Ten Years Ago
He marched through the orange grove in quick, angry steps, crushing the litter of fruit that sweetened the night with a citrus perfume.
The sandy soil, still damp from the afternoon rain, modeled the design of the hard rubber treads on his boots. He made no effort to hide his trail. In the days ahead, they would follow his footprints back to where he had parked the stolen pickup truck. They would take photographs and make casts and review dozens of brands of footwear. They would tell the world that he bought Herman Survivors at Wal-Mart, like thousands of other hunters. They would find the GMC Sierra abandoned in the parking lot of a Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q in Haines City, and the truck would lead them to the garage of a 1950s-era bungalow half a mile from the Gulf in Indian Rocks Beach. The owner, a snowbird from Wisconsin who spent his winters on the Florida coast, would be unaware that the truck was missing.
None of it would make any difference at all.
They would never find him.
A film of sweat from the sticky heat covered his body and festered under his black clothes. Trickles of moisture invited the mosquitoes and midges to feast on his face. He ignored the whine in his ears and the flutter of moth wings. He walked past the arrow-straight rows of trees like a soldier, focused on where he had to go and what he had to do.
Time was passing. He needed to hurry.
He saw the sanctuary high above him, cresting the hillside. The stone tower shimmered in the glow of spotlights. People could see it for miles from the swampy lowlands. The tower looked out of place, like something stripped from a European cathedral, too perfect and ornate for the scrub lizards and dripping Spanish moss of central Florida. Its pink marble shined like candy. Ceramic grilles adorned the stone, depicting flamingoes and baboons cavorting in Eden. Adam and Eve were pictured on the tower. So was the snake, whispering sweet nothings in Eve’s ear.
Now he would crash the party in paradise. An invisible wraith. A bearer of death.
Kill the fortunate son. ‘What are you doing?’
He stopped dead. The hot wind brought the orange trees to life. Clusters of ripe fruit swung from drooping branches. He looked back, but he was alone with the voice in his head.
‘What’s happening? I’m scared.’
He beat his forehead with a gloved fist to drive the memories away, but he found himself reliving the sensations regardless. The panic. The fear. Blackness and light whipping through his brain, faster than he could see. A shudder rippling through his body, a blow to the chest. And blood. So much blood, pooling and flooding like a crimson lake in the moonlight.
‘Why is there so much blood?’
He remained motionless, waiting until the tiny voice went away. There was too much at stake to obsess over things he couldn’t change. He couldn’t afford to give in to emotions now. The only emotion he could allow into his heart was hatred. If he could channel his hatred, if he could taste its bitterness, he could do what he needed to do.
The orange grove ended at a slope that led to the hillside sanctuary. It was the highest mountain in a flat state. He climbed, with the tall grass crowding him. He beat away the insects now, because they had become insatiable, flocking around him like a biting cloud. Their whistling chatter was deafening. He used a penlight on the ground and saw lizards skittering back and forth across the trail ahead of him. He felt as if he were trudging through a primitive rain forest, thick with humid air that weighed on his chest.
Five minutes later, at the crest of the hill, he broke free onto a beautifully manicured lawn, where a garden party was underway. He saw the flicker of torches making silhouettes of the crowd assembled on the grass. Human noises burbled from the glitterati: laughter, rumbling voices, the clink of wine glasses. A hundred people, maybe more. Carillon bells played inside the tower, clanging out across the hilltop. The tune was familiar.
He slipped a hood over his head and steeled himself for the things to come. Awful, necessary things. He was a man with a mission. It was just that no one would know what that mission was.
‘Birch wanted a magical night,’ Diane Fairmont murmured as she studied the crowd from the raised dais that had been constructed on the lawn. ‘I guess he got one.’
‘I guess he did,’ Tarla Bolton replied.
Tarla swept her long blond hair from her face. Her friend was right. The night really did sparkle. Below them, beautiful people wandered in and out of the dancing shadows like fairies. She saw tall men in suits and tuxedoes. They were all men with money, which was what every politician wanted at his event. Women wore summer dresses fluttering in the hilltop breeze. The younger ones spilled cleavage from silk. Older wives eyed the interlopers with sideways cynical stares.
They drank Chardonnay. They laughed. They inhaled the moist wind of the Florida night and smelled yellow jasmine. The bells of the tower played, reminding her of children banging spoons on old metal buckets.
‘Do you know what the bells are playing?’ Diane asked.
Tarla cocked an ear, letting her diamonds dangle, and then she laughed. ‘It’s probably something old and classical, but it sounds like Supertramp. Remember that song?’
Diane’s face soured at the irony. ‘It’s about one-night stands, isn’t it? Birch probably asked them to play it.’
She turned away from Tarla and sat down in the chair behind the microphone. The loyal wife’s chair. When Birch spoke, the cameras would all catch her there. Smiling. Applauding. The woman behind the man, dressed in a conservative ensemble, attractive but unthreatening. That was the image Birch wanted for her now. Voters didn’t like trophy wives living in the governor’s mansion.
Tarla watched her friend wither in the heat. Diane’s skin was pale, not its typical gold from the summer sun. She’d spent most of the evening ducking the crowd. When Diane twisted her neck to stare at the pink tower, Tarla noticed a sharp stab of pain on her face. ‘Are you all right?’
‘You don’t look good,’ Tarla said.
‘I’m fine,’ Diane insisted. ‘Drop it, darling, please. The campaign is exhausting. I’m tired.’
Tarla weighed whether to push her friend, but she decided that now wasn’t the time. She had several more days before she needed to be back on set in Mallorca, and she was staying with Diane in Birch’s mansion, the way she did every summer. They could talk more later. Tonight was for politics. Tonight they had to wear masks.
Tarla and Diane had grown up together in the sleepy central Florida town of Lake Wales. They’d spent their earliest summers here in the Bok Sanctuary, swatting no-see-ums as they lay in the grass near the tower, talking about boys and dreams. Tarla knew that her best friend had always looked at her with naked envy since those days. Tarla was slim, blonde, tall. She’d escaped Lake Wales for Hollywood as a teenager and did what no real person should be able to do. She made it. She became an actress. She made movies and money. When the two girls both had out-of-wedlock sons at age twenty-one, Tarla could afford to shuttle her son Cab to movie sets around the world, while Diane relied on food stamps to feed Drew.
Birch Fairmont hired Diane as his secretary at Welsh Capital when Drew was ten. He chose her for her body and breasts as much as her Microsoft Excel skills. Age thirty, single mother, unapologetic about stealing a married man – which was what she did when Birch divorced his first wife. She had never pretended that her affair with him was anything but mercenary. She’d gotten exactly what she wanted: the mansion in the Mountain Lake Estates, the island vacations, the permanent security for her son. Though it had come with a steep price tag, which was written on Diane’s face.
Tarla took the chair on the dais next to her friend. The other chairs were empty, but Birch and his entourage would soon fill them for the speech to the wealthy guests. Vote for me, but more than that, give me money. Not that Birch needed it. He’d funded most of his campaign from his own venture-capital millions.
‘You heard they found that poor girl?’ Diane asked.
‘The one who went missing. Alison, I think. Fourteen years old. It was in the news over the weekend. They found her body hidden in a ditch. Terrible.’
‘Did you know her?’
‘No, but I should write to her parents. Imagine what they’re going through.’
Tarla didn’t know what to say. She didn’t understand the criminal mind; she couldn’t comprehend how one person could inflict suffering on another. It mystified her that her only son had chosen to immerse himself in solving crimes. With his looks, Cab Bolton could have been an actor or model, but he investigated murders instead. Tarla hated it. She thought he had chosen his career as a kind of rebellion against her Hollywood world.
‘I saw Drew this weekend,’ Tarla said instead, thinking of mothers and children.
‘Yes, he just got back home.’
‘How is he?’ she asked, knowing the answer, which was: Not good. Diane’s son had battled drugs most of his life and had largely surrendered in his fight with addiction. It had been a source of heartache for Diane – and arguments with Birch – throughout their marriage.
‘The doctors say he’s better, but he’s been better before,’ Diane replied. ‘Sooner or later, he starts again.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘You’re lucky with Cab.’
‘I am, but Cab’s a loner like me. He shuts me out.’
‘I don’t know if that’s true,’ Diane said.
Tarla smiled. ‘No? He spent more time with you than with me when he was here this summer. Avoiding his mother is his avocation.’
‘He loves you, and he’s a gem,’ Diane lectured her, in a terse voice that said: You’ve got everything.
Tarla didn’t protest. Diane was right.
Her friend’s gaze landed on her husband in the crowd. Birch Fairmont was easy to spot. His voice was loud, his laugh exaggerated so that everyone could hear him. He had a lion’s mane of gray hair that shone like wax under the torches, and a bronzed Florida tan. Normal people wilted under the humidity, but Birch glowed. He was big, with a prominent nose, plump cheekbones, jutting chin, and a stomach pushing over his belt. He wasn’t tall, but he had charisma and confidence, the kind of magnetism that drew people to him. He was tailor-made to sell to the voters.
‘Lyle and Caprice think he’s really going to win,’ Diane said.
Tarla was unimpressed. ‘So I hear.’
‘He got into the race as a protest. No one expected him to make any noise. Now Lyle says he’s in the lead.’
‘The incumbent died, and the new Dem is left of Nancy Pelosi,’ Tarla scoffed. ‘Chuck Warren, the Republican, cozies up to rightwing nutjobs. Birch looks like a statesman by comparison to those clowns.’
‘It’s a big thing,’ Diane insisted. ‘Caprice says this election could be the start of a national third party movement.’
Tarla laughed, which was the wrong thing to do, because she knew it annoyed her friend. ‘That’s what they said about that wrestler in Minnesota, too. Does Birch plan to shave his head and wear a feather boa?’
‘It’s not funny, Tarla,’ Diane snapped. ‘I believe in this.’
‘I’m not questioning the message,’ Tarla replied, ‘just the messenger.’
Tarla refused to hold her tongue about Birch. She’d spent too many years seeing Diane locked up like a bird in a cage, singing when he told her to sing. She also knew that Diane was right. Birch might actually win. A scary thought. All the polls put him ahead, but polls didn’t mean much two months before the election. The other parties wouldn’t roll over. Chuck Warren was already hitting Birch on gun rights. The Democratic campaign manager, Ogden Bush, was promising an onslaught of negative ads. Tarla wasn’t sure that Birch and his team knew how to play dirty enough to come out on top.
It was nine o’clock. The bells in the tower fell silent. Whispers swept through the crowd; the elegant guests looked around expectantly. Tarla saw Birch mounting the steps of the dais, with the yes-men of his campaign behind him. Birch’s smile was wide and false. He was already in love with politics, the smell of power, the fawning operatives trailing in his wake. He wasn’t the kind of man who would change Washington for the better. He’d be seduced by it like all the others.
Tarla had never liked Birch, and he knew it.
She stood up as he approached her. He was resplendent in his black suit, his teeth bleached as white as ivory. His eyes traveled over Tarla’s silver beaded dress, diving into her cleavage like a spelunker in a cave. He put his arms around her in a bear hug, squeezing her full breasts. His hand fell to the small of her back, and she thought he would have cupped her ass if the media hadn’t been there to watch him.
‘Thank God there’s a podium,’ he whispered. ‘You always give me such a hard-on, Tarla.’
‘You’re a pig,’ she whispered back.
Birch laughed, as if they’d shared an intimate joke. My dear friend, the Hollywood star. He leaned down to kiss his wife’s cheek, and his face was full of faux devotion. Tarla was an actress, and she knew acting when she saw it. He murmured in Diane’s ear, and Tarla was close enough to hear what he said.
‘For God’s sake, Diane, you’re not at a fucking funeral. Look like you’re happy.’
