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Authors: C.E. Grundler

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BOOK: Last Exit in New Jersey
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03:14 SATURDAY, JUNE 26
 
38°39’51.72”N/74°34’27.40”W
 
NORTH ATLANTIC, 23 NAUTICAL MILES
 
SOUTHEAST OF CAPE MAY, NJ
 
 

Alone at the helm, shivering in the predawn darkness, Hazel Moran listened to the soft rush of water as
Witch
cut through the offshore Atlantic swells. Guided by compass she headed southeast by south while radar monitored the empty spread of ocean for unwanted company. Beyond the dim glow of the instruments, everything on deck remained black; not even running lights revealed the small schooner’s position. The boat surged forward under full sail, in perfect balance with the broad waves and a steady southwest wind. The air hung heavy with a dampness that clung to every surface; Hazel knew by afternoon violent thunderstorms would rumble across the Jersey shore.

She switched a flashlight on and aimed the beam astern; it pierced the blackness behind her. The weather-beaten wooden dinghy still followed reluctantly in
Witch
’s wake, tugging against the towline like a sacrificial lamb sensing its fate. It hadn’t sunk yet, but rode low as water seeped through loose seams.

Hazel checked her watch then shut the light, letting the darkness close in. Dawn was an hour away, and her twenty-first birthday in two weeks; there’d been moments during the previous evening when she wondered if she’d see either one.

Normally Hazel enjoyed the quiet solitude of the night watch, miles from shore, surrounded by an inky emptiness while the rest of the world disappeared. Normally the worn mahogany wheel would have been comforting in her hands, but adrenaline still raced through her and she fought to keep from shaking. Normally there wasn’t a dead body onboard.

The deceased cargo offered one benefit: now her father had to believe her. When she’d first insisted, two nights before, that someone was out to kill her, he’d said she was just being melodramatic. Actually, “full of shit” was how he put it, words usually reserved for her blue-haired, multi-pierced cousin Micah. She should have been honored.

“I think you’ve been reading too many Travis McGee mysteries,” her father said when she tried to explain how her ancient Miata had ended up parked beneath thirteen feet of water. He didn’t buy her story of ditching the car in the river to escape masked gunmen in a Taurus. Even their friend Joe agreed she was pushing the limits of credibility.

Her father alternated between relief that she’d survived her long drive off a short pier and frustration that she held to such an elaborate lie. Just tell the truth, he insisted. Admit she was screwing around and miscalculated one of her high-speed drifting skids into the lot. It was a maneuver she’d honed to perfection and yet another driving technique her father forbid, arguing she’d either get herself killed or raise their insurance rates. Sometimes it was hard to tell which worried him more.

“Stop lying!” he had said, over and over. He wouldn’t listen.

But now she had proof. She nearly said, “I told you so,” but the words caught in her throat. Far better not to push the issue, not when both her little driving mishap and the corpse in her cabin were almost certainly tied to Micah’s recent disappearance.

Witch
plunged into a wave, taking spray over the bow as she drifted off course. Hazel turned the wheel and watched the compass as she returned to a heading of 139 degrees. Her destination was deep water, the deeper the better. The depth finder confirmed the ocean’s bottom, well over one hundred feet below, still dropping away.

The companionway door banged open and Hazel jumped, heart pounding. Light spilled across the deck as Joe came above, his shaved head and thick arms glistening with sweat that made the octopus tattoo encircling one arm come alive. He staggered to the rail, gulping mouthfuls of fresh air. Her father emerged after him, his long hair slick and shoulders heavy with exhaustion. He studied Hazel. “You okay, hon?”

She nodded stiffly.

“How much water do we have?”

Hazel checked the depth finder. “One fourteen.”

“That should do. Head up.”

She swung the wheel until
Witch
pointed into the wind and slowed to a stop, rolling impatiently, broad sails slapping in protest. Joe hauled the plywood dinghy alongside and secured it as the small boat banged and thumped against
Witch
’s hull. The men went below, each returning with a pair of heavy, lumpy black trash bags. They seemed bulkier than Hazel expected, considering the various body parts they contained. It was likely they’d been weighted down with some anchor chain to prevent anything from floating up. One by one the bags were loaded into the dinghy, nearly to the point of swamping.

Her father stepped to the helm, checked the radar to be sure no one was near, then turned his scrutiny to Hazel. She’d cleaned up earlier, scrubbing herself with cold seawater until her skin stung, but it still felt as though she was covered in blood. She shuddered, trying to block the memory of the warm slickness on her hands and soaking her cotton nightgown.

Her father frowned, smoothing back his dark hair. “You’re shaking.”

“I’m cold,” she said, her throat painfully tight.

They both knew better, but he only nodded and took the wheel.

“You’re not dressed warm enough. Go grab a jacket.”

Hazel looked toward the companionway and hesitated.

“It’s okay. Everything’s cleaned up.”

And so it was. Not a trace of the grisly mess remained: the dismembered body, the blood, her sheets, blankets, mattress, her Jay and Silent Bob poster, even the quilt she’d spent last winter neatly stitching by hand—it had all been removed. Only the “NO WAKE ZONE” needlepoint above the cabin door and some books on upper shelves had been spared. Bleach vapors burned her eyes and throat and she choked, panic building at the memory of waking to a hand clamped over her face, the suffocating grip smothering her screams. Her father had been playing poker at Joe’s while this stranger stood leaning over her bunk, a smoldering cigarette pressed in his mouth, steel-blue eyes gleaming. She’d struggled to breathe and move away, but he pushed all the harder. He moved in tighter, told her if she screamed it would be the last sound she made, then lifted his hand. Paralyzed, she didn’t even whisper.

Her choice, he said. Tell him where Micah was, or suffer first and then tell him.

She didn’t speak. She couldn’t.

“Haze?” her father called down. He leaned into the companionway. “You okay?”

She shook her head, pulled on a sweatshirt, and raced back to the fresh air on deck. Leaning over the rail, she peered down at the bags. Her quilt was in one of them, blood-soaked and bundled around assorted pieces of the late Jim Kessler of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Beyond a name in a wallet, she had no idea who he was. There’d been no car in the boatyard parking lot; he’d slipped up-river aboard the dinghy found beside
Witch
, the same one he currently occupied. Her father untied the dinghy, now barely visible in the water, and it sank under the waves, swallowed by blackness.

Joe took a drag on his cigarette. “And that’s the end of that.”

But it wasn’t and they all knew it.

Her father slumped back against the stern rail and turned to Hazel. “Take the wheel and bring her about. Let’s go home.”

She returned to the helm, swung the rudder hard to starboard, and waited as
Witch
responded. The sails ceased their banging as they filled with wind, and the boat heeled and gained speed. Hazel finally began to relax as
Witch
got into her groove, racing up and gliding down the wide swells, no longer held back by the dragging dinghy and unwanted cargo.

Her father turned to Joe. “When we get back, I want to haul her car out.”

They moved away to trim the sails, their tense, hushed words carried off with the wind as they snugged the sheets. The boat responded by picking up a bit more speed.

Hazel watched the tip of Joe’s cigarette, the burning ember floating in the darkness. The cigarette between Kessler’s lips had glowed the same way. It was her choice, he’d said, almost as though he hoped she wouldn’t cooperate. Tell him where Micah was, or he’d make her an example so Micah would understand who he was dealing with.

He leaned close and clamped his hand over her mouth again. He took a drag off the cigarette and exhaled. Acrid smoke filled the tiny cabin. His middle finger forced her lower eyelid down even as she tried to squeeze her eyes closed. “This is just for starters,” he said, the glowing tip of the cigarette moving toward her tearing eye.

Pinned to the bunk with that vile hand smothering her, she let out a muffled scream as she twisted her head violently from side to side. His grip tightened, she felt the webbing between his thumb and forefinger within her mouth, and she bit down hard, fighting her revulsion as her teeth sank into the tough flesh. He bellowed and jerked his hand away.

“That how it’s gonna be?” His bloody hand curled into a fist, then opened again and snapped forward to grip her throat. His wet grin bloomed in the dark. “You just made things a whole lot worse for yourself.” He loomed closer, the burning cigarette held forward like a weapon.

Flailing against the curve of
Witch
’s hull, Hazel’s fingers brushed a cool steel shape on the shelf behind her bunk: her sewing shears.

He’d made it clear. She had no choice.

WHERE AM I?
 
 

Hammon stared into blackness. Enveloping, gravelike, absolute blackness. He blinked several times to no discernible effect. A steady rain drummed overhead, and empty soda cans clattered around in the galley sink as
Revenge
pitched against the choppy waves.

It was raining. That was important. But why?

