Off the Chart

A Novel

Thorn Mysteries (Volume 5)

James W. Hall

Minotaur Books

Chapter One


On that warm Sunday afternoon, when Thorn got back from the john, the drinks were just arriving. He and Alexandra Collins were at a table for six on the outside deck at the Lorelei in Islamorada. The sheer February light had turned the spacious bay to a brilliant blue mica. Over at the rail Lawton and Sugarman and his twin girls were peering down at the resident school of tarpon that threaded between the pilings.

"Hey, stranger," the waitress said as she set their beers down on the table and put the Cokes in front of the empty places.

Thorn stumbled for a half-second, fetching for her name.

"Oh, hey, Anne. How's it going?"

"Just another day in paradise," she said. "How about yourself?"

"Fine, fine."

She bent forward and pressed her lips to his. Inhaling that familiar scent of her shampoo, lime and something herbal, Thorn had a quick cascade of memories, a blur of nights together, their bodies knotted, sheets kicked to the floor. The final story that broke their bond for good.

More than a year had passed since Thorn had last seen Anne Joy. In her early thirties, she still kept her auburn hair cropped short, and her dark eyes had the same electric shine. Thin-lipped, with soft cheekbones, a sleek and coppery complexion, and the coolly impassive smile of a runway model. But her body was far too lushly proportioned for that profession, and no matter what bulky and unflattering styles Anne wore, she couldn't conceal it.

She stepped back from the table and clutched her tray against her breasts.

Alexandra was looking up at Anne with a curious arch of eyebrow.

"I think we'll wait on the order," Thorn said. "Kids are feeding the fish."

"Sure, okay," she said. "Be back in a few."

She took a second look at Alexandra, then gave Thorn a quick, approving smile and turned and set off toward her other tables.

"I'm sorry," Thorn said. "I should've introduced you."

"So this is another one?" Alex said.

"Another what?"


"Oh, come on, Thorn. Do you usually kiss your waitress? And this time don't tell me you two were just old high school friends. She's ten years too young."

Alex shook her head, her smile wearing thin.

"Hey, it's a small town," he said. "Limited supply of single women."

Alexandra tasted her Heineken. She watched Sugarman's girls fling bits of bread into the water. The Lorelei was packed, tourists lining up to be seated.

"Was it serious?"

"A month maybe. Not serious, no."

"A month by my definition is fairly noteworthy." Alex peered into his eyes, cocking her head slightly, as if searching for a flicker of deceit.

"We didn't click," he said. "Anne's a little intense, bottled-up."

"Not laidback and gregarious like you."

She shook her head and looked out at the hazy blue of the bay, a flats boat skimming past, the white rip of foam behind it.

"Oh, come on. You can't be jealous. You know how I feel about you."

"It's just amazing," she said. "Everywhere we go there's another one."

"I've lived here all my life," Thorn said.

"Yeah, and it's a small town. But still."

"Look, I'm no ladies' man," Thorn said.

"What would you call it then?"

Thorn knew better than to field that one. He poured the rest of his Red Stripe into the stein and watched the foam rise exactly to the brim, not a single trickle running down the side-another of his highly refined, utterly useless motor skills. When he looked up, Alexandra was smiling at him, but her eyes still had a stern edge.

"You heard of Vic Joy?" he asked her.

"Name sounds familiar."

"Owns half the upper Keys," Thorn said. "Not a big favorite with law enforcement. Runs that casino boat behind the Holiday Inn, owns a dozen marinas and waterfront joints from Islamorada to Key Largo. Doesn't pay a lot of attention to what's legal, what's not. Has a whole law firm working for him full-time to keep him out of jail. In the past fifteen, twenty years, there've been a half-dozen murders with Vic Joy's name floating around in the background. Then witnesses change their story, refuse to cooperate, or flat out disappear. That kind of guy. Anne never tells anyone she's Vic's sister, but people know."

"Brother's a big-shot hoodlum, but she's still a waitress."

"There's some tension between them. Plus Vic spies on her. Checks out her boyfriends, lets them know they're swimming in serious waters. First week we went out, he stopped by the house, asked me a lot of questions. Took a good look around. Started giving me a list of dos and don'ts."

"I bet you were very polite."

"Things started to go wrong when I grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him back to his car and threw him inside."

"You're kidding."

"I lost it," he said. "This crook lecturing me about good manners."

"You were willing to risk the gangster's wrath to keep playing around with his sister."

"Come on, Alex. Let it go."

"You have a long and sordid past, Thorn. I'm continually surprised."

"Point is," he said, "Anne and I didn't mesh. And you and I do."

"Is that what you call it? We're meshing?"

"I think that's an accurate description. Yeah, I'll stand by that."

He tried to smile his way past this mess, but Alex wasn't buying just yet.

Lawton ambled back to the table and sat down. Alex gave Thorn's shoulder a quiet stroke. Okay, interrogation over, all forgiven. Sort of.

Lawton had a sip of his Coke and the three of them gazed over at Sugarman and his daughters. He was Thorn's oldest and closest friend. Sugarman had stood by Thorn through some blinding shitstorms, even risked his life on more than one occasion when everyone else deserted. Ten years ago Sugar had been a sheriff's deputy; now he was struggling along as a private investigator.

This weekend was Sugarman's monthly visit with his twins. Lunch, a boat ride, a cookout later at Thorn's house, then Sugar and the girls would make the long trek back to Fort Lauderdale where his ex-wife, Jeannie, lived. The girls were eight. In May they'd turn nine.

Uncle Thorn, they called him.

More than likely those two girls were as close as he was ever going to come to having children of his own. Biologically he was probably okay, but he was too damn rigid for kids, too private, too rooted in habit. Still, he loved Sugar's girls, loved their raucous games, their delight in tiny discoveries-holding a magnifying glass up to a hibiscus bloom while their daddy recited the names of its parts, their functions, showing off his flawless recall of high school biology. Thorn didn't mind the girls' pouts, their tantrums that came and went like summer thunderstorms, so quickly replaced by sunshine, it seemed never to have rained at all.

Twins, but very different. Jackie was devoted to television and was usually clamped inside the headset of her portable CD player, and she had her eye on a BMW convertible for her sixteenth birthday. Janey was fascinated by birds, bugs, frogs, and snakes. An amazing memory for the names of things. Tell her one time, it was there. Janey was constantly testing her dad's knowledge of natural history. Forcing Sugarman to expand his library, stock up on multiple field guides, which the two of them pored over for hours at a time. Janey was a quiet kid, eyes always following Thorn like she might be working up a crush. She enjoyed watching him tie his bonefish flies. The slow, intricate wrapping and twisting, the bright Mylar threads and gaudy puffs of fur and feathers. A month ago she'd taken a shot at tying one herself and when she was done she snipped the final threads and held up her mangled creation and said, "Let's go catch a lunker."

Alexandra and Lawton were fond of the girls, too. When they came over some weekends, Thorn could see Alex soften-squatting down to help them tie a shoe or soothe a scuffed knee. An easy, natural gift for girls that age. Lawton grumbled about their noise, their rambunctiousness, but when they left he grew solemn and introspective, and it was clear the old man felt their absence more strongly than he could admit.

Thorn might be too damn old for kids, but he wasn't too old for these.

Lawton had another deep sip of his Coke and set his glass down on the table and patted his mouth with the paper napkin.

"You two should go over and look at those tarpon. They're gigantic."

"We looked at them already, Dad, when we came in."

"You did?"

"Yeah. Just a minute ago, before we sat down. You were with us."

Lawton raised his hands and raked his fingers through his mane of white hair, then laid his hands flat on the table and pressed down as if he meant to levitate it.

"Oh," he said. "That explains why I don't remember. Something happens a minute ago, why should I waste my mental faculties on that? Most likely it's not going to turn out to be worth remembering anyway. All the important stuff happened a long time ago."

"I don't know about that," Alex said, giving Thorn a brief look. "I believe some of the important stuff may still be unfolding."

She had a sip of her beer and patted her father's hand.

"Hey, did either of you see the tarpon?" Lawton said. "Over by the pilings. They're huge. You should go look."

Closing in on seventy-five, Lawton suffered from an evaporating memory and a growing confusion about things great and small. So far, no doctor had given his condition a name. Apparently he was headed down the steep and irreversible slope of dementia. There had been times lately when the old man's focus narrowed so severely, he seemed to be peering at the world through a pinprick hole. Staring mutely for a solid hour at a blade of grass, water dripping from a faucet, the hairs on the back of his knuckle.

For the last few months he'd been preoccupied with returning to his boyhood home in Ohio. Packing his bag at any hour of the day and night, heading out toward the highway to catch a bus. Twice Thorn and Alex had woken in the night to find Lawton missing from his living room cot, and both times they'd finally located him sitting in the bus shelter a mile from Thorn's house, his valise on his lap, dead set on a journey back to Columbus.

When Alex asked him why in the world he'd want to abandon the paradise of the Florida Keys for Columbus, Ohio, Lawton puzzled on it for a moment, then told her that he wanted to go home so he could dig up a time capsule he and his younger brother Charlie buried sixty-five years before. A time capsule? Alexandra wanted to know what was so important about a time capsule. "My past," he said. "It's buried in the dirt behind a white frame house at 215 Oak Street." But what was in the capsule that required Lawton to depart on a journey in the middle of the night to retrieve it? "What's in it?" he said. "How the hell am I supposed to remember what I buried sixty-five years ago? That's why I've got to go dig the damn thing up." He looked hard into her eyes and said, "So maybe I can find out who the hell I used to be."

Now each night before she put him to bed, Alexandra lectured Lawton sternly. If he wandered off from the house one more time, she would have to start padlocking the door. Lawton always listened with a deadly earnest look. Although the midnight jaunts had ceased, neither Thorn nor Alexandra was sleeping easy.

During the day Thorn looked after the old guy while Alexandra labored as a crime scene photographer for the same Miami police department Lawton had once served as a homicide detective. For the last few months she'd been making the sixty-mile journey from Key Largo to the treacherous streets of Miami, then back each evening. A commute she claimed to find restful.

They'd met a few months back when Lawton showed up on Thorn's doorstep. The old detective was on a self-appointed mission to track a killer and Thorn had been just a quick stop on his erratic journey. Hours after Lawton disappeared, Alexandra showed up at Thorn's searching for him. And though things had started badly between them, the clash of his flint against her steel had sparked a smoldering connection that since then had been growing ever hotter.

While Alex dabbed her napkin at a spill of Coke on her father's lap, Thorn's gaze drifted over to Anne Joy, who was waiting on a nearby table. He'd nearly forgotten about the woman. So much intensity at the time, but the months had fleeted by and Anne had turned to smoke and drifted almost completely from his memory.

"Thorn?" Alex tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to her, but she'd already tracked down the source of his attention, and her smile was tart.

"Yeah?"

"Dad and I are going to take another look at the pet tarpon. You want to come, or stay here and ogle?"

"Those fish are huge," Lawton said. "Wish to hell I'd brought my pole."

Thorn got up and took Alexandra's hand in his. She answered his squeeze with the slightest pressure, and they walked over to the rail to join Sugarman and his girls.

Like everyone else sitting outside at the Lorelei that sunny Sunday afternoon, Anne Bonny Joy noticed the sleek black Donzi sliding up to the restaurant dock-just another flashy Miami asshole down to the Keys for brunch-and she wouldn't have given him a second look except for the name printed in gold script on the stern of the big rumbling speedboat, the Black Swan, which happened to be the name of her mother's all-time-favorite pirate flick.

The boat's captain and two top-heavy blondes barely out of their teens took one of Anne's tables, and while the girls sat reading their menus, the guy tilted his head back and closed his eyes to bask in the sun. Anne Bonny came over, placed their water glasses in front of them, and stood next to the table until the man rocked his head forward and revealed his dark blue eyes. Longer and thicker lashes than her own.

"Take your order?" she said.

Standing there in the Lorelei uniform, green shorts and a tight white T-shirt. The girls in bikini tops and snug shorts, the guy bare-chested, with a caramel tan. His dark hair was long and swept back like a teen idol from forty years earlier. A man too handsome for his own good, and for anyone else's.

"How it's usually done," he said, giving her a lazy grin, "you're supposed to say, 'Hi, I'm Mandy; I'll be your server.'"

The girls were both platinum blondes. They might've been twins. Anne looked at them as they giggled at the man's wit; then she looked back at the man.

"Take your order."

"What's good here?" one of the girls said. "Let's have what's good."

"Cheeseburger," the other girl said. "You have cheeseburgers, don't you?"

"It's a fish joint, Angie," her double said. "You should order fish."

"I hate fish. It smells funny."


Copyright © 2003 by James W. Hall