Last Words

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By Michael Koryta

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 18, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Markus Novak just wants to come home. An investigator for a Florida-based Death Row defense firm, Novak’s life derailed when his wife, Lauren, was killed in the midst of a case the two were working together. Two years later, her murderer is still at large, and Novak’s attempts to learn the truth about her death through less-than-legal means and jailhouse bargaining have put his job on the line. Now he’s been all but banished, sent to Garrison, Indiana to assess a cold case that he’s certain his boss has no intention of taking.

As Novak knows all too well, some crimes never do get solved. But it’s not often that the man who many believe got away with murder is the one calling for the case to be reopened. Ten years ago, a teenaged girl disappeared inside an elaborate cave system beneath rural farmland. Days later, Ridley Barnes emerged carrying Sarah Martin’s lifeless body. Barnes has claimed all along that he has no memory of exactly where — or how — he found Sarah. His memory of whether she was dead or alive at the time is equally foggy. Tired of living under a cloud of suspicion, he says he wants answers — even if they mean he’ll end up in the electric chair.

But what’s he really up to? And Novak knows why he’s so unhappy to be in Garrison — but why are the locals so hostile towards him? The answers lie in the fiendish brain of a dangerous man, the real identity of a mysterious woman, and deep beneath them all, in the network of ancient, stony passages that hold secrets deadlier than he can imagine. Soon Novak is made painfully aware that if he has any chance of returning to the life and career he left behind in Florida, he’ll need to find the truth in Garrison first.

Excerpt

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors.

—T. S. ELIOT




 

The last words he said to her: “Don’t embarrass me with this shit.”

In later days, months, and years, he will tell everyone who asks, and some who do not, that the last words from his lips to her ears were “I love you.” Sometimes, during sleepless nights, he can almost convince himself that it is true.

But as they walked out of their building and into the harsh Florida sun that September day, Mark Novak didn’t even look his wife in the eye. They were moving fast even though neither of them was running late. It was the way you walked when you were eager to get away from someone.

“It’s a leaked photograph,” he said as they reached the sidewalk. “She knows two things that would both be available through a single leaked photograph.”

“Maybe. If it is, wouldn’t it be good to know how she got it?”

“She’s not going to admit that. She’s going to claim this psychic bullshit.”

“You need to open your mind,” Lauren said. “You need to consider accepting that it’s a complex world.”

You need to be able to have the common sense to identify a fraud when you see one.”

“Maybe she is a fraud. I won’t know until I look into it.”

“Nobody’s stopping you from wasting your time.”

She looked up at him then, the last time they ever looked at each other, but any chance of eye contact was prevented by her sunglasses.

“Mark.” She sighed, still patient. “Your personal understanding of the world doesn’t invalidate another’s.” Her last words to him. She’d stopped walking because they’d reached her car, an Infiniti coupe that was parked a block closer to the building than his Jeep. Here he had the chance for the customary kiss, or at least a hand on the shoulder, a quick squeeze, some eye contact. Here he had the chance to say I love you.

“Don’t embarrass me with this shit,” Mark said. He had a hand over his eyes, rubbing his face, and his voice was weary and resigned and the words were soft, and though now he likes to allow a few beers to convince him that she didn’t hear them, she did.

By the time he was behind the wheel of the Jeep, she was already at the end of the street, waiting to turn left onto Fifth Avenue and head for the interstate. The hole in traffic held, and he made it through just behind her. For two blocks they were together, and then they pulled onto I-275. The added height of the Jeep allowed him to see down into her smaller car, catch a glimpse of tan skin and blond hair that made her look like she belonged to the beach, which was true enough, as she’d grown up on it. Her eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, so he never knew if she glanced in the mirror to look back at him. He likes to believe that she did, and that his face was kind.

For a few hundred yards he was tucked in just behind her, and then the interstate split. One ramp peeled right, north toward Tampa, and the other peeled left, south toward Sarasota. The Infiniti glided north. Mark turned south.

He wasn’t angry. He was annoyed. They’d known that there would be conflicts when they began working together, but so far those had been minor, and they were both happy to be part of the dream team—Innocence Inc. was doing the best pro bono legal work in the country, challenging death row, freeing the wrongfully convicted. Seventeen successful exonerations in just three years. Mark and Lauren knew that it was going to be their life’s work. Lauren would be playing at a higher level—what lay ahead for her was the actual courtroom, while Mark was part of the investigative team—but that separation was never a discord. If anything, the interview she was heading off to now stepped on his toes because it was lower-level work, and that would infuriate Jeff London, their boss. Lauren was driving to Cassadaga to talk to a self-proclaimed psychic about a vision the woman believed relevant to a death penalty–defense case. The woman had known two things she couldn’t have learned from media reports: the color of a victim’s socks on the night of her death and the fact that the victim hadn’t shaved her legs in several days.

Mark had told Lauren not to make the trip, and though the last words he’d said—Don’t embarrass me with this shit—were surely selfish, he didn’t think his argument was. Jeff London, who ran the show, did not have tolerance for bullshit. Psychics were high on the bullshit meter for most people, Mark had explained, but to Jeff, they were going to be off the charts.

He didn’t know that for sure, actually. They were off the charts for him but perhaps not for Jeff, and that was where the disingenuous, if not outright dishonest, portion of the argument existed. Making the debate personal seemed to weaken it, though, coming from his own experiences with cons and scam artists who preyed on the most desperate of people—the grieving—and Lauren would be quick to point out that bias, so he put it on London instead.

He was driving south on the Sunshine Skyway, and the bridge was living up to its name, the sun angling through the windshield and reflecting harshly off the Gulf of Mexico. He fumbled for sunglasses, couldn’t reach them, and almost lost his lane. A horn blew, and he corrected fast and didn’t blame the other driver for the middle finger that flashed. It had been close to a wreck, and it had been Mark’s fault. A car accident was not going to help the celebration he planned for tonight, and that was already staggering.

At the tollbooth, he finally had a chance to grab the sunglasses, and he also plugged his phone into the charger and, for an instant, thought about calling Lauren. Thought about imploring one more time: Let’s just enjoy the weekend and you can think about it. We can talk about it. And if you still want to do it, then go on Monday.

He didn’t make the call, though. He knew they’d work it out later. They had the whole weekend, and they had rented a beach house on Siesta Key, a getaway they couldn’t afford but had still decided to splurge on. A diving trip loomed, the activity that had brought them together. The first time he’d seen his future wife, in fact, she’d been underwater.

“The hell with it,” Mark said, accelerating south. Let her learn her lesson on the wild-goose chase, and let him learn to keep his mouth shut. Working with your spouse wasn’t easy, but it was easier when the work was a passion project. There were far more good days than bad, and most of the time they were able to leave it at the office. This weekend, he would make sure that they did.

  

He had the beach house ready for her by late afternoon. It was a gorgeous place, the crushed-shell drive shaded by thick palms, the back deck looking out on white sand and the sparkling waters of the Gulf beyond, private in a way few areas on the Florida coast were. He eyed the chaise longue on the deck and thought that it would be a fine place for some starlit sex. The deck would cool down by evening, particularly with that breeze off the water, the palms kept things private, and the sound of the waves would be just right.

Shouldn’t have said it, he thought then. Shouldn’t have risked ruining a good night with a prick comment like that.

He’d make it right, though. He’d keep his mouth shut while she talked about the crazy woman in Cassadaga, and he would apologize for his parting shot. In this place, it would be hard to hold on to anger for long, and Lauren was never one for that anyhow.

He read on the deck for a while, fell asleep, and woke at five with the sun in his eyes. Time to get to work on dinner. He’d stopped in Sarasota to buy food and a few bottles of wine, and Lauren had promised to be there no later than six. He made a Caprese salad—her favorite; this was sure to help take the edge off—and opened the wine, and at ten to six he preheated the grill. He even set a pack of her cigarettes and an ashtray on the deck, a clear gesture of apology because he was always bitching at her to give up the habit. Beside them he set a small plastic disk—her diving permit from the first trip they’d taken together, an outing to the Saba National Marine Park in the Caribbean, where she’d given him his first lessons. She’d talked her father into bringing him, insisting that Mark would make a great instructor one of these days. That had been the weekend of their first kiss, and he’d retrieved the permit from her bag at the end of the trip and saved it. Overly sentimental? Sure. But she’d brought that out in him when he’d thought nobody ever would. He carried no artifacts with him from the West, and most of his life had been spent there.

Beside the old tag, and weighed down against the wind by her ashtray, were two tickets for a return trip to Saba. He’d pushed the AmEx card toward its limit with that one, but you passed the bar only once (ideally) and Mark—who’d grown up in a family where six months of steady work was considered a rarity—was determined to recognize Lauren’s achievement. Still, he was certain the old permit tag and not the pending trip would mean the most. He’d taken the tag because he couldn’t believe he’d be able to hang on to her—there was no chance of such a blessing for him—and he’d wanted something tangible to remind him that he’d been granted at least that one weekend.

That had been five years ago.

  

At six she wasn’t there, and he didn’t want to put the steaks on the grill if she’d been held up, so he called to check on her ETA. The call went straight to voice mail, and he left a message: Our place is beautiful and so are you. When will you be here?

He called again at six thirty, and then at seven. Voice mail, voice mail. By the third message, he couldn’t keep the irritation out of his tone.

At a quarter to eight, he put a steak on the grill, cooked it, and ate it alone on the deck, tasting nothing but anger. It was one thing for her to ignore his advice; it was another entirely to allow it to ruin a night that was supposed to be special.

It was eight thirty and the sun was easing down behind the water when the anger began to ebb toward concern. Lauren wasn’t a grudge holder. She always wanted to talk emotions out, a habit that ran so contrary to Mark’s style that it felt like listening to a foreign language. Even if the lunatic in Cassadaga had delayed her, she would have called by now to issue a mea culpa and tell Mark when she’d make it to the beach.

Something was wrong.

He thought of the near miss on the Sunshine Skyway then, the way he’d almost lost control of the car as he reached for his sunglasses, and for the first time he felt true fear.

He called every five minutes until ten o’clock. Voice mail, voice mail, voice mail. Sometimes he left a message, sometimes he didn’t. The call trail would later be used to clear him as a perpetrator of the horrors that had already happened in Volusia County, but he didn’t know it then. All he knew was that he’d gone from annoyed to worried to terrified.

He found the name of the psychic in Cassadaga, but she had no phone and so, short of his driving out there, her name wasn’t going to do him much good. He sent a text message to Jeff London, trying to remain low-key: Hey, Jeff, any chance you’ve heard a report from Lauren this evening?

Jeff answered immediately: No. Thought you guys were supposed to be doing the romantic weekend. She find a better offer?

Could be. I live in fear of it.

As well you should, Markus, Jeff responded.

Mark sat on the same chaise longue that he’d imagined he would be sharing with Lauren by now. Everything was as he’d pictured—the stars were out, the breeze was fresh and warm, the palm fronds rustled, and the waves splashed gently onto the sand. Everything was in place but his wife.

“Please call,” he whispered in a voice that belonged more to a prayer than anything else. He was draining the battery on his phone, checking the display over and over as if it might refute the silence and show a missed call. “Please, Lauren.”

She didn’t call. He did, yet again, and he said “I love you” to her voice mail, and so this much is true about the last words: he said them. He just didn’t realize he was saying them to a cell phone that lay in the bottom of a water-filled ditch and that the first bullet had entered his wife’s brain more than three hours earlier.

His mouth was dry and his legs felt unsteady when he stood and walked down to the beach. He took deep breaths, tasting the salty breeze, telling himself that it would be fine. There would be a story to it, sure—a flat tire in the backwoods, something like that—but it would be fine. They were young and they were healthy and so of course things would be fine, because this was promised to them, wasn’t it? They had more time. They had more days.

A beam of light passed over the dark sand then and tires crunched on the crushed-shell drive and he was so relieved he could have fallen to his knees. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

He hurried up the deck steps and through the house, thinking that none of it mattered, not the argument or the missed dinner or any of it, nothing mattered except that he was going to pull her into his arms. Then he opened the front door and saw that the car waiting there wasn’t his wife’s.

It was the Sarasota County sheriff’s.




Part One

Garrison




1

It was snowing in Indiana.

Mark had boarded the plane in sunshine and seventy degrees, and two hours later it touched down in swirling winds that whipped snow around the tarmac. It was just beginning to accumulate, a dusting in the distant fields. The ground crew wore face masks and gloves. Passengers were pulling heavy jackets down from the overhead bins. When the flight attendant handed Mark his thin cashmere blazer, he realized that it might have been prudent to check the forecast. The truth was he didn’t even own anything like what the others were putting on. He hadn’t been north of Atlanta in five years now and hadn’t intended to be again. He’d seen enough blizzards in his youth. When he’d left Montana at seventeen, he’d hoped never to see snow again. Never to see a lot of things again.

The car waiting for him was a Ford Escape, and he was grateful to see it had all-wheel drive.

“How bad is it supposed to get?” he asked the rental attendant at the exit booth as he pulled out his driver’s license. The attendant was also wearing a wool mask and gloves. Everyone here was dressed like they were prepared to rob a bank.

“This? Just flurries, my man. Not bad at all. You’ll be fine.”

“All right.” Mark put up the window fast because the snow was landing on his lap and he was freezing already. Brought back memories: an April blizzard howling out of the mountains and across the plains, Mark searching for his mother in the snow, finding her half frozen and fully drunk. He’d left her three weeks later, taking only a backpack and a small wad of cash secured with a rubber band.

He pulled away from the airport and got on the highway, bound for Garrison, Indiana, on a fool’s errand while back in Florida, the board of directors for Innocence Incorporated gathered to discuss whether they had to terminate him or if a suspension and pay cut would suffice.

“Get the lay of the land and a sense of the players,” London had told him, shoving a small case file across the desk, “but mostly, just get the hell out of my sight. I’ll be in touch once the board has met.”

The truth of it was that his boss didn’t want to risk Mark’s speaking personally to the board. The questions they would ask—How can you reconcile your actions with the mission of this organization?—were not questions London could afford to have Mark answer.

Thus Indiana. You wanted to keep the live grenades out of the room when you could.

  

He had to leave the interstate almost immediately, and then it was onto state highways blasted by strong gusts of wind as he drove first across flat farm country and then into unbroken, old-growth forest, heading southeast. He was surprised by how wooded and steep southern Indiana was. The flat fields around Indianapolis had fit with his vision of the state, but these forested hills did not. He’d been on the road for two hours before he reached Garrison and rolled into the downtown square—which was literally a square, with a courthouse at the center and storefronts on the sides facing it, like a Hollywood set for a middle-American small town. Cue up the John Mellencamp. The square had buildings on only three sides, though. The fourth was an empty expanse, leaving the downtown feeling unfinished, as if somewhere along the line, the people who’d settled here had decided they’d made a mistake. Street signs promised him that the sheriff’s department was just a block beyond the courthouse. Step one. The case started wherever the file ended.

This was what he knew from the case abstract that Innocence Incorporated had provided: In September of 2004, a seventeen-year-old girl named Sarah Martin had entered a recently opened tourist cave called Trapdoor Caverns with her boyfriend with the intention of teenage romance. Noises spooked them, the boyfriend went to check things out, and the girl hid, but she did too good a job of it. When the boyfriend returned, she was missing, and he ran out of the cave and reported that she was lost. Security cameras validated his story and his timeline. There was no indication of criminal activity. Searchers had no luck finding her. Then a man named Ridley Barnes, whose reputation underground was without peer but whose reputation above the shoulders was not as impressive, pulled away from the search party. For days, he was considered as lost as Sarah. Then he returned, hypothermic and raving, carrying the girl in his arms. She was dead, handcuffed and beaten. Barnes initially claimed that he’d spoken with her, but when the coroner’s time-of-death assessment called that into question, he said that he must have been mistaken. When asked to take police to the place where he’d found her, he said he couldn’t remember where it was or even come close to locating it again. He then explained that he had no memory of finding the body. After that, he decided to stop talking to the police entirely. Ridley Barnes had not given an interview in the past decade.

This was what Mark knew of it. What he cared about it: nothing. There was no point in investing emotionally in this one because he’d be called off it within days. He knew it, and Jeff London knew it. Still, he had to go through the motions.

He hugged the blazer around himself and blew on his palms as he walked down the street to the sheriff’s office. It was adjacent to the Garrison County jail, which was the largest building in town. That suggested promising things about the community. Inside, three empty chairs stood beside a soda machine and a bulletin board filled with pictures of local people with active warrants. They were all white faces. Across from this was a pane of tinted bulletproof glass, and a uniformed woman stood behind it.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m hoping to speak to whoever handles your homicide cases.”

“You’re reporting a homicide?”

“No. I’m inquiring about one.”

“Which one?”

“Sarah Jean Martin. From 2004.”

Her face froze. When she spoke again, it seemed to take effort. “Is this a media inquiry?”

“No.” Mark took out his wallet, found a business card, and slid it to her through a slot in the glass along with his investigator’s license, which was still active, though in jeopardy. She studied both and said, “Florida, eh?”

“That’s right.”

“Explains the coat,” she said, and then she hit a button and the door unlocked with an electronic buzz. Mark pulled the handle and stepped through and she met him on the other side. “Follow me. You can speak with the sheriff.”

“His name?”

“Dan Blankenship. Don’t know much about what you’re getting into here, do you?”

Her age and her lack of interest upon his arrival had suggested that she was waiting to get her pension and walk out the door, but now there was a little spark, and it had come from Sarah Martin’s name.

“I’m here to learn,” Mark said. When they reached the sheriff’s office, the door was open, and she entered without knocking, the way you did only after you’d worked with someone for a long time.

“Dan? This gentleman wants to talk with you. Markus Novak. He’s from Florida.”

“It explains my coat,” Mark offered, to save her the trouble.

The sheriff was a tall man of about sixty who looked like he should be advertising pickup trucks. His hand completely enveloped Mark’s when they shook. When they were alone, the sheriff sat down and leaned back in his chair as ice blew against the window behind him, a sound like tiny claws working to get through the glass.

“Florida. Bet you wish you’d picked another day to visit us, eh? Another month, even.”

“It’s a little brisk out there.”

The sheriff smiled. His eyes didn’t. Mark thought that he probably politicked just fine, as evidenced by his elected position, but probably was pretty good police too. He looked at Mark’s business card and said, “The death-row outfit. I’ve heard of you. Only case we’ve had in thirty years that landed anyone on death row has already ended in an execution. I’m afraid you’re a bit late.”

“Actually, our case doesn’t have a conviction yet, or even charges. The victim’s name was Sarah Jean Martin.”

Without even moving, the sheriff seemed to contract, as if something inside him had opened up and pulled in his exterior strength to fill the void.

“Sarah,” he said.

“Yes. She went missing in a cave ten years ago and it was assumed she’d gotten lost until a man named Ridley Barnes brought her to the surface in handcuffs, is my understanding.”

Blankenship blinked at him as if to refocus. He had the look of someone who was pretending to be interested in a conversation at a party while really eavesdropping on a discussion carrying on behind him.

“That’s your understanding,” he said.

“Is it incorrect?”

“Who brought you into this?”

“We received a proposal from Ridley Barnes. I’m just vetting it.”

Blankenship’s professional demeanor vanished and his eyes went from unsmiling to unfriendly.

“Ridley himself.” His voice was tight. “That makes sense. Been too long since people hurt over Sarah, at least visibly, at least so he could enjoy it.”

“You think he killed her.”

“He killed her, yes.”

Mark withdrew the original letter from his folder and passed it across the desk. “Tell me what you think of this.”

“I just did.” Blankenship made no move to take the letter.

“Read it,” Mark said. “Please.”

Blankenship accepted it with distaste and then began to read it aloud, in a voice filled with contempt.

I am writing first of all to say how much I appreciate the goals of your organization. I think that it fills a hole, as there are not, as you say, sufficient funds or resources to properly pursue cases in rural locations. There are people all around this town who would tell you that I have benefited from just such a situation. I don’t think they are correct, though. We’re all the same in this town when you get right down to it, me and the ones who hate me and all the other people who have simply cared about that girl and what happened to her. We are all the same because we live with the not-knowing.

The sheriff looked up. “Now, ain’t that touching? Ridley, he’s feeling all of our pain. Carrying it, apparently. This story come from his pen or from the Gospels themselves?”

Mark didn’t answer, and the sheriff cleared his throat theatrically and returned to reading.

Genre:

  • "This moving series launch from bestseller Koryta (Those Who Wish Me Dead) illustrates why he's among today's top thriller writers. Koryta sensitively portrays regret and grief while plunging the reader into exciting, claustrophobic scenes deep inside the massive cave."—Publishers Weekly (starred)
  • "With each book, the talents of New York Times best-selling author Koryta (The Prophet) just get better."—Library Journal (starred)
  • ACCLAIM FOR THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD:

"Warning: Michael Koryta's wonderful, riveting, and harrowing Those Who Wish Me Dead may just move you to tears. Enjoy at your own risk."—Harlan Coben, #1 bestselling author of Missing You and Six Years
  • "Outstanding in every way, and a guaranteed thriller-of-the-year...Stephen King would be proud of the set up, Cormac McCarthy would be proud of the writing, and I would be proud of the action. Don't you dare miss it."—Lee Child, #1 bestselling author of Never Go Back
  • "Those Who Wish Me Dead is an absolutely thrilling read. I read most of it with my breath held, occasionally exhaling to ask myself, 'What will happen next?' I highly recommend it."—Kevin Powers, National Book Award Finalist and author of The Yellow Birds
  • "Absolutely breathtaking, nail-biting, and edge-of-your-seat. Michael Koryta is a master at maintaining suspense and a hell of a good writer. Those Who Wish Me Dead is one of the best chase-and-escape novels you'll read this year - or any other year. The pace never lets up."—Nelson DeMille, author of The Quest
  • On Sale
    Aug 18, 2015
    Page Count
    448 pages
    ISBN-13
    9780316337960

    Michael Koryta

    About the Author

    Michael Koryta is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 suspense novels, including Rise the DarkLast Words, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The ProphetThe Ridge, and So Cold The River.  His work has been praised by Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash, and Scott Smith among many others, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. His books have won or been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar® Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award, Quill Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Golden Dagger.

    Before turning to writing full-time, Koryta worked as a private investigator, a newspaper reporter, and taught at the Indiana University School of Journalism. Koryta’s first novel, the Edgar-nominated Tonight I Said Goodbye, was accepted for publication when he was 20 years old. He wrote his first two published novels before graduating from college, and was published in nearly 10 languages before he fulfilled the “writing requirement ” classes required for his diploma.

    Koryta was raised in Bloomington, Indiana, where he graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

    Koryta and his wife, Christine, divide their time between Bloomington and Camden, Maine, with a cranky cat named Marlowe, an emotionally disturbed cat named John Pryor (named after the gravestone on which he was found as an abandoned kitten), and a dog of unknown heritage named Lola.

     

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