Oh, right. Last night he’d docked in Brielle, New Jersey. He fumbled with his Timex, squinting at the luminescent blue rectangle; 1:13 p.m., June 26. Good. He hadn’t overslept. Normally he followed a nocturnal schedule, but not today. He’d been waiting for the rain, counting on it. He’d felt it coming, that familiar dull pain: every fracture, pin, and screw in his body radiated aches, the throbbing more insistent than usual. Ah, the convenience of being a human barometer.

He eased himself from the forward bunk, stepped over dirty laundry, and quietly rummaged around the drawers for a change of clothes, then padded through the dark galley into the tiny head. He could navigate around the boat blind, which, without his glasses, he pretty much was. In the dark it didn’t matter. In the dark lots of things didn’t matter. Darkness was good. He should have been born a bat.

Door locked, he stripped, shoving his sweaty clothes in the corner, feeling his way into the cramped shower. He scrubbed at the uneven textures of his face with the tight, grafted skin on his fingers, following the scars that spread like flames from above his right eyebrow across his neck and shoulder, past where the cosmetic repairs stopped and the real damage began.

Naked, he was as vulnerable as a hermit crab torn from its shell. He raced through his shower, dried and dressed, then combed his hair so it fell across the right half of his face. He flossed, pricking his knuckles against his unnaturally sharp canines. He scowled into the darkness at the black rectangle over the sink. Even unseen, he felt his reflection’s mocking presence. He would have shattered the mirror years ago but superstition stopped him.

Not his superstition; far as he knew, he wasn’t superstitious.

No, not him.

It was Annabel. She tore into him at the mere thought of destroying the mirror, insisting it would offend the mirror spirits as well as the boat they protected. At times it was hard to take her seriously, but Hammon had discovered that Annabel’s guidance usually kept him out of trouble, while defying her could turn his existence into a living hell. Thus, a compromise: he painted every mirror aboard black.

The rain overhead intensified: time to get moving. Hammon shuffled over to the dinette, flipped on the dim galley light, and switched his world from black to blurry. He felt around unsuccessfully for his glasses. Up forward he heard a soft yawn.

“Annabel, you awake?”

“No, Otto. Sound asleep. Next question.”

“Yeah. Where’d you put my glasses?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “I didn’t touch them.” Her sleek bare shape slipped past him. “Don’t blame me when you lose things in this floating disaster area.”

“It upsets you so much, feel free to clean up.”

“Do I look like your mother?” She stepped into the head, not bothering to close the door. “You know the rules. And you left your glasses behind the laptop.”

Sure enough, there they were. He slipped them on, bringing his world into focus, and considered taking them back off. Maybe she had a point. The rules were simple: whoever made the mess cleaned it. Annabel was compulsively neat but refused to straighten up after him.

Hammon opened a curtain in the salon and contemplated the Jersey waterfront. Seated on the toilet, Annabel leaned out, looking up. “I think it’s time for some new scenery,” she said. “Why don’t we head up to Maine for a while?”

“Yeah, sure. But first, I got things to do,” he said, trying to remember what exactly those things were. He picked up the pad beside the laptop and read the notes he’d left himself. Grocery lists, memories, ideas, reminders. Ones he’d dealt with were scribbled out, but others still remained.

6/25 DOCKED IN BRIELLE

6/26 TAKE ANNABEL TO LIBRARY

 

Okay, he knew that. So far, so good.

GARY’S—NEW FREEZER, FUEL GAUGE

 

Three for three. Not bad.

6/23 M T CAR TRUNK.

 

He checked his watch again. It was the twenty-sixth; worse yet, unseasonably warm the last few days. Definitely not good. And where
was
the car? He searched his memory to no avail, which wasn’t unusual. He probably left himself another note, a clue to its whereabouts. And there it was, further down, squeezed sideways into the space beside the spiral binding:

6/23 FAIRMONT BY GATES OF HELL

 

Crap. That was bad. Extremely bad. Why’d he go and leave it there?

There was one more note, a new one, written neatly between the lines in Annabel’s fluid hand:
Eat something healthy.

That he could handle. He dug through the galley for anything clean, settling on a sixteen-ounce. Mix N’ Measure container, and added WASH DISHES to his list. Annabel re-emerged from the head, still not bothering to dress, and paused to regard the bowl of Peeps bobbing in chocolate milk like pastel ducks in a mud puddle.

“Should I ask?” she said, sliding into the seat opposite him at the dinette.

“Poultry and dairy.” He stabbed one with the plastic spork. “It’s in the food pyramid.”

“Nice try.” She combed her bobbed hair, the curls grazing her neck. “Peeps aren’t poultry, and they have zero nutritional value.”

“Okay, Mom.” It amused him the way she berated him for some of his habits, yet tolerated other idiosyncrasies, like the painted mirrors, with a sympathetic smile. Mirrors distorted reality, she contended, and reflections were irrelevant. That’s how she put it, insisting society would benefit from painting all the world’s mirrors black. Humans, she ranted, were pathetic, shallow, image-conscious primates. She completely disregarded her own appearance, which was easy for her. He stared across the dinette table, taking in every inch of her. The wild curls and wide, dark eyes, the irrepressibly mischievous smile, the neck that begged for nibbling, the body firm and curved in all the right places, the satiny, unmarked skin. She was, quite simply, perfect. Not that he was complaining, any more than he’d complain about her preference for minimal clothing.

She gave him a wry smile. “You’re crooked, dear.”

“Huh?” He washed down a pair of NoDoz caplets with a swig of grape soda.

“You can’t even button yourself straight. If you insist on dressing in the dark, at least check when you’re done.”

“That’s what I have you for.” He inspected the uneven shirttails and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing the T-shirt beneath, which read: “I wouldn’t be so broke if the voices in my head paid rent.”

Annabel scanned the galley for something she considered edible, and Hammon jotted down BUY MORE FOOD. She paused, turning back in the classic Betty Grable pose. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot. You left it in the snow.”

“I what?”

“I don’t know. You said it last night. You told me to remind you. You said it was important.”

He scratched at his scarred arm. “Snow? In June? I must’ve been dreaming.”

Annabel sighed the way she did whenever she was about to say something he didn’t want to hear.

Hammon groaned. He knew where this was going. “And?”

Another sigh. “You said, and I quote, ‘Make sure I tell Stevenson it’s in the snow.’”

“Then it was a nightmare,” Hammon said flatly, scratching at his wrist.

“Stop scratching. Maybe it means something. You could—”

“—talk to him? Sure. When hell—”

“—freezes over.” Annabel stared up at the hatch while rain pounded overhead. “So, Otto, why are we up at this awful hour? Four hours’ sleep isn’t nearly enough.”

Hammon took a deep breath. “I was just thinking…”

“That’s my job.” She did a series of catlike stretches, derailing his train of thought. “Thinking about what?”

“I figured maybe we’d—” He hiccupped.

“—take a walk down to the library?” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Nice try, Otto. We’re in Brielle, it’s raining, and I saw the list. You’re going to ditch me at the library and go to Gary’s.”

Damn. He really had to remember not to leave his lists lying around. His eyes lingered on the smooth curve of her neck, transfixed. He could watch her for hours. Sometimes he did. But not today; he had things to do.

“Just for the afternoon. The new freezer’s in.”

“Admit it. You’re tired of me.”

“No!” He didn’t have to tell her. But making him sweat was her favorite game.

Annabel fiddled with her MP3 player. “You don’t want me around anymore.” She slipped on the headphones and danced up to the salon.

“Annabel.”

She pointed to the earphones, smiling apologetically as she sang, way off-key, to “My Sharona.”

“Annabel.”

Eyes closed, she moved to the music, swaying before him hypnotically. Hammon watched, trying to stay focused as another train of thought crashed and burned.

“Annabel.”

She paused, lifting the earphones. “What?”

Good question. “You know I can’t think when you do that.”

“Which implies you can when I don’t. Nice try.” She smiled. “It’s okay. Have fun telling Gary why the old freezer’s dead.”

Oh yeah. Gary.

The freezer.

It was raining.

He was dropping Annabel at the library.

She never ceased to amaze him. Gary swore she was bad news and Hammon should get rid of her. Gary didn’t understand. Hammon and Annabel had been together for years, starting as fellow inmates in the pediatric ICU. He was dying when he first saw her gazing down at him with the sad serenity of an angel. She stayed beside him, blind to the disfigurement and bandages as he endured ongoing surgeries. She accepted the irreparable damage within his shattered skull even when he couldn’t. She refused to give up on him and wouldn’t let him give up either, no matter how much he tried. Even with a few bad sectors on his hard drive, the critical programs still functioned, and that was fine with her. He didn’t want to consider what she was doing with a mess like him or why she’d stayed all this time. Lifting those rocks would only bring to light some troubling truths about him, her, and their relationship. He knew better than to question why and risk losing her. Without her he would have unraveled years ago.

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