Hell's Bay

Thorn Mysteries (Volume 8)

James W. Hall

Minotaur Books

Chapter 1

Twist for twist, curve for curve, the two-lane road tracked the ancient meander of the Peace River through the sun-battered Florida scrubland. Steering one-handed, Abigail Bates reached up and cocked her rearview mirror off-center to better ignore the white pickup riding her bumper.

She eased back in the leather seat and held the Jaguar to thirty-five and returned to spying on the river through the cypress and pines. In the full sun its dawdling current threw off a silver glow against the riverbank trees and lit the belly of a great blue heron as it slid upstream with ungainly ease. Kingfishers stood watch in the highest branches of the pines, each bird staking out a stretch of water. From the southwest a warm wind breathed through the foliage, shifting leaves and smoothing down the tall grasses.

To her mind, this landscape had a stern grandeur, but go fifty miles west and pluck an average sunbather off the white sands of Siesta Key, drop them on the seat beside her, and most would be hard-pressed to find a trace of beauty in that stark countryside. Godforsaken was how she had described it as a defiant teen, seventy years before, serving out her childhood in the land of cattle prairies, citrus groves, pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, and marshes. Back then this wilderness was home to a wealth of scrub jay, sandhill crane, little blue heron, indigo snakes, and any number of species that these days were near extinction. Extinct as well were the leathery cowmen who’d settled that land—roughneck dreamers like her father and his father before him. Although they’d never been glamorized by moviemakers, Florida wranglers like her ancestors were cracking whips over vast herds of cattle a half century before longhorns grazed the prairies of the West.

Despite her youthful scorn of that rugged terrain and its rural isolation, eventually Abigail succumbed to her old man’s coaching and learned a measure of appreciation for the hardscrabble aesthetics of the place.

Apart from the garish aberration of Orlando, the vast interior of the state was thought by most to be a desolate wasteland. Finding champions for those millions of acres of scrub and palmetto and cypress swamp was nearly impossible. Indeed, that lack of care and legal scrutiny was in large measure what allowed Abigail’s family to amass their empire.

As she steered the car around another sweeping bend, her foot softened on the gas pedal. On the gravel shoulder a bloated possum lay on its back, its paws reaching skyward as if pleading to the indifferent sun. Unperturbed by Abigail’s car, a pair of buzzards plucked at the remains.

If she’d had any sense, she would’ve braked hard, U-turned, and headed back to the penthouse on Longboat Key. She was a firm believer in omens, and if that possum wasn’t one, she didn’t know what was.

But damn it, for months she’d promised her granddaughter she’d complete this journey, take a firsthand look at what was at stake. Not that a three-hour paddle down the Peace River was going to alter her decision a whit.

Despite the prickle of unease, she pushed on, and in another ten minutes she saw in the distance her first waypoint, the canoe outfitter’s shack.

A good half mile in advance she put on her blinker for the benefit of the yahoo behind her. As she made her turn into the gravel lot, the truck thundered past and she glimpsed the driver, a woman with chalky skin and a long braid.

She parked in front of the dilapidated cabin with a rusty sign over the door: canoe safari. The man who stuck his head out the doorway at the sound of her car had blond hair that trailed across his shoulders and a scraggle of hair on his chin.

He stepped into the doorway and watched her climb out of the Jaguar. Except for the creaky knees and the steady throb in her left hip, she judged herself as supple as any woman half her age.

For this outing she’d chosen one of her long-departed husband’s fly-fishing shirts with all the silly pockets and air vents, a pair of frayed jeans, and pink Keds. She’d pinned her silver hair into a bun and fit a Marlins cap atop. In that getup and the right light she might pass for seventy.

With a squint of wariness the man watched her cross the gravel lot.

“Help you?”

“I’m looking to rent one of your boats.”

He gazed at her for several seconds as if waiting for her to break into a grin and admit she was only teasing.

She stepped closer and said, “In case you’re wondering, I’m eighty-six. I’m fully insured, but if it’ll make you feel easier, I’ll sign a release.”

The man drew a strand of hair off his cheek and looped it behind his ear.

“What’s your fancy? Red boat or one of the yellows?”

It was agreed that the young man, Charlie Kipling, would rendezvous with her downstream at the state park landing at noon and would haul out the canoe and return her to this spot. That would give Abigail a three-hour drift down the Peace, quite enough time to take in the views and remind herself what the fuss was about. All she’d have to do was paddle a few lazy strokes now and then to keep the boat straight.

After she was safely aboard a scarlet beauty, Charlie squatted ankle-deep in the water, holding the stern. He had a simple smile but seemed more weary than a man his age or profession ought to be.

She looked down the corridor of tea-stained water and trickled her fingers through the warm stream. Two canoes slipped past, father and son in one, mother and daughter in the other. The kids chattering to each other while the adults paddled, everyone snug in orange life preservers.

“It’s as lovely as I remember.”

“Oh, it’s picturesque,” he said. “For the moment, anyway.”

She gripped the paddle, waiting for him to release her into the current.

“But things keep going like they been, won’t be long before I’ll be shopping for another river.”

She held his eyes, and after a few seconds she watched them harden and grow bleak. Once again she’d been recognized.

He licked his lips and licked them again as if fetching for a curse.

“I’ll be damned. You’re that woman, Bates International.”

“That would be me. Abigail Bates. Nice to meet you.” She didn’t bother holding out a hand.

“Well, goddamn it all to hell.”

“Go on,” she said. “Say your piece.”

“I’ve seen you at the meetings, sitting with that shithead lawyer, Mosley.”

“Nothing’s settled yet.”

“That’s a damn lie. It’s a done deal. Train’s left the station. It’s already chugging down the rails; there’s no turning that big-ass monster around. From the governor on down, the fix is in. Permits approved. Those meetings are just for show. Letting people think they got a choice in the matter when we got no choice in hell.”

She sighed and shook her head and looked into the river’s wavering shine. What he said was true, of course. The meetings were a sham. The people would be patiently listened to, but ultimately the decision was not theirs. Such as it was, such it had always been. The few deciding for the many.

She wanted to reach out and give the young man a reassuring pat but felt sure he’d swat her hand away.

“This river’s been taking care of itself for a long, long time.”

“Never been any threat like this. Not even close. Already this year it’s down another foot. It’ll be a dribble before you people are done.”

Abigail stared out at the steady current. She’d heard it all before, every dire prediction.

“Anyway, it’s more than the damn river,” he said. “Way more than that. It’s where the river goes, what it does. All the people who depend on it whether they know it or not. Goddammit, I don’t believe you just walked right up and thought you could rent one of my canoes.”

“Maybe I should’ve called in advance. You could’ve written a speech.”

“Or brought my gun.”

He held her eyes for a moment, then his face went pale and he swung away as if appalled by his own rage.

Abigail bent to her bag and dug out the Beretta.

She gripped it by the barrel and offered it. She’d been shooting all her life but only lately started carrying a pistol as the death threats mounted.

“There’s no safety. Just aim and shoot.”

Charlie Kipling pivoted back and stared at the pistol. His shoulders shook as if he’d felt a cold draft across his back. He looked into Abigail’s eyes. Then with the mix of dread and boldness a man musters to snatch up a snake, he shot out his hand and wrenched the pistol from her grasp. He fumbled with the Beretta briefly before he found the grip.

It surprised her. The young man had struck her as another spineless tree-kisser with no muscle behind his convictions. But as she watched him raise the trembling muzzle and direct it at her body, Abigail drew a resolute breath and saw again that damn possum on the side of the road, a clear warning that any country girl should’ve taken seriously.

Charlie was panting, a bright sheen of sweat on his cheeks.

“If I took you down, I’d be a hero to a lot of people.”

“I’m sure you would.”

She watched his eyes flick right and left as if consulting the river spirits.

“If I thought it’d make any difference, I’d do it.”

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it,” she said.

A gold dragonfly whisked between them.

Over Charlie’s shoulder, Abigail saw a minivan pull into the lot and park beside her Jaguar. After a moment, the side door slid open and three girls leapt out followed by two young mothers in shorts and T-shirts.

Charlie glanced over at the arrivals, keeping his aim fixed on Abigail.

The red-haired woman in the lead noticed the pistol in Charlie’s hand and swept up the children and herded them back to the van.

“Hey!” the other woman called out and took a couple of steps toward Abigail. But her friend shouted and she whirled and trotted back to the van.

“You lost some paying customers,” Abigail said.

After the van screeched onto the highway, Charlie tipped the pistol toward the muddy bank and fired. Muck spattered the side of the canoe and dotted Abigail’s shirtsleeve. He gritted his jaw and squeezed the trigger again and again. When he’d emptied the clip he dropped her pistol into the shallow water at his feet where it sank to the bottom and gleamed within the swirl of mud like the flash of fish scales.

The glow drained from Kipling’s face.

“Noon at the ramp,” he said, his voice vacant as a sleepwalker’s.

Then he shoved her canoe out into the moving water and Abigail straightened it and felt the current take hold. She tested her stroke, port side then starboard, felt her heart struggling to regain its cadence.

If Kipling didn’t show, it was no tragedy. She’d phone her security people in Sarasota to come fetch her. An hour drive, no problem. But she believed Kipling’s fury was spent, and he had every intention of keeping the appointment—if only to present his case in a more calculated manner.

A hundred yards downstream she turned and looked back and he was still standing in the shallows watching her go. After a moment, he swatted at a bug near his ear, then turned back to his pine shack.

She traveled almost an hour downstream before her killer appeared.
Copyright © 2008 by James W. Hall. All rights reserved.