Scorcher, the fourth book in a series that includes Tropical Heat, Flame and Kiss, again features Florida private detective Fred Carver. A serial killer is on the loose, a maniac wielding a homemade flame thrower fashioned from a scuba tank. He has murdered three people - and one of them is Carver's eight-year-old son.
Carver will do anything to find his son's killer and exact a father's revenge. All clues point to the brilliant schizophrenic son of one of Florida's wealthiest families, and when the suspect goes on the run, Carver sets out to hunt him down.
A gripping story of long-buried secrets and burning hate, Scorcher is a taut, explosive and thoroughly unforgettable mystery.
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By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
After about 10:00 A.M. it gets too hot to sit outside during July in central Florida. It was nine o'clock now, and already bright, baking, and humid. Everything warm-blooded and not working on a tan sought the shade.
On the brick veranda of Carver and Edwina's beach house in Del Moray, the umbrella that sprouted from the center of the white metal table was tilted to block the morning sun, which was crawling up the hazy blue-gray sky over the Atlantic like a burning thing, slow in its agony. The upper half of Edwina's face was in the shadow of the umbrella, as if she were wearing a mask. Maybe she sat that way on purpose. Though they'd lived together for almost ten months, here in the house that was actually Edwina's, Carver still didn't know her. There was a part of her that belonged to a past she kept private. He'd kept his ramshackle beach cottage, twenty miles up the coast, because there might be a day when Edwina would want him out of her future as well as her past. She was unpredictable that way; possibly Carver loved her for it.
She sipped grapefruit juice from her tall glass, then said, "How long will your ex and the kids be in Florida?"
Carver looked out at the sun-flecked ocean and shrugged. "Maybe a week. Maybe a little longer. She's going to take Ann and Chipper to Disney World, go with them to the beach, that kind of thing."
"Tourist shit," Edwina said.
Carver nodded. A sea gull arced low over the rise above the beach and screamed, as if it had an urgent need to tell him something, then soared away, all without one flap of its wings.
"Do you think Laura chose Florida for a vacation so she could see you?" Edwina asked.
It surprised Carver that she'd used his former wife's name; usually Laura was simply "she" or "your ex." "I think she wanted to take the kids on vacation, and I've got a court-sanctioned visit coming up, so she decided to combine the two. Nothing devious going on."
"Ah, the proverbial two birds with one stone."
"Sure. No reason to read anything else into it."
Edwina bowed her head slightly and lifted her glass again. The sunlight caught her green-flecked eyes and exposed their intensity before they withdrew again into shadow. She took another sip of grapefruit juice, as if she needed the acidic stuff before phrasing what she meant to say. "I think she's still interested in you."
Carver was sure that wasn't true. "You're assuming a lot about a woman you don't even know."
"I know her through you. Enough about her."
"Laura's probably doing this mainly so I won't show up outside her door in Saint Louis next month and shake up her life."
Edwina absently ran a finger through the moisture left by her glass on the smooth table, creating a wavering pattern. "She didn't waste any time in calling here and letting you know she was in Florida."
"That's so I can't have any excuse for not exercising my visitation rights with the kids while they're here; I won't be able to say I never had an opportunity. She's dictating location."
Carver felt a pang of anticipation at the thought of seeing Ann and Chipper again. It had been autumn when he'd seen them last in Saint Louis, where Laura lived with the man she claimed she was going to marry. Six-year-old Ann had put on weight and was beautifully chubby, while eight-year-old Chipper had grown taller with a suddenness that had left him gangly. Let Laura take them to Disney World, Sea World, Circus World, and all the various other manufactured worlds of central Florida. Carver yearned to take his children for long walks on the beach, to slow down their growing up and talk to them about the real world, the one they were fated to live in.
"When are you planning to see her?" Edwina asked.
"I'm not planning to see her; I'm planning to see Ann and Chipper. But Laura will be there. Tomorrow evening at the Howard Johnson's on the Orange Blossom Trail. Want to come?"
"That would be awkward."
"Not for me. And I'd like you to meet my kids."
"Maybe it'd be awkward for Laura."
"So who cares?"
Carver did, but he could almost convince himself he didn't. His marriage had been a quicksand tragedy, mainly because of him. He didn't want Laura back and she didn't want him, and he didn't fool himself about who carried the blame for the divorce. He didn't hate Laura, didn't even remotely dislike her. And he didn't want to cause her any trouble. She was simply a woman who'd been caught up in the wrong life at the wrong time. His life. After the divorce she'd married again, to a psychologist named Charles Montaigne. Carver had agreed to let them legally adopt the children, though he'd maintained minimal visitation rights; he wanted Chipper and Ann to be part of a family unit even if he wasn't in it. Carver still thought of Chipper, young Fred Montaigne, as Fred Jr.
Carver's inclination these last few days to stereotype Laura as the disdainful and vaguely vengeful former wife was, he knew, a sort of reassuring manifestation of his love for Edwina.
But Edwina wasn't reassured.
"I can't go anyway," she said. "I've got some property to show tonight down the coast." She sold real estate in and around Del Moray and was serious about her work. Ferocious about it.
Carver didn't know whether to believe her.
Edwina cocked her head to the side sharply at the sound of tires crunching on the gravel drive at the front of the house. A car door slammed, and Carver looked toward the front gate, idly toying with his coffee cup.
He'd remember the feel of the cup, the warm curved surface of smooth china, the sharp spur against his knuckle near the base of the arched handle, for the rest of his life. A permanent moment. Because as soon as the tall figure of Alfonso Desoto appeared from behind the palm trees and pushed through the gate, Carver knew in a part of his mind older than he was that something was very wrong.
He knew it by the strained lines of Desoto's handsome Latino face, by the lack of vigor in his walk and the slump of his shoulders. The jacket of Desoto's pale gray lightweight suit was unbuttoned and flapping in the soft ocean breeze. Desoto was a clotheshorse who always automatically buttoned his suitcoat when standing up or climbing out of a car. Like zipping his fly after relieving himself. But not this morning. And the fact that he was here instead of at the Municipal Justice Building in Orlando, where he was a police lieutenant in Homicide, was in itself ominous. Carver had talked to Desoto two days ago, and he knew Desoto was working the day watch and should be behind his desk or out on an important call.
Unless something more important, and personal, had brought him here.
As he approached the table, Desoto flashed his white, dashing smile, but it was obviously mechanical. He was ethnic matinee-idol handsome, with broad, squared shoulders and a lean waist, and with the carved and faintly hawkish features that gave away his Aztec heritage if one looked closely enough to realize that he wasn't Cuban, as many people assumed. Desoto's father had been Mexican, his mother American of Italian descent. The draw of the gene pool had produced in Desoto a man who, had he been an actor, would have been cast by any producer in the role of romantic bullfighter.
Without speaking to Carver, he bent gracefully and kissed Edwina's cheek. Always Desoto gave first and special attention to women. He whispered something in Edwina's ear. She sat back in her chair until her entire face was concealed by the shadow of the umbrella. Then she stood up and walked into the house. She was wearing a skimpy blue bathing suit and her walk was incredibly elegant and sensual, but Desoto didn't stare after her. Instead he turned and gazed down at Carver with somber brown eyes and said, "Another day almost too hot for crime, eh? It's a wonder there's work for people like us."
Small-talk time. As if Edwina had gone inside merely to cool off.
"Want some juice or coffee?" Carver asked, letting Desoto work up to the purpose of his visit in his own fashion.
"Neither." Desoto turned and looked out at the sea and sky beyond the rise on which the house was built. The land was graded, so there was a drop to the ocean. From the veranda you could hear the waves breaking on the rocks the Army Corps of Engineers had piled there to keep the beach from eroding. "You're in the midst of true beauty here, Carver. Tranquility. I hope you appreciate your situation. It could make you stronger."
Carver started to get up.
"Stay down, amigo," Desoto said gently.
Carver had heard that sad tone in Desoto's voice before. He settled back in his sun-heated metal chair and waited. Desoto sat down across from him, where Edwina had been sitting.
"This world," Desoto said, shaking his head, "I don't know what it all means. Two weeks ago, down in Pompano Beach, a souvenir-store owner was found burned to death in his shop. There were two tourists at the back of the place, out of sight. They heard a man argue with the shopkeeper about some item the man wanted to return. Then they heard a kind of whoosh and a scream. One of them looked toward the front of the shop and caught a glimpse of someone using what looked like a scuba diver's air tank for a flamethrower. A gelatinlike material, on fire, was all over the shopkeeper. He leaped over the counter, ran three steps, and died. He was still burning when the police arrived. The man with the scuba tank got away without anyone getting a close enough look at him to give a description. A hell of a thing, amigo."
"I read about the case," Carver said edgily. He was growing impatient to get to what he feared. "We subscribe to the papers and watch the news here in Del Moray, just like you folks in Orlando."
"Of course," Desoto said softly, instead of responding to Carver's sarcasm. That scared Carver. Desoto was making conversation about interesting cases instead of telling him something was wrong. That someone was hurt—or worse. Or that Carver's beach cottage had burned down, or the department was cutting off Carver's disability pension for the bad leg.
"I'm tired of twisting on the hook," Carver said.
Desoto expelled a lot of air and smiled sadly. "I don't mean to leave you twisting. I insisted on being the one to come here and tell you, so you're right: I should tell. Last evening in Fort Lauderdale a woman let her son run back into a small restaurant to retrieve her purse, which she'd left behind. When he didn't come out, she went in to find him. The restaurant's only employee on duty was behind the cash register, burned to death and still smoldering. On the floor was the woman's son, in the same condition."
Desoto paused and Carver watched the gulls circling way out at sea. A couple of sailboats lay beyond them, tiny white objects pinned against the brightening water. Far beyond the sailboats, ghostly in the mist of distance, a giant oil tanker, seemingly motionless, was making its ponderous way down the coast. The breeze gained strength, carrying the fresh yet rotted scent of the ocean to Carver and making him realize by its coolness on his face that he was perspiring heavily.
"Get to it," he said.