Diane forced a half-smile onto her face for the cameras. Birch faced the podium and waved at the crowd with both arms. The assembly erupted with applause. Around him, two dozen donors and campaign staffers filled the empty chairs on the dais, clapping as they sat down. It was a warm night; their faces shined with sweat and were red from free booze. Tarla recognized most of them. Corporate orange growers. Disney executives. People with fat checkbooks.
Lyle Piper, Birch’s chief of staff, hovered behind the candidate, barking instructions into a cell phone. His fiancée Caprice did the same. The applause continued; people repeatedly shouted Birch’s name like a religious chant. Lyle was small next to Birch, with a slight frame and bird-like skinny fingers. He had thinning blond hair cut like a conservative CEO, and he acted the same way. In the times Tarla had met him, she didn’t recall Lyle ever smiling. He was intense and preachy about everything from tax policy to cholesterol. Even so, he was less of a hypocrite than other politicians she’d met. He walked the walk about personal responsibility. Lyle had lost his parents four years earlier at age twenty-four, and since then, he’d been a surrogate father to two younger siblings. Not an easy job.
Lyle slipped an arm around Caprice’s elbow. Lyle Piper and Caprice Dean were a political power couple in Florida, but they were idealistic in a way that only young people could be. They still thought they could change the world. They thought a new, centrist political party would be different from the other two. They thought Birch Fairmont would be the face of something that could tear down the extremes on both sides.
Tarla could have told them right then that they were naive.
Caprice leaned down to Diane. If Lyle looked older than his years, she looked younger. She was pretty and full-figured, with long dark hair, fresh-scrubbed skin without a hint of a Florida tan, and bookish black glasses propped high on her rounded nose. She wore a burgundy waistcoat, black slacks, and high heels smudged with mud. Her voice cracked with excitement. ‘Isn’t this great?’
‘Wonderful,’ Diane said, her own voice hollow.
The two political aides sat next to Diane on the dais. Birch raised his arms to quiet the crowd, but they may as well have been celebrating the balloon drop at a convention. It was Labor Day, and they had all seen the polls. They smelled momentum, which was like adrenaline in the veins of political junkies. This was their man. Birch Fairmont, candidate for the United States Congress in the 12th District from the newly formed Common Way Party.
Tarla kept an eye on Lyle Piper and was surprised by what she saw. The cameras had left him, and something black flitted across his face. He clasped his hands in his lap and stared at his leather shoes with a stony expression. Caprice grabbed his hand, and the mask of enthusiasm slipped momentarily from her face, too. Whatever they told the world, they both knew the truth about the candidate at the podium. They were dancing with a devil. That was politics.
‘My good friends,’ Birch said to a new round of cheers. The microphone broadcast his voice around the park. The tower shimmered a hundred yards away. The floodlights illuminated the stage, but the crowd was lost in shadows, and beyond them, on the fringe of the lawn, the world was black. The park disappeared into the surrounding jungle.
Tarla eyed Diane, who had a peculiar expression on her face.
Her friend watched Birch with pride, fear, and hatred.
‘My good friends,’ Birch repeated.
‘In less than two months, we will show America that we can choose something other than divisive rhetoric and empty slogans,’ he continued, diving into his stump speech. ‘That we can find consensus among our differences. That we can rely on good sense, not nonsense. That there really is a common way for all of us.’
Tarla saw Birch’s photo on signs thrust into the air and waved by volunteers. The caption above his face read: The Common Man. She shook her head at the hubris of it all. Birch was many things, but he was not common. He was a businessman worth a hundred million dollars. Definitely not common.
‘I need you with me!’ Birch shouted.
He waited for an elevated energy in the voices of the crowd. That was how you built people into a frenzy of full-throated excitement, with each applause line louder than the one before. Instead, he got no reaction, except a low burst of uncomfortable clapping that died as quickly as it started.
Unsettled, Birch tried again.
‘I need every one of you to be part of the common way!’
Heads turned, but no one cheered. Low voices murmured in an uneasy ripple. Birch was visibly annoyed. He looked over his shoulder at Lyle and mouthed: What the hell?
Like the rest of the crowd, Lyle’s attention was focused elsewhere. He and everyone else had become aware of a man on the corner of the dais. He’d come from nowhere out of the shroud of the night. He was dressed completely in black: black long-sleeved nylon shirt, black tight jeans, black gloves over his hands, and – like a Dickens ghost – a black hood over his head. His presence froze them all into motionless silence. Tarla sucked in her breath as she saw him. She knew. Everyone knew.
Something bad was about to happen.
One person took action. She recognized him; he was the director of one of the largest corporate citrus farms in the area. Married. Father of three. He was on the dais in the second row, and he stood up and pushed to the front and marched toward the man in black. He got within ten feet before the man reached behind his belt with a gloved hand, which re-emerged holding a semi-automatic pistol. He lifted his right hand and calmly fired one shot into the head of the citrus farmer, who crumpled and slipped off the dais to the thick lawn.
The explosion, like unexpected thunder, woke up the crowd. Chaos descended. Screaming began; the audience turned en masse, like a wave, and stampeded toward the tower, where overgrown trails led out of the park.
The man in black was unaffected by the tumult. He was on a mission, marching along the front of the platform toward Birch Fairmont. The VIPs in the rows of chairs sat paralyzed, watching the violence unfold. A woman in the back row stood up to escape, but the man in black fired, hitting her in the shoulder, her torso blooming with red as she wailed and sunk to the wooden floor. No one moved again.
Smoke burned in Tarla’s nose from the smell of the bullets. She found herself dizzy, seeing the man come closer. Birch had the look of a man on a falling plane, a man staring at his mortality seconds away. This instant, you are alive; the next instant, you will be dead. He faced the gunman with his fists clenched; he didn’t run, because there was nowhere to go. His face went dark with frustration.
‘You son of a—’
Birch didn’t finish his curse. The man in black fired four times, one two three four, boom boom boom boom, each bullet streaking into Birch’s chest, carving out ribs, organs, and blood. Birch staggered but didn’t fall, and the man fired again, another round flush in the heart, and Birch’s knees sagged. He grabbed for the podium, missed it like a blind man, and fell sideways, gasping out cherry-colored blood. His white shirt was crimson. His tanned face was ashen.
‘Birch!’ Diane screamed.
The man in black swung around and thrust the gun in Diane’s face, but Tarla stood up and put herself between them. She had only one thought in her head, to protect her best friend. The barrel, inches away, fed smoke into her nose and mouth and made her choke. The metal almost touched her forehead. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the black mesh, but she was close enough that she could smell his sweat and see the tiniest tremble in his hand. In her heels, she was taller than him. It was strange, what you noticed at a moment like that. He was a killer, but he was just a man.
She thought of her son, because she wanted him to be her last thought on this earth. Cab, six-foot-six, blond, funny, cynical, wicked smart, gorgeous. Cab, the one thing she had ever created in her life that gave her nothing but pure pride.
Then the gun was gone from her head. Gone, leaving her alive. Tarla could barely stand with nausea and relief. Birch’s blood pooled around her feet. It’s over, she thought, but she was wrong. The man in black pointed his gun at Lyle Piper. Lyle had a look of dazed confusion on his face, as if he had stumbled into a bad dream. Next to Lyle, Caprice’s young voice warbled like a soprano, screaming out words that climbed into disbelief, almost unrecognizable.
‘What are you doing what are you doing what are you doing what are you doing?’
Tarla watched in mute horror as the man fired again, one kill shot, no mercy. Just like that, Lyle keeled backward, and Caprice was spray-painted with blood and brain. He was dead, and she was alone.
One word, one scream, long and endless and riven with loss, wailed from the dais. ‘No no no no no no no!’
Vertigo descended on Tarla, overwhelming her senses. The world made circles, breaking up the way a kaleidoscope whirls and spins. She blinked once, and the gunman was gone, and she heard sirens and saw the multicolored flash of lights. She blinked again, and she was in a hospital bed miles away.
Excerpted from Season of Fear by Brian Freeman. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Freeman.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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