Authors: Matt Hilton
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
HIS BOOK IS DEDICATED IN SAD MEMORY
to my beautiful girl, Megan Rose Hilton (1989–2006). My first and foremost fan and critic. I miss you dearly, Megs. Your energy, I know, goes on. When the time is right, I will see you again.
PAIN AND FEAR TRANSCEND EVERYTHING, AND KNOW NO boundaries. It…
“COME IN, JOE. QUICK.”
WHEN WORKING, I DON’T USE A VEHICLE THAT I CARE…
HE HAD THE DESIRE AND THE PASSION. HE CERTAINLY HAD…
THAT EVENING, AFTER THE EPISODE WITH SHANK, I RETURNED home…
TUBAL CAIN WAS IN HIS ELEMENT. DRIVING A FLASHY CAR…
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. WHY I HOTFOOTED IT TO…
DUTY AND SOLDIERING GO HAND IN HAND. THE SAME COULD…
YESTERDAY MORNING, TUBAL CAIN’S RAGE HAD BEEN EPIC. Little wonder.
RINK’S CONDOMINIUM WAS SET IN A SMALL COMMUNITY IN woodland…
ONLY EIGHT MILES FROM LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL Airport and thirteen…
“SO THIS IS YOUR HOMETOWN, RINK? I HAVE TO TAKE…
“MR. HUNTER?” LOUISE BLAKE LOOKED ME UP AND DOWN. “You’re…
“DIFFERENT PLATES, SAME SUV.”
HARVEY HAD DONE A DECENT JOB OF MONITORING THE movements…
THERE HE WAS.
EVENTS OVERTOOK OUR PLAN WAY TOO QUICKLY FOR MY LIKING.
WHEN I WAS A SMALL CHILD, I LIVED IN A…
MR. SO-CALLED-AMBROSE WASN’T A NAME THAT CAME EASILY to the…
MORE THAN ONE THING WAS TROUBLING ME ABOUT THE whole…
CAIN KNOCKED AGAIN.
“YOU OKAY, HUNTER?”
“SON OF A BITCH.”
ONCE, I WAS PURSUED THROUGH A RAINSTORM THAT DID LITTLE…
JOHN TELFER SAT ON HIS HOTEL RECLINER AND STARED AT…
LOUISE BLAKE’S HOUSE WAS MODEST WHEN COMPARED TO some in…
THERE WAS NO TIME FOR CLEANUP.
“KEN BIANCHI AND ANGELO BUONO,” CAIN WHISPERED TO himself.
WE WALKED OUT OF LAX INTO BRILLIANT SUNSHINE TINGED with…
THE SUN WAS WARM ON CAIN’S FACE. ABOVE HIM, A…
“YOU’VE GOTTA BE YANKIN’ MY GODDAMN CHAIN.”
JOHN TELFER WAS LEAKING BLOOD. ORDINARILY THAT WOULD have been…
THE LAST TIME I WAS ON A MOTOR LAUNCH IT…
YOUR BOSS IS ALREADY ON HIS WAY.
BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN.
“YOU DON’T LOOK SO GOOD.”
THE ENIGMA THAT WAS TUBAL CAIN KEPT NAGGING AT ME.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE THE PLACE?”
“REMIND ME NOT TO INVEST IN A HOLIDAY HOME OUT…
CAIN WHISTLED WHILE HE WORKED. HE KEPT HARMONY WITH every…
I’VE OFTEN WONDERED IF THERE’S ANYONE MORE SUPERSTITIOUS than a…
ALONE, EITHER MAN WAS A FORMIDABLE ENEMY. TOGETHER, Cain had…
STANDING AT THE THRESHOLD TO CAIN’S DOMAIN, I BALKED at…
OH, WHAT AN IDIOT. YOU’RE BARING YOUR NECK TO THE…
I SHOULD’VE EXPECTED SOMETHING LIKE THIS. CAIN’S HISTORY should have…
YOU’VE UNDOUBTEDLY HEARD THAT OLD STORY ABOUT HOW at the…
JUST AS I SUSPECTED, WALTER ARRIVED LIKE A CELEBRITY at…
IN THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED, WALTER ATTEMPTED TO explain the…
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Like one of those gentle Appalachian towns with timber-framed houses and split-rail fences. Where life takes a leisurely pace: where people actually sit on their sun-dappled porches beside a pitcher of homemade lemonade with beads of condensation. Can you almost hear the rustle of branches overhanging slow-moving rivers, the shuffle of wildlife in the long grass?
The vision couldn’t be further from the truth.
Try this instead.
Nothing but scrub, sand, and more sand. Blistering midday sun, unbearable cold at night. Harsh rock formations surrounded by a blasted earthscape. Nothing lives here.
Death is the only resident. Ever present. Waiting, waiting.
Look closely. Bones litter the sand, some the petrified remains of creatures that lived in the mud of prehistoric swamps, but some are more recent. There are the bones of birds and small animals that limped here searching for nonexistent water.
Occasionally the sand will cast up bones recognizably human.
Supposedly, a troop of Confederate soldiers fled here to the western desert when they were split from the forces of Jubal Anderson Early as he fought the Yankees at Waynesboro, Georgia. Rumor is that it’s their bones that are occasionally stripped bare, left exposed by the wind.
There’s another myth behind the hollow’s name. In the Old Testament, blind-eyed Lamech had a son by the name of Jubal Cain, father of all who handle the harp and pipe. Jubal was said to be the first musician. This is a fitting place to carry his legacy.
Jubal’s Hollow, a natural amphitheater, is noted for its strange acoustics. Wind can make it moan like a dirge of funeral pipes. It is a preternatural music of the dead.
But it is not the only connection to Jubal.
Jubal had a brother named Tubal, and if legend is true, he was the first metalworker. It was he who forged the first knife. But today it is another Tubal Cain who fills this place with the bones of men.
PAIN AND FEAR TRANSCEND EVERYTHING, AND KNOW NO
boundaries. It doesn’t matter where you are. You could be in any metropolis in the world—New York, London, Paris, Moscow—and the parallels would remain consistent. There are differences in culture, in law, in language, but at their most basic level, civilizations share one undeniable truth: the scream of a victim sounds the same the world over.
Stepping off an airplane into the sticky heat following a Florida thunderstorm, the screams of my past were ringing in my ears. Somehow I knew that the hunt for John Telfer would add further memories of pain and anguish to my already full heart.
My quest had begun two days previously and an ocean’s breadth away in England. There were screams then, too.
It was just like the old days. I was back doing what I was good at. Where I crouched, broken glass and rubbish littered the floor. Nearby, a train rattled past and last week’s front-page news fluttered in the service alley. It wasn’t all that stirred; the stench was terrible, a mix of urine and filth.
It chilled me.
Jennifer Telfer’s curtains twitched inside her apartment.
She was scared. And that was to be expected. She knew why I was there, on the street, watching her place.
It wasn’t me she was afraid of.
Some people call me a vigilante. That’s their prerogative. I prefer to think of myself as a problem-fixer. When you’re a single mother whose children have been threatened by violent men, you send for Joe Hunter.
A black BMW slowed at the end of the street.
“Here we go.”
It halted in front of the apartment building. There were three men inside: the harsh and aggressive men I’d been expecting.
First to step out was a large bald-headed man, busy pulling on leather gloves. From the back came a man equally tall. Unlike the first, his frame was lanky and thin. Together, they moved toward Jennifer’s place.
The idling engine covered my approach. So did the blaring radio. The first the driver knew of my presence was when I tugged open the door.
“What the—” was all he got out before I hit him.
I aimed for the carotid sinus and struck the bull’s-eye. Such a blow could prove fatal. Call me compassionate—I chopped him just hard enough to knock him out.
Leaning over him, I grabbed at the seat belt. It made a good noose. The remainder of the belt looped around the headrest and jammed into the door frame made it even better.
I caught up with the other two before they’d reached the apartments.
With a bent back, a cap pulled down over my hair, I moved toward them. I might as well have been invisible.
I straightened up and thrust the V of my thumb and index finger into the bald man’s windpipe. As his hands went to his damaged
throat, I slammed my clenched fist into his solar plexus and he folded over my arm. Breath exploded from his lungs as he performed a slow dive, meeting my lifted knee midway. He hit the floor hard, but it didn’t matter: he was already oblivious.
There was no time for taking satisfaction from my work: Skinny was already going for something inside his jacket. Could be a gun.
Grasping his wrist and tugging his hand out of his jacket, I saw that he held a knife.
“Now isn’t that just typical of you, Shank?” I flexed his wrist, hearing bone grating on bone. Made it easy to pluck the knife from his fingers.
His name was Peter Ramsey, an idiot who began his criminal career stealing lunch money from the other kids at school. But—like all third-rate gangsters—he loved his nickname. He favored a knife when threatening desperate mothers. Shank should be a scary handle for someone wielding a blade. I thought it was pathetic.
I took a fistful of Shank’s hair and pressed my knuckles against his skull.
“Listen closely,” I growled. “One thing, and one thing only.” I snatched his head forward, meeting him eye to eye. “Jennifer Telfer is off your books.
. You hear that?”
“Jennifer Telfer? Who the—”
I slapped him hard.
“You know who I mean.”
Wagging the knife at him, I said, “Tell me you weren’t thinking of cutting her.” I lifted the blade. Sharp edge beneath his nose. His breath misted the steel. “You know something, Shank? Just thinking of that makes my blood run cold.”
“I wasn’t gonna cut anybody,” Shank said.
“Good. You won’t be wanting this back then.” I dropped the knife into my coat pocket. “If I see you around here again, I’ll hurt you bad.”
“What have I ever done to you?”
“Messed with the wrong person,” I told him. “That’s what.”
To punctuate the point I backhanded him across the face. “When you walk out of here, you keep on going. If you as much as look back, I’ll be all over you like a bad case of hives. You got that?”
“Yeah, man, I get you.”
“See you, then.”
“Not if I see you first,” he said, turning quickly away. “Psycho!”
“Believe me,” I said, “if there is a next time, you won’t see me coming.”
COME IN, JOE. QUICK.
Jack and Beatrice huddled in front of a television. A cartoon vied for their attention and they barely gave me a glance.
In a hurry, Jennifer shut the door. Behind me came the clink of a security chain, the ratchet of a dead bolt.
“You won’t need as many locks in the future, Jenny.” I pulled off the hat and jacket. “Shank won’t be paying you any more visits.”
Jennifer hugged herself. Barely above a whisper, she said, “There’s worse out there than Shank to worry about.”
Fourteen years working as a counterterrorism agent had already convinced me of that. If I required reminding, all I had to do was look at the kids. Only six and four years old, they already had the look of the infinitely wise about them. “Hi, kids, what’re you watching? Cartoons?”
“SpongeBob,” Jack said matter-of-factly.
“He’s got square pants,” Beatrice added.
“Interesting,” I said. I gave her a lifted eyebrow. She was too young to know who The Rock was, but she appreciated the effort. Her giggle was like soft music. A baby again. The resilience of children never fails to amaze the cynic in me.
Her mother wasn’t so easily calmed. My hand on her shoulder was waved off with a gesture. Jenny took my coat and hat, abandoned them on the arm of a settee, then walked across the room. Perched on a chair next to a battle-scarred table, she had the look of a condemned prisoner.
“You can quit worrying. I guarantee you, Shank’ll look somewhere else for his cash.”
She plucked at a pack of cigarettes next to an ashtray overflowing with half-smoked butts. The ashtray was testament to prolonged worry.
“For now,” she said. “But what about when you leave? What’s to stop them coming back?”
“I’m only a phone call away.”
Jennifer hacked out a cough. She stabbed the cigarette into her mouth.
“What about when I can’t pay you, Joe? Are you still going to come running then?”
“You think I did this for money? I helped you because I wanted to. You needed help. All of you.”
“But you don’t work for free, Joe. Didn’t you tell your brother John that? Why didn’t you help John? If you had, then maybe he’d still be here…” I saw fresh tears on her lashes. “Why didn’t you help us then, huh? I’ll tell you why, should I? It was about the
I didn’t answer.
She brought a light to her cigarette and went at it as if it were a lifeline. She glared at me. “You wouldn’t help John when he needed it. I can’t pay any more than he could.”
I had to say something. First, I settled in opposite her. “Jenny, you don’t really understand what happened between me and John. It had nothing to do with whether he could pay me.”
She snorted, sucked on the cigarette.
“I don’t know what he told you, but I guess it wasn’t the truth,” I said.
Her eyes pierced me.
“What are you saying, Joe?”
I sighed. “It’s water under the bridge, Jenny. Forget it, okay?”
She shrugged, flicked an ash that missed the ashtray. “Suit yourself.”
Silence hung in the air between us, mingling with her blue smoke exhalations.
Once, I watched a heron spearing trout from a stream. Jennifer’s hand made similar stabbing motions to douse her cigarette. Then, like the greedy heron, she reached for another. I gently laid a hand on top of hers. She met my eyes. Hope flickered beyond the dullness but only for a second. She pulled her hand away, drew the pack to her. She lit up and took a long gasp. Through a haze of smoke, she said, “I want you to find John.” She reached out and twined her fingers in mine. “I want you to find your brother and bring him home.”
“That might not be as easy as it sounds. He’s not in the country anymore.”
“No, he isn’t. He’s in America,” Jenny said.
“You’ve heard from him?”
Searching in her pocket, Jenny pulled out an envelope and held it to her breast. After a moment, she placed the envelope before me. I looked up at her, but she was looking over at the kids. “You two, go into your room while me and Uncle Joe are talking. You can watch TV in there.” Before they could argue, she hurried over, took them by their elbows, and ushered them into their bedroom. Closing the door, she said, “I don’t want them listening. After all’s said and done, John’s still their dad.”
Nodding, I concentrated on the envelope. It was standard white and dated more than two weeks ago. It was stamped
Little Rock, AK
“Arkansas?” I asked.
The tattered edge of the envelope produced two sheets of paper.
On first inspection, it looked like the kind of note you scrawl and leave in a prominent position when you have to leave in a hurry. Only longer. A
letter. Or in this case a
? But it wasn’t my brother’s handwriting.
I sought Jenny’s face. “Go ahead. Read it,” she said.
I probably have no right writing you like this. No doubt you hate me, but I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say.
John has gone, and I don’t know what to do. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t just left me as he did with you. When I say he’s gone, I mean vanished.
Maybe you don’t care, maybe you think I deserve everything I get, that John definitely deserves it, but I don’t think you’re that kind of person. John has got himself in some kind of trouble. He was jumpy for two or three days before he disappeared. He was frightened. I think something terrible has happened. And that’s why I’m writing to you now.
I placed the first sheet of paper on the table and looked across at Jenny. She’d retreated to the opposite end of the room, staring vacantly into space. The letter was my problem now.
John said that he’s got a half-brother over in England. Someone he called Hunter. I know they didn’t get along that well, but John said once that if anything ever happened to him I had to send for Hunter because he would know what to do. So I’m asking, I’m begging, please do this for me. And if you won’t do it for me, do it for John. Send for his brother.
“This woman,” I asked, “who is she?”
Jenny returned to stub out her cigarette. Her words held more vehemence up close. “John’s bitch.”
“Is she American?”
“No. She’s English.”
“What’s her name?”
“How did John meet her?”
“She worked for the same company as him.” She gave me a pointed stare. I just watched her, and Jennifer added, “By all accounts they were seeing each other for six months before he left me.” She gave me the pointed look again. “Everyone knew but me.”
She wiped at her mouth with the back of a hand. “Well, you’re about the only one who didn’t.” Her words became softer as she recalled the betrayal. “Louise stole my husband from me, Joe. Now she wants help to find him. What does she want me to do, hand him right back to her?”
“Have you ever met her?”
“Not formally. I saw her a couple times where John worked.” Jenny laughed. “When I think about it, I suppose you’d say she’s a younger version of me. Without the baggage around the waist from carrying two kids. Basically John traded me in for a younger model.”
“But you still want me to find him?”
She sighed. Her gaze flickered toward the bedroom. The kids were very quiet and I wondered if they had their ears to the door.
“He’s still their dad, Joe. He should be doing more to support them.”
Yes. A sad fact. But not something I was about to put into words.
Jenny said, “Probably Louise is right: John does deserve everything he gets. But my kids shouldn’t be made to suffer, should they?”
She could look all she wanted but she wouldn’t see any sign of disagreement from me. After a few seconds she asked, “So…what do you think? Is there anything you can do?”
“There is,” I promised her.
And I meant it.