Desoto swallowed, and for the first time since Carver had known him, his voice broke. "The woman is your former wife, amigo. The boy was your son."
The gulls continued to circle. The sailboats and oil tanker remained unmoving. The tireless sea slapped at the rocks below the veranda. The sun hammered down. All the way it had been a moment ago, yet not the same. Nothing could ever again be the same.
From far away, Carver heard Desoto say, "I'm sorry."CHAPTER 2
"I told you, you didn't have to," Desoto said to Carver. "Sometimes it's like you hate yourself."
They were at Wolfie's on East Sunrise in Fort Lauderdale, where Desoto liked to eat whenever he was in the vicinity. It was a hall-like place with lazy ceiling fans, a hundred tables, and an excellent reputation it deserved. There were about a dozen other diners, seated along the walls. Desoto was helping himself to sweet rolls from the wicker basket on the table. Carver wasn't eating.
"I guess I did have to," Carver said, trying not to think about the blackened thing he'd seen curled on the table at the morgue. But Desoto was right; it had been stupid of Carver to insist on viewing the body and putting himself through the horror. Masochistic. There was little enough left of Chipper to identify other than by dental work. Carver knew how that was done postmortem; he tried not to think about that, either.
"I feel helpless," Desoto said. "I don't like seeing this dumped on you, amigo, and there's nothing I can do to change what happened."
"And no way I can change it," Carver said. He ran his hand down his face. His eyes felt dry, his cheeks stiff, as if he'd been crying and had passed beyond tears. Or had screamed himself beyond emotion. He caught sight of his reflection in a wall mirror: average-sized guy, in his forties, gleaming bald on top but with a thick mass of curly gray hair over his ears and in back. Sun-bleached eyebrows; blue eyes like a cat's against a tan, almost swarthy complexion. Nose long and straight, lips full and stubborn. Features not handsome, but strong, maybe cruel, because of the boyhood scar that gave a slight twist to the right corner of his mouth. No hint in the reflection of what had happened to the inner man. No sign that a universe had shifted.
"Laura seems to be coping okay," Desoto said, spreading butter on a roll. Some of it melted and dripped golden onto his plate.
"She's in shock."
"She's also going to be joined in a few hours by Sam Devine." Devine was the lawyer Laura was living with in Saint Louis. "Maybe you should see her first." Desoto, wise in the ways of women, even women numbed by grief.
"I want to see her," Carver said. He'd spoken to Laura only briefly after Chipper's death, outside Fort Lauderdale police headquarters, and he'd been stunned by how much smaller and older his one-time vital, dark-haired bride had become. She was still beautiful, but in a different way, as a middle-aged woman. Maturity and grace had supplanted the healthy, almost feverish quality that had first attracted Carver. He wondered if grief over Chipper had diminished and aged her overnight, or if it had been the usual gradual process become suddenly visible.
"How do you feel about Laura?" Desoto asked.
"Right now, I feel sorry for her."
"I'd talk with her, comfort her, amigo, then I'd leave her with this Sam Devine."
"She'll return to Saint Louis with him anyway," Carver said, "when she has Chipper shipped back there for burial."
"Muumph," Desoto said, around a mouthful of sweet roll. A towering teenage waitress wandered by, noticed the basket on the table needed replenishing, and returned within a few seconds with more rolls. Their aroma was deliriously pungent, but right now it made Carver slightly nauseated. The lanky waitress, who had a name tag lettered Tanya pinned to her uniform blouse, poured more coffee for Desoto and then loped away. Tall Tanya.
"What do you have on this guy who burns people?" Carver asked.
"I was worried you might ask."
"You seem as calm as Laura, only in a different way."
"Maybe I'm in shock, too."
"No. Something else. Something that makes me afraid for you."
"Does that mean you're not going to tell me?"
"No, amigo, you'd find out anyway. You're as persistent as heat rash. We don't have any reliable witnesses, either at the burning at Pompano Beach or in the restaurant here in Fort Lauderdale. The restaurant is Casey's, over on Northeast Thirteenth Street, off Route One. It's a tiny place that specializes in chicken wings, mostly carry-out orders. Laura decided to stop there because your daughter was complaining about being hungry. They had their meal and left, and in the parking lot Laura realized she'd forgotten her purse inside. She sent Chipper back for it. Five minutes later he hadn't returned, so she went back to the restaurant and ... found him."
"What kind of flammable substance was used?"
"The lab's trying to analyze it now. It's not like gasoline or alcohol; this sticks and burns, like flaming glue."
"Like napalm," Carver said. He'd been in Vietnam briefly and remembered the scarred civilians who'd suffered through napalm attacks; the grotesque, disfiguring burns. "Flaming glue" was a good description of napalm, and the stuff could be used in flamethrowers, even homemade flamethrowers. It burned hot, it burned long, and it burned through things.
"My guess is, whatever was used was concocted by the maniac who killed your son," Desoto said. "But genuine, industrial-manufactured napalm might mean a military connection, something we'll check out."
"There were witnesses in the Pompano Beach killing, weren't there?"
Excerpted from Scorcher by John Lutz. Copyright © 1987 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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