Homicide detective Daniel Turner revisits an 18-year-old unsolved case in the third of this intriguing and atmospheric crime noir series.
We had set out from Atlanta to kill my mother and her husband. A slow kill.
Oren has returned to the family home he last saw when he was eight years old. Eighteen years later, he is bent on an elaborate scheme of revenge.
Homicide detective Daniel Turner was never able to forget the unsolved case, the disappearance of Amon Jakobsen all those years ago. Convinced the man was murdered, he was never able to prove it. Now he has returned to the isolated house on Black Hammock Island following reports of a disturbance. Is this his chance to find out what really happened to Amon eighteen years before? And will he be in time to prevent history repeating itself?
About the Author
Michael Wiley was brought up in Chicago, and now teaches literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He is the Shamus Award-winning author of three previous novels in the Chicago-based Joe Kozmarski PI series
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By Michael Wiley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Michael Wiley
All rights reserved.
The land south of Atlanta turned fast enough to scrub forest and waste and big flat timber tracts that looked like a brown wind had come through and other tracts that were still uncut and green to the edge of the road. High-wire power lines, hanging from metal towers, stretched through channels cut in the green parts of the forest like wire straps that could hold the earth down if gravity forgot itself. The sun was shining so bright it seemed it would twang those power lines.
We had set out from Atlanta to kill my mother and her husband. A slow kill. An orchestrated kill. A slow-motion war of obliteration.
Why not just shoot them and be done with it? First, if I pointed a pistol at them, they would point theirs at me. Second, they took me apart piece by piece, so I would take them apart piece by piece. Then I would blow them from their house. Big bad wolf.
Paul's Ford Taurus groaned when he accelerated on I-75-southbound, and a truck blasted its horn as it slid past. We kept the air conditioning on full, but my T-shirt and jeans were wet with sweat. Paul didn't sweat, though he was a big man, three hundred fifty pounds, which he carried mostly in his chest and thighs. He leaned over the steering wheel, his forehead close to the windshield, and asked, 'What will you say to your sister and brother?'
I said, 'How about, Once upon a time ...'
'That's it,' he said. 'Keep it simple. Don't freak them out. Make it traditional. Nice and clean.'
'Nothing's clean,' I said. 'It never was.'
'Pretend it is,' Paul said. 'Pretend it was. Just pretend. Every word is good if it takes you where you're going. Let your story be that you're a stranger.'
Paul was tall too, so tall his knees rubbed the dashboard and his hair buffed the inside roof. 'Tell the story straight and they'll get it,' he said.
'It's not a straight story,' I said.
'Didn't say it was. I said, tell it straight.'
'I don't know,' I said.
I'd met Paul at a bookstore in East Atlanta Village. I was there with my girlfriend Carol when Paul walked in. Carol said, 'If I ever want to do it with a giant, that's the giant I want to do it with,' and I said, 'Thanks a lot,' and she said, 'Did I say I want to do it with a giant?' and I said, 'Just the same.'
He went to fiction and picked up William Faulkner's Sanctuary.
I asked, 'Is he really that good-looking?' and Carol said, 'Uh-huh.' She went and stood by him and said, 'That's a nasty book,' and he said, 'I know, so I'm doing the world a favor,' and slipped it into his pocket without paying. Not to be outdone, I held my hand for him to shake and said, 'My name's Oren.' His hand swallowed mine and he grinned the biggest grin, because when he wasn't driving around in his Taurus or training security dogs, which is how he made his living, he was smiling the sweetest smiles – the kind of smiles that would make the neighbors say afterward, He was good at heart.
'Paul,' he said. 'My name is Paul.'
And it was all downhill from there.
Was this trip to Black Hammock Island his idea? Not strictly speaking. Strictly speaking, it was my idea. But he encouraged it. Encouraged, conspired, and weaponized. He had a hand in it – two hands, the giant hands of a man the Greeks would have called a god and the Romans would have thrown into a ring with lions. Old story.
The July sun shined high and hard over I-75-southbound. It bleached the pavement. It flaked the green paint on Paul's hood. It sparkled off the roofs of other cars, turning them into a thousand wandering stars. Dogwoods and hollies and sourwoods and scrub oaks hunched on the sagging highway shoulders, their leaves spangling. Kudzu draped a stand of deadwood like sheets on furniture in an old house after the owners are dead.
'What?' Paul looked at me sidelong.
I must have been staring at him. 'You could hit the gas,' I said.
'I thought you wanted to do this slow,' he said.
'There's slow and there's backwards.'
'We don't want to lose the others,' he said.
The others. Carol drove behind us in her jacked-up yellow Silverado pickup. Three of Paul's German shepherds – Cereb, Stretcher, and Flip – rode in crates in the truck bed. In the cargo box mounted between the dog crates and the truck cab were the guns, big and small. Seventeen of them to go against the forty or fifty that my mother and her husband Walter took from my dad. Behind Carol, Jimmy drove his red Tacoma pickup with a red BMW F800 motorcycle strapped on – the F800 because it rode well on pavement and great in the dirt. In his cargo box were jugs of gasoline, fireworks that Jimmy had bought in South Carolina, and a stick of dynamite that Paul had found wherever he found such things. Behind Jimmy, Robert rode a Honda NC700 because cabins and insides gave him the shakes.
'What's the plan when we get to the island?' Paul asked.
He knew the plan. He'd helped make it.
'What's the plan?' he asked again.
He'd had me repeat it a hundred times. 'I'm not saying it again,' I said.
He gave me the sidelong look. His eyes belonged in a baby seal, not a six-foot-eight, three-hundred-fifty-pound gladiator. His eyes made women think they might like to do it with him.
'Speed up, will you?' I asked.
He eased his foot off the pedal. We hung in the right lane with Carol and Jimmy and Robert drifting along behind us, the German shepherds barking because they could.
I said, 'If a golf cart comes on to the highway, slide to the side so it can pass, all right?'
He eased the gas again.
I said, 'The plan is set them up, make them dance, and knock them down.'
'That's not the plan,' he said. 'That's an outline. Not even an outline – it's an outline of the outline.'
'I know the plan,' I said.
'Tell it to me again. Reassure me.'
'I'm not telling it to you again,' I said.
'It's theater, you understand?'
'It's not theater,' I said. 'It's war.'
'It's a theater of war,' he said. 'It's a goddamned five-act play. If you forget your words – if you step left when you should step right – they'll kill you. Tell me the plan.'
I told him the plan. I'd gotten to the point where we would have basically ended my mother's painting career, wrecking the self-portraits that had given her a name beyond Black Hammock Island, and we would have her and Walter locked and helpless inside their own house. We would have taken or destroyed their guns. We would have their yardman Tilson working with us. We would have their neighbor Lane Charles too.
Then Robert opened the throttle on the Honda, cut into the center lane, raced up alongside, and stared into the puttering Taurus, as if to say, What the hell? I kept telling the plan, and Paul kept his eyes on the road, but he gave the car enough gas to take it to the speed limit, and Robert dropped back.
'The end,' I said, when I finished the plan.
'The end is the beginning,' Paul said.
'Like a circle,' I said.
'Nothing like a circle,' he said. 'But like a revolution.' Paul was smart too. He was as smart as he was big. For a man who looked like a gladiator, he was psychologically astute.
I agreed with him, more or less. 'Like a circular revolution.'
Then my phone rang. Caller ID said, Mercer School of Medicine. If I had answered, the caller, a bird-voiced woman, would have asked – again – Where's our shipment?
I would have said, It went out this morning. I'm terribly sorry for the delay.
She would have said, Anatomy begins in two weeks. We need prep-and-process time.
I would have said, Of course you do. Look out your window. The trucks are coming.
She would have said, Next session, we'll be looking for a new supplier.
I let the call ring through to voicemail, which said, We're currently out of the office. Please leave a message. It wasn't that I was uncaring. I'd been preoccupied.
We drove past the city of Forsyth, dropped into an area of farmland and back into the forest before Macon. Traffic thinned and we shared a stretch of southbound with a refrigerated semi-trailer truck that looked as closed and tight as a black beetle.
When Paul caught me staring at him again, he said, 'You know we'll do anything for you. Anything to make this right.'
'I know,' I said.
'You just ask it,' he said. 'We love you. We all do.'
'You're already doing it,' I said.
We got off the highway at Tifton at two in the afternoon. The signs said, Visit Historical Tifton, said, Visit the 19th-Century Village – Farmhouse! Sawmill! School House! Turpentine Still! Grist Mill! said, Tifton is The Friendly City. But Tifton was a bunch of roadside businesses with boarded windows – and other places, still kicking, that said, Speedy Cash, New Fashion, Georgia Auto Pawn, Titlebuck Title Pawn. A city to pass through, not to visit.
My phone rang again. It was Jimmy and he said, 'Lunch?'
So I called Carol and said, 'Lunch?'
We swung into the Ole Times Country Buffet, a restaurant with blond-wood paneling that looked sickly in the overhead lighting. Carol squeezed between me and Jimmy on one side of the booth because Paul had the other side to himself and Robert borrowed a chair from another table. Carol asked, 'How far to where your dad grew up?'
'Don't know,' I said. 'Maybe an hour.'
She sawed a slice of ham four ways like a tic-tac-toe game and forked the middle square into her mouth. She said, 'I don't get it. We could be on Black Hammock tonight.'
'If you dig up the dead, you've got to do it right,' I said. 'You want to consult with the relatives beforehand or, if that's impossible, at least honor them. It's the right thing to do.'
'It's respectful,' Paul said.
'Oren's always been respectful,' Jimmy said.
'Disrespect is bad karma,' Robert said.
'What goes around comes around,' I said.
The road from Tifton to Waycross passed cotton farms and sugar cane fields, algae-slicked ponds, and half-painted houses with screened-in front porches and open carports. We drove through the cotton and lumber town of Enigma, passed more farms and fields and miles and miles of slash-pine timberland, then rolled through Willacoochee, with an old Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star airplane perched on the roadside in front of the Masonic Lodge. My dad taught me many lessons before my mother and Walter killed him, among them to remember names and places.
Then after another slash-pine forest we came to a neighborhood of red-brick apartment houses and red-brick churches, a Coca-Cola distributor, a bunch of clapboard single-family houses, and a line of automotive shops. A sign said, Welcome to Waycross.
I asked Paul, 'You know where you're going?'
'Sure,' he said.
We stopped at Sapp's Florists and drove on to Hazzard Hill Cemetery, which had no hill, no trees either, just a big scorched-grass field that would have been fine for football except for the white stone markers. Carol offered to go with me, but I left her with the others and scuffed across the dead lawn until I found the stones for my grandparents. I pulled half of the daisies and black-eyed Susans from the bouquet and laid them on the grave of my grandfather, deceased December 25, 1968. I said to his stone, 'If you ever cared for your son, and I understand that you did once, then watch over me now because I'm going to get him what's coming to him.' Talking to dead people had never bothered me, and I added an Amen because it couldn't hurt. Then I laid the rest of the flowers on the grave of my grandmother, deceased also December 25, 1968, and said, 'You too. Amen.'
When I went back to Carol and the others, Paul said, 'That was quick.'
'It was a one-sided conversation,' I said.
So Paul let the three German shepherds out of the crates and they ran across the cemetery, biting at each other's haunches, lifting their legs on the gravestones. Cereb, Stretcher, and Flip had fallen into the category of unrentables at Paul's security company, which meant they attacked business owners more often than protecting them. Other trainers would have put them down, but Paul took them home and called them family. Sometimes they bit him too, though they also came to him as if his low whistle gave them an electric shock. They were vicious and unpredictable, but Paul towered over them and they knew an Alpha when they saw one. After a while he'd taught them to treat Carol and me with vicious respect, if not affection.
Now when Stretcher tore a clump of yellow chrysanthemums from a pot that a mourner had set on a grave, Paul said, 'Come' – almost too softly to be heard – and the three dogs spun, ran back, and raised their hard eyes to him for praise or punishment.
'Those aren't animals,' Robert said. 'They're machines.'
'Careful or they'll eat you,' Paul said, and he crouched and let Flip lick his cheek.
While Jimmy, Robert, and Paul checked in at the Econo Lodge east of downtown Waycross, Carol and I drove to the house where my dad had grown up until he was seventeen and my grandparents died and he left town. The house was one of the few remaining in the historic district, and a law firm had converted it into offices some time ago. It was a big wooden place with a wide front porch and a wide second-floor balcony. Antique gas lamps burned on the sides of the front door, though the sun hung high in the afternoon sky. Roses bloomed in the garden between the front porch and the street.
Carol pulled the truck to the curb and stopped.
'Do you want to go in?' she asked.
From my dad's stories, I knew the pre-conversion layout of the rooms, upstairs and down. I knew the smells – the sugar and fruit of the kitchen, the cigarette smoke in the den where my grandfather paid bills, the rankness of the bathroom where water sometimes backed up through the plumbing. I knew the bedroom upstairs in the back, where my dad slept and where he shelved the books he had bought in the order in which he had read them, as if the line of books was a timeline matching the years of his own life, and where he also kept an empty silver box that his mother had given him on his fifteenth birthday. I knew my grandparents' bedroom, where they slept in side-by-side beds, and the yellowing Chinese screen that my grandmother set between the foot of her bed and the bedroom door. I knew that a middle step on the stairway to the second floor sagged when one stepped on it. I knew that the banister wiggled at the top where a bracket had come loose. I knew the house as my dad had described it, but while the outside structure still stood and roses still bloomed in the front garden, my grandparents had been dead for many years and even their ghosts would be painted back into the walls or gone altogether.
'Let's go to the motel,' I said.
'Are you sure you want to go through with this?' Carol asked.
I said, 'Don't I seem sure?'
'You seem sad,' she said.
'No,' I said. 'Not sad.'
'I guess I'm just lonely,' I said. 'I can go into an art gallery and see my mother's paintings of herself, and even though she's hundreds of miles away, she seems more real to me than I do. I thought that coming to this house, I would see something of myself. I don't. This place is nothing to me. I'm nothing to it.'
'That gives you a kind of freedom,' Carol said.
'Does it?' I asked.
Carol had said she would do anything for me. Paul too. They loved me, they said. And Jimmy and Robert owed me. I had lied to save them from the police – as their mom had broken all the rules to save me. Jimmy and Robert had been screwing around up on the Beasley Knob mountain trails, riding their dirt bikes drunk and coked-up, which was a bad idea even on the open road, much less on rocks, ruts, and tire gullies. I was taking photos as they came up Blue Rock Trail and launched into the air over a dirt lip, doing no-footers, fender grabs, and whips, while Jimmy's wife Diana, who should have been used to this kind of thing, kept calling him a fucking idiot and telling him he was going to break his fucking neck and she didn't want to be a fucking widow. Finally, he got fucking sick of it, threw his helmet into the trees, brought his dirt bike beside her, and said, 'Get on.'
'I'm not getting on that bike with you,' she said. She'd spent a year on the women's motocross circuit and knew when the drop got bigger than the rise.
Excerpted from Black Hammock by Michael Wiley. Copyright © 2016 Michael Wiley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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