It’s summer on the Jersey Shore. Children play on the beach. Husbands are off working in the city. And the surf echoes in the night. Here, in this perfect place, a serial killer has no worries in the world—except choosing the next victim . . .
HAS JUST BECOME . . .
Cam Hastings has come to Long Beach Island with her teenage daughter and the hope that maybe she can save her failed marriage. Cam has never stopped loving her husband Mike nor has she been able to outrun her flaws and demons—a vanished mother, a lost sister, and the ugly visions she has of missing children . . .
A KILLER’S FAVORITE PLAYGROUND . . .
Now, Cam is about to step over the edge. For once, she will act on one of her visions—and then face the consequences. For a killer has just struck again. And for Cam, and the people she loves most, fear has come home for good . . .
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Fourteen years later
Hearing a door slam somewhere downstairs, Cam is startled from her prenap stupor.
"Mom?" a voice calls up from the foot of the stairs in the foyer. "Are you here?"
She opens her eyes. Tess is home. Can it possibly be three fifteen already?
She turns her head to look at the bedside clock, and sees that it is, indeed, three-fifteen.
"Be right down," she calls to her daughter, and sits up groggily.
So much for catching a much-needed afternoon nap. Somehow, the better part of a Tuesday morning and afternoon seems to have escaped her.
Then again, she accomplished quite a bit today. After getting Tess off to school this morning, Cam belatedly switched over her own drawers and closet from winter to summer. Then she made the usual suburban rounds: pharmacy, bank, dry cleaner, post office, supermarket. Back home, she threw together a pot of homemade chicken soup — an odd craving for an unseasonably hot and humid late-May afternoon. She left it simmering, wearily climbed the stairs, lay down ... and here she is.
Cam stretches. Sleep will have to wait till bedtime. She swings her legs over the edge of the mattress, half-expecting her feet to encounter a pair of Mike's shoes cluttering the floor beside the bed.
Then she remembers.
Old habits die hard.
The first thing Mike always did every night after work was sit on the bed, take off his shoes, and leave them where they lay. It drove her crazy from the start, but he couldn't seem to remember to pick them up, and she stubbornly refused to be that kind of wife. Instead, she grew accustomed to stepping over and sometimes on his shoes.
These days, Mike's shoes occupy another bedside about twenty miles away from Upper Montclair, New Jersey. His new place is, ironically, a stone's throw from their old newlywed apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where they spent the happiest time of their lives.
These days, real estate in that neighborhood is booming and the narrow old streets are crawling with hipsters. Who could have foreseen that?
Who could have foreseen any of this?
Not even me, Cam thinks grimly.
How bitterly ironic that Camden Hastings — who once upon a time could foresee the bitter fates of strangers — was ultimately blindsided by her own.
Mike moved out in mid-March.
For all she knows, some other woman is sharing his new bed in his new place in his new life.
If not now, then probably soon.
Mike won't be alone for long. And when he finds someone new, he'll go for someone who's the opposite of Cam.
That's no premonition. She hasn't had one in years. Just a gut feeling.
Mike will find some woman who is everything Cam isn't, at least not anymore. Some woman who's skinny, financially independent, optimistic, emotionally stable. A woman who is all the things Cam never even was in the first place: blonde, petite and perky, elegant, efficient, self-disciplined ...
Cam can't bring herself to ask her husband — soon to be ex-husband, that is — if he's started seeing anyone in the two months since they separated.
Nor has she asked their daughter what, if anything, she knows about her dad's new solo lifestyle. It's not fair to expect Tess to spy on him during their scheduled visitations.
Anyway, Cam should probably get used to the fact that after all these years of a shared life, certain aspects of Mike's are no longer any of her business.
Just as aspects of her own life are no longer any of his business.
Right. But one aspect of your life most certainly is Mike's business, and you need to tell him about it. Soon.
With the official start of summer a month away, Long Beach Island — a skinny, twenty-one-mile-long barrier island off the coast of central New Jersey — is still relatively uncrowded. The busiest town, Beach Haven, has been a bustling resort for well over a century. On this warm, still Tuesday afternoon, though, all is quiet here.
The sun, dazzling when it rose this morning, is high overhead but its light seems filtered now, more white than golden. Off to the west, above the Victorian rooftops of the historic district, the sky — so blue just an hour ago — is tainted the color of an angry bruise. A pleasant sea breeze has given way to brine-scented air hovering ominously close, as if Mother Nature is holding her breath in anticipation of a coming storm.
The forecast doesn't call for rain.
But that's the glorious thing about the weather here on the coast. Nobody ever seems able to accurately predict what's going to happen.
So different here than out West, where every day brings more of the same: calm, dry, sunshine. Or the Deep South, where late- afternoon summer thunderstorms are as predictable as the sun going down.
Yes, it's far more interesting to know that on any given day, the weather might remain calm from dawn to dusk — or a powerful, exhilarating storm might blow in to wreak havoc on this peaceful little town. This so-called haven.
The afternoon may be waning and the weather threatening to turn, but the beach remains dotted with chatting senior citizens in lounge chairs, young mothers chasing after toddlers, and the occasional power walker plugged into an iPod.
Nobody seems to be paying any attention to the solitary figure standing at the edge of the surf, testing the waters, so to speak.
Cam walks slowly down the stairs, past the framed family pictures that line the angled wall.
There's Tess as a bald, chubby baby, as a tow-headed preschooler, as a gap-toothed first-grader. There's that lone, stiffly posed professionally taken family portrait of the three of them, and a couple of framed snapshots, and, of course, their formal wedding photograph.
Cam averts her eyes as she passes that oversized frame, thinking she probably should just take it down.
Their wedding day was joyful, and every time she sees the picture, she's flooded with memories — now bittersweet.
She remembers exchanging handwritten vows in the little white seaside chapel on the Jersey Shore; the best man's simultaneously funny and moving toast at the reception; her first married dance with Mike to — appropriately — Etta James's "At Last."
Though it took them awhile to hang their large wedding portrait in their first apartment, that was one of the first tasks Mike accomplished when they moved up here to the suburbs. He did so with uncharacteristic efficiency — almost pointedly, Cam remembers thinking at the time. As if he were determined to prove that they were going to create a fresh start here in suburbia — together.
By then, though, the tension between them was already pervasive.
Still, it took almost another decade for either of them to do anything about it.
Now that the marriage is all but over, the picture hangs here still: white lace and broken promises.
I really should take it down, Cam tells herself, not for the first time, as she passes on by. And she will, as soon as she has a chance.
But there are some things she can't keep putting off.
You have to tell him, Cam admonishes herself again, reaching the first floor and heading toward the kitchen where she can hear Tess rummaging through the cupboards for a snack.
Of course I'll tell him. I'll call him and say we have to talk ...
Just — not yet.
This early in the season, the Atlantic surf is icy enough to shoot twin darts of pain from ankle to thigh.
But physical pain is nothing compared to what I've been through.
Physical pain, like the tide, eventually ebbs.
Even now, the waterline inches farther from shore with every lapping wave. A flat, soaked, darkened strip at its foaming edge is strewn with glistening relics deposited by the sea: pebbles and shells — mostly shards, with an occasional intact treasure among them.
Gleaming in a relatively empty patch of wave-packed sand is an eye-catching sliver of something wet and black that just washed ashore.
Hmm. Can it be ...?
If it is, then it's a sign.
One doesn't come across sharks' teeth very often on these populated northeastern beaches.
Be casual. Don't just snatch it up. Someone will notice.
But this stretch of beach is fairly deserted, and nobody's looking this way, anyway.
Good. Go ahead. Reach down ...
The tiny black object is about the size of a little girl's pinky fingernail, but triangular in shape, tapering down to a sharp, skinny point.
It's clumped with grains of wet sand that need to be carefully brushed away before a positive identification can be made ...
Definitely a shark's tooth.
It's time for the hunt to begin again.
Tess Hastings looks nothing like Cam did at her age. Every time she gazes at her daughter, Cam sees Mike.
Tess's coloring is her father's: she's got his light brown hair and green-flecked hazel eyes, as opposed to Cam's chestnut mane and eyes the same dark shade. Tess's shoulder-length layered cut suits her hair's thick, wavy texture and her delicate facial features, while Cam has always worn her own hair long and straight. Cam has an olive complexion that's quick to tan, as opposed to her daughter's fair skin. Tess is short for her age, and slender; Cam lanky and — well, no longer slender.
Not heavy, though, by any means. She's been a fairly stable size 10 throughout most of her marriage. Now, of course, her waist is swelling pretty rapidly, along with everything else, it seems.
She settles at the square kitchen table opposite her daughter, who has dutifully poured chips into a paper towel–lined basket and a small amount of salsa into a little ceramic bowl. At her age, Cam would have eaten the chips straight out of the bag and dunked them into salsa in its low, wide-mouthed jar — double-dipping, of course.
Her father never told her that the saliva would get into the salsa and it would spoil in its jar. She had to figure that out for herself.
Back when she was trying to create the model household, she made all kinds of rules for Tess, to save her from — God forbid — eating spoiled salsa, or something even more undesirable.
Undesirable? Ha. Now that they're dealing with an undesirable far more undesirable than anything Cam ever imagined, is there any comfort in the fact that the chips are in a basket and the salsa is in a bowl?
"So how was school?" she asks Tess, fighting the urge to grab the damn basket and hurtle the chips across the room in sheer frustration at how it all turned out.
"It was okay."
Cam wistfully remembers Kindergarten Tess, who attended PS 42 in Manhattan wearing cute little dresses and her favorite Lisa Frank plush animal backpack. Every day after school, she reported that her day had been "GRRRRR-EAT!!!"
It's hard to imagine her ever showing that much enthusiasm again. For anything.
"Did you get your grade on your geometry quiz yet, Tess?"
