In an isolated stretch of eastern Kentucky, on a hilltop known as Blade Ridge, stands a lighthouse that illuminates nothing but the surrounding woods. For years the lighthouse has been considered no more than an eccentric local landmark-until its builder is found dead at the top of the light, and his belongings reveal a troubling local history.
For deputy sheriff Kevin Kimble, the lighthouse-keeper's death is disturbing and personal. Years ago, Kimble was shot while on duty. Somehow the death suggests a connection between the lighthouse and the most terrifying moment of his life.
Audrey Clark is in the midst of moving her large-cat sanctuary onto land adjacent to the lighthouse. Sixty-seven tigers, lions, leopards, and one legendary black panther are about to have a new home there. Her husband, the sanctuary's founder, died scouting the new property, and Audrey is determined to see his vision through.
As strange occurrences multiply at the Ridge, the animals grow ever more restless, and Kimble and Audrey try to understand what evil forces are moving through this ancient landscape, just past the divide between dark and light.
The Ridge is the new thriller from international bestseller Michael Koryta, further evidence of why Dean Koontz has said "Michael Koryta's work resonates into deeper strata than does most of what I read" and why Michael Connelly has named him "one of the best of the best."
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.08(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.23(d)|
About the Author
Michael Koryta is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels, most recently If She Wakes. His previous novelsincluding Last Words, Those Who Wish Me Dead, and So Cold the Riverwere New York Times notable books, national bestsellers, and have been nominated for numerous awards, including having won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Koryta is a former private investigator and newspaper reporter. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and Camden, Maine.
Read an Excerpt
By Koryta, Michael
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Koryta, Michael
All right reserved.
KEVIN KIMBLE MADE THE drive to the prison before dawn, as he always did, the mountains falling away as dark silhouettes in the rearview mirror. In the summer the fields below had been rich with the smells of damp soil and green plants reaching to meet the oncoming sun, but now the air was cold and darkness lingered and the scents were of dead leaves and wood smoke.
It was an hour-long trip through winding country highways, traffic almost nonexistent this early, and he could feel the familiar weight of a sleepless night as he drove. He was never able to sleep the nights before the visits.
A steady rain was falling when he left Sawyer County, but down out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky and into the fields in the north-central portion of the state the rain tapered off into a thick fog, the world existing in gray tendrils. Foreboding, but peaceful and silent.
Shattered by a cell-phone ring.
He looked at the display, expecting to see his department’s dispatch number, but was instead faced with one he didn’t recognize. He considered letting the call go to voicemail, but it was 5:35 A.M. and even wrong numbers deserved to be answered at such a time, just in case.
“Chief Deputy Kimble,” he said, putting the phone to his ear.
“Good morning. I hope I didn’t wake you. I had a feeling I wouldn’t.”
Kimble shifted his hand to the top of the steering wheel and swung out into the next lane, away from a semi that was casting a thick spray back into his windshield as it chugged northbound, toward the Ohio River.
“How’d you get this number?” Kimble knew Wyatt French through one thing only—police work, and it was not as a colleague. He wasn’t in the habit of giving out his personal number to the people he arrested or interviewed, the two roles Wyatt French had occupied in the past. Kimble had done such a thing just once, in fact, and endured eight months of physical therapy after that decision.
“I have a question for you,” French said.
“I just asked you one of my own.”
“Mine’s a little more important.” The man’s voice sounded off, something coming up from beneath rocks or behind a sewer grate, someplace home to echoes and faint water sounds.
“You’ve been drinking, Mr. French.”
“So I have. It’s a legal enterprise, chief deputy.”
“Conditionally legal,” said Kimble, who had arrested Wyatt for public intoxication on three occasions and once for drunk driving. “Where are you?”
“I’m at home, where it’s absolutely legal.”
Home. Wyatt French’s home was a wooden lighthouse he’d built with his own hands. When he wasn’t causing trouble in the Whitman town streets, a bottle of cheap bourbon in hand or tucked into his mouth between a bristling gray mustache and an unkempt beard, the department still had to field complaints about the man. The strange, pulsing light that lit the woods in the rural stretch of abandoned mining country where he lived drew curiosity and ire.
“You’re on the road,” French said. “Aren’t you? Early for a drive.”
Kimble, who had things more personal weighing on his mind than this old drunk in the lighthouse, said, “Go to bed, man. Get some sleep. And however you got this number? Delete it. Don’t call my private number again.”
“I would like a question answered!”
Kimble moved his foot to the brake, tapped gently, dropping the speed down below the limit. French’s voice had gone dark and furious, and for the first time, Kimble had a sense of real concern over the man’s call.
“What’s your question?”
“You’re in charge of criminal investigations for your department,” French said. “For the whole county.”
“Which would you rather have: a homicide or a suicide?”
Kimble had a vision of Wyatt as he’d seen him last, weaving down the sidewalk outside a liquor store in the middle of the day. Kimble was on his way to buy a sandwich for lunch and Wyatt was on his way back from having attempted to buy a bottle of bourbon for the same. They bounced him out when he tried to pay with quarters, dimes, and nickels. That had been a few months ago. Since then, Kimble hadn’t seen the old degenerate around any of his usual haunts.
“Mr. French,” he said. “Wyatt? Don’t talk like that. Okay? Just put the bottle down and get into bed.”
“I’ll get more than enough rest once I’ve had an answer. It matters to me, Deputy Kimble. It matters a great deal.”
Silence, then, in a strained voice, “The question was simple. Would you rather have a—”
“Suicide,” Kimble interrupted. “There, you happy? I picked, and I was honest. But I don’t want either, Wyatt. I hate them both, and if there’s some reason for this call beyond alcohol, then—”
That provoked a long, unsettling laugh, the tone far too high and keening for Wyatt’s natural voice.
“There’s a reason beyond booze, yes, sir.”
“What is it?”
“You said you would prefer a suicide. I’m of a mind to agree, but I’d like to hear your reasoning. Why is a suicide better?”
Kimble was drifting along in the right lane, alone in the smoky fog and mist. He said, “Because I don’t have to worry about anyone else being hurt by that particular person. It’s always tragic, but at least I don’t have to worry about them pointing a gun at someone else and pulling the trigger.”
“Exactly. The very conclusion I reached myself.”
“If you have any thoughts of suicide, then I’ve got a number I want you to call. I’m serious about this. I want you—”
“Now what if,” Wyatt French said, “the suicide victim wasn’t entirely willing.”
Kimble felt an uneasy chill. “Then it’s not a suicide.”
“You say that confidently.”
“I am confident. If the death was not the subject’s goal, then it was not a suicide. By definition.”
“So even if a man killed himself, but there was evidence that he’d been compelled to in some way—”
“Wyatt, stop. Stop talking like this. Are you going to hurt yourself?”
“I wanted to know if there was any difference in the way you’d investigate,” the man said, his words clearer now, less of the bourbon speaking for him. “Do you pursue the root causes of a suicide in the same manner that you would a homicide?”
Kimble drove along in the hiss of tires on rain-soaked pavement for a time, then said, “I pursue the truth.”
“Always. Don’t give me anything to pursue today, Wyatt. I’m not joking. If someone has been hurt, you tell me that right now. Tell me that.”
“No one has been hurt yet.”
Yet. Kimble didn’t like that. “If you’re thinking about suicide, or anything else, then I want—”
“My thoughts aren’t your concern, deputy. You have many concerns around you in Sawyer County, some of them quite serious, but my thoughts aren’t the problem.”
“I’m going to give you a number,” Kimble said again, “and ask you to call it for me, please. You called me early, and on a private line, and I’ve given you my time and respect. I hope you’ll do the same for me.”
“Certainly, sir. If there are two things I’d hope you might continue to grant me in the future, it is your time and respect.”
French’s voice was absent of mockery or malice. Kimble gave him the number, a suicide assistance line, and he could hear scratching as Wyatt dutifully wrote it down.
“Take care of yourself,” Kimble told him. “Get dried out, get some rest. I’m worried about the way you’re talking.”
“What you should be worried about is that I’ll choose to live forever. Then you’d really have your work cut out.”
It was the first time any of Wyatt’s traditional humor had showed, and Kimble let out a long breath, feeling as if the worst of this strange call was past.
“I’ve dealt with you for this long,” he said. “Wouldn’t be right not to keep at it.”
“I appreciate the sentiment. And deputy? You be careful with her.”
Kimble was silent, lips parted but jaw slack, and didn’t realize he’d let his foot off the accelerator again until a minivan rose up into his mirror with an accompanying horn, then an extended middle finger from the driver who swerved around him. Kimble brought his speed back up and said, “Who do you mean, Wyatt?”
“The one you’re going to see,” Wyatt French told him. “Be very careful with her.”
His voice had the low gravity of someone speaking at a wake. When Kimble finally got around to responding, offering up an awkward attempt at denial, he realized that the line was dead.
There was no time to call back from the highway, because the exit for the women’s prison was just ahead, and Kimble had no desire to hear the old drunk’s strange voice again anyhow. Let him sip his whiskey inside his damned lighthouse in the woods. Let his disturbed mind not infect Kimble’s own.
He set the phone down and continued up to the prison gates.
A LONG, SINISTER BRICK STRUCTURE, the women’s prison had been built back in 1891, a hundred and twenty years before it would house an inmate of interest to Kimble. Approved adults could begin arriving at 6 A.M., but the parking spaces were empty when he pulled in. Kimble was always the first one in the door. He liked to be alone in the visiting area, and he liked making the drive in the dark.
They checked him in with familiarity and a quiet “Morning, deputy” and then escorted him into the visitation room. He was afforded privileges here that others were not, a level of privacy and trust that others were not, because he was police. And because they all knew the story.
She was alone in the room, waiting for him at the other end of a plastic table, and when he saw her his breath caught and his heartbeat stuttered and he felt a fierce, cold ache low in his back.
“Jacqueline,” he said.
She rose and offered her slim, elegant hand. Warm, gentle fingers in his cool, callused palm, and he found himself, as he always did when they touched, wetting his lips and looking to the side, as if something had moved in the shadows at the edge of the room.
“Hello, Kevin.” She took her seat again, and he pulled up a plastic chair that screeched coming across the floor and sat beside her. Not all the way at the opposite end of the table, but not too close, either. Purgatory distance.
“Are you well?” he said.
Her voice took that distance between them and melted it like ice in a fist. It was so knowing, so intimate, she might as well have been sitting in his lap. The ache in his back pulsed.
“You look good. I mean… healthy.”
Looked healthy. Shit. If all she looked was healthy, then there were starlets all over Hollywood who looked sickly. She was the kind of beautiful that scorched. Tall and lean, with gentle but clear curves even in the loose orange inmate garb, cocoa-colored hair that somehow held an expensive salon’s sheen after five years of prison care, cheekbones and mouth sculpted with a master’s touch. Full lips that looked dark against her complexion, which had once been deeply tanned but was now so white he could see the fine veins in her slender neck. Blue eyes that he could not, even after several years, meet for more than a few seconds.
“They treating you okay?”
“Yes, Kevin. As well as a place like this ever can treat someone.”
Kevin. She said it in the sort of voice that should carry hot breath against your ear. Nobody called him Kevin. He was Kimble, had been since childhood, one of those boys who inexplicably becomes identified by his last name.
“Good,” he said. He was staring at the floor to avoid her eyes, but now he saw that she had hitched those loose prison pants up slightly, so that her ankles were exposed above the thin sandals. Her ankles and a trace of legs. Long, sleek legs. She leaned back in the chair now and crossed her feet, pushing them closer toward him, which made him flush and lift his head.
“How is your back?” she said.
He was silent for a moment. His jaw worked, but he didn’t speak, and this time he was able to meet her eyes.
“Fine,” he said.
She smiled at him, rich and genuine, a smile you were never supposed to see in a place where faces were so often dark and threatening or unbalanced and psychotic.
“I’m so glad. I always worry, you know. I worry that it pains you.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know.”
This was the game. This was the perfected exchange, performed each month as if they were rehearsing for some stage show and needed to keep sharp. Why did he drive up here? Why in the hell did he make these visits?
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember,” she said, and he wondered how many times he’d heard those five words now. First in a handwritten letter to him in the hospital, then in interview rooms, then at the trial and every visit that had been made since. She was always sorry that she didn’t remember.
“You’ve told me, Jacqueline,” he said, his voice stretched. “Let’s not worry about that.”
“You know how badly I wish I could, though. For you.”
She smiled again, this time uncertainly. “I appreciate you making the trip. I always do.”
“You’ve been so good to me. The one person above all others who shouldn’t be, and you’re the one person above all others who is.”
“You don’t belong in here,” he said.
She sat up straighter then, sat up with excitement, and said, “Didn’t they tell you I get to leave?”
He cocked his head and frowned. “Leave?”
“I thought for sure they’d tell you,” she said. “I mean, I’m always sure they talk to you about me. Don’t they?”
If there was one date Kimble knew absolutely, knew surer than Christmas or his own birthday, it was the scheduled parole hearing of Jacqueline Mathis. She was not leaving this prison. Not yet.
“Jacqueline, where are—”
“I’ve been approved for work release. It might not seem like much to you, but still… you can imagine how exciting it is for me. There’s not much change around here.”
“What? Where?” He was embarrassed by the evident concern—check that, evident fear—in his voice. He liked to know where she was. He needed to know.
“It’s a thrift shop,” she said. “Some little store just down the road. I don’t care where or what, though—it’s not in this place! I’ve made the petition three times. They finally approved it.”
“Why did they now?”
“Because I’m so charming,” she said, and laughed. He waited, and she said, “Oh, take off the cop eyes, Kevin.”
She sat up straight now, dropped her voice into a low, formal tone.
“They approved me, officer, because I’ve shown myself to be nonthreatening and of sound mind and character.”
He stared at her, rubbing one hand over his jaw. It wasn’t an abnormal decision, not at this stage of her incarceration. They’d be readying her for release, assuming she made parole. She would make parole—there had been no problems and many were sympathetic to her—but that was still a year away. He had thought he had another year to get used to the idea of her being free. Why hadn’t he thought of work release?
“So you’re happy,” he said finally, just to say something.
She laughed. “Of course I’m happy. You think I’d prefer to stay in here?”
“Probably not. Master of the understatement.” She shook her head, then said, “I’ll be working the mornings, though. That will change my visitation hours. I hope that wouldn’t stop you, if you had to visit later in the day? I’ve always wondered if you’re ashamed of me after the sun comes up.”
“No, Jacqueline. It’s just… well, you know, it’s a long drive. If I come early, I beat the traffic.”
“The Sawyer County traffic,” she said. “Yes, that area around the courthouse gets pretty gridlocked for about two minutes each morning. Particularly now, with the students home for the holidays? Why, you might have to sit through one entire red light.”
He didn’t answer.
“You don’t like the idea,” she said. “Do you? Me being out of here, even for a few hours.”
“That’s not true,” he said, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he liked the idea an awful lot.
“Well, I like it,” she said. “Out of these walls, out of these clothes. Do you know how long it’s been since I wore something other than this?”
She grasped her orange shirt between her thumb and index finger and tugged it away from her body. He got a glimpse of her collarbone and below it smooth, flawless skin.
“You could drop by there sometime,” she said. “You know—see me on the outside.” She shifted her tone to a theatrical whisper and capped it off with a wink. He could feel his dick begin to stiffen, performing against his will, his own body laughing at him. He got to his feet abruptly, making his arousal evident.
“I’ve got to get started back,” he said. “It’s a long drive. Too long.”
“Why are you leaving so early? Did I say something—”
“Be safe,” he said, the same thing he always said, and walked to the door, using his hand to adjust himself within his pants, not wanting the attendant CO to see that development.
“I thought you would be happy for me. I thought if there was one person in the world who’d be happy for me, it would be you.”
“I am happy for you, Jacqueline. Goodbye.”
By the time the guards opened the door, he had his police eyes back.
It had been a long drive for a short visit. That was how it went with her. He could never stay too long.
Be careful with her, Wyatt French had told him.
Yeah, buddy. Listen to the old drunk. Watch your ass, Kimble.
Be very careful with her.
THE SAWYER COUNTY SENTINEL WAS at 122 years and counting when they shut it down. Peak circulation, 33,589. On the last day, they printed 10,000 copies. That was a bump, too, operating with an expectation that the locals would want their piece of history, so the Sentinel printed extras to make certain they could shake an ash out of the urn for everybody who wanted one.
The staff—nineteen members strong at the end, down from forty-eight at the start of Roy Darmus’s career—blew the corks off a few bottles of champagne at five that afternoon and passed glasses around the newsroom and cried. Every last one of them. The editors, the reporters, the pressmen. Even J. D. Henry, the college intern, couldn’t help it. He’d been with them all of two months, but there he was leaning on a desk and sipping champagne he wasn’t old enough to drink legally and wiping tears from his eyes. Because they were a family, damn it, and it was a business that had spanned more than a century and told the stories of a community day by day and year by year longer than anyone alive could remember, and now it was gone. Who could be part of that and not cry?
When the champagne was gone, they’d all moved on to Roman’s Tavern, had burgers and onion rings and pitchers of beer and told stories that had been told a hundred times before, treating each one like new material.
Sometime around midnight, as awkward silences were becoming more common than bursts of laughter, J. D. Henry commented on how strange it had been to look around the place and see all those empty desks.
“Weren’t all empty,” Donita Hadley said. She’d been writing obits for thirty years, and if there was anyone who wouldn’t miss the details of a death, it was Donita. “Roy’s got his work cut out for him yet.”
How in the hell she’d known that, Roy couldn’t say. He’d taken everything off the cubicle walls and cleared the surface of his desk, but he hadn’t touched the drawers. Perhaps she’d opened them, snooping around. But somehow he knew that wasn’t the case. Donita, she just understood.
“Really?” J.D. asked, the kid showing innocent surprise as he stared at Roy, everyone else suddenly finding other places for their eyes. They knew what the intern didn’t; this was a loss for them all, but a touch more personal for Roy. He’d grown up at the paper. Literally. Had started drifting in as a kid, shoving stories onto the editor’s desk. After his parents were killed in a car accident and he’d gone to live with his grandmother, the staff essentially adopted him. His first paid job was culling the morgue files for a column called “Local Lore,” two-sentence recollections of the headline stories that had run twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five years earlier. He worked his way through college at the paper, took a full-time job immediately after graduating, and never left. There were those who’d been around longer, but nobody had spent a greater percentage of life inside the Sentinel’s newsroom than Roy Darmus.
“Why haven’t you cleared out yet?” J.D. asked.
“Lot of shit in those drawers,” Roy mumbled. “Been procrastinating. You know me, always past deadline.”
The truth was, he had to be alone for it. Not just alone—he had to be the last man standing. Captain of the sinking ship.
That seemed to satisfy everyone except Donita. Her eyes stayed on him for a long moment, and then Roy suggested they have another round, and the response was a collective hemming and hawing. The night had gone on too long for most now—they were an older crowd, J.D. excepted, and it had been a draining day. People began to reach for wallets, but Mike Webb, the editor, insisted he was putting it on the company tab, saying that if the owners didn’t like it, they could shut the place down.
That joke landed as smoothly as a buffalo coming off a balance beam, but hell, at least the drinks were free.
Everyone walked down the steps and out into the night. December, the town aglow with Christmas lights, air biting with cold wind driven out of the Appalachian foothills, the season, quite appropriately, of death. The course had been charted nine years earlier, when a newspaper that had been family-owned since its creation sold out to a national chain. The cuts began almost immediately—first pages, then staff. There had been talk of a Web-only product for a time, but this rural Kentucky community wasn’t viewed as a potential profit center, despite more than a century of profit, and eventually the terminal diagnosis was issued.
Outside of Roman’s, the last of the crew shared hugs and handshakes and went off to their cars and the rest of their lives, promising to keep in touch in the way kids did at graduations, firmly and incorrectly believing it would actually happen.
That was supposed to be the last of it, the final rites administered, but Roy was back the next afternoon. He preferred to shut it down in private. It was home in a way your office never really should be, and that afternoon, when he went in alone, the building was so silent it made him feel unsteady. Newsrooms were never quiet, were always filled with a humming, delightful energy, sometimes chaotic, sometimes somber, but always present.
Today, it had all the energy of a crypt.
He had five drawers to empty—three in the desk, two in the file cabinet. It was very much like sorting through a loved one’s belongings after a funeral.
The first thing to go into the recycling bin was his tips folder. He flipped it open and saw notes jotted on scraps of paper and backs of menus and napkins: Brandon Tyler taught his blind brother to throw a tomahawk; astronomy club planning event for lunar eclipse; Evelyn Scott won national cookie recipe competition…
And so on. Stories of local people and local interest. He looked at them now, feeling sorrow because their forum was gone. Determined not to wallow in that sorrow, Roy went through the crank file next, knowing it would demand a smile. It was in the bottom right-hand desk drawer, a good five inches thick, jammed with letters. He opened it up and began to read through them, and, as he’d hoped, couldn’t help but smile. There was the savage critique of his story judgment from a woman who wanted to let the public know that she and her husband had caught the exact same smallmouth bass on the exact same day, and just what was the matter with him that he didn’t think people would be interested in that? There was the collection of letters from a group of neighbors who had recorded sightings of a sasquatch—well, it was probably a sasquatch but potentially a wolf capable of walking on its hind legs, which was twice as alarming, didn’t he think? There was a note from a woman who was certain her neighbor was breaking into her house to use her Jacuzzi and asserted that she had the pubic hair to prove it, and the allegation that the mayor had been sighted in Maloney Park in carnal embrace with a sheep.
He remembered them all, remembered sharing them with Donita or Laura or Stewart and sharing laughs. There would be no more crank letters here, there would be no more laughs. The smile gone from his face, he set the folder on top of his desk with a sigh and walked all the way into the break room in search of coffee, pulling up short when he saw the pot was gone. Right. He turned on his heel, and had just settled back down at his desk when the phone rang.
It was startlingly loud in the empty newsroom, which was going dark as the stormy day faded to night. Roy picked it up and said hello.
“Mr. Darmus. This is Wyatt French.”
“Oh. Hot-tip time?”
Old Wyatt was a well-known figure to those in the newsroom and those in the liquor business. He didn’t appear to intersect with much else, just booze and bizarre news. Roy had written about the old man’s lighthouse once, and apparently Wyatt had appreciated the tenor of the piece, because he’d taken to calling every so often with what he referred to as “hot tips.” They generally involved police misconduct or local bars that served watered-down bourbon. Lately the calls had been focused on the pending relocation of an exotic-cat rescue center to his isolated stretch of the woods. Wyatt did not approve of the facility, at least not across from his home. Today he’d either missed the fact that the newspaper was no longer in business or he was too drunk to remember.
“Mr. Darmus, I wanted to tell you… wanted to ask that you…”
“Buddy, we’re out of the tip business, I’m afraid,” Roy said, smiling, but then the smile faded when he heard French’s ragged breathing.
“It will be very important to keep the light on when I’m gone,” Wyatt French said. “Very important.”
“I’d like to say otherwise, Mr. Darmus. I would so dearly like to say otherwise.”
Roy frowned. “Wyatt, what’s wrong?”
“You were right about this place, you know. You just didn’t look far enough. Didn’t look hard enough. I don’t blame you. There’s more to it than I can explain, and more than a sane man would pause to hear. I’m not one who would be heard, anyhow. The mountain could tell it, if it could talk.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. You haven’t got the faintest notion what I’m talking about. I did more than most, though. I fought it.”
“Let’s slow down,” Roy said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“If I felt I could make a soul believe me, I might stay around to try. The longer I stay, though, the greater the risk. I’m getting scared of the dark coming. I’m getting scared of what I could do in the dark.”
The rant faded back to ragged inhalations. The breathing of a panicked man. Roy’s frown deepened.
“Wyatt, do you need help out there?”
“Oh, yes. Help is needed out here. For me? Sure. For you? Absolutely. I tried to provide it. I did what I could. You tell them that. You tell them that Wyatt French did what he could—for them. For everyone.”
“I’m not following, and you sound—”
“They should have listened to me about those damned cats. You know how many people will come out here now? Do you have any idea what that might mean?”
“No,” Roy said. “I do not. Explain it to me.”
“Take a closer look,” Wyatt said. “That’s all I ask. If you and Kimble both do that much, then maybe—”
“Kevin Kimble? With the sheriff’s department?”
“He’s gone to see her, you know.”
“Gone to see who?”
“Jacqueline Mathis. The woman who shot him, and he drives up there every month to pay a visit. He doesn’t ask the right questions.”
“What should he be asking?”
Wyatt went silent for a moment, and when he spoke again he’d gotten the harried pace under control.
“I want you to try to tell this story,” he said. “You’re the right one for it. You and Kimble. And somebody needs to tell it. I hope you will.”
“I would if I could, Wyatt. But they’ve closed the paper.”
“It’s not a newspaper story, Mr. Darmus. But so many of the ones that really need to be told aren’t, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I tried to tell the ones that mattered.”
“You really did, Mr. Darmus. You really did. And this one needs to be told, for you particularly. I think you need to know the character your parents showed.”
Roy felt his breathing slow. His parents had died in a car accident on Blade Ridge Road, very near Wyatt’s lighthouse.
“What do you know about my parents?”
“The decisions that they both made. Very brave. Very strong. And knowing what they were saying goodbye to, with a child at home, it must have been so difficult. You can be very proud of them.”
“Damn it, Wyatt, I don’t appreciate you talking about—”
“When you write the story,” Wyatt said, “please make something clear. I didn’t have to die. I could go on as long as I want.”
He hung up. Roy stared at the receiver in astonishment. Disconnected, then dialed the number that had appeared on the caller ID. It went right to voicemail. Roy hung up.
I didn’t have to die.
“Oh, shit,” he said, and then he took his car keys, left his boxes on the desk, and left the building.
BLADE RIDGE ROAD LAY in the western reaches of the county, a twenty-minute drive from Whitman, though Roy did it in fifteen as dusk fell over the wooded countryside. It wasn’t so much of a road—just a rutted gravel lane that broke away from County Road 200 in the foothills that had once been home to coal-mining country, making a straight line toward the Marshall River, which marked Sawyer County’s western border. County Road 200 bent sharply to the left at this point, but if you missed that curve and continued straight, you’d end up on Blade Ridge, which would deliver you to the realization that you’d made a mistake and then to a sudden wall of trees.
For some people—Roy’s parents among them—it was a very bad mistake. The narrow, twisting lane was treacherous, particularly in the winter, particularly in the dark. When Roy’s parents died, the county was inspired to replace the original dead-end sign with two larger ones and add a warning that traffic was for residents only. Not that there were many of them. Just a lighthouse, where once a trailer had stood. And, now, a cat zoo.
Thinking about his parents made him tighten his hands on the steering wheel. What had the old boozehound been trying to imply—that they’d driven off into the woods intentionally, a joint suicide?
And knowing what they were saying goodbye to, with a child at home, it must have been so difficult.
“Bullshit,” Roy said aloud, his voice hot with anger. His parents had been dead for forty-six years, but even that wasn’t enough time to provide a buffer against the emotions that swelled at the suggestion that they might have left him on purpose.
