Abby's night out

This long excerpt -- 20 manuscript pages -- was the original opening of The Shadow Hunter. Its purpose was to show Abby Sinclair in action on a typical assignment. My editor felt it didn’t advance the plot, so at his suggestion I replaced it with a shorter, more focused scene in a nightclub.

* * *

Her reflection stared back at her, showing no fear.

She must be afraid. Anybody would be. But the pale face in the mirror looked almost uncannily calm, and the cool hazel eyes met her gaze without blinking. Her pulse was normal, her breathing easy.

In the hallway he shouted her name. "Abby!"

She locked the door and glanced around her. The bathroom was small and dirty and smelled bad. The ceiling bulb threw a wