Following close on the heels of his celebrated debut 18 Seconds, George Shuman returns with yet another remarkable thriller featuring investigative consultant Sherry Moore -- a blind woman with an uncanny ability to view the final living moments of any dead body she encounters.
A ruthless serial killer with an unthinkable MO has left a trail of tortured, murdered women in western Maryland and seems to have gone to ground in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. With no leads or any sign of a suspect, investigators must call on the now-famous blind psychic Sherry Moore, a woman whose talent inspires skepticism, but whose results are unparalleled. When she is put in contact with the hand of any dead body, she relives the memory of the departed's final experience. While investigating this case, she is privy to the most savage and terrifying scenes imaginable. However, because the killer is aware of her methods, he keeps his identity just beyond her reach until she resolves to put herself directly in harm's way. When the fiend sets his sights on Sherry, this seemingly helpless woman must demonstrate an almost inhuman strength of will and of body as she attempts to capture the deranged killer without having to pay the ultimate price in exchange.
With Last Breath, George Shuman confirms his status as one of the most captivating thriller writers, and in Sherry Moore, he presents one of the most compellingly original protagonists the genre has ever seen.
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September 28, 1984
She didn't feel quite right about the red dress; it wasn't a red dress kind of day. The blue one was nice. She'd tried on the blue one twice already, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew it had to be green. Yes, green would be best for today.
"Green," she said, satisfied, laying it out neatly on the bed. She put nylons, panties, and jewelry next to it and went downstairs in her slip to vacuum the living room for the third time this morning.
By nine she was at the kitchen table, stirring a cup of tea that she had no intention of drinking. She got up twice -- once to search for cigarettes, then forgot what she was looking for and came back empty-handed; once to answer the doorbell, but as usual there was no one there.
She chewed the skin on her knuckles, studying the refrigerator, conscious of the passing time. The rubber seals on the sides of the doors were dappled with mold, a job for Mr. Clean or Clorox or Natural Citrus, she could never remember which.
Her nerves were shot, she thought, laughing out loud. "Silly, silly me." She pinched her wrist until it hurt, glanced up at the second hand sweeping the yellow sunburst wall clock. "One," she said out loud, and then "two," but by "eight" she couldn't get the words out anymore, and the first tear of the day plunked into her tea.
She stared at the murky ripples in the cup, looking for a sign. Why couldn't she feel anything? Why couldn't she remember anything? What was she missing that the rest of the world seemed to have?
She breathed in the warmth rising from the cup, the sweet cinnamon and sassafras collecting around her nostrils, and formed a crooked smile. She would like to have had people think of her as eccentric -- eccentric was fashionable these days -- but in truth she had a screw loose. That was the problem and everyone knew it.
The ripples in the tea went still; she watched her reflection transforming into a gingerbread girl, silver candied beads thumb-pressed into a tiara. She smiled at the memory of rolling dough with her grandmother, but only for a second. There was a shadow behind the woman, and it portended bad things.
The image of the gingerbread girl began to soak up the tea and then an arm broke away, a leg, and at last the head sank into the murky liquid and the girl with the tiara was no more.
The noon bell tolled from Our Lady of Joy on Madison Street. Her eyes snapped up to the clock, then to the telephone on the wall, then to the grocery list on the refrigerator. She had been thinking about the refrigerator off and on all morning, but she didn't know why.
She took a deep breath. Where had the morning gone? she wondered. It seemed as if there was never enough time to get anything done.
"Groceries and green," she said evenly, "groceries and green." That's why she'd picked the green dress for today. It was to remind her of something, but what?
Maybe John knew? John knew everything. She wanted to call John, but they would only tell her he was at work. That's what they always told her. Work, work, work, couldn't they understand that she needed to talk to him?
She shivered. The house suddenly felt cold.
She looked at the telephone again, then the door to the living room. Maybe she should turn on the television and check the weather. Maybe she would need a raincoat when she went out. "No, no, silly girl. It's not supposed to rain all week. You're just trying to think of excuses not to go upstairs."
She put a hand on her chest, took a deep breath, and slid her fingers beneath the silk slip. She closed her eyes and massaged her breast, thumb exciting the nipple until it was hard, tears running down both cheeks now, and slowly she stood. With her hand still on her breast, she started for the stairs.
The mask was in a bottom drawer under a yellow sweat suit she had bought at Neiman Marcus. What she planned to do with a sweat suit, she had no idea. She'd never worn anything but knee-length dresses all her life. That was about the only thing she was allowed to wear as a child. That was all she cared to wear as an adult.
Besides, she was the same weight now that she had been in high school. Sweatpants were for women who either were trying to lose weight or had accepted the fact that they weren't going to. That's what her neighbor Celia was always saying.
That's why she'd never put on the yellow sweatpants.
Celia? Why did she just think of Celia? Why did Celia make her think about the grocery list?
It was Friday. They needed everything -- milk, eggs, bread -- even though she had just been to the store on Tuesday. Why in God's name hadn't she remembered to get them on Tuesday? It must have been one of those senior moments, like Celia was always joking about.
She closed her eyes and pursed her lips. "Concentrate, concentrate," she told herself. "John says you never concentrate enough. That's why you never get anything done."
A moment later she sighed, pushed Celia from her thoughts, and looked down at the mask, not unlike the way a junkie looks at a tourniquet: wanting it, repulsed by it, repulsed by herself. She lifted her hair and pinned it behind her ears. Then she picked up the mask and held it in both hands, thumbs kneading the rubber collar, tracing the molded cast of the rubber face piece.
It was Soviet made and as obsolete as its designers, but then almost everything John handled was obsolete, from dated survival gear to archaic uniforms, things that could be qualified for sale only as novelties. In fact the only thing he handled that was new were the medical kits he took to restock nursing homes.
The mask had a frightening quality, she thought. She remembered the first time she had seen the boxes in the basement. The cartons were labeled Red Army-SchM-1 M38 -- 1941. Someone had written helmet across the box in Magic Marker. It wasn't a helmet, of course, more of a hood, and the face was made to look like that of a giant insect or one of the aliens you see in vintage comic books. It was black and smooth, with a broad forehead and a triangular chin. Its eyes were round glass panes, and over its mouth there was a respirator hose attached, which was supposed to match up to a filter canister, but canisters would be in other boxes that weren't in the house and you didn't need one anyhow unless you were trying not to breathe contaminated air.
She couldn't explain why she had to put it on, but she knew the moment she saw it that she had to. That was almost a year ago. By now she had gotten very good at it.
She tilted her chin and slipped the hood over her head, pressed the face piece against her cheeks, and sucked the air out of the mask until it was snug.
She grasped the footlong hose that protruded from the mouthpiece, took a deep breath, and heard the rushing of air through the intake hose. Then she cupped off the open end of the hose with her hand and felt the stifling discomfort of a vacuum. This was a world where you couldn't bring your little problems, your little idiosyncrasies. This was a place of the present, of focus, where you thought about yourself and nothing else. This was the amateur walking the high wire.
Things looked different when the senses were ratcheted up to the nth degree; the world looked unfamiliar through the lenses of the round glass eye portals. She was on the other side of the continuum, anonymous and looking back in. She was no longer naughty Mary Dentin.
She put her hand on her face, caressing the slick black rubber. Her husband handled the masks all the time, but John would never have appreciated the beauty, would never have considered putting one on. Poor dismal John in his world of gray. He saw no good, no bad; no happy, no sad. She knew she was to blame. She knew that she weighed heavily on his mind. John, who worked three menial jobs to support her and all the while she was forgetting or burning his dinner, spending like she was out of control, having no interest in his hands, his lips, unable to respond to his slightest attempts at affection. She knew all that.
She knew too that he loved her, even though he understood there was no love inside of her to give back. It wasn't that she didn't love him in particular. She had no love for anyone. She was devoid of the feeling and there was nothing he could do, no matter how hard he tried, to make her happy. They had come to terms with that long ago.
He would be horrified to look at her now. He knew that she had secrets. He knew there were nights she walked the streets alone, was not at the movies with friends.
He knew she drank and she did, but only to anesthetize her racing mind. She used the mask when she was home alone, because when she put it on, she wasn't responsible anymore. She wasn't the disgraceful wife and mother. She wasn't a bad girl anymore.
She pushed off the straps of her slip and let it fall to the floor. She took a terry-cloth belt from one of John's old bathrobes and walked mechanically to the bathroom, where she closed the door and pulled the old wicker clothes hamper to the middle of the floor and stepped on it.
One end of the belt had been fashioned into a noose, and this she slipped over her head, pulling it snug around the collar of the gas mask. The other end was knotted around a large S hook she'd bought at a Home Depot. She slipped the S hook through the antique iron ring that held the light fixture, stuffed a small washcloth into the hose, and let her knees bend until the fixture took the weight of her body.
Slowly she picked up her feet and put her hands down, closing her eyes to a faint field of stars, nerve endings prickling. She put her hands on her breasts, then on her stomach, and goose bumps began to rise on her arms and thighs. She felt her head begin to clear, the clutter of her craziness dissipating into the vacuum of space.
She groaned at the pleasure, put a foot on the hamper, and pushed to take the weight off the noose. She found the slightest bit of oxygen in the air she sucked through the plugged hose, prolonging the experience; then she dropped again, and again, until she was nearing climax. One more minute, one more breath; she arched her foot, toes on the hamper, pushing off one last time, when she heard a loud snap and a leg of the hamper skidded across the bathroom floor and under the space beneath the closed door.
She fell five inches fast and jerked to a stop, arms shooting upward to grab the light fixture, legs kicking frantically to find the hamper again. She couldn't die like this, she couldn't be here; she couldn't let them see how pathetic she was. She swiped up at the hook above her head, breaking lightbulbs. Glass rained down over her.
She began to get dizzy, the glass eye windows fogged, she thrashed about some more, then her arms fell to her sides, muscles contracting, spasms contorting her back. Her fingers were clenched into fists, legs swinging over the broken hamper, feet trying to catch the edge, and then suddenly she managed to touch a corner of the hamper with a big toe.
The doorbell rang.
She hung there as still as possible, arms at her side, one leg out in space, the other supported by her big toe on the hamper now leaning precariously to one side.
The doorbell rang again.
She put pressure on the toe, managing to rise gently a quarter of an inch. The old wicker groaned under her weight. It was enough to relieve the pressure on her neck, but she was panicking and there was little oxygen to be had through the plugged tube. She tried to calm herself, to hold off as long as she dared without breathing, then put pressure on the toe again to rise and catch another breath, letting herself down again.
Someone was knocking now, knocking persistently on the door, and no one but Celia ever came to her door anymore. What had she forgotten this time? Was she supposed to do something for Celia?
Suddenly she thought of the grocery list on the refrigerator. Was she supposed to go to the store with Celia to buy something?
The doorbell quieted. The knocking stopped. Whoever it was had given up. Green and Greg's mom and groceries.
She raised herself an inch on her toe and took a careful breath.
How many more could she get before the hamper broke?
It was Friday and the end of a week of school. The first hint of orange tinged the leaves around the old brick schoolhouse. The sun was low on the horizon, casting long shadows of the maple trees onto the city streets. He ran his hand along the iron picket fence that went around the playground, kicked a tennis ball lost by a dog, and jumped over a fire hydrant. Horns persisted on distant Fremont, where people rushed home from work to the suburbs.
His father would be at work until midnight at his second job, stocking nursing homes with medical supplies. He was never at home to take him anywhere. They had never played ball together or gone to a game. The family had never taken a vacation together. It seemed there were always bills to be paid, groceries to buy. He couldn't understand why the other boys' fathers were able to do things his father couldn't.
He stopped in his tracks.
The newspaper was still rolled and stuck in the door. The old blue Nova was still parked at the curb. His mother must not have gone shopping. His heart sank in a long moment of wretched disappointment.
He started for the house again, crossed the street, and tried not to doubt her. The windows looked dark at Greg's. Greg's mom's little white Toyota was not in front of her house either.
Stop it, he told himself. She won't forget. She wouldn't forget this time.
He took the steps two at a time. "Home," he yelled, letting the screen door bang.
He opened the fridge and grabbed a Pepsi, snapped the can, and climbed on the counter, looking in the space above the kitchen cabinets for something to eat.
His mother often bought junk food and hid it from herself. She was forever buying things and forgetting about them. He knew most of her hiding places -- candy in the well on top of the kitchen cabinets, new clothes under the basement stairs, shoes under the twin beds in the extra bedroom. She had a way of acting as if there were different people inside of her, all fighting for her attention at the same time, all disagreeing. She'd buy a television for the kitchen and put it in the attic. She'd light cigarettes only to stamp them out. She'd fix a drink and pour it down the sink, open a savings account and close it in the same day. She never wore the same clothes all day long, never returned clothes that didn't fit, never read the books she purchased or watched the movies she rented. It was as if she were guided by opposing voices.
"Mom?" he yelled, grabbing a handful of Oreos from an open package, guzzling the soda. "I'm going next door to Greg's."
He was only kidding, of course. He couldn't go next door until everything was ready. Until his friends got home from school and changed and picked up their presents and got rides back to Greg's.
He knew about the surprise birthday party two weeks ago. Greg had heard his mother suggest it to Greg's mom, Celia, who offered to have it at her house so it would be a surprise.
She would make him clean his room or do homework or something to take up the time.
Maybe she was still over at Celia's? Maybe she was putting candles on the cake or tying a ribbon on a new bicycle? Maybe she was hiding in the dining room with the blue eighteen-speed, waiting to yell surprise? She had a hard time keeping things to herself. Sometimes she would give Christmas presents to people at Thanksgiving.
It wasn't really his birthday, not until tomorrow, but Greg was going to Six Flags with his parents in the morning, so it was the only time he could be there, and Greg was his very best friend.
He knew he'd be getting the blue bike he saw in the window of City Cycles, because his mother felt so bad about last year. She promised she would never forget one of his birthdays again. She'd go overboard on Nintendo cartridges and other things too, as she was prone to do. Never able to make up her mind, she ended up buying everything she looked at rather than selecting one thing.
He looked in the laundry room, walked into the living room, then back through the dining room into the kitchen.
"Mom?" He looked up the stairs.
He grabbed the handrail. "Mom?" he said a little less loudly, a little less enthusiastically.
He took the steps two at a time, walked the hall toward the bedrooms. Her door was open and a green dress was laid out on the bed. He saw nylons and jewelry lying next to it. Her purse was hanging on the doorknob, an envelope with one of his father's paychecks sticking out of it. She should have gone to the bank to deposit the checks before she went shopping.
He checked the other bedrooms, all empty, looked down the hall, and saw the bathroom door was closed. He walked toward it, frowned as he bent over to pick up a piece of broken white cane protruding from under it.
"Mom?" He opened the door slowly.
She was hanging from the old light fixture, naked, her face and hair covered by a black rubber mask with glass eyes and a respirator hose for a mouth. There was something stuck in the end of the hose, a rag perhaps or a kerchief.
The clothes hamper was on its side beneath her feet, spilling yesterday's underwear and towels on the floor. She had a toe on it; he could see her foot arched like a ballerina's, muscles quivering to hold her weight up.
He stepped into the room and could see her eyes now through the round glass windows. She was looking down at him, eyes wide, wild, intense.
The phone rang.
He heard the wicker groaning beneath her trembling foot as she tried to raise herself up again.
He looked at her eyes for the longest time. Then he backed up and sat on the toilet seat and stared at her.
The telephone rang again. It would be Greg, calling to tell him the bad news. That his mother hadn't come through, once again.
And for what?
He knew very well what this was, knew from exploring every inch of the house and his mother's hiding places, her so-called diary that she managed to write in fewer than a dozen times a year. She had done this to herself. This was the meaning of her "other place," her "dark world, the only place I can feel pleasure without pain." It was just one more of her fucking peculiarities, the crazy side of her that everyone was always pretending not to see.
This mask, this noose, this thing she was doing to her body was more important than his birthday. This was the kind of shit she woke up thinking about rather than him. He wondered what she was thinking now.
The telephone continued, the doorbell rang, someone knocked, and he ignored it all.
He could still see her eyes from where he was sitting. She was watching him, eyes never blinking, toe trembling on the corner of that hamper. Finally he got up, walked over to the hamper, and kicked it out from under her.
She dropped fast; their eyes locked together as she bounced. He stood there a few feet away, eyes never leaving hers, until he was sure she was dead, until there was no more soul looking back.
He heard knocking at the door, persistent now. He walked to the window and looked out to see Celia. She would have known all along it wouldn't happen. Just like all the other mothers would have known. There never was going to be a birthday party. There never was going to be an eighteen-speed bicycle. She'd forgotten about him again. Just like the times she forgot to pick him up at school, or when she was supposed to take him to a movie or come to parents' day or the soccer game or the school play. He had all but stopped saying it. That his mother was going to be somewhere or she was going to do this or that. He couldn't stand that look on the other kids' faces.
"You didn't forget to do this, did you?" he said to his dead mother, his chin trembling. "How in the fuck did you remember to do this?" He wiped angry tears from his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Was this more important than me?"
He went to his room, got his pocketknife, and came back and cut her down. She collapsed in a heap at his feet. He grabbed her under the armpits and dragged her down the hall, where he put her on her bed.
It took thirty minutes to get her into the clothes she had laid out, then he brushed her hair and cleaned the mucus and the smeared lipstick from her face.
He put the noose back around her neck, then took the mask to his room, where he hid it under his mattress.
Back in the bedroom he sat in a corner chair and looked at her until his father got home.
It was nearly midnight.
The newspapers called it suicide and no one seriously questioned the fact. Mary Dentin had a screw loose, the neighbors told police. Mary was just like her own crazy mother, who stepped in front of a metro bus one Christmas morning.
Mary's grandfather was the only next of kin she had, save husband and son, and he looked less than happy to be drawn into a funeral. That didn't really surprise the boy; his mother was always uncomfortable around the old man and it seemed there was no love lost between them. When he left after the service that day, the boy never saw him again.
His own father was an outsider, even to his mother. He lived with her and he loved her, but he knew less about her than anyone in the world.
Life changed after that. His father quit all three of his jobs. He would sit in his threadbare recliner all day with a newspaper in his lap and a pen in his hand. He had taken up his wife's erratic habits of smoking Pall Malls and drinking Maker's Mark bourbon. He filled the borders around the printed articles with random words like room road automobile breach germany korea cold. He would write the words in bold print, turning the paper sideways and upside-down, until there was no more room in which to write. Then he would fall asleep in his chair. He would still be there in the morning, staring vacantly at the paper as he bade him good-bye for school.
For weeks it went on. The house remained silent, the lamps sparely lit. The phone never rang; friends never came to visit. It was as if they had all had died together.
One day his father showed up at school, the station wagon packed tight with boxes, and they drove west.
Copyright © 2007 by George D. Shuman
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Unique concept, Excellent Read - Sherry Moore, a blind lady able to view the last 18 seconds of a dead person's life, helps solve unsolvable crimes using these abilities. Imagine having that ability and seeing those final moments, scary stuff. Shuman offers a compelling story, fascinating characters, and suspense at it's finest.
Last Breath kept my heart rate up - I had the hardest time putting it down to go to bed.
18 Seconds was such a phenomenal debut, I was hoping for more from Last Breath. There was just too much in this book, too many people, too many story lines, with no clear line on Sherry. I can only hope that then next in this series will devote more time and plot to Sherry and less to convoluted plot lines.
In Cumberland Gap, Maryland, the State attorney general Glenn Schiff never forgot when he met blind psychic Sherry Moore in Philadelphia in 1992 as she explained how the victim grabbed her hand as he died she was able to ¿see¿ the way his witness died. Now he wants her help on the mass murders of three kidnapped women found inside an abandoned Maryland meat processing plant.-------------- Sherry agrees and provides information that helps on the investigation. However, the FBI takes over the case and soon another victim found near Pittsburgh brings in the Pennsylvania state police. While the groups argue jurisdiction, Sherry suffers nightmares as she knows the serial killer is preparing to strike again.--------------- The key to the second Moore psychic mystery is the crime scene descriptions are so vivid they make the tale and the premise of the heroine¿s skill seem genuine especially when Sherry decries the deaths. The audience will find the courageous heroine fascinating as she refuses to allow her lack of sight from stopping her from living for instance she is studying the marital arts. Although the serial killer theme is overwhelming the market and government agencies arguing over whose in charge is ancient history, Sherry¿s description of the victims¿ last 18 SECONDS or so of life freshen this delightful unique paranormal police procedural.---------------- Harriet Klausner