When a mysterious box containing a greeting card, a sheet of textbook paper, three human teeth, and an adult index finger severed just above the knuckle arrives unannounced on Rusty “The Raven” Diamond’s doorstep, he realizes he can no longer hide on the beaches of Maryland. Someone wants Rusty to pay for what he did years before, and if Rusty is going to survive, he’ll need to take the fight Vegas.
Rusty was once the hottest act on the strip, a magician who commanded sell-out crowds for his death-defying act. But with bigger risks come bigger enemies, and it seems Rusty has made one of the most sizable the Nevada desert has to offer. A mobster-turned-politician with every resource available aims to not only close the curtain on Rusty, but make sure he pays dearly beforehand.
Rusty’s final reckoning with his past will draw him into a trap that, even at his most Houdini-esque, he may not be able to escape. Taut, fast, and gripping at every turn, Torn & Restored builds to a spectacular denouement that will leave readers buzzing for days.
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The box contained a sheet of textbook paper, three human teeth, an adult index finger severed just above the second knuckle, and a greeting card. Made of lightweight cardboard and roughly a foot square in size, it begged for destruction.
Rusty wanted to yank the box from its perch on his kitchen table and throw it into the fireplace. Douse it with lighter fluid and toss a match. The box leered at him like some kind of foul rebuke. It offended his eyes. He wanted to take a hammer and smash the thing to dust. Drop it in a landfill hundreds of miles away and bury every last fiber so deep it was beyond any chance of salvation.
Those were not realistic options. Rusty had no choice but to deal with this box on its own terms. The first step was finding out who the hell had sent it to him.
"Still there?" he asked into the cell phone. Over the course of this long- distance conversation, Dr. Lima had shown a propensity for silences.
"Still here, Mr. Diamond," she eventually answered. "Sit tight, I haven't forgotten you."
"Take your time," Rusty said, careful not to sound impatient. It had required some digging to obtain a direct line for Dr. Estrella Lima of the Anthropology Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. If she took offense at his tone and decided to terminate the call, he'd be back at square one.
The box had appeared on his doorstep in Ocean Pines this morning. It was the third one he'd received in the past six days, each arriving via parcel post. The contents found inside each box had grown progressively more alarming, and the prospect of what a fourth box might contain terrified him.
A call to UNLV's Anthropology Department wasn't much to allay his fears, but it was a start. Dr. Lima just might be able to impart some tiny fragment of knowledge to propel him in the right direction.
If she ever comes back on the damn line, Rusty thought as he paced the kitchen floor.
He'd almost tripped over the first box last Thursday, emerging from the house shortly after dawn for his daily six-mile run. He couldn't account for its unexpected appearance. Rusty had managed to live for more than two years effectively off the grid; the postman rarely brought him anything other than junk mail. His initial response was to assume it had been delivered to the wrong address.
He was wrong. The package had most definitely been intended for him, as were the others. All three boxes were identical, at least on the outside. Same size, same lightweight cardboard. Someone had scrawled his name and address on one side and affixed a dozen stamps. A handwritten return address didn't offer him much in the way of trackable information:
Compared to what followed, the first package had seemed almost innocuous. The sole aspect of its arrival that disturbed Rusty was knowing someone in Nevada had discovered his whereabouts. The box contained only a 32 MB flash drive. Curiosity overrode his fear of malware. Plugging it into his laptop, he'd found a single item on the drive, an MP4 video file. He'd played it, at first astonished and then dismayed by what he saw.
It was a low-resolution piece of video, just under four minutes long, showing a performance of some kind. No audio. A young woman in a stained t-shirt and jeans lay strapped to a table in murky lighting. Behind the table stood a tall, broad-shouldered man in a sleeveless black robe. He clutched a small hatchet in one hand and walked around the table, gesticulating to someone out of frame.
Rusty recognized the movements, the specific body positioning of the man circling the table. He'd performed the exact same motions, hundreds of times, on the stage at Caesars Palace. The accuracy of this pantomime was so strong it made him almost dizzy.
But that wasn't the most disconcerting element of the video.
The man looked exactly like Rusty. Long black hair, tapered goatee, snaking vines of tattoos covering both sinewy arms. The resemblance was so strong, Rusty needed multiple viewings to confirm he wasn't looking at some moment from the past captured without his recollection.
Dead ringer. No other word for it.
The video ended abruptly, just as the robed man started lowering the hatchet toward the woman's neck. The implication of what happened after the camera stopped rolling was clear enough.
Rusty tried to dismiss the video as a prank, or possibly a misguided attempt at flattery via sick imitation. Someone must have seen one of his performances from his run at Caesars (YouTube was loaded with such fan- made clips) and decided to recreate it. Creepy, but not worth freaking out over.
He'd returned the flash drive to the box and deposited the box in his hall closet. Then he'd almost managed to forget about it, until two days later when the second package arrived.
No flash drive in that one, just a small, cubical object. Rusty recognized it even as he teased away a protective wad of bubble wrap.
It was one half of a pair of dice, but not the standard casino variety. This was a magician's die, pure black onyx, eight sided and marked with various arcane symbols. Again, Rusty recoiled with a sense of personal violation. He'd used dice of exactly this type in countless illusions back in his early days as an unlicensed performance artist on Fremont Street.
It took several minutes of examination to notice a detail that made him almost physically sick. The die had a small nick on the side containing an omega symbol. Rusty still remembered when he'd dropped his onyx cube on a sidewalk and scratched it like that.
Six ... seven years ago? Longer?
The date was irrelevant. What mattered was the realization that this die wasn't merely similar to one he'd used in an ill-remembered past. It was his property, an artifact of a former life he'd lost track of long ago. Inexplicably mailed to him from some phantom address in the Mojave Desert. And it was covered with what looked like dried blood.
A handwritten note had accompanied the die:
Looks like you've been up to some dirty business, Raven. Your fingerprints and someone else's blood all over this thing, as well as its companion (which is safe in our possession — for now). Could find yourself in some hot water if you're not careful. You'd better come back home before things get really nasty.
After reading that note enough times to memorize it, Rusty had deposited the second package in the hallway next to its precursor. He'd spent much of the following two days in a state of reeling speculation, trying to figure out what the deliveries could mean.
Then, today, the third package had arrived, its contents so gruesome Rusty couldn't stand to examine them closely for more than a minute or two.
The extracted teeth were all molars. About the roots they were dotted with dried blood of the same dark hue as that covering the die. These teeth had not come from a mouth treated to regular dental hygiene, and they hadn't been pulled gently. The finger was unquestionably male. A thatch of dark hair sprouted from the third knuckle. The jagged rim of flesh around the severed edge and the short protuberance of yellowing bone suggested the work of a hacksaw or a similarly serrated implement.
All day, Rusty's mental focus had ping-ponged in two directions, seeking answers to a pair of unanswerable questions:
What in God's name is Nossa Morte, and whose fingers and teeth am I looking at?
The latter question was buzzing around his mind when Dr. Lima's voice interrupted it.
"Sorry about that," she said. "My computer's running like it has a hangover for some reason."
"No problem. We were talking about Nossa Morte."
"Indeed. You have quite a keen interest in that subject."
"Can you spare another minute?"
"I've been generous with my time already. We're in the middle of finals; it's a very busy —"
"I really appreciate your help. Just one last question?"
"Suppose I ask you a question, Mr. Diamond. What made you think to direct your inquiry to my office?"
Rusty glanced down at the sheet of textbook paper spread out next to the bloodied teeth. A faint stamp in one corner of the page indicated it had been torn from a book belonging to the UNLV library.
"I came across some intriguing material in a textbook checked out from the library on your campus. It's an incomplete fragment, unfortunately. I was hoping to assemble a fuller picture of its contents."
"I see. And rather than call the library, you consulted the Department of Anthropology. Latching onto the first tenured professor you could reach, I'm guessing."
"If there's someone else at the university more qualified to help me ... "
He let the sentence dangle unfinished.
"Your interest, Mr. Diamond. It's academic in nature?"
"You could say that," he lied. "I'm a documentary filmmaker, preparing a project on indigenous tribes of the Amazon. The Payocu in particular. This seems like an interesting angle."
Rusty heard an exasperated sigh.
"First of all," Dr. Lima began, "the focal point of your interest is of little relevance to the Payocu. It represents only a small fraction of their culture. There's considerable doubt about whether the phrase is legitimate, or maliciously implanted upon the tribe as a means of justifying their eradication. I tend to support the latter theory."
"But what does it mean?"
"The words 'nossa morte' are Portuguese. They translate to English as 'our death.' I'm sure you could have discovered as much on your own."
"Yes, but how do those words relate to the Payocu tribe? Some kind of ritual, I gather."
"That's not completely inaccurate."
Rusty waited but heard no further reply.
"Doctor Lima, you sound a little hesitant to answer my questions. Can I ask why?"
"I resent this conversation, frankly. I resent being chosen to assist with your project, which strikes me as dubious in merit."
"This is your field, isn't it? Anthropology, with a focus on indigenous people of subequatorial regions."
"Indeed. As someone with twenty years of research to my credit, I'm fed up with the insulting ways these cultures have been represented even in so- called respectable publications."
"Look, I'm not trying to — "
"You say you're planning a scholarly film project on the Payocu. Yet all you want to discuss is some sensationalistic legend, the reality of which has been called into question by many academics."
"OK, I hear what you're saying. Nossa morte is a fraud, contrived to make a peaceful tribe look like savages. Probably by someone with an interest in grabbing their land, if I had to guess."
"Quite right," Doctor Lima answered, her tone a few degrees less hostile. "None of that's been proven. It's just a viewpoint I happen to endorse."
"I'm willing to buy it. Trust me, I have no agenda other than gathering information."
"In that case, let me conclude our discussion with one critical point. Just because tribes like the Payocu lack what we might call sophistication, that hardly means they maintain some grossly atavistic lifestyle."
"Like practicing death rituals, for instance? Rituals that involve dismemberment and mutilation?"
A moment of cold silence greeted those words.
"I have to go, Mr. Diamond. Good luck with your — "
"Maybe we could meet in person," he said quickly. "At the university, any time that works for you."
"You didn't mention being in Las Vegas."
"I'm not, at the moment. Catching a plane to McCarran tonight."
"My schedule is insane right now," she sighed. "Give me a number where I can reach you. If anything opens up, I'll be in touch."
Figuring that was the best he could hope for, Rusty recited his mobile number. Dr. Lima terminated the call before he could finish thanking her.
An oppressive silence filled the kitchen. Reaching out to Dr. Lima had been a long shot at best, but there was nothing else he could do from here in coastal Maryland. More direct action would have to wait until his arrival in Vegas. He'd be there in less than twelve hours, a prospect that made him shudder with fear and a kind of perverse anticipation.
He pulled the greeting card from that day's delivery and once again tried to make sense of the handwritten message inside. It was longer than the note in the previous package, and more cryptic.
When is a trick not a trick?
When does the rubber knife turn to steel?
When do the suckers get what they came to see?
When Nossa Morte takes the stage.
Come out of hiding, Raven.
Drag yourself home where you belong.
Bring this tribute or you can expect more.
Come find us, and come alone.
Fail to show, and your local police department will receive a package containing more than enough evidence to burn you.
Don't lose your nerve.
The next performance will start before you can stop it.
There it was. A veiled yet overt threat to frame him for some unknown crime if he didn't cooperate. The pattern of escalation was obvious, the need to respond impossible to ignore. Rusty was ready to do that, but first his appearance needed some more work.
He walked upstairs and stepped into the master bathroom. The sink was filled with a scattering of dark hair — remnants of the pointed goatee that had adorned his face for the last ten years before he'd shaved it off that morning.
Rusty gazed into the mirror, assessing the alteration to his visage.
Not enough. Not for Vegas.
He picked up a Braun electric shaver and flicked it on, aiming the blades at a tangle of dark hair over his brow.
A knock on the door downstairs froze his hand in place.
"Mr. Diamond, this is the police!"
Rusty turned off the razor and walked into the bedroom. Pushing aside a window sash, he peered down at the driveway.
An Ocean City Police Department cruiser was parked next to his Lexus. The cruiser sat empty, the driver's door open. Rusty couldn't see who was standing on the doorstep — or how many — as another thunderous barrage of knocks rose from below.
"We have a warrant, Mr. Diamond. Open up or we'll be forced to break down this door!"
Rusty quickly moved to the stairs. His mind churned with unsettling scenarios. Was it possible Nossa Morte had already sent a package to the OCPD, as the handwritten note had threatened?
Why bother tipping me off if that was the plan? he thought as he reached the bottom of the stairs. More to the point: Why the hell didn't I just go to the cops myself?
Rusty had considered doing that ever since the second box arrived, but something stopped him each time he reached for the phone. Fear. He'd let the fear of being unable to account for his whereabouts in recent weeks stop him from making what anyone would recognize as the most sensible move.
The door shook with renewed pounding. He could see the knob jerk violently.
"This is your last warning, Mr. Diamond. Open up!"
Rusty squinted into the peephole. He saw nothing but the fleshy obstruction of a thumb pressed over it.
"Hold on, goddamnit!"
He removed the safety latch and reached for the knob. The door flew inward, slamming hard into his chest. The impact stole Rusty's breath and he fell to one knee.
The door kept swinging open, knocking him to the floor. Lieutenant Jim Biddison — all 280 pounds of him — stood on the other side, one hand planted on the door and holding it open.
Rusty braced himself for a rush of officers, but Biddison was alone in his doorway, wearing civilian clothing.
"What the hell," Rusty wheezed, struggling to stand and refill his lungs with oxygen.
"You were warned," Biddison said. He took an aggressive step into the house, whipping a pair of cuffs from his belt.CHAPTER 2
"Turn around and show me those —"
Lieutenant Biddison didn't finish the command. It disintegrated into hoarse laughter.
"Jesus," he guffawed. "The look on your face."
Another spasm doubled him over, and Rusty finally understood what was happening. He stepped around the hulking lieutenant and kicked the front door closed.
Rusty stood there watching the hysterics, feeling as annoyed with himself as with his cop friend. The fact that he hadn't recognized this as some asinine prank was a stark indication of how badly his powers of cognition had been jarred over the course of the last six days.
Biddison regained some composure as Rusty brushed past him toward the kitchen.
"You're an asshole, Jim. Want a beer?"
"What'd you expect?" Biddison asked, accepting a bottle of Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale from the refrigerator. "Had to get your attention somehow, didn't I?"
"You must love pulling stunts like that." Rusty handed him a bottle opener. "Do it all the time. Hell, you're probably one of those pricks who pulls over women for bogus moving violations, just to see what they'll do to get out of it."
Jim flipped him the finger. Rusty smiled, but the unannounced visit still had him on edge.
"Why didn't you just call?"
Biddison almost choked on a swallow of beer.
"Seriously? You've been ducking me for, like, weeks. You were never the most communicative guy to begin with, but lately you've been a goddamned ghost. What gives?"
"Nothing. Just busy."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Torn & Restored"
Copyright © 2017 Austin Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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