someone who appeared to be his assistant. Mary stood close to me, white hair strictly pulled back in a bun, her lined face battered smooth with the cold. A couple of the others I thought I vaguely recognised.
More words were said by the priest, comforting lies in which to swaddle these events. Possibly they made a difference to some of the mourners. I could barely hear them, concentrating as I was on stopping my head from exploding. Then a couple of men—whose job it was, who did this kind of thing every week—efficiently lowered the coffins into the ground. Ropes were gently fed through their hands, and the coffins came to measured rest six feet below the flat plain on which the living still stood. A few more sentences of balm were offered, but muttered quickly now—as if the church recognised that the time to make its pitch was running out. You can't put people in wooden boxes under the ground without the audience realising that something very amiss is afoot.
A final quiet pronouncement, and that was that. It was done. Nothing would ever happen to Donald and Philippa Hopkins again. Nothing that bore thinking about, at least.
Some of the mourners lingered for a moment, aimless now. Then I was alone under a famously big sky. I stood there as two people. One whose throat was locked into fiery stone, and who could not imagine ever moving again; another who was aware of his iconic stature beside the graves, and also that, a little distance away, people were driving past in cars and listening to the Dixie Chicks and worrying vaguely about money. Both sides of me found the other ridiculous.
I knew that I couldn't stand there forever. They wouldn't expect me to. It would make no sense, would change nothing, and it really was very cold. When I finally looked up I realised that Mary was also still present, standing only a few feet away. Her eyes were dry, harsh with a knowledge that such a fate would be hers before very long and that it was neither a laughing nor a crying matter. I pursed my lips, and she reached out and laid her hand on my arm. Neither of us said anything for a while.
When she'd called me, three days before, I had been sitting on the deck of a nice, small hotel on De la Vina in Santa Barbara. I was temporarily unemployed, or unemployed again, and using my scant savings on an undeserved vacation. I was sitting with a good bottle of local Merlot in front of me, and efficiently making it go away. It wasn't the first of the evening, and so when my cellular rang I was inclined to let the message service pick it up. But when I glanced at the phone I saw who the caller was.
I hit the TALK button. 'Hey,' I said.
'Ward,' she replied. And then nothing.
Finally I heard a sound down the line. The noise was soft, glutinous. 'Mary?' I asked quickly. 'Are you okay?'
'Oh Ward,' she said, her voice sounding cracked and very old. I sat up straight in my seat then, in the vain hope that faux readiness, last-minute rigor, would somehow limit the weight with which this hammer was going to fall.
'What is it?'
'Ward, you'd better come here.'
In the end I got her to tell me. A car crash in the centre of Dyersburg. Both dead on arrival.
I'd known immediately it would be something like that, I suppose. If it hadn't involved both of them then it wouldn't be Mary on the phone. But even now, as I stood with her in the graveyard looking down upon their coffins, I was unable to credit a sentence framing their death with its full weight. I also could not now return the call that my mother had left on my machine, two weeks previously. I just hadn't got round to it. I hadn't expected them to be erased from the surface of the earth without warning, and put below it, down where they couldn't hear me.
Abruptly I realised that I didn't want to be standing near their bodies any more. I took a step back from the graves. Mary dug in the pocket of her coat and brought out something attached to a small cardboard label. A set of keys.
'I put out the trash this morning,' she said, 'And took a few things out of the refrigerator. Milk and such. Don't want them smelling it up. Everything else I just left.'
I nodded, staring at the keys. I didn't have any of my own. No need. They'd been in, on the few occasions I'd visited. I realised that this was the first time I'd ever seen Mary somewhere other than my parents' kitchen or living room. It was like that with my folks. You went to their house, not the other way around. They tended to form a centre. Had tended to.
'They spoke of you, you know. Often.'
I nodded again, though I wasn't sure I believed her. For much of the last decade my parents hadn't even known where I was, and anything they had to say concerned a younger man, an only child who'd once grown up and lived with them in a different state. It wasn't that we hadn't loved each other. We had, in our ways. I just hadn't given them much to talk about, had checked none of the boxes that make parents prone to brag to friends and neighbours. No wife, no kids, no job to speak of. I realised Mary was still holding her hand out, and I took the keys from her.
'How long will you stay?' she asked.
'It depends how long things take. Maybe a week. Possibly less.'
'You know where I am,' she said. 'You don't have to be a stranger, just because.'
'I won't,' I said quickly, smiling awkwardly. I wished I had a sibling who could have been having this conversation for me. Someone responsible and socially skilled.
She smiled back, but distantly, as if she already knew this was not the way things worked.
'You'll be going soon, I expect,' she said, and then set off up the slope. At seventy she was a little older than my parents, and walked awkwardly. She was a life-long Dyersburg resident, an ex-nurse, and more than that I didn't know.
I saw that Davids was standing by his car on the other side of the cemetery, killing time with his assistant but evidently waiting for me. He had the air of someone ready and willing to be brisk and efficient, to tidy loose ends.
I glanced back once more at the graves, and then walked heavily down the path to face the administrative tasks created by the loss of my entire family.
Davids had brought most of the paperwork in his car, and took me to lunch to deal with it. I don't know whether this ended up being any less unpleasant than doing it in his office would have been, but I appreciated the courtesy from a man who knew me barely at all. We ate in historical downtown Dyersburg, at a place called Auntie's Pantry. The interior had been designed to resemble a multi-level log cabin, the furniture hand-hewn by elves. The menu offered a variety of organic soups and home-made breads, accompanied by salads largely predicated upon bean sprouts.
About the same age as my parents, tall and gaunt with a good-sized beak, Davids looks like the guy God calls on when he really wants Hell to rain down. He opened his briefcase and drew out a lot of documents, laid them out in front of him in a businesslike way, picked up the menu, and started to read it. Davids was my parents' attorney, and had been since they'd met him after moving from Northern California. I'd spoken to him on a couple of previous occasions, Christmas or Thanksgiving drinks at their house, but in my mind he was now simply one of a number of people with whom my acquaintance was about to draw to an abrupt close. This bred a curious mixture of both distance and a desire to prolong the contact, which I was unable to translate into much in the way of conversation.
Thankfully, Davids took the lead as soon as the bowls of butternut and lichen soup arrived. He recapped the circumstances of my parents' death, which in the absence of witnesses boiled down to a single fact. At approximately 11.05 on the previous Friday evening, after visiting friends to play bridge, their car had been involved in a head-on collision at the intersection of Benton and Ryle streets. The other vehicle was a stationery car, parked by the side of the road. The post-mortem revealed blood alcohol levels consistent with maybe half a bottle of wine in my father, who had been the passenger, and a lot of cranberry juice in my mother. The road had been icy, the junction wasn't too well lit, and another accident had taken place at the same spot just last year. That was that. It was just one of those things, unless I wanted to get involved in a fruitless civil litigation, which I didn't. There was nothing else to say.
Then Davids got down to business, which meant getting me to sign a large number of pieces of paper, thereby accepting ownership of the house and its contents, a few pieces of undeveloped land and my father's stock portfolio. A legion of tax matters pertaining to all of this were efficiently explained to me and then dispatched with further signatures. The IRS stuff went in one ear and out the other, and I gave none of the papers more than a cursory glance. My father had evidently trusted Davids, and Hopkins Senior hadn't been a man to cast his respect around willy-nilly. Good enough for Dad was good enough for me.
I was listening with less than half of my attention by the end of it, and actually enjoying the soup—now that I'd improved the recipe by adding a good deal of salt and pepper. I was watching the spoonfuls as they came up towards my mouth, savouring the taste in a studious, considered way, encouraging the flavour to occupy as much of my mind as possible. I only resurfaced when Davids mentioned UnRealty.
He explained that my father's business, through which he had successfully sold high-priced real estate, was being shut down. The value of its remaining assets would be forwarded to any account I cared to nominate, just as soon as the process was complete.
'He wound up UnRealty?' I asked, lifting my head to look at the lawyer. 'When?'
'No.' Davids shook his head, wiping around his bowl with a piece of bread. 'He gave instructions that this should take place upon his death.'
'Regardless of what I might have to say?'
He glanced out of the window, and rubbed his hands together in an economical little motion that dislodged a few crumbs from his fingers. 'He was quite clear on the matter.'
My soup had suddenly gone cold, and tasted like liquidised pond weed. I pushed the bowl away. I understood now why Davids had insisted that we go through the papers today, rather in the period before the funeral. I collected up my copies of the papers and shoved them into the envelope Davids had provided.
'Is that it?' My voice was quiet and clipped.
'I think so. I'm sorry to have put you through this, Ward, but it's better to get it over with.'
He pulled a wallet from his jacket and glared at the check, as if not only distrusting the addition but taking a dim view of the waitress' handwriting. His thumb hesitated over a charge card, pulled out some cash instead. I logged this as him electing not to allot the cost of lunch as a business expense.
'You've been very kind,' I said. Davids dismissed this with a flip of his hand, and tipped exactly ten percent.
We rose and left the restaurant, weaving between the tables of chatting tourists. Outside we stood together for a moment, watching well-heeled women roving up and down College Street in hungry packs, charge cards on stun.
Eventually Davids thrust his hands in the pockets of his coat. 'If there's anything I can do, please be in touch. I can't raise the dead, of course, but on other things I might be able to help.'
We shook hands, and he walked rather quickly away up the street, his face carefully blank. And only then did I realise, unforgivably late, that Davids had not just been my father's attorney, but had also become his friend, and that I might not have been the only person who'd found the morning difficult.
I walked back to the hotel with my hands clenched, and by nine I was very drunk. I had the first boilermaker in both hands before the hotel doors had shut behind me. I knew as I took the first swallow that it was a mistake. The problem was, there didn't seem to be any other intelligent response to the situation.
At first I perched at the bar, but after a while I moved to one of the booths by the long window. A large pre-emptive tip had ensured that I didn't have to wait, or indeed move, in order to keep my glasses full. A beer, then a scotch. A beer then a scotch. A solid and efficient way of getting drunk, and the smooth-faced barman kept them coming like I'd asked.
I pulled the documents out of Davids' manila envelope and spread them in front of me, my mind fixated on one point in particular.
In all the time I was growing up, I was aware of one thing about my father. He was a businessman. That was what he did and who he was. He was Homo sapiens businessmaniens. He got up in the morning and shoved off to do business, and he came back in the evening having by-God done some. My parents never talked about their early life, and rarely about anything of consequence, but I knew about UnRealty. He'd worked for a number of years at a local firm, then one night took my mother out for a fine dinner and told her he was going it alone. He actually used those words, apparently, as if appearing in an advertisement for bank loans. He had talked to a few people, made some contacts, engaged in all the textbook corporate heroics which entitled you some day to stand at the bar of a country club and say 'I did it my way'. It can't have been easy, but my father had a certain force of will. Car mechanics and plumbers, meter maids and check-in clerks, all took one look and elected not to fuck him around. When he walked into a restaurant, the word went round the staff that it was time to stand up straight and stop spitting in the soup. His company, and its history, was the most real thing I understood about him.
And yet, in my his will, he had stipulated that UnRealty be wound up. Instead of leaving it to his son to make the decision, he had calmly imploded over twenty years' work.
As soon as Davids had told me this, I knew it could only mean one thing. My parents hadn't wanted me to take over the business. In many ways this was explicable. I have sold many, many things, but never an expensive house. I knew about them, however. Did I ever. I knew about Unique Homes magazine, about the Du Pont Registry and Christies' Great Estates. I knew about conservation easements and dude ranches, was familiar with the value of old world craftsmanship, views of the 15th fairway, end-of-the-road privacy where serenity abounds. I couldn't help but be. It had seeped into my blood. I even did two years of an architecture degree, before I side-stepped out of college via an unfortunate incident and into a different line of work. And yet he either hadn't wanted me, or hadn't trusted me, to take over the business. The more I thought about it, the more hurt I got.
I kept drinking, to see if things got any better. They didn't. I kept drinking anyway. The bar remained quiet throughout the early part of the evening. Then at ten o'clock there was a sudden influx of men and women in suits, sprung from some ball-breaking corporate flipchart-fest. They milled about in the centre of the bar, networking rabidly, excited as children at the prospect of going berserk and having a couple of lite beers. By this stage my brain felt very heavy and cold. The noise started loud and got worse, as if I was surrounded by people shovelling pebbles.
I held my ground in my booth, glaring virulently at the invaders. A couple of the men rakishly removed their jackets. One fellow even loosened his tie. Underlings sidled up to their bosses and hung about like sand pipers, pecking for brownie points. I'd cope. I'd weather the storm. These people might know how to run spreadsheets and asset strip, but if it came to a bar endurance test, they were wearing water wings. I was confident. I was in the zone. I was also, in retrospect, even more drunk than I realised.
Three men came in the door. They stopped, looked around.
The next thing I knew there was screaming, and the suits were diving for cover. At first I felt frightened, and then I realised it was me they were running from.
I was swaying in the middle of the floor, clothes wet from upturned beer. I had a gun in my hands and was pointing it straight at the men in the doorway, barking a long, incoherent series of contradictory instructions at them. They looked scared out of their wits. This was probably because when a man points a gun at you, you want to do what he asks. But it's difficult when you can't make out what he's saying.
Eventually I stopped shouting. The men in the door briefly became six, then resolved into three again. The room was quiet around me, but my heart felt like it was going to melt down. Everybody waited for things to either get better or worse.
'Sorry,' I muttered. 'Misunderstanding.'
I put the gun back in my jacket, swept the papers up off the table, and lurched out. I got halfway across the lobby before I fell over, taking a table, a large vase and a hundred bucks' worth of flowers down with me.
At three o'clock in the morning, frigid with iced water, I was lying on my back on the bed in my room.
I had been talked to by both the hotel management and the local police, who'd been understanding, while insisting I relinquish the gun for the duration of my stay. I let the funeral carry the day. I do have a licence to carry a concealed weapon, which surprised them. But they observed, reasonably enough, that the licence doesn't say I can wave it around in bars. The papers from Davids' office, the ones that announced I now had 1.8 million dollars cash, were carefully laid out on the heater to dry. I was no longer angry at anybody. The fact that my father's last will and testament now smelled of spilt beer seemed to effectively make his point.
After a while I rolled over, picked up the phone, and dialled a number. The phone rang six times, and then an answering machine kicked in. A voice I knew better than my own said that Mr and Mrs Hopkins were sorry they couldn't answer the phone, but that I should leave a message. They'd get back to me.
At ten o'clock the next morning I stood, pale and penitent, at the end of my parents' driveway. I was wearing a clean shirt. I had eaten some breakfast. I had apologised to everyone I could find in the hotel, right down the guy who cleaned the pool. I was amazed that I hadn't spent the night in a cell. I felt like shit.
The house sat near the end of a narrow and hilly road on the mountain-side of Dyersburg's main residential area. I'd been a little surprised by it when they moved. The lot was decent-sized, about half an acre, with a couple of old trees shading the side of the house. Properties of similar size bordered it, home to nice late Victorians which no-one looked too obsessed about painting. A neat hedge marked the edge of both sides of the property. Mary lived in the next house up, and she wasn't anything like wealthy. A college professor and his post-grad wife had recently moved in on the other side. I think my Dad actually sold them the house. Again, decent people—but unlikely to bathe in champagne. The house itself was two story, with a graceful wraparound porch, a shop in the cellar, and a garage round the back. It was, without question, a nice-looking and well-appointed house in a good neighbourhood. Someone wanted to set you up there, you wouldn't complain. But neither would Homes of the Rich and Famous be doing a showcase special anytime soon.
I waved across the fence in case Mary happened to be looking out the window, and walked slowly up the path. It felt as if I was approaching an impostor. My parents' real house, the one I'd grown up in, lay a long time in the past and a thousand miles West. I'd never been back to Hunter's Rock since they moved, but I could remember that house like the back of my hand. The arrangement of its rooms would probably always define my understanding of domestic space. The one in front of me was like a second wife, taken too late in life to have a relationship with the children that extended beyond distant cordiality.
A galvanised trashcan stood to one side of the door, the lid raised by the full bag inside. There were no newspapers on the porch. I assumed Davids had seen to that. The right thing to do, but it made the house look as if it already had a dust sheet over it. I pulled the unfamiliar keys from my pocket, and unlocked the door.
It was so quiet inside that the house seemed to throb. I picked up the few pieces of mail, junk for the most part, and put them on the side table. Then I wandered for a while, walking from room to room, looking at things. The rooms felt like preview galleries for some strange yard sale, each object coming from a different home and priced well below its value. Even the things which went together—the books in my father's study, my mother's collection of 1930s English pottery, neatly arrayed on the antique pine dresser in the sitting room—seemed hermetically sealed from my touch and from time. I had no idea what to do with these things. Put them in boxes and store them somewhere to gather dust? Sell them, keep the money, or give it to some worthy cause? Live within this tableau, knowing that in the objects' minds I would never have anything more than a second-hand regard for them?
The only thing that seemed to make any kind of sense was leaving everything as it was, walking out of the house and never coming back. This wasn't my life. It wasn't anybody's, not any more. Apart from the single wedding picture in the hall, there weren't even any photographs. There never had been in our family.
In the end I wound up back in the sitting room. This faced down the garden toward the road, and had big, wide windows that transformed the cold light outside into warmth. There was a couch and armchair, in matching genteel prints. A compact little widescreen television, on a stand fronted with smoked glass. Also my father's chair, a battered war horse in green fabric and dark wood, the only piece of furniture in the room that they'd brought from the previous house. A new biography of Frank Lloyd Wright was on the coffee table, my father's place marked with a receipt from Denford's Market. Eight days previously one of them had bought a variety of cold cuts, a carrot cake (fancy), five large bottles of mineral water, some low fat milk and a bottle of vitamins. Most of these must have been amongst the fridge contents which Mary had thrown away. The mineral water was maybe still around, along with the vitamins. Perhaps I'd have some later.
In the meantime I sat in my father's chair. I ran my hands along the worn grain of the arm rests, then laid them in my lap and looked down the garden.
And for a long time, in savage bursts, I cried.
Much later, I remembered an evening from long ago. I would have been seventeen, back when we lived in California. It was Friday night, and I was due to meet the guys at a bar out on a back road just outside town. Lazy Ed's was one of those shoebox with a parking lot beer dens that look like they've been designed by Mormons to make drinking seem not just un-Godly but drab and sad and dead-end hopeless. Ed realised that he wasn't in a position to be picky, and as we were never any trouble and kept feeding quarters into the pool table and juke box—Blondie, Bowie and good old Springbean, back in the glory days of Molly Ringwald and Mondrain colours—our juvie custom was fine by him.
My mother was out, gone to a crony of hers to do whatever it is women do when there aren't any men around to clutter up the place and look bored. At six o'clock Dad and I were sitting at the big table in the kitchen, eating some lasagne she'd left in the fridge, and avoiding the salad. My mind was on other things. I have no idea what. I can no more get back inside the head of my seventeen-year-old self than I could that of a tribesman in Borneo.
It was a while before I'd realised Dad had finished, and was watching me. I looked back at him. 'What?' I said, affably enough.
He pushed his plate back. 'Going out tonight?'
I nodded slowly, full of teenage bafflement, and got back to shovelling food into my head.
I should have understood right away what he was asking. But I didn't get it, in the same way I didn't get why there remained a small pile of salad on his otherwise spotless plate. I didn't want that green shit, so I didn't take any. He didn't want it either, but he took some—even though Mom wasn't there to see. I can understand now that the pile in the bowl had to get smaller, or when she got back she'd go on about how we weren't eating right. Simply dumping some of it straight in the trash would have seemed dishonest, whereas if it spent some time on a plate—went, in effect, via his meal—then it was okay. But back then, it seemed inexplicably stupid.
I finished up, and found that Dad was still sitting there. This was unlike him. Usually, once a food event was over, he was all business. Get the plates in the washer. Take the garbage out. Get the coffee on. Get on to the next thing. Chop fucking chop.
'So what are you going to do? Watch the tube?' I asked, making an effort. It felt very grown up.
He stood and took his plate over to the side. There was a pause, and then he said: 'I was wondering.'
This didn't sound very interesting. 'Wondering what?'
'Whether you'd play a couple of frames with an old guy.'
I stared at his back. The tone of his enquiry was greatly at odds with his usual confidence, especially the mawkish attempt at self-deprecation. I found it hard to believe he thought I'd take the deception seriously. He wasn't old. He jogged. He whipped younger men at tennis and golf. He was, furthermore, the last person in the world I could imagine playing pool. He just didn't fit the type. If you drew a Venn diagram with circles for 'People who looked like they played pool, 'People who looked like they might' and 'People who looked like they wouldn't, but maybe did'—then he would have been on a different sheet of paper altogether. He was dressed that night, as he so often was, in a neatly pressed pair of sandy chinos and a fresh white linen shirt, neither of them from anywhere as mass-market as The Gap. He was tall and tan with silvering hair and had the kind of bone structure that makes people want to vote for you. He looked like he should be leaning on the rail of a good-length boat off Palm Beach or Jupiter Island, talking about art. Most likely about some art he was trying to sell you. I, on the other hand, was wearing regulation black Levi's and a black T-shirt. Both looked like they'd been used to make fine adjustments to the insides of car engines. They probably smelled that way too. Dad would have smelled the way he always did, which I wasn't aware of then but can summon up now as clearly if he was standing behind me: a dry, clean, correct smell, like neatly-stacked firewood.
'You want to come play pool?' I asked, checking that I hadn't lost my mind.
He shrugged. 'Your mother's out. There's nothing on the box.'
'You got nothing salted away on tape?' This was inconceivable. Dad had a relationship with the VCR like some fathers had with a favoured old hound, and racks of neatly-labelled tapes on the shelves in his study. I'd do exactly the same now, of course, if I lived anywhere in particular. I'd have them bar-coded if I had the time. But back then it was the thing about him which most strongly put me in mind of fascist police states.
He didn't answer. I cleared the scraps off my own plate, thoughtlessly making a good job of it because I was at an age when showing my love for my mother was difficult, and ensuring her precious dishwasher didn't get clogged with shit was something I could do without anyone realising I was doing it, including myself. I didn't want Dad to come out to the bar. It was that simple. I had a routine for going out. I enjoyed the drive. It was me time. Plus the guys were going to find it weird. It was weird, for fuck's sake. My friend Dave would likely be stoned out of his gourd when he arrived, and might freak out there and then if he saw me standing with a representative of all that was authoritarian and straight-backed and wrinkly.
I looked across at him, wondering how to put this. The plates were stowed. The remaining salad was back in the fridge. He'd wiped the counter down. If a team of forensic scientists happened to swoop mid-evening and tried to find evidence of any food-eating activity, they'd be right out of luck. It annoyed the hell out of me. But when he folded the cloth and looped it over the handle on the oven, I had my first ever intimation of what I would feel in earnest, nearly twenty years later, on the day I sat wet-faced in his chair in an empty house in Dyersburg. A realisation that his presence was not unavoidable or a given; that one day there would be too much salad in the bowl and cloths that remained unfolded.
'Yeah, whatever,' I said.
I quickly started to freak about how the other guys were going to react, and hustled us out of the house forty minutes early. I figured this might give us as much as an hour before we had to deal with anyone else, as the other guys were always late.
We drove out to Ed's, Dad sitting in the passenger seat and not saying much. When I drew up outside the bar he peered out the windshield. 'This is where you go?'
I said it was, a little defensively. He grunted. On the way across the lot it occurred to me that turning up with my Dad was going to bring into focus any doubts Ed might be entertaining about my age, but it was too late to turn back. It wasn't like we looked very similar. Maybe he'd think Dad was some older guy I knew. Like a senator, or something.
Inside was empty, a couple old farts I didn't know hunkered down over a table in the corner. The place never really stuttered into life until late, and it was a precarious form of vitality, the kind that two consecutive bad choices on the juke box could kill stone dead. As we stood at the counter waiting for Ed to make his own good time out of the back, Dad leaned back against the bar and looked around. There wasn't a great deal to see. Battered stools, venerable dust, a pool table, interior twilight and neon. I didn't want him to like it. Ed came out eventually, grinned when he saw me. Usually I'd drink my first beer sitting gassing with him, and probably he was anticipating this was going to happen tonight.
But then he caught sight of Dad, and stopped. Not like he'd run into a wall or anything, but he hesitated, and his smile faded, to be replaced by an expression I couldn't interpret. Dad wasn't the usual kind of guy who spent time in that bar, and I guess Ed was wondering what kind of bizarre map-reading error had brought him there. Dad turned to look at him, and nodded. Ed nodded back.
I really wanted this over with. 'My Dad,' I said.
Ed nodded once more, and another great male social interaction ground to a close.
I asked for two beers. As I waited I watched my father as he walked round to the pool table. As a kid I'd got used to the fact that people would come up to him in stores and start talking to him, assuming he was the manager and the only person who could sort out whatever trivia they were spiralling up into psychodrama. Being able to look equally at home in a scummy bar was kind of a trick, and I felt a flicker of respect for him. It was a very specific and limited type of regard, the kind you allow someone who displays a quality which you think you might one day aspire to, but it was there all the same.
I joined him at the table, and after that the bonding session went rapidly downhill. I won all three games. They were long, slow games. It wasn't that he was so terrible, but every shot he played was five percent out, and I had the run of the table. We didn't talk much. We just leant down, took our shots, endured the misses. After the second game slouched to a conclusion he went and bought himself another beer while I racked the balls up. I'd been kind of hoping he'd stick at one, so I still had most of mine left. Then we played the last game, which was a little better, but still basically excruciating. At the end of it he put his cue back in the rack.
'That it?' I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. I was so relieved I took the risk of holding up another quarter.
He shook his head. 'Not giving you much of a challenge.'
'So—aren't you going to say 'Hey kid, you're good', or something like that?'
'No,' he said, mildly. 'Because you're not.'
I stared at him, stricken as a five-year-old. 'Yeah, well,' I eventually managed. 'Thanks for the ego-boost.'
'It's a game,' he shrugged. 'What bothers me is not that you're no good. It's that it doesn't bother you.'
'What?' I said, incredulous. 'You read that in some Motivational Management book? Drop a zinger at the right moment and your kid ends up Chairman of the Board?'
Mildly: 'Ward, don't be an asshole.'
'You're the asshole,' I snarled. 'You assumed I'd be no good and you'd be able to come out here and beat me even though you can't play at all.'
He stood for a moment, hands in the pockets of his chinos, and looked at me. It was a strange look, cool and appraising, but not empty of love. Then he smiled.
'Whatever,' he said. And he left, and I guess he walked home.
I turned back to the table, grabbed my beer and drank the rest of it in one swallow. Then I tried to smack one of his remaining balls down the end pocket and missed by a mile. At that moment I really, really hated him.
I stormed over to the bar to find Ed already had a beer waiting for me. I reached for money, but he shook his head. He'd never done that before. I sat down on a stool, didn't say anything for a few minutes.
Gradually we started talking about other things, Ed's views on local politics and feminism—he was somewhat critical of both—and a hide he was thinking of lashing together out in the woods. I didn't see Ed ever having a huge impact on the first two subjects, or getting it together to build the hide, but I listened anyway. By the time Dave wandered in I could more or less pretend that it was just business as usual.
It was an okay night. We talked, we drank, we lied. We played pool not very well. At the end I walked out to the car, and stopped when I saw a note had been pushed under one of the wipers. It was in my father's handwriting, but much smaller than usual.
'If you can't read this first time,' it said, 'Get a ride. I'll drive you out here tomorrow to pick up the car.'
I screwed the note up and hurled it away, but I drove home carefully. When I got back Mom was in bed. There was a light in Dad's study but the door was shut, so I just went upstairs.
I got up once, in the late morning, and made a cup of instant coffee. Apart from that I sat until mid afternoon, until the sun moved across the sky and started to come directly the through the window and into my eyes. This broke the spell I'd been in, and I got out of the chair knowing I'd never sit there again. It wasn't comfortable, for a start. The cushion was threadbare and lumpy, and after a couple of straight hours on it, my ass hurt. I walked back to the kitchen, rinsed my cup out, left it upside down on the side to dry. Then I changed my mind, wiped it, and put it back in the cupboard.
I stood irresolute in the hallway, wondering what to do next. Part of me believed that the filial thing to do would be to check out of the hotel and come stay here for the night. The rest of me didn't want to. Really did not want to. I wanted bright lights and a burger, a beer, someone who'd talk to me about something other than death.
Suddenly irritable and sad, I stalked back into the sitting room to retrieve my phone from the coffee table. My lower back ached, probably from sitting in that lousy chair.
The chair. Maybe it was because the light was different; the sun had moved around the yard since the morning, creating new shadows. More likely, a few hours of tears had simply cleared my head a little. Either way, now that I was looking at it, the seat cushion looked a little odd. Slowly slipping the Nokia into my pocket, I frowned at it. The cushion, which was an integral part of the chair, definitely bulged up in the center. I reached out experimentally, prodded it. It felt a little hard.
Maybe he'd had it reupholstered, or refilled with something. Rocks, perhaps. I straightened up, ready to forget it and leave the house. My hangover was beginning to bloom. Then something else caught my attention.
There's a proper way of placing objects in relation to each other, especially if those objects are large. Some people don't see this. They'll just throw the furniture down any old how, or all against the walls, or at right angles, or so everyone can see the TV. My father always made sure stuff was placed just so, and then got riled if anybody moved it. And my father's chair wasn't in the right place. It wasn't off by much, and I don't think anybody else would have noticed it. It was too square on to the other furniture, and seemed to stand too much out on its own. It just didn't look right.
I squatted down in front of it, examined the line where the cushion was attached to the body of the seat. A strip of braid covered the join. It was worn and frayed. I grabbed one end of it and pulled. It came away easily, revealing an opening that looked like it once been stitched.
I slipped my hand inside. My fingers navigated through some kind of dry, squishy stuff, probably cut-up chunks of foam. In the middle they found a solid object. I pulled it out.
It was a book. A paperback novel, a new-looking copy of a blockbuster thriller, the kind of thing my mother might pick up on a whim at the check-out, and skim through in an afternoon. It didn't look read. The spine was unbent, and my mother was no stickler for keeping books in pristine condition. It didn't make any sense. It couldn't have gotten in the chair by accident.
I flicked through the pages. In the middle of the book there was a small piece of paper. I pulled it out. It was a note, just one line, written in my father's handwriting.
'Ward,' it said: 'We're not dead.'
Posted August 17, 2002
This book was absolutely amazing. From the very beginning it has you hooked and takes you into a journey of our deepest fear; the dark side of ourselves. Two stories weaving into one throughout the story leave you breathless and turning pages faster and faster to the incredible climax. A five star book I STRONGLY RECCOMEND this book.
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Posted April 10, 2004
I stumbled across this paperback on a recent visit to my favorite bookseller, seeking a nice literary escape that might hold my interest for a few nights running. I found what I was looking for. Although I'm not a huge fan of Stephen King, his quote on the book's cover ['a masterpiece'] did catch my eye and sealed the purchase of this little (well, okay, 389 pages) gem. While probably not a true masterpiece, Marshall's character-driven novel is a fine edition to the genre. Equal parts crime story (serial killings), psychological thriller, and social commentary, the book lags only briefly -- when the major protagonists first intersect about 2/3rds through, at which point it reads too much at times like a contrived screenplay -- before roaring towards a sustained and satisfying conclusion. But only a temporary conclusion, as Marshall's latest offering ('The Upright Man') promises to pick up where the Straw Men left us... expertly drawn, once again, into the shaken psyche of Ward Hopkins. And into a world where we are never safe from our own species. This guy can write.
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Posted December 25, 2002
I thought the story line to this book sounded so eery and good. Unfortunately, I found that the book tended to drag on with too much wordy detail. Mr. Marshall definitely sounds like a good writer but the detail was killing me. The book hit many lulls during reading and I found that I mostly read it to discover who the straw men were and finished it out of determination to just plain finish the book.
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Posted July 21, 2012
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Posted November 17, 2008
A really good story, although I was a little perplexed at the ending.<BR/><BR/>Reads really quickly though, and pulls you right into the mysteries of what's going on.<BR/><BR/>Great for those who love a good thriller!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 16, 2005
Marshall twists the mind in this great thriller to help kill a few hours. Just when you think you know, you have no idea. The story is definitely believable. The characters are easy to root for, or hate for that matter. They're not to perfect, not too flawed. You won't be disappointed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2005
This book was one of the most interesting I have ever read. The way it starts out, with the Upright Man's first killing spree, really grabs your attention. The only downside to this book was there were several occasions where Ward would ramble on and on about something. Half of the time it seemed unimportant but later on you find out the memory was important. The other half the time they have no relvence at all and probably could have been edited out. But overall this is an excellent book and I plan on reading the sequal.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 3, 2004
The only way to describe this novel is this, picture yourself in a lecture hall and your professor is talking and talking and talking, on and on for the whole hour and you are sitting there in your seat listening to what he is saying but not hearing most of it-WELL that is the way I felt while reading this book. Too much rambling going on! This book was a slow read with way too much yapping about things that had nothing to do with the story. A lot of stuff could have been edited out and the book would have moved along much better than it did. The book was okay though and good at parts, needless to say I won't be rushing out to read it's follow up.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 12, 2003
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Posted February 27, 2003
I didn't get it. The Straw Men were never explained in such a way as to make them frightening. The whole thing never came togethor in a satisfying way and I'm still trying to tie in the mass murder at the start of the book. Anyone who is chilled by this book should never leave home after dark.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2002
The blurb on the cover by Stephen King added to the fact that this book was so well written, made me wonder if Stephen King was writing under another name...again. Speaking of the promotional blurb, don't let it mislead you into thinking the book is a horror book. It is an alarming thriller that grabs your attention and doesn't let go. The author, Michael Marshall (Smith), has a winning debut novel with a twist on serial killers and family secrets. The pace is rapid, the asides are smart, and the plot is clever. I suspect I'll be reading more books of his in the future.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 26, 2002
As I finished this book last night I found myself the only person awake in the house. As I lay there thinking about the fact that I was a grown woman and these books are fiction, I decided to call it a night. I suddenly found myself checking my children to see that they were safely tucked in, checked the locks on the doors and windows, and assured that the cordless was close at hand. This book was incredible. The content was researched to assure all the little details that make it real for the reader where there and the content of the story will spook the pants off of you. I have not enjoyed a book this much in awhile. I am looking forward to his next masterpiece. The characters in this book are as real as you and me. Pick it up and be prepared for a great story and a real spook.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 14, 2002
Michael Marshall (a.k.a. Michael Marshall Smith, author of SPARES, ONE OF US, and ONLY FORWARD) has written one of the best novels of 2002¿THE STRAW MEN. Unlike his previous futuristic novels, this one takes place in the present day with flashbacks to the past. It¿s actually two stories (each story could have easily been turned into a successful novel) in one, which come together in the last hundred pages to create an ending that will scare the living daylights out of you with regards to the evil that mankind is capable of perpetrating. The first story deals with Ward Hopkins, ex-C.I.A., who returns home to Dyersburg, Montana to attend the funeral of his dead parents, both of which were killed in a tragic car accident. What Ward eventually discovers while going through his old home is that his parents may not have been who he thought they were and that quite possibly they may still be alive, but in hiding from a deadly organization that refers to itself as The Straw Men. With the help of his good buddy, C.I.A. agent Bobby Nygard, Ward starts searching for answers and inadvertently sets in motion several attempts by The Straw Men to eliminate both him and his friend. The second story deals with a serial killer known as The Upright Man who takes his victims from the Los Angeles area of California. When young Sarah Becker disappears one evening while sitting in front of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Santa Monica, waiting for her father to return, F.B.I. agent Nina Baynam realizes that The Upright Man has returned after being dormant for two years. She enlists the help of ex LAPD Homicide Detective, John Zandt, who¿d once helped her to hunt this serial killer, until his own daughter became a victim. John, however, is determined that Sarah Becker isn¿t going to die. He¿s going to do everything in his power to save her and to kill The Upright Man in a final act of revenge for destroying his life two years before. Both stories will slowly converge into one as Ward, Bobby, Nina and John discover that¿s there something much more deadly out there than just a single serial killer, and that it¿s going to take all of their strength and courage to fight this force of evil that¿s killing our children. THE STRAW MEN is a tour de force for Michael Marshall. The plot is intricately woven with strong, compelling characters that drive the story forward like a battering ram. Mr. Marshall knows how to end each chapter with a hook that keeps the reader glued to every single page in a frantic attempt to find out what¿s going to happen next. The last forty pages of this novel blew me away and will leave you literally speechless, not to mention fearful that the possibility of what the author suggests is, in fact, true. I sincerely hope that Mr. Marshall is already at work on a sequel to this breathtaking, utterly scary novel about man¿s capacity to commit evil and that Hollywood, if it has any sense, has already picked up the screen rights. THE STRAW MEN is one of those tremendous surprises that all readers of suspense crave from the inner sanctum of their souls. Buy it, read it, pass it on to your friends, then see if you can sleep at night without having nightmares that The Straw Men may be coming for you. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 24, 2002
This is a very well written book with believable characters and storyline. Not once did I find the book to start dragging. The review in the book from Stephen King desribes the story as scary, but I didn't find that. I found it to be more of a sinister mystery. There are a number of twists and turns, which refreshingly enough are all meaningful and explained. It all comes together beautifully at the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 21, 2002
I truly enjoyed this first (non sci-fi) book from Mr. Marshall. While I have not read his titles written under 'Michael Marshall Smith', this one was good enough that I will pick one up even though I'm not a fan of science ficiton. This is a riveting thriller with great plot twists, and kept me turning pages way past my bedtime. What really makes this book 'great' however is the authors attention to detail. He can write of the complexities of emotion with an authenticity and honesty that make this book a very compelling study of human nature. Great characters, great plot. Whether you're a fan of thrillers or character studies, you will find something to interest you in this book. The blurb from Stephen King hooked me, but I will definitly be reading more from this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 7, 2010
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