Bloodfire is the 5th book in the Fred Carver Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
For over forty years, John Lutz (b. 1939) has been one of the premier voices in contemporary hard-boiled fiction, producing dozens of novels and over 250 short stories. His earliest success came with the Alo Nudger series, set in his hometown of St. Louis. Tropical Heat introduced Fred Carver, a Florida detective whom Lutz followed in ten novels. More recently, he has produced five books in the Frank Quinn serial killer series. Lutz is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, and his many honors include lifetime achievement awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Private Eye Writers of America. He lives in St. Louis.
Read an Excerpt
By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
The ocean roared and pushed him close to shore. Carver felt the equilibrium lent by deep water desert him. His toes and palms scraped on the grit and broken shells of sea-tossed sand. Breakers curled and flattened out, then frothed around his suddenly heavy and awkward body, which belonged to land. Dragging his bad leg, he crawled through shallow water toward the beach.
As he emerged from the water, the fierce Florida sun bore down on him. Almost immediately perspiration began to mix with seawater on his shoulders and the back of his neck. Carver wasn't afraid of sunburn; he was already brown from morning after morning of therapeutic swims in the sea.
He crawled to where his cane jutted from the sand like a spear. Picked up the folded towel next to it, shook sand into the burning morning air, and rubbed his face and bald pate with the rough terry cloth. Then he sat with his permanently stiff left leg extended, his good leg doubled under, and stared out to sea. In the distance a mammoth freighter lay on the hazy blue horizon like an island, its progress almost imperceptible as it made its way north. Closer in were several triangular white sails, banked at precisely the same sharp angle into the breeze. Above them half a dozen gulls, dark specks against a luminous perfect sky, dipped and soared on currents of warm air.
Carver loved to look out at the ocean, to sit and listen to the eons-old rhythmic roar of waves rolling in and crashing on soft sand, while he breathed in the fetid fish-rot scent of things living and dying and being cleansed by time and water. Between the smashing and sighing of surf, he could hear an occasional muted shriek; tanned sun worshipers were already on the public beach, to the right of where the shore curved away from his cottage with its private stretch of sand.
Only a small portion of the beach was visible. Carver saw a slender girl in a white one-piece suit dash into the surf and leap as if the sea were electrified. She screamed to someone onshore, then shook her long blond hair and ran back from the waves' reach and out of sight beyond the curve of land. Another scream. Laughter.
Movement caught his eye. A man was walking toward him from the direction of the public beach.
Carver bowed his head slightly and continued facing the ocean, as if he weren't watching the interloper. The man looked about average height and weight but was very muscular. He was suntanned evenly, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors, and was wearing red bikini trunks, stretched taut across a flat stomach. In his right hand was a wadded white towel. The heels of his rubber beach thongs flopped loosely and flicked up rooster tails of sand with each step.
Carver expected him to walk past, cutting through to the rocky beach on the left, which was too rough for swimming or sunbathing. He sat listening to the whisper of footfalls in sand as the man trudged behind him.
The swish of sand kicked up by the beach thongs stopped. The man was standing behind Carver.
Carver turned. The man was staring down at him. A guy about forty but still in great condition. The tan was almost too even, as if it had been augmented by sunlamps. He was handsome in a dark and classic way, though his wavy black hair was going gray. One of his thick, dark eyebrows was set higher than the other. Now it crawled even higher on his forehead, giving him a supercilious, amused look, as if he were passing through a world of inferiors he viewed with disdain. He had brown eyes, flashed perfect teeth as he smiled and said, "Enjoy your swim?"
"Always do," Carver said, making a point of staring out to sea, waiting for the man to resume walking.
Instead he moved around in front of Carver, facing the wide ocean. There was something haughty even in the way he stood.
Carver didn't feel like making small or large talk with anyone. "Private beach down here," he said, keeping his voice amiable. "I don't mind if you cut through, though."
"You're not very polite," the man said, not turning around. "Be that way, you'll scare off business."
Now he turned and did that amused, arrogant thing with his eyebrows: Carver was hardly worth his time, but here he was and Carver was a fool not to be glad. "You're a private investigator, right, Mr. Carver?"
"That's right. My office is in town, on Magellan Avenue across from city hall."
"That the only place you do business?"
"No," Carver said, deciding he was being a hard-ass when it wasn't necessary. Wasn't Edwina always warning him he was too cynical? That he was wearing out his life from the inside? He gripped his cane halfway up the shaft and used it to lever himself to his feet. He looked the man in the eye, smiled, and said, "You business?"
"I might turn out to be a client, if you want the case." He extended his right hand. "Name's Bob Ghostly."
Carver shook hands with the man, whose grip was powerful and dry and contained a hint of strength in reserve. "You know my name."
"Not your first."
"Fred, then," Carver said, thinking there was really no need for first names if this was business. "Usually I'm just called Carver."
"Okay, Carver." Again the affable handsome smile, marred only by the disdainful eyebrows. "So you wanna hear my problem?"
"Let's go into my cottage," Carver said. "Cooler there. And I feel like drinking a beer."
Carver tucked his folded towel under his arm and led the way up the gently sloping beach toward the low, clapboard cottage with its flat roof. He had to walk carefully with his cane in the soft sand, making sure its tip was planted firmly enough before leaning his weight on it. He could hear the slow, even tread of the man behind him, now and then the spray of sand and the slap of a rubber sole on a bare heel. Ghostly was hanging back, as if he didn't want to offend Carver with the fact that he had two strong and capable legs. Or maybe Carver was just reading it that way, filtering it through his own self-pity. Had to watch out for that.
He pulled open the screen door, then stepped aside on the plank porch so that Ghostly could enter first. Followed him inside and let the door slam shut behind him. The slap of wood against wood as it bounced several times off the doorjamb reverberated but was absorbed by the background sigh of the sea, lost in eternity.
Ghostly stood and looked around at the one-room cottage, the wood floor, the folding screen divider that sectioned off where Carver slept, the cooking area set off by a breakfast counter where Carver usually ate standing up, leaning as if he weren't lame. A row of dead plants, in pots dangling by chains, was silhouetted inside the wide window that looked out at the Atlantic. Ghostly said, "Nice place," as if he didn't mean it.
Carver tossed the damp towel in the canvas director's chair near the door. He thumped across the floor to the old refrigerator and opened the door. Cold air tumbled out on his bare feet. He reached in and closed his hand around an icy red-and-white can. "Want a Budweiser?" he asked. "That's all I got."
"You said it," Ghostly told him. "I don't see any sign of food in there."
Carver straightened up and stared at him, "You want the beer?"
"No, thanks." Ghostly was smiling, working those expressive out-of-sync eyebrows, Carver was beginning to think the guy was a smartass trying to be sociable and not quite making it. A nasty edge kept showing through.
Carver tugged at the can's pull-tab, heard the hiss, and felt cold liquid dribble on the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. He took a long pull on the beer, not minding that it stung his throat a little going down, then backhanded foam from his upper lip. "So what's your problem, Mr. Ghostly?"
Now Carver had to tame a smile. The old story. That was what kept him in business, trouble between the sexes. Love, lust, whatever, really did make the world go round, dropping people off at Carver's door.
He clutched the crook of his cane in one hand, the beer can in the other, and limped over to the director's chair, still trailing water on the floor. He used the cane to lower himself into the chair, on top of the towel. He always sat in this chair when he was finished swimming, and didn't mind if the canvas seat and back got wet. He took another swallow of beer and waited for Ghostly to continue.
"She's missing," Ghostly said.
Carver thought, How original. Said nothing.
Ghostly gnawed his lower lip, letting Carver know how concerned he was. "Last week I woke up and she was gone. Left a note saying she wouldn't be back."
"That what it said exactly?" Carver asked.
"Yeah, it was to the point. 'Bob, I've had enough. I'm leaving and won't be back.' I remember it word for word."
"Still got the note?"
"No, I threw it away. Saw no reason to keep it."
That didn't ring true to Carver. It was his experience that jilted spouses usually held on to such notes. A last message from someone they might never see again. Or, if the parting was bitter, tangible proof of betrayal. "She sign it?"
"Sure. Not her last name, just Elizabeth."
Carver looked at his half-empty beer can. "Like that? Her entire first name?"
"What'd you usually call her?"
"Beth. Her friends called—call—her that, too."
"But she signed the note Elizabeth. Kinda formal. Her handwriting?"
"Yeah, I'm sure it was."
"Any reason she'd bolt?"
"Must have been. She's gone."
Mr. Wise-ass again. "I mean, that you know of. You two have an argument just before she left? Anything like that?"
For the first time Ghostly looked uneasy. He was staring at Carver with appraising dark eyes, gnawing his lower lip again but meaning it this time. "If I hire you, is what I say confidential?"
"Even if you don't," Carver assured him.
"Still ..." Ghostly partially unwound the towel he was carrying. A leather wallet and a pair of sunglasses were cradled inside. He opened the wallet, an expensive eelskin one, and peeled out a bill. He held it out for Carver. It was a thousand-dollar bill. "I wanna make sure nothing I say gets beyond you. Want you to have some ethical obligation. Take the money. Let me be your client officially before I finish what I have to say, then you either accept the case or not, but either way you keep the thousand."
Carver was getting interested. He decided to play along. People did less for more money on TV quiz shows, didn't they? He took the bill from Ghostly's hand, folded it in quarters, and tucked it beneath the damp elastic band of his swimming trunks. He said, "You can trust me."
Ghostly said, "I know. I checked on you before I came here. You're a lot of things, Carver. Honest is one of them."
Carver didn't want to hear about the others. Better to stop with honest, while he was ahead. Settling back in the wood-and-canvas chair, hearing it creak beneath his weight, he laid his cane across his lap and stretched out his good leg alongside his bad one, the result of a bullet. Such a world.
He said, "Let's hear about Elizabeth."CHAPTER 2
Ghostly stood with his muscular arms crossed, his feet spread wide. He seemed more irritated than worried about his wife's disappearance. "Beth and I've been married five years," he began. Then he paused. "We're from New York originally, been living down here in Florida the past three years. Tell you the truth, both of us liked New York better...."
"Almost everyone in Florida's from someplace else," Carver said, seeing Ghostly had hit a snag and didn't know what to say next. Words failed when you woke up and found a note instead of your wife. It wasn't a unique situation in the marital wars, but one that always carried impact. "If you like New York, why'd you move here?"
"My job. I was transferred. I'm a salesman for a medical supply firm, and we do business with a number of hospitals in the central and south Florida area."
Ghostly seemed oddly surprised by the question. His asymmetrical dark brows danced wildly for a moment above wide eyes, making him look almost comical. Then he calmed down. Said, "No kids. There's only me and Beth."
"You live here in Del Moray?"
"No. In Orlando."
"Think Beth went back to New York?"
"No. I mean, I don't know. It's possible."
Carver leaned back in the director's chair and studied Ghostly, whose arrogant stance didn't fit his contrite and desperate words. A medical salesman, he'd said. Salesmen came in a lot of models, but not many were openly arrogant. Obsequiousness sold, obvious arrogance didn't. Not medical supplies, anyway. He said, "You think she disliked Florida enough to leave the state?"
Ghostly shrugged, as if to say, "You're the detective."
Well, that was true. Carver said, "I'll ask again: You two have an argument before she left?"
"No, we got along."
"All the time?"
"She behave oddly at all in the time leading up to her leaving?"
"Oddly? No, I don't think so. That's what's puzzling me. And worrying me. Maybe she was abducted or something."
"Well, you know."
Carver didn't. Not exactly. But he let it pass. "So everything was going on greased rails and suddenly she jumped the tracks?"
Ghostly nodded. He uncrossed his arms and raked fingers through his thick dark hair, absently scratched his crotch. "Yeah, you could put it that way. And I'm concerned."
Carver looked out the window for a while at the blue-green, undulating ocean beyond the dead potted plants. There were a few clouds in the sky now, lying low near the horizon and riding the wind toward land. A large bird flapped past, parallel to the shore. Maybe an albatross. Carver wouldn't know; he couldn't remember ever actually seeing an albatross and wasn't sure what they looked like. Big birds, though.
"How 'bout it?" Ghostly said. "Gonna take this on and find my wife? I'd appreciate it, and I'm willing to pay generously. I've got money saved, and I can't think of a better use for it."
"Why don't you let your tax dollars work for you, contact the police and tell them what you told me?"
Ghostly placed his fists on his hips and looked distraught. "I told you, she left a note. To the police, she's not a missing person. They wouldn't be interested. But I'm her husband, and I don't think Beth'd just up and leave that way. And even if she did, I wanna find her, talk to her."
Easy enough to understand. And what was Carver going to do with his days if he didn't take on the task of searching for Elizabeth Ghostly? Swim in the mornings—then what? His lady love, Edwina Talbot, was away at a real-estate convention in Atlanta. Which was one reason why Carver was here at his beach cottage, instead of at her home up the coast, where he usually stayed. The other reason was that Edwina had been acting oddly herself lately. They'd had an intimate but strangely independent relationship for the past several years, with space to breathe for each of them. No commitment.
Last week Edwina had asked for that commitment, and Carver had waffled. Since then she'd kept her distance from him, both physically and emotionally. He wasn't ready for another marriage.
He said, "I'll look for your wife, Mr. Ghostly. I'll need some more facts. And her photograph, the most recent you have."
Ghostly grinned and said, "I watch TV detective shows, so I know how it works. I brought a photo with me." He reached into the still-folded towel he'd set on the floor, came up with a plastic-coated snapshot, and handed it to Carver.
Carver laid the photograph on his bare thigh and stared down at it, surprised to see that Elizabeth Ghostly was a black woman. A beautiful black woman. She had high, wide cheekbones, lively dark eyes, a sculpted nose, and full, pouty lips. She was wearing what looked like a cocktail dress that allowed for more than a glimpse of cleavage, had pearl earrings, and wore around her neck a string of pearls that contrasted with her dark skin. Behind her were a wall and an ornate door, and several men in tuxedos. They looked more like bouncers than headwaiters.
"That was taken six months ago at a sales convention in Miami," Ghostly said. "The Doral Hotel."
"She's an attractive woman," Carver said.
Ghostly looked proud for a moment, but still with the undercurrent of arrogance. His principal possession had been complimented. Then he seemed to remember she was missing, and he frowned.
Carver said, "Sometimes interracial marriages suffer stress. Cause one of the partners to break and leave. Any of that kinda thing in your marriage? I mean, central Florida isn't New York."
"Well, there was a little of what I guess you'd call discrimination against her—us. Some whispers at the condominium project where we live. But that died down and didn't bother either of us. And now Beth isn't even the only black woman living at Beau Capri."
"Yeah. That's the condo development. Right near the Orange Blossom Trail."
Excerpted from Bloodfire by John Lutz. Copyright © 1991 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You ever heard of " take out "
Another good Fred Carver novel! Now I'm hooked. It always comes together in the end. Daisy