Authors: John Ramsey Miller
Praise for John Ramsey Miller’s
terrifying debut thriller
The Last Family
“The best suspense novel I’ve read in years!”
“Martin Fletcher is one of the most unspeakably evil characters in recent fiction.… A compelling read.”
“The author writes with a tough authority and knows how to generate suspense.”
“Suspenseful.… Keeps readers guessing with unexpected twists.”
This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
THE LAST FAMILY
A Bantam Book
Bantam hardcover edition published August 1996
Bantam paperback edition / August 1997
All rights reserved
Copyright © 1996 by John Ramsey Miller
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 95-25852
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher
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This novel is dedicated
to my wife of twenty years
whose love is the rock my life stands on
And to my sons
Christian, Rush, and Adam
for their blind faith
and the joy they have brought me
There are people who I wanted to thank personally, who deserve to be mentioned. Few readers will recognize the names listed below but if you enjoy this book at all you’ll forgive me for thanking them. I owe them and others, no less significant but too numerous to mention.
My mother, Gene Ramsey Miller, Ph.D., 1924–1979, who died too young and unfortunately, and who taught me to bear disappointment and pain with grace, to trust my heart and to always follow my dreams. To my father, Rev. R. Glenn Miller of Oxford, Mississippi, whom I counted on for advice, understanding, and a sense of humor. My wonderful stepmother, JoAnn, who has always kept after me to write and rescued my earliest efforts from an attic cleaning.
To Andrew Morello, 1975–1992, of North Miami Beach, the son of our dear friends Joseph and Andrea, who taught me how truly devastating the death of a
child at the hands of another can be. Andrew’s death was a specific impetus toward creating the desire to write this book so I could share that through fictional characters.
My mother-in-law, Pearl Dedmon, who dreamed my first novel was in her hands.
My most trusted reader and champion, authoress Shirley Yarnell of Cabin John, Maryland, who saw something in my work and guided me.
My agent and dear friend, Kristin Lindstrom, of The Lindstrom Literary Group in Arlington, Virginia, who weathered 130 rejections with steadfast devotion.
My thoroughly remarkable and patient editor, Beverly Lewis, who saw something she wanted to work with and who put so much effort in guiding me to make this book what it is.
To Katie Hall, who passed this book to Beverly Lewis with a strong recommendation.
To all of the people at Bantam Books who have worked so hard to make sure this book had a chance to find an audience.
I thank my patient technical advisers, Dr. Steven Haynes, the nationally respected forensic pathologist in Rankin County, Mississippi; Cecil “Chip” Devilbiss of Nashville, my surveillance and security systems adviser; Jerry Cunningham, my Lake Pontchartrain and nautical adviser; Brooks Harris of the Nashville P.D., who has been my model for police officers who strive for excellence in fighting crime; Tom Austin, fellow writer and chief of police in Santaquin, Utah; and last but not least, U.S. Marshal David Crews of Oxford, Mississippi. God forbid, any technical mistakes are mine alone.
To Gene Weingarten, now with
The Washington Post
, Tom Shroder and Bill Rose, editors with
The Miami Herald
. They gave me my first assignments and encouraged me to go to fiction.
Special thanks to my dearest friends and mentors Pup and Lee McCarty of Marigold, Mississippi, who showed me where the rest of the world was. My brother Rush G. Miller, Jr., and his wife, Johnnye, my dear friends Kerry Hamilton of Los Angeles, Nathan Hoffman
of New Orleans, Mike Horton of Miami Beach, William Greiner of New Orleans and Jay and Lisa McSorley of Charlotte and the Netherlands.
And I want to thank the supportive friends and family members whom I have been blessed with. I so hope their faith and encouragement is rewarded by the following pages.
John Ramsey Miller
SOLITARY HAWK SHIFTED ITS WINGS AGAINST INVISIBLE CURRENTS
and traced lazy circles in a blue ocean of sky. The shoulders of the mountain, like the soft contours of a sleeping woman, blazed bright yellow-green where fingers of sunlight caressed the features. Fog still hung in the cradles of valley. On the ribbon of trail that lay among the trees like a forgotten piece of twine, there was movement that caught the bird’s attention. Flashes of yellow, blue, and flesh-white skittered to and fro in a space where the ground was open to the sky. Children.
The Cub Scouts who had run up the trail were headed for a rock that was roughly the size and attitude of a forty-foot sailing ship, a granite vessel that had lost its mast and was in the process of slipping beneath the waves. They had instructions to stay in a group at Schooner Rock and await the leaders, who followed with the stragglers. The immense slab of rock angled from the
ground to a point twelve feet above the trail—a perfect ambush point. As the scouts erupted up the path toward the rock, they slowed at the sight of a man who stood leaning against the rock’s wall with his arms crossed. He was watching them and smiled as they approached. The man was wearing a khaki uniform and mirrored sunglasses. He had red hair and a matching mustache. The boys crowded around him.
“Morning, Boy Scouts,” he said.
“We’re Cub Scouts,” a small boy answered. “You a ranger?”
“I sure am,” the man said, smiling. “Ranger Ron. You boys having fun in my woods?”
“Yes,” they responded certainly.
“You boys know the difference between a white oak and a red oak?”
He held out two large leaves. “See, one has pointy edges and the other has rounded ones. This one, the pointed one, looks like a fire if you hold it by the stem. Fire is red, that’s how you remember. White-oak leaf has soft, curved sides like a soft-serve ice-cream cone, and that’s white.”
The closest boy took the leaves, and the others looked over his shoulder waiting their turns.
“I want all of you to go back down the trail and find me one of each. Then bring them back and you’ll get woodsman merit badges.”
The boys were excited by the prospect and all turned to run.
“Whoa!” he yelled. “Which one of you is George Lee?”
The boys went howling down the trail, leaving a small red-haired boy standing alone. The man knelt down and looked at him at eye level. The boy was staring at his own reflection in the glasses.
“Your daddy asked me to come get you and take you to meet him at the parking area. He’s got some camping things for you, and he’s waiting there about now.” The man looked at the backs of the scouts as they disappeared.
As George watched, the man opened a small brown bottle and poured some clear liquid over a handkerchief.
“Did he give you the code word?” George asked.
“He said for me to say …” He bent to put his lips to George’s ear. “Crackerjacks.” George tried to break and run, but the man had him in his arm and put the cloth over his mouth. George struggled, the sound of his screams muffled to a low roar by the kerchief.
As Ruth Tippet, the den leader, and Sarah Rodale, her assistant, arrived with the stragglers, they found the boys lined up on the rock against a brilliant sky like a victorious army, brandishing staffs and dark clubs looted from the forest floor.
“Lord of the flies,” Sarah said as they approached the rock. “Think they’ll attack?”
“Refrain from sudden moves and maybe they’ll let us pass without scalping us,” Ruth said. “And don’t touch any of their uniforms if you’re allergic to poison ivy,” she added. She was allergic and just knew the boys had been off the trail and neck high in the stuff.
Ruth stopped to check her compass—even though there was only one possible trail—and to let the three straggler Cub Scouts take a break. The two women were dedicated and wore the uniform of den leaders. Short pants, official knee socks, and the short-sleeved shirts of summer. Wide yellow ribbons wrapped their epaulets, and colorful patches had been sewn all over the fronts of their uniforms. Patches. Ruth, the undisputed leader of Den Six, had four more patches than Sarah. The packed ground beneath their boots was as cold as a gravestone.
“You guys ’er actin’ like idiot fools,” said Andy Tippet, who had dropped to the ground and propped his considerable bulk against a fallen tree.
“Yew guuuys ’errrr actin’ lack foools,” a child said mockingly.
Ruth Tippet’s son, Andy, had single-handedly slowed the scout leaders and two other children who didn’t feel at all safe away from the adults. He was overweight
and lazy and had kept sitting down, causing everyone to stop until the more vital of the young boys had been released to run ahead to Schooner Rock. Ruth had got involved in scouting so Andy wouldn’t turn into the couch turnip his father was.
The fifteen boys were between the ages of seven and nine. The children were not even carrying packs on this early-morning hike. The trail above the rock was steeper, and there were places where a child could wander from it, slip, and fall. That was why they had been told to wait at the rock. The adults were no more than five minutes behind.
At the summit several other mothers and a couple of fathers waited with the tents, sleeping bags, clothes, scouting manuals, and food. Ruth carried an emergency pack that had, among scores of useful things, a first-aid box complete with a snakebite kit and bandages. She also carried one apple for each of them, flashlights, three canteens, spare batteries, NASA survival blankets, insect repellent, and on her belt she wore a massive chunk of a knife with every imaginable utensil attached, including a spoon and a saw blade that would cut through a branch the size of an adult python in seconds.