"No. Maybe tomorrow, he said."
"Good. What about English? Did you turn in your paper?"
"Um, it was due today, so ye-e-ah." Tess draws it out in the same derisive tone kids used to say duh back when Cam was a teenager.
She's been saying that a lot lately. "Ye-e-ah."
It's better, Cam supposes, than the sarcastic no's she was prone to before this phase.
As in, "Did you turn in your paper?"
"No, I poured gasoline on it and set it on fire."
Well, ask a stupid question ...
But lately Cam can't seem to think of any that aren't.
She never considered Mike a sparkling conversationalist, but when he was around and they were a family, they somehow always managed to find something to talk about at this table over a decade of family dinners.
Now Cam and Tess are left to sit here across from each other every night, toying with their food and attempting idle conversation, Mike's empty chair between them.
Now that he's officially gone, maybe Cam should remove his chair altogether — get one of those little café tables for two. A black wrought iron one, maybe, to match the sleek appliances.
Or perhaps she and Tess can start eating at stools at the granite-topped breakfast bar across the large kitchen. Even in the living room, in front of the plasma television. Tess used to beg for that when she was younger. She said none of her friends had to eat dinner sitting at the table with their parents.
But Cam insisted on it. She had read somewhere, years ago, that children who eat dinner with their families are statistically far less likely to get involved with drinking, drugs, cigarettes, not to mention sex, truancy, suicidal thoughts ...
Lord knew she couldn't have her precious only child fall victim to any of those adolescent perils. She would have a normal family, the family Cam never had, the family Mike did have and wanted to duplicate.
They kept up the charade to the bitter end; the three of them sitting down every night to dinner, even when Mike stayed at the office later and later, and those meals eventually consisted of canned SpaghettiO's, buttered Wonder Bread, take-out pizza, cold cereal ... and, for Cam, a glass — or two — of wine.
Tonight, however, there's not a drop of liquor in the house, and a pot of chicken soup bubbles on the stove.
Last night, they had chili and homemade cornbread.
The night before that, a complete Sunday dinner of roast chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pan gravy ... for two.
"Daddy would like this," Tess said bleakly, picking at a drumstick. "You should have made it for him sometime."
The message was clear: If you had acted more like a wife and mother, he wouldn't have left. And I wouldn't hate you so much.
Of course, Cam doesn't really believe her daughter hates her, despite her having flung the word around lately.
But she does believe, just as Tess does, that it's her own damn fault Mike is gone.
"Do you have a lot of homework tonight?" she asks Tess.
"Not really. Just an essay for English."
"That's good. The teachers used to ease up at this time of year, I remember."
"Not really," Tess says again, sounding deliberately contrary. "It's more like they start trying to cram everything in before finals."
"Oh — that reminds me ..." Good idea. Change the subject. "I was thinking we'd head right down to Beach Haven the week school gets out instead of waiting till July."
She holds her breath, waiting for Tess's reaction.
Normally, her daughter would be thrilled to get a head start on summer on Long Beach Island. They've been spending the better part of July and part of August, too, at the little gray-shingled house Cam and Mike bought there a few years ago.
This year, everything is different.
Sure enough — "Why do we have to go right away?" Tess protests.
Cam hesitates. "Because you're scheduled to spend the Fourth of July weekend with Daddy, so I thought we could get in some beach time before that."
They're both new to this world of scheduled visitations. With their lives mapped out by lawyers well in advance, everything should be relatively uncomplicated — yet somehow, it all feels anything but.
"What am I doing with Daddy for the Fourth?" Tess asks slowly, not looking at Cam as she busies herself wiping up a ring of condensation her glass left on the table.
"I don't know. Maybe you'll get to see the fireworks in the city. Or," Cam adds, noticing that Tess doesn't seem thrilled by that notion, "maybe he'll take you away someplace."
"I don't know. It's a long weekend — you've got four days."
"Maybe he can just come down the shore with us like usual."
"I don't think so, Tess."
"You don't want him there."
"It's not that I don't want him there."
It's that he doesn't want to be there.
And that he doesn't belong there anymore.
His choice, not mine.
"Then you should invite him," Tess persists. "I mean, it's not like you're divorced, or anything."
A trial separation — that's what they told their daughter — and each other.
But in Cam's mind, it was permanent — if only because she sensed that it was permanent in Mike's.
"Will you invite him, Mom?"
"Maybe," she says, because it's easier than saying no.
Just as trial separation is easier to say to a child than divorce.
For now, Tess seems satisfied with that "Maybe."
And, hell, I will ask Mike, Cam thinks. Let him be the one to say no ...
The Fourth of July is more than a month away.
You just never know.
By then, she'll be into her second trimester.
By then, Mike will know she's pregnant.
The shark has an innate need to hunt, to kill, to feed. It glides stealthily, concealed in the depths, circling the unsuspecting victim.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dying Breath"
Copyright © 2008 Wendy Corsi Staub.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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