The Dead Student

The Dead Student

by John Katzenbach
The Dead Student

The Dead Student

by John Katzenbach


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Timothy Warner, a PhD student who goes by the nickname "Moth," wakes up on his ninety-ninth day of sobriety with an intense craving for a drink. He immediately calls his uncle Ed, a former alcoholic and now successful psychiatrist who has become Moth's sponsor and father figure. Ed promises to meet him at an AA meeting later that day but never shows up. Knowing that his uncle is not the unreliable type, Moth bikes to his office and discovers a grisly scene—his uncle lying in a pool of blood, shot through the temple. Deeply shaken, Moth calls 911; the police pronounce the death a suicide. Two words are scrawled across Ed's prescription pad: "My fault." But Moth refuses to believe that his uncle would take his own life. Devastated and confused, he calls on the only person he thinks he can trust: Andrea Martine, an ex-girlfriend he has not spoken to in four years who is struggling through her own trauma.

Each battling their inner demons, Moth and Andy travel into dark, unfamiliar territory, intent on finding out the truth about Ed's death and circling ever closer to a devious mind that will flinch at nothing to achieve his own deadly goal. The Dead Student is a tense, penetrating novel from an unrivaled investigator of that most primal human motive—revenge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125583
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 647,677
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

About The Author
John Katzenbach has written fifteen novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Traveler, What Comes Next, and Red 1-2-3. Katzenbach was a criminal court reporter for the Miami Herald and Miami News. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


Timothy Warner found his uncle's body because he woke up that morning with an intense and frighteningly familiar craving, an emptiness within that buzzed deeply and repeatedly like a loud off-key chord on an electric guitar. At first he hoped that it was left over from a dream of happily knocking back shots of iced vodka with impunity. But then he reminded himself that this was his ninety-ninth day without a drink, and he realized that if he wanted to see the hundredth he would have to work hard to get through the day sober. So as soon as his feet hit the cold floor by his bed, before he glanced out the window to check the weather, or stretched his arms above his head to try to force some life into tired muscles, he reached for his iPhone and tapped the application that kept a running count of his sobriety. Yesterday's ninety-eight clicked to ninety-nine.

He stared at the number for a moment. He no longer felt heady satisfaction or even a twinge of success. That enthusiasm had fled. Now he understood that the daily marker was just another reminder that he was always at risk. Fail. Give in. Let slip. Slide a little.

And he would be dead.

Maybe not right away, but sooner or later. He sometimes thought that sobriety was like standing unsteadily on the edge of a tall cliff, dizzily staring down into some vast Grand Canyon while being buffeted unceasingly in the midst of a gale. A gust would topple him off, and he would tumble headlong into space.

He knew this, as much as any person can know anything.

Across the room was a cheap, black-framed, three-quarter-length mirror propped up against the wall of his small apartment, next to the expensive bicycle that he used to get to his classes — his car and driver's license having been taken away during his last failure. Dressed only in his baggy underwear, he stood and looked at his body.

He did not really like what he saw.

Where once he'd been attractively wiry, now he was cadaverously thin, all ribs and muscles with a single poorly executed drunken-night tattoo of a sad clown's face up on his left shoulder. He had thick jet-black hair that he wore long and unkempt. He had dark eyebrows and an engaging, slightly cockeyed smile that made him seem friendlier than he actually thought he was. He did not know whether he was handsome, although the girl he thought was truly beautiful had told him once that he was. He had the long, thin arms and legs of a runner. He had been a second-string wide receiver on his high school football team and a straight-A student, the go-to guy for help on any upcoming chemistry lab or perilously overdue English essay. One of the biggest players on the team, a hulking lineman, stole four letters from the middle of his name, explaining that Tim or Timmy just didn't suit Moth's frequently driven look. It stuck, and Timothy Warner didn't mind it all that much, because he believed moths had odd virtues and took chances flying dangerously close to open flames in their obsession with seeking light. So Moth it was, and he rarely used his full first name save for formal occasions, family gatherings, or AA meetings, when he would introduce himself saying, "Hello, my name is Timothy, and I'm an alcoholic."

He did not think his remote parents or his deeply estranged older brother and sister still remembered his high school nickname. The only person who used it regularly, and affectionately, was his uncle, whom he hurriedly dialed as he stared at his reflection. Moth knew he had to protect himself from himself and calling his uncle was pretty much the first step at self-preservation.

As expected, he got the answering machine: "This is Doctor Warner. I'm with a patient now. Please leave a message and I will get back to you promptly."

"Uncle Ed, it's Moth. Really had the big crave this morning. Need to go to a meeting. Can you join me at Redeemer One for the six p.m. tonight? I'll see you there and maybe we can talk after. I think I can make it through the day okay." He didn't know about this last flimsy promise.

Nor would his uncle.

Maybe, Moth thought, I should go to the lunch meeting over at the university's student activities center or the mid-morning meeting in the back room at the Salvation Army store just six blocks away. Maybe I should just crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head, and hide until the 6 p.m. meeting.

He preferred the early evening sessions at the First Redemption Church, which he and his uncle called Redeemer One for brevity and to give the church an exotic spaceship name. He was a regular there, as were many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who chose to confess their cravings in the church's comfortable, wood-paneled meeting room and overstuffed fake leather couches instead of the low-slung basement rooms, with their stiff metal folding chairs and harsh overhead lights, of most meeting places. A wealthy benefactor of the church had lost a brother to alcoholism, and it was his funding that kept the seats comfortable and the coffee fresh. Redeemer One had a sense of exclusivity. Moth was the youngest participant by far.

The ex-drunks and onetime addicts who went to Redeemer One all came from the distant worlds Moth had been told over and over he was destined to join. At least, being a doctor or a lawyer or a successful businessman was what others who probably didn't know him all that well thought he should become.

Not a drunk doctor, addicted lawyer, or strung-out businessman.

His hand shook a little and he thought, No one tells their kid they're gonna grow up to be a drunk or a junkie. Not in the good old USA. Land of opportunity. Here we say you've got a chance to grow up and be president. But a lot more people end up as drunks.

This was an easy conclusion.

He smiled wanly as he added, Probably the one or two kids that actually do get told they're gonna grow up into drunks are so motivated to avoid that fate that they become president.

He left his iPhone on the counter in the bathroom so he could hear it ring and hurried into the steaming-hot shower. Thick shampoo and blistering water, he hoped, could scrub away caked layers of anxiety.

He had half dried off when the phone buzzed.

"Uncle Ed?"

"Hey Moth-boy, I just got your message. Trouble?"


"Big trouble?"

"Not yet. Just the want, you know. It kinda shook me up."

"Did something specific happen, you know, that triggered ..."

His uncle, Moth knew, was always interested in the underlying why because that would help him decide the overarching what.

"No. I don't know. Nothing. But this morning there it was as soon as I opened my eyes. It was like waking up and finding some ghost seated on the edge of the bed watching me."

"That's scary," his uncle said. "But not exactly an unfamiliar ghost." Uncle Ed paused, a psychiatrist's delay, measuring words like a fine carpenter calculates lengths. "You think waiting until six tonight makes sense? What about an earlier meeting?"

"I have classes almost all day. I should be able —"

"That's if you go to the classes."

Moth stayed quiet. This was obvious.

"That's if," his uncle continued, "you don't walk out of your apartment, take a sharp left, and run directly to that big discount liquor store on LeJeune Road. You know, the one with the big blinking goddamn red neon sign that every drunk in Dade County knows about. And it's got free parking." These last words were tinged with contempt and sarcasm.

Again, Moth said nothing. He wondered: Was that what I was going to do? There might have been a yes lurking somewhere within him that he hadn't quite heard yet but that was getting ready to shout at him. His uncle knew all the inner conversations before they even happened.

"You think you can turn right, start pedaling that bike nice and fast, and head toward school? You think you can get through each class — what do you have this morning?"

"Advanced seminar on current applications of Jeffersonian principles. It's what the great man said and did two hundred and fifty years ago that still means something today. That's followed by a required two-hour statistics lecture after lunch."

His uncle paused again, and Moth imagined him grinning. "Well, Jefferson is always pretty damn interesting. Slaves and sex. Wildly clever inventions and incredible architecture. But that advanced statistics class, well, boring. How did you ever end up in that? What has that got to do with a doctorate in American History? It would drive anyone to drink."

This was a frequently shared joke, and Moth managed a small laugh. "Word," he said, the historian in him enjoying the irony of employing teenage-speak already in disuse and discarded.

"So, how about a compromise?" his uncle said. "We'll meet at Redeemer One at six, like you said. But you go to the lunch meeting over at the campus center. That's at noon. You call me as you walk in. You don't even have to get up and say a damn thing unless you feel like it — you just have to be there. And you call me when you walk out. Then you call me again when you walk into the statistics class. And when you walk out. And each time figure on holding that phone up so I can hear that professor, droning on in the background. That's what I want to hear. Nice, safe, boring lecture stuff. Not glasses clinking."

Moth knew his uncle was a veteran alcoholic, well versed in the myriad excuses, explanations, and evasions of everything except another drink. His personal tally of days sober was now well into the thousands. Maybe nearly seven thousand, a number that Moth believed he would find truly impossible to attain. He was more than a sponsor. He was Virgil to Moth's drunken Dante. Moth knew his uncle Ed had saved his life and had done so more than once.

"Okay," Moth said. "So, we meet at six?"

"Yeah. Save me a comfy seat, because I might be delayed a couple of minutes. I got an emergency appointment request for late this afternoon."

"Someone like me?" Moth asked.

"Moth, boy. There ain't nobody like you," his uncle replied, slipping into a fake Southern drawl. "Nah. More likely some sad-eyed suburban housewife depressive whose meds are running low and is panicking big-time because her regular therapist is on vacation. All I am is a glorified, overeducated prescription pad waiting to be signed. See you tonight. And call. All those times. You know I'll be waiting."

"I'll call. Thanks, Uncle Ed."

"No big deal."

But of course, it was.

Moth made the specified phone calls, each time safely bantering about nothing important for a few moments with his uncle. Moth had not thought he would say anything at the noontime meeting, but near the end of the session, at the urging of the young theology professor who ran the gathering, he had risen and shared his fears over his morning desires. Almost all the heads had nodded in recognition.

When he exited from the meeting, he took his Trek 20-speed mountain bike to the university's playing fields. The high-tech rubberized quarter-mile track that encircled a football practice field was empty and despite a warning sign that told students to keep off unless under supervision, he lifted the bike over a turnstile gate, and after a quick look right and left to make sure he was alone, started riding in circles.

He picked up his pace quickly, energized by the clicking of the gears beneath him, the torque as he leaned dangerously into each turn, the steady accumulation of speed mixed with the high cloudless azure sky of a typical Miami winter's afternoon. As he pumped his legs and felt muscles tightening with energy, he could sense the crave being pushed aside and buried within him. Four laps rapidly became twenty. Sweat started to burn his eyes. He could hear his breath coming harder with the exertion. He felt like a boxer whose roundhouse right has staggered his opponent. Keep throwing punches, he told himself. Victory was within sight.

When he finished the twenty-eighth lap, he pulled the bike to a sudden stop, tires squealing against the red synthetic track surface. Chances were good a campus security officer would swing by any second — he'd already pushed that envelope.

What would he do, yell at me? Moth thought. Give me a citation for trying to stay sober?

Moth lifted the bike back over the gate. Then he leisurely retraced his route to the wrought-iron stand adjacent to the science building where he could lock up the Trek and head to statistics. He passed a security guard in a small white SUV and gave a cheery wave to the driver, who didn't wave back. Moth knew he would probably start to stink as the sweat dried after he entered the air- conditioned classroom, but he didn't care.

Miraculously, he thought, it was turning into a small, but optimistic day.

A hundred now seemed not only attainable, but probable.

Moth waited outside a bit, right until a minute shy of six, before going inside Redeemer One and heading to the meeting lounge. There were already twenty or so men and women seated in a loose circle, all of whom greeted Moth with a nod or a small wave. A thin haze of cigarette smoke hung in the room — an acceptable addiction for drunks, Moth thought. He looked at the others. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. And then himself: graduate student. There was a dark oaken table at the back of the room with a coffee urn and ceramic mugs. There was also a small shiny metal tub filled with ice and a selection of diet soft drinks and bottled water.

Moth found a spot and set his tattered student backpack down beside him. The regulars would easily have guessed that he was saving a space for his uncle — who had, after all, been the person who introduced Moth to Redeemer One and its high-class collection of addicts.

It was not until perhaps fifteen minutes into the meeting that Moth began to fidget nervously when there was no sign of his uncle. Something felt misshapen, a note out of tune. While Uncle Ed would sometimes be a few minutes late, if he said he was coming, he always showed up. Moth kept turning his head away from the speaker toward the door, expecting his uncle to make an apologetic entrance at any moment.

The speaker was talking hesitantly about OxyContin and the warm sensation that it gave him. Moth tried to pay attention. He thought that was a most commonplace description, and differed little whether the speaker was sharing something about morphine-based pharmaceuticals, home-brewed methamphetamine, or store-bought cheap gin. The plummeting, welcoming warmth that permeated head and body seemed to wrap up an addict's soul. It had been true for him during his few years of addiction, and he suspected his uncle, during his decades, had felt the same.

Warmth, Moth thought. How crazy is it to live in Miami, where it is always hot, and need some other heat?

Moth tried to focus on the man talking. He was an engineer — a likeable guy, a middle-aged, slightly dumpy, bald-headed man of tolerances and stresses, employed by one of the larger construction firms in the city. The realist in Moth wondered just how many condo buildings and office skyscrapers might have been constructed down on Brickell Avenue by a man who cared more for the numbers of pills he could obtain each day than the numbers on architectural plans.

He turned to the door when he heard it open, but it was a woman — an assistant state attorney, probably a dozen years older than he was. Dark-haired, intense, she wore a trim blue business suit and carried a leather portfolio case instead of a designer pocketbook and even at the end of the workday, she looked carefully put together. She was a relative newcomer to Redeemer One. She had attended only a few meetings and said little on each occasion, so she remained largely a mystery to the regulars. Recently divorced. Major crimes. Drug of choice: cocaine. "Hello, I'm Susan and I'm an addict." She mumbled her apologies to no one and everyone and slid quietly into a chair in the back.

When it was his turn to share, Moth stammered and declined.

The meeting ended without a sign of his uncle.

Moth walked out with the others. In the church parking lot he shared a few perfunctory hugs and exchanged some phone numbers, as was customary following a meeting. The engineer asked him where his uncle was, and Moth told him that Ed had planned to come, but must have gotten hung up with a patient emergency. The engineer, plus a heart surgeon and a philosophy professor who'd been listening in, had all nodded in the special way that recovering addicts have, as if acknowledging that the scenario Moth described was most likely true, but just maybe it wasn't. Each told him to call if he needed to talk.


Excerpted from "The Dead Student"
by .
Copyright © 2015 John Katzenbach.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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