Read The Last Child Online

Authors: John Hart

Tags: #Suspense, #Crime, #Fiction, #General, #Psychological, #Literary, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Thrillers, #Psychological Fiction, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Twins, #Missing children, #North Carolina, #Dysfunctional families

The Last Child

BOOK: The Last Child
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The Last Child

 

 

Fresh off the success of his Edgar Award-winning,
New York Times
bestseller
Down River
, John Hart returns with his most powerful and intricately-plotted novel yet.

 

Thirteen year-old Johnny Merrimon had the perfect life: happy parents and a twin sister that meant the world to him. But Alyssa went missing a year ago, stolen off the side of a lonely street with only one witness to the crime. His family shattered, his sister presumed dead, Johnny risks everything to explore the dark side of his hometown in a last, desperate search. What he finds is a city with an underbelly far blacker than anyone could’ve imagined — and somewhere in the depths of it all, with the help of his only friend and a giant of a man with his own strange past, Johnny, at last, finds the terrible truth.

 

Detective Clyde Hunt has devoted an entire year to Alyssa’s case, and it shows: haunted and sleepless, he’s lost his wife and put his shield at risk. But he can’t put the case behind him — he won’t — and when another girl goes missing, the failures of the past year harden into iron determination. Refusing to lose another child, Hunt knows he has to break the rules to make the case; and maybe, just maybe, the missing girl will lead him to Alyssa…

 

The Last Child
is a tale of boundaries: county borders and circles on a map, the hard edge between good and evil, life and death, hopelessness and faith. Perfectly blending character and plot, emotion and action, John Hart again transcends the barrier between thrillers and literature to craft a story as heartrending as it is redemptive.

 

 

 

 

 

THE LAT CHILD

 

 

A Novel by
John Hart

 

 

 

Copyright © 2009
by John Hart

 

 

 

Dedication:

 

 

This book is for
Nancy and Bill Stanback,
Annie and John Hart,
and Kay and Norde Wilson.
Parents, friends, trusted advisors.

 

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

 

A lot of people committed to making this book a success. For all that they’ve done—setting the tone, directing resources, and making such a strong commitment—I would like to thank Sally Richardson, Matthew Shear, Andrew Martin, and Thomas Dunne. For his genius at marketing the book, thanks to Matt Baldacci and to the wonderful people that work with him: Tara Cibelli, Kim Ludlam, and Nancy Trypuc. The jacket is beautiful and captures so much of the book’s spirit, and for that I thank David Rotstein and Ervin Serrona. In Production, my thanks go to Kenneth J. Silver, Cathy Turiano, and Nina Frieman; and to Jonathan Bennett in Design. As always, a special shout-out to the hardworking pros on the St. Martin’s sales team—you’re the best. Few books could succeed without strong publicity; so to my publicity team, Hector DeJean and Tammy Richards-LeSure, my gratitude. I am lucky enough to have the best editors in the business—Pete Wolverton and Katie Gilligan—who know how much I appreciate their hard work. Nevertheless, I’ll say it here: “Thanks, you two. You’re fabulous.” Thanks, as always, to my agent, Mickey Choate. To my early readers, Clint Robins, Mark Witte, James Randolph, and Debbie Bernhardt—you guys continue to play a vital role in the process, so thanks for that. Special thanks to Clyde Hunt and John Yoakum, who gave their names knowing full well that I might abuse them. Thanks to Mark Stanback and Bill Stanback, who spoke to me of eagles. And finally, most important, thanks to my wife, Katie, who remains my best friend and the love of my life, and to my daughters, Saylor and Sophie, the wide-eyed masters of daylong joy and innocent enthusiasms.

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Asphalt cut the country like a scar, a long, hot burn of razor-black. Heat had not yet twisted the air, but the driver knew it was coming, the scorching glare, the shimmer at the far place where blue hammered down. He adjusted his sunglasses and threw a glance at the big mirror above the windshield. It showed him the length of the bus and every passenger on it. In thirty years he’d watched all kinds of people in that mirror: the pretty girls and the broken men, the drunks and the crazies, the heavy-breasted women with red, wrinkled babies. The driver could spot trouble a mile away; he could tell who was fine and who was running.

The driver looked at the boy.

The boy looked like a runner.

Skin peeled from his nose, but beneath the tan he carried the sallow kind of pale that came from sleeplessness or malnutrition or both. His cheekbones made sharp blades beneath skin stretched tight. He was young and small, ten maybe, with wild hair that rose black on his head. The cut was jagged and uneven, like something he’d done himself. Frayed cloth hung from the collar of his shirt and from the knees of his jeans. The shoes were just about worn through. On his lap, he clutched a blue backpack; and whatever it held, there wasn’t much of it.

He was a good-looking kid, but what struck the driver most were the boy’s eyes. Large and dark, they moved constantly, as if the boy was overly aware of the people around him, the hot press of humanity typical of a broken-down bus on a sun-blasted morning in the North Carolina sand hills: a half-dozen itinerant workers, a few busted-up brawlers that looked ex-military, a family or two, some old folks, a couple of tattooed punks that huddled in the back.

The boy’s eyes most often found the man across the aisle, a slick-haired sales type in a wrinkled suit and sprung loafers. There was also a black man with a creased Bible and a soda bottle tucked between his legs; he seemed to catch the kid’s eye, too. In the seat behind the boy sat an old lady in a parchment dress. When she leaned forward to ask a question, the boy shook his head in a small way and answered with care.

No, ma’am.

His words rose like smoke, and the lady settled back, blue-veined fingers on the chain that held her spectacles. She looked through the window and her lenses flashed, then went dark as the road sliced into a stand of pine with shadows that pooled green beneath the limbs. The same light filled the bus, and the driver studied the man in the wrinkled suit. He had pale skin and a hangover sweat, unusually small eyes and an edginess that scraped the driver’s nerves. Every minute or two, the man shifted in his seat. He crossed his legs and uncrossed them, leaned forward, then back. His fingers drummed one knee of the ill-fitting suit and he swallowed often as his gaze drifted to the boy, then flicked away, drifted again and lingered.

The driver was a jaded man, but he ran things clean on his bus. He refused to tolerate drunkenness or debauchery or loud voices. His momma raised him that way fifty years ago and he’d found no reason to change. So he kept an eye on the boy, and on the drawn, shiny man with eager eyes. He watched him watch the boy, saw him push back against the greasy seat when the knife came out.

The boy was casual about it. He pulled it from a pocket and folded the blade out with a single thumb. He held it for a moment, visible, then took an apple from his bag and sliced it in a sharp, clean motion. The smell of it rose above the travel-stained seats and the dirt-smeared floors. Even above the diesel stink, the driver caught the sharp, sweet tang of it. The boy looked once at the man’s wide eyes and slick, washed-out face, then folded the knife and put it back in his pocket.

The driver relaxed and watched the road, uninterrupted, for a few long minutes. He thought that the boy seemed familiar, but the feeling passed. Thirty years. He settled his heavy frame deeper into the seat.

He’d seen so many boys.

So many runners.

 

 

Every time the driver looked at him, the boy felt it. It was a gift he had, a skill. Even with the dark shades on the driver’s eyes and the big curve in the face of the mirror, the boy could tell. This was his third trip on the bus in as many weeks. He sat in different seats and wore different clothes, but guessed that sooner or later somebody would ask him what he was doing on a cross-state bus at seven o’clock on a school day. He figured the question would come from the driver.

But it hadn’t happened yet.

The boy turned to the window and angled his shoulders so that no one else would try to speak to him. He watched reflections in the glass, the movements and the faces. He thought of skyscraper trees and brown feathers tipped with snow.

The knife made a lump in his pocket.

 

 

Forty minutes later, the bus rocked to a stop at a one-room gas station depot lost in the great swath of pine and scrub and hot, sandy earth. The boy made his way down the narrow aisle and dropped off the bottom step before the driver could mention that nothing but the tow truck sat in the lot, or that no grown-up was there to take possession of him, a thirteen-year-old boy who could barely pass for ten. He kept his head turned so that the sun seared his neck. He rocked the pack onto his back, and the diesel cloud rose; then the bus jerked and was rolling south.

The gas station had two pumps, a long bench, and a skinny old man in blue clothes stained with grease. He nodded from behind smudged glass but did not come out into the heat. The drink machine in the shade of the building was so old it only asked for fifty cents. The boy dug into a pocket, fingered out five thin dimes and purchased a grape soda that came out of the chute in a cold glass bottle. He popped the top, turned in the direction from which the bus had come, and started walking down the black snake of dusty road.

Three miles and two turns later, the road diminished, asphalt gone to gravel, gravel gone thin. The sign had not changed since the last time he’d seen it. It was old and abused, feathers of paint lifting to show the wood beneath:
ALLIGATOR RIVER RAPTOR PRESERVE
. Above the letters, a stylized eagle soared, and on its wings, the paint feathers rose.

The boy spit chewing gum into his hand and slapped it on the sign as he passed.

 

 

It took two hours to find a nest, two hours of sweat and sticker bushes and mosquitoes that turned his skin a bright, splotchy red. He found the massive tangle of limbs in the high branches of a longleaf pine that grew straight and tall from the damp soil on the bank of the river. He circled the tree twice, but found no feathers on the ground. Sunlight pierced the forest, and the sky was so bright and blue that it hurt his eyes. The nest was a speck.

He shrugged off the pack and started climbing, bark rough and raw on his sunburned skin. Wary and afraid, he looked for the eagle as he climbed. A stuffed one sat on a pedestal at the museum in Raleigh, and he remembered the fierceness of it. Its eyes were glass, but its wings spanned five feet from tip to tip, its talons as long as the boy’s middle finger. The beak alone could take the ears off a grown man.

All he wanted was a feather. He’d love a clean, white tail feather, or one of the giant brown feathers from the wing; but in the end, it could be the smallest feather from the softest patch, a pin feather, maybe, or one from that downy soft place beneath the shoulder of the wing.

It didn’t really matter.

Magic was magic.

The higher he climbed, the more the branches bent. Wind moved the tree and the boy with it. When it gusted, he pushed his face into the bark, heart thumping and fingers squeezed white. The pine was a king of trees, so tall that even the river shrank beneath it.

He neared the top. This close, the nest was as broad as a dining room table and probably weighed two hundred pounds. It was decades old, stinking of rot and shit and rabbit parts. The boy opened himself to the smell, to the power of it. He shifted a hand, planted one foot on a limb that was weathered gray and skinned of bark. Beneath him, pine forest marched off to distant hills. The river twisted, black and dark and shining like coal. He lifted himself above the nest and saw the chicks, two of them, pale and mottled, in the bowl of the nest. They opened splinters of beaks, begging for food, and the boy heard a sound like sheets on the line when the wind got up. He risked a glance, and the eagle dropped from a perfect sky. For an instant, the boy saw only feathers, then the wings beat down and the talons rose.

The bird screamed.

The boy threw up his arms as talons sank into him; then he fell, and the bird—eyes yellow bright, talons hooked in his skin and in his shirt—the bird fell with him.

 

 

At three forty-seven, a bus rolled into the parking lot of the same one-room gas station depot. Pointing north this time, it was a different bus, different driver. The door clattered open and a handful of rheumatic people shuffled out. The driver was a thin, Hispanic man, twenty-five and tired-looking. He barely looked at the scrawny boy who rose from the bench and limped to the door of the bus. He didn’t notice the torn clothes or the near despair on the boy’s face. And if that was blood on the hand that passed the ticket over, it seemed clear that it was not the driver’s business to remark upon it.

BOOK: The Last Child
9.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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