They were coming home from my basketball game in Jasper County, and they were looking for a shortcut and took the wrong turn. I’ve known that for decades, Wyatt, you prick. Don’t you dare poison my memories of them, don’t you dare.
Ahead of the spot where the gravel road reached its end, directly across from the fresh fencing and cages that had now been built into the woods to house a rescue center for tigers, cougars, lions, and leopards, there was a track that cut off to the right. This was the driveway to Wyatt French’s lighthouse. It came in from the north side at a harsh angle and began to climb immediately. Roy made the turn, loose gravel sliding under the tires, and heard the pitch of the Pilot’s engine turn harsh as it strained up the incline. It was like driving through a tunnel because the trees hung so dense and so close to the road. Then it broke to a crest and there were a few gaps that allowed you to see between the mountains and out to the Marshall River and an ancient railroad trestle.
A long fence protected the lighthouse property. The gate was padlocked; Wyatt French didn’t care for visitors. Built at the base of the lighthouse was a structure that looked no bigger than a shed. It was there that the old man lived.
“Crazy bastard,” Roy muttered, staring at the lighthouse as he parked the Honda in the weeds beside the fence. He hit the horn, three taps.
Nothing. He gave it a minute and laid on the horn again, longer this time, figuring the blaring noise would raise Wyatt’s ire and call him forth.
It didn’t, though. Roy shut the car off and climbed out into the rain. The fence was there, but fences could be climbed. Wyatt French hadn’t added razor wire and guard towers to the property, though they were probably on his list.
There was not a sound except for the rain, but the light was flashing steadily against the gathering dusk.
I’m getting scared of what I could do in the dark.
“Just go knock on the damn door,” he muttered to himself, and then he went forward. The fence was simple, six-foot chain link, and Roy was still in decent shape, cleared it easily. There was only one door. A piece of paper fluttered on it, secured with two large thumbtacks. Roy used the side of his hand to flatten the paper against the wind so he could read the message, hoping it was instructions for FedEx or a note for a neighbor.
For purposes of investigation, the handwritten note read, please contact Kevin W. Kimble of the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department.
Roy took his hand away from the note, and the breeze slid under the paper again, rustling it against the wood. He was afraid now, plain and simple.
For purposes of investigation…
Kimble was the chief deputy, a man who’d taken a bullet in the back a few years ago and still returned to the job. He was, anyone in the county would probably agree, the man you’d want on a difficult case.
But what was Wyatt’s case?
Roy knocked. Nothing. He cupped his hands and shouted Wyatt’s name. The rain was streaming down his neck and under his shirt collar to his spine. He tried the knob, then swore when it turned.
Unlocked. Shit. Why couldn’t it have been locked? Why were the doors you knew you shouldn’t open always the ones that were unlocked?
He pushed the door open and peered into the darkness. The living quarters seemed larger than they should have, but they still weren’t much to speak of. There was a small bed in one corner, a desk beside it, some shelves, a kitchen table in the middle of the room. Refrigerator and range and sink. A bathroom blocked off by an old-fashioned accordion-style door.
“Wyatt? Mr. French? It’s Roy Darmus.”
By now he’d given up on getting an answer. He stepped into the room, and in the nickel-colored light of the rainy afternoon he could see that the walls were lined with maps. Topographic maps of Sawyer County. As he walked farther in, he saw that each map had a different year written on it in bold black marker: 1966, 1958, 1984…
Across the room was another door, also closed. This would lead to the lighthouse steps. Maybe this one would be locked. That would be nice.
It wasn’t. Opened outward and revealed the base of the spiral stairs that curled up and away. Roy began to climb, one hand on the railing.
“Wyatt?” he called.
There were more steps than he’d have thought. He climbed for a long time, into progressive darkness, and then finally the top showed itself in a gray glare of daylight.
By then Roy didn’t need to go any farther. The smell assured him of that—warm, fresh copper tinged the air.
He steadied himself and climbed on and at the top step his head finally broke the surface and he found himself staring at the light itself. There was one oversized bulb surrounded by a series of strange, mirror-like lenses, the light within flashing, and arranged beneath it were four odd fixtures with red lenses angled toward the cardinal directions. Roy could see no light coming from those, though.
Electrocuted himself, Roy thought. He was doing something to the light, trying to repair it or change it, and he electrocuted himself.
That thought lasted only until he pushed all the way up onto the lighthouse platform, turned to the right, and looked directly into Wyatt French’s dead face.
He’d shot himself in the mouth, and if Roy had made a full circle around the lighthouse he would have been able to see the blood and brain tissue that was still wet on the glass. There was a gaping, grotesque hole in the center of French’s face, and his long gray hair was clotted with blood. A handgun lay on his lap.
All of this Roy saw in a half-second flash, and then he turned away, turned too fast. His feet were still on the top step, and one of them slid off and his balance was gone. He fell sideways and put out a hand to steady himself, but he was dropping too fast, and knew before he hit it that he was going directly into the light. He heard a pop and felt immediate, scorching pain just before the blood began to flow. He’d landed with his palm out and his weight driving down and that was all it took for the glass lenses to shatter and bite.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, lifting his hand free, blood dripping onto the floor and splattering his jeans. He’d punctured not only the lenses but the bulb; the light had given a frightening spark at the moment of impact and then gone dark. Everything had; the lighthouse was soaked in shadow now.
He turned and stumbled down the stairs, grabbing at the railing with his good hand.
OF COURSE IT RAINED. Fate wouldn’t have it any other way. Audrey Clark was moving massive, uneasy cats and it poured rain. Absolutely ideal.
She’d had a vision of this day, and it wasn’t rain that spoiled that. No, rain would have been fine—she could picture David leaning down to kiss her, laughing, his wet blond hair plastered to his skull, water drops on his glasses, all of it still a pleasure to him, in charge of everything and enjoying every moment. They’d spent their first afternoon together in these Kentucky hills, when Audrey’s law firm was tasked with drawing up the endowment that would fund the cat rescue center and David had capitalized on her interest—ostensibly in the rescue center, but also in him—to show her exactly what he intended to build in Sawyer County. At the time it had been fascinating, admirable, and romantic.
At that time, there’d been no cat shit on the grounds.
Her vision of the day had died with her husband in the rocks along the Marshall River six months earlier. He’d fallen forty-six feet while scouting the new home for the rescue center one evening, and although the police told her that David had died instantly, Audrey was still falling.
They’d gotten started at daybreak, the third day of moving cats and, with any luck, the last. At her side were four volunteers and the rescue center’s only two paid staff members: Dustin Hall, a former student of David’s, and Wesley Harrington, the preserve’s manager and cat guru. She had just one transport vehicle, a large panel truck that could hold as many as eight cages at once. Getting those eight cages filled, though, took time and effort. Cats, large or small, are not fond of doing anything that hasn’t been granted their express written consent. Transportation in a cage generally does not qualify.
So it became a battle of wills, with one caveat: the humans could cheat.
They started with simple coaxing. True to the cliché, the cats were curious, if nothing else. Sometimes that curiosity would be enough to lead them to inspect the transport cage. The moment they entered, Wes or Audrey would drop the guillotine gate behind them. If curiosity and coaxing didn’t work, they’d stoop to the first of the cheating tactics: food baiting. Many of the reluctant animals could be lured into the cage when the right treat was offered—Small children work well, Wes had told her dryly—and then the gate would drop.
If the first two techniques didn’t work, then they’d stoop to the ultimate cheat and use tranquilizers. Wes was adamantly opposed to that. He’d been involved in cat recoveries all over the country, and on two occasions he’d seen animals lost because of mishandled drugging. His stance on sedation was that it had to be the last measure.
After five years of working with these cats, Audrey hadn’t thought they’d need to sedate any of them for the relocation, but as the day wore on she found herself in favor of the idea with Kino, one of the male tigers, and not just because Kino sprayed her three times in the morning alone.
The big tiger was full of bad attitude on a good day, and this was not a good day. Watching all the chaos, watching his peers being loaded into cages and driven away, Kino was quite pissed off. Audrey had always made fun of the way he stalked the fence, giant shoulders rolling, giant ass swaying, a surly stare on everyone.
We need to get you a leather jacket, she’d told him once. You can wear it with the collar up.
He’d sprayed her almost immediately after that bit of mockery, and the plans for the leather jacket had swiftly become a promise for a tiger-skin rug for her living room.
Today he was playing the role of an antagonist, roaring and banging against the fences and trying to get the other cats worked up.
“There is no way we get his angry ass into a truck without sedation,” she said.
“We’ll get him, and we’re not sedating him,” Wes answered firmly. He loved all of the cats, but Audrey knew well that Kino was his favorite, simply because Kino was the most challenging.
So they worked around Kino all morning and afternoon, and it was on the last load of the day that they finally got the big tiger into the transport cage. Drug-free, as Wes had promised. In the end it came down to Wes’s ingenious suggestion of totally ignoring the animal. He circled around Kino’s enclosure, talking to the other tigers, reaching out here and there to scratch along their jaws or in some cases allowing them to nuzzle his face and lick his cheek. By the time he made his third pass, Kino was bellowing for attention. Wes ignored him completely. Ten minutes later, the tiger marched sullenly into his transport cage. When they dropped the gate behind him, Wes knelt beside the cage and leaned close. Kino growled. Wes said, “Yeah, I know,” and held his ground, and a few seconds later the tiger’s sound shifted to the chuffing noise that signified pleasure and Wes was scratching behind one of his ears.
“I can’t believe you got him in that cage without tranquilizers,” Audrey said, and she meant it. She was better around these cats than most people, and David had been far better than she, but Wes was something else entirely. The cats accepted him in a way that they wouldn’t anyone else, and his innate understanding of them was extraordinary.
You’re always worried about whether you can trust them, he told her once. If you worry more about making it clear that they can trust you, you’ll be amazed at the difference.
Those lines or variations of them were constant from Wes, who spoke little except to explain things about the cats to Audrey, or, more aptly, to explain what she was failing to grasp about them. She rode an emotional pendulum between appreciation and irritation. At one moment there would be recognition that without him she could not run the preserve; in the next, deep frustration that without him she could not run the preserve.
“Kino, he’s all talk,” Wes said now, and then they used a forklift to put the cages onto the truck. Every time one was in the air, Audrey held her breath. She was envisioning disaster—a dropped cage, a broken door, a four-hundred-pound tiger on the loose—but Wes was calm and confident and that helped. The cages were loaded without incident, and then they were on the road, bound west across the county for Blade Ridge.
“Not many left,” she told Wes as they raced the rapidly fading daylight. “I hoped we would get them all, but that was pretty ambitious. Tomorrow will be easy, though. One load of lions, and then Ira.”
Ira was the preserve’s prize, a black cougar, the only such creature in captivity in the world, a cat so rare that many experts still refused to believe he wasn’t the product of crossbreeding.
“Hope you’re right,” Wes said, and she felt that she was. Despite the rain and the hard work and the weight of David’s absence, she felt good. She knew also that her husband would be pleased if he could watch the cats gathering at their new home. The land on Blade Ridge Road had been his dream option. Originally part of an enormous tract belonging to one of the town’s old mining families, it was so rugged that little had changed with the property in the past hundred years. It was far from any residential development and large enough for them to have plenty of room to grow, also isolated enough for the cats to have little in the way of human distraction.
Little, that was, except for the psychotic who lived across the road. Their only neighbor—the only resident on the entire stretch of gravel road, in fact—was a local drunk who had, long before David and Audrey acquired their property, made the decision to replace his trailer home with a lighthouse.
A real one. On a wooded hilltop, in the middle of nowhere.
She’d had a bad feeling the first time she saw it, only worsening when friends around town commented on their neighbor’s propensity for drink and odd behavior. There was something indescribably eerie about watching the light paint the treetops with its pulsing, relentless golden flashes. She urged David to make a formal complaint. He found it amusing; she found it alarming.
It will bother the cats, she’d said. Can you imagine how Jafar will react to that thing? It’s so damn bright.
Jafar, a leopard, was one of David and Audrey’s personal favorites, a sleek, beautiful animal with the personality of an affectionate if mischievous housecat, and in the end it had probably been Jafar’s desire, not Audrey’s, that tipped the scale. David called the sheriff and said the lighthouse was too bright. It turned out he wasn’t wrong—a permit was required for so bright a light. Wyatt French had responded formally at first, taking down his megawatt lamps and replacing them with something that—barely—satisfied the permit standards for light pollution or air traffic control or whoever made such decisions.
For a time it had looked as if he was just an eccentric, peaceful enough. Then came the county council meetings to discuss the rescue center’s relocation, and Wyatt French arrived intoxicated and angry and raving grim prophecies of doom. By the time the police finally escorted him from the room, then arrested him, Audrey was looking at David with I told you so eyes. They didn’t have an eccentric neighbor, they had an enemy.
And a cruel one, Audrey learned after David’s death. A card from Wyatt French had arrived amidst all the others, but his message was anything but heartwarming. He expressed his sorrow for her loss, yes, but then he added a few lines suggesting that David had done it to himself, and that if they had not forced him to tamper with the lighthouse, her husband would have been safe from harm.
Audrey had ripped the card into breath-mint-sized shreds, slowly and methodically, while her older sister watched in astonishment. That was the last contact she’d had with Wyatt French, who had yet to come down the hill and visit his new neighbors. He surely would soon enough, though, and that expectation just added to the strange light’s malevolence. It had been flashing today even after the sun rose, and continued; with each load of cats they brought, the storm-darkened skies glittered with flashes that found her eyes and crawled behind them and took hostile refuge in her mind, leaving her with an unfocused anger.
The anger was gone, though, and the frustration. The only negatives that would remain today were the muscle aches.
That was how she felt until the sirens and the flashing lights of a police car appeared behind them. Wes eased onto the shoulder, thinking they were being stopped, but the car hummed by without pause, a trail of mist from its tires hanging in the air like exhaust from a jet.
“He’s in a hurry,” she observed.
It was five minutes later when they turned onto the long gravel lane that led to their new home and saw a red light in the trees. As Wes drove on, Audrey stared at it, thinking that it might be from the lighthouse, thinking that the crazy neighbor was taking it up a notch, but then they rounded a bend and she could see the police car.
Or the remains of the police car.
The vehicle was upside down in the trees on the north side of the road, across from the preserve’s front gate. It looked as if it had been in the process of rolling a second time when the trees caught it, and now the car was propped at an awkward angle, the passenger side in the air and the driver’s side pressed against the ground. The roof was crushed down, fractured pieces of metal and fiberglass littered the gravel, and the headlights—both still on—were pointed crazily into the trees, one angled up, one angled down. The hood was torn and the engine showed like internal organs, things you knew you shouldn’t be able to see.
Audrey whispered, “He’s got to be dead.”
Wes didn’t argue. With the look of that car, there wasn’t much argument to be made.
“Call 911,” he said, and then a figure emerged from the trees just behind the car, stepping out of the shadows, and Audrey almost screamed before she realized that it was Dustin Hall, her own employee. He looked up at them, then back to the car, and shook his head.
Audrey knew what he meant. The driver was dead.
Wes popped open the door and stepped into the rain while Audrey took her phone out and dialed, gave their location, and explained the situation.
“It’s bad,” she said. “It’s really, really bad.”
“Is the driver breathing?”
“I don’t know. I can’t imagine… the car is just demolished.”
“Could you check? Can you get close enough to see if there’s any sign of motion? We have an ambulance en route, but I need to know what to tell them.”
Audrey got out of the truck. Wes had dropped to his knees by the shattered window, and now he removed his jacket, wrapped it around his fist, and began swinging at the car, trying to clear away the remaining glass from the passenger window.
“Is he alive?” Audrey asked.
“I don’t know.”
She walked closer, knelt in the wet gravel beside him, and peered inside the car. The roof had been crushed down to the headrest, both airbags had deployed, and the inside of the car was a cloudburst of broken plastic, glass, and fabric. The airbags had left a chalky dust in the air, the smell faintly like gunpowder. Pinned between the steering wheel and the remains of the passenger seat, which had been shoved toward him, was the deputy’s crumpled body. Audrey was just about to speak into the phone again, just about to say that the man looked to be dead, when he moved his head and focused his eyes on hers.
She almost screamed. It was stunning to see him move. She jerked upright and stumbled backward as the operator said, “Ma’am, what do you see?”
“He’s… um… he’s moving,” Audrey said, watching in astonishment as the deputy blinked, narrowed his eyes, and frowned at her and Wes as if he didn’t know what they were doing there and didn’t like seeing them. “He’s alive. I don’t know how, but he’s alive.”
The operator was busy telling her not to try to move him until the paramedics arrived when the deputy reached out of the broken window and placed one white palm on the gravel, dug his fingers in, and tried to pull himself clear.
“Tell him not to move,” Audrey said, but Wes was already leaning forward to help.
“Give a hand,” he shouted to Dustin, who had been one of David’s favorite students and was always capable around the preserve but now stood pale-faced and motionless. Dustin responded to the order, though, leaned down and helped support the deputy’s weight while Wes pulled a pocket knife free, opened the blade, and hacked through the seatbelt, whispering to the deputy to take it easy, not to rush. The whole time the guy was reaching from the wreckage with that one free arm, pulling at the mud and gravel, as if determined to claw out from within the car that should have been his coffin. Wes and Dustin caught him by the shoulders and lifted and then, somehow, he was out of the police car and on his back, breathing and alert.
Audrey hung up the phone. “What happened?” she asked Dustin.
“I think he missed the turn or something. All I know is one second I heard the siren and then the next he was in the trees.”
Dustin’s face looked bloodless, and he was weaving on his feet. She said, “Do you need to sit down?”
“Maybe, yeah.” He fell heavily on his ass in the road, pushing thick dark hair back from his forehead, his chest heaving. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Help’s coming,” she said, patting Dustin’s shoulder. “And it looks as if he’s okay. I can’t believe he’s moving. How is he moving?”
There was blood on the deputy’s face, coming from his nose and his lips, and a crisscrossing of scratches over his forehead and left cheek, but those were the only evident injuries. He was a young, fit man, lean and long, with sandy hair and blue eyes. Being young and fit didn’t allow for escaping an accident like that unscathed, though. He was charmed by unnatural good luck, too, it seemed.
“Lucky,” Audrey said softly, thinking that her husband had died out here in a fall. One misplaced step, one slip, one life extinguished. This deputy had driven into the trees at top speed, demolished the car all around him, and survived.
Don’t think about it like that, she told herself. Stop that. Be grateful.
There was a murmur from the deputy. Audrey looked down again, then saw that his eyes were open and locked on hers.
“You okay?” she said. “You with us? You with us?”
Water dripped out of Wes’s short gray beard and off the brim of his baseball cap as he knelt over the wounded man. Beyond, in the preserve, no more than a hundred feet away, the cats had pressed close to the fences, intrigued. One of the lions gave a low roar, and that got the deputy’s attention. He swung his head up and around to face the cats, and Audrey winced when he moved his neck, sure that his spine had to be at risk. They’d been telling her to keep him still, that he would need a backboard.
“Please don’t move,” she said, and then, seeing how intently he was looking at her cats, she added, “They’re locked up. They won’t hurt you.”
She turned to Dustin. “Go try to calm them, please. The last thing we need is the cats going crazy right now.”
He went off to try to make peace with animals who were already restless from new surroundings and unnatural activity, and Audrey knelt beside Wes, watching the deputy.
“I hit him,” the deputy said.
“Tried to miss, but he was right there, and I was going so fast… I tried to miss, I promise you that I did.”
“You didn’t hit anyone. Everyone is fine.”
That seemed distressing to him. He moved his head again, searching the dark woods, and this time his face split into an odd smile, blood on his teeth.
“He made it?”
“You didn’t hit anyone,” Audrey repeated, feeling ill at ease now. Maybe he hadn’t been so unscathed after all. A concussion was likely. Maybe something worse, bleeding on the brain, who knew?
“Light’s out,” the deputy said, staring over her shoulder. Audrey turned and looked up to the hilltop where the lighthouse stood against the weaving bare branches. It was dark, for the first time all day.
“We’ve got an ambulance on the way,” she said. “Just stay down. Please don’t move around. They’ll be here soon.”
“Where were you headed, bud?” Wes asked. “Is something wrong with the cats? Did you get a call about them?”
Blood was dribbling down the deputy’s chin as he shook his head.
“There’s a dead man in the lighthouse,” he said.
TEN MINUTES ON DUTY, running on frayed nerves and no sleep, and Kimble had a corpse call. He’d poured a cup of coffee but hadn’t taken a sip yet when he heard the news. Gunshot victim, they said.
“Active shooter?” he asked.
Probable suicide, he was told.
“We know the vic’s name?”
French, they said. Wyatt French. Maybe he remembered—
“Yes,” Kimble said. “I remember Wyatt French.”
He felt cold guilt in the pit of his stomach. All those questions, all that talk about suicide. Why hadn’t he sent someone to check? He’d hoped Wyatt was just drunk, the way he usually was. That last joke, too, the threat that he might just decide to live forever—it had suggested that he wasn’t in too dismal a state of mind. Hadn’t it?
Kimble swallowed some coffee for warmth, kept his face impassive, and, after a moment’s pause, asked that they send Nathan Shipley. He didn’t want to go out there himself, not after the morning call, and Shipley, though young, was one of Kimble’s favorite deputies, quiet and calm and tough. He’d seen worse than a suicide, and he’d be fine out there in charge of the scene.
They dispatched Shipley, only to come back for Kimble a moment later, just as he’d settled behind his desk.
It seemed Kimble’s presence had been requested at the scene.
By the victim, he was told. There was a letter on the front door, asking that for purposes of investigation the case be handed to Kevin W. Kimble. Dispatch thought he’d like to know that.
First the predawn call to his private number, now a letter on the door? What did Wyatt French want from Kimble?
He pulled on a baseball cap and went back out into the rain, tired and confused and wondering what else he could have said, should have said.
What he should have done.
Roy stood outside the lighthouse as darkness gathered and the rain pounded down on him and blood dripped off his palm and into the grass. He felt a tingle in his elbow. That wasn’t good. He’d probably cut right through the nerves in his hand.
Explaining this to the police was going to be a treat. Tell them that a man was dead and Roy’s own blood just happened to be splattered all over the scene? Somehow he had a feeling that wouldn’t go over too smoothly.
Where in the hell were the cops, though? He’d heard a siren that sounded as if it were just below him, but then it had stopped.
The pain in his hand had ebbed away to a dull ache, but he was continuing to drip blood all over his pants. He considered taking off his shirt and wrapping it around the wound, but then he looked through the open door into Wyatt French’s strange living quarters and saw the dishtowels hanging from the stove. It wasn’t as if Wyatt would miss them.
He stepped back inside, feeling an uneasy sensation the moment he reentered, knowing damn well now what waited at the top of those steps. His first stop was the sink, where he ran warm water over his hand until the pain ratcheted up a few levels, and then he switched it to cold, hoping to numb things down. The water mixed with the blood and swirled down the sink. He felt lightheaded watching it, so he looked away and took one of the dishtowels from the stove, soaked it in cold water, and then wrapped it tightly around his palm.
The dizziness was still with him. He blinked and took a few deep breaths and stared around. When he’d first entered, his focus had been on finding Wyatt, but now he had a chance to register the room itself. Wyatt had never finished the walls—two-by-fours climbed like latticework, pink insulation showing between them, no drywall pinning them in. His focus, it seemed, had been on speed as he built. He wanted to get to the top and get that light going. The same one he’d asked Roy to keep on before he’d eaten his gun. The same one Roy had promptly shattered.
Like it matters, he told himself. Like the crazy thing really matters.
He stepped farther into the room, looking at the maps Wyatt had pinned to the exposed wall studs. There were a lot of them, names written across in red ink. Beside the maps, and all around the room, photographs were held in place with thumbtacks. Ancient pictures, sepia-tinted relics of another time, men with old-fashioned mustaches and women standing beside cars with wide running boards. Roy stepped closer, saw that each photograph was labeled. A few with names, but most—almost all of them, it seemed—with one scrawled word: NO.
It was eerie, standing here in the darkened room, a dead man upstairs and all of these faces from times gone by watching him. He shot a glance at the door, wondering again about the police.
One picture caught his eye—more recent, a color shot, and the woman in it was breathtaking. He crossed the room and stared into her crystal eyes and realized he was looking at the booking photograph of Jacqueline Mathis.
What in the hell went on in that man’s head? Roy thought. What was he looking for?
He wanted to see it all better now, but it was dark inside and the light switch by the door did no good. He thought of the popping sound he’d heard when he broke the bulb, that harsh snap. He’d taken the power out. Question was whether it was a blown fuse or a circuit breaker.
The positive side of Wyatt’s sparse home was that it was hard for anything to hide. Roy found the electrical panel easily enough—its metal door stood just over the head of the narrow cot Wyatt had used for a bed, almost as if he’d wanted it as close by as possible while he slept. Roy opened the door and saw that several of the breakers had snapped down. He reset them, and when he tried the light switch at the door again, it worked.
He wandered, studying the old photographs and the maps with the names in red ink, wondering what they meant, wondering what had happened to the police car down below and whether he should head out and take a look, wondering if he’d seriously damaged his hand, wondering why the dead man upstairs had pulled the trigger and why, above all else, he’d had to call Roy before he did it.
To keep the light on. And you broke it. Somewhere, his ghost is shaking his head at you now, Darmus.
His mind was like that, uneasy and adrift, until his eyes focused on a map tacked up just above the small kitchen table. The year was 1965, and there were two names written in red: Joseph Darmus; Lillian Darmus.
The blood seeping from his palm no longer felt warm as it met the damp towel.
It was then that Roy understood the significance of the names written in red ink.
Red was for the dead.
Excerpted from The Ridge by Koryta, Michael Copyright © 2011 by Koryta, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
A man in love with the woman who shot him. Who could possibly resist that story? Not me. Read on, and discover one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years.
Red alert for mystery and thriller fans who like a touch of the supernatural: Michael Koryta walks this line better than anyone else I know. Fine, gripping writing that's firmly grounded in police work and the lives of real people, but with Lovecraft-ian overtones, and that whispering fear always lurking.
So Cold the River is a great story, but what held me was the lean, clean prose and the sharp presentation of scenes and dialogue. Michael Koryta is a good story teller and a wonderful stylist.
A new suspense novel that's sure to send a few unseasonable shivers down the back of your neck...In addition to being a spooky thriller, the book is about a lot of different kinds of loss and love.
Kortya's SO COLD THE RIVER is an example of the good-writing equals good-reading equation that makes fright-inducing fiction worthy of our time, attention, and real enjoyment.
author of The Terror and Drood
An icy, terrifying winner. So Cold the River puts an October chill in your blood by the end of the first chapter. It's not much longer before you've turned on all the lights and rechecked all the window locks. Few novelists warrant mention alongside Stephen King or Peter Straub. Michael Koryta, however, earns comparison to both.
Michael Koryta is a gifted storyteller. His writing reminded me of the great Ruth Rendelleerie, suspenseful, and pleasantly wicked. If you're looking for a dose of Midwestern Gothic at its best, SO COLD THE RIVER will be just the thing for you.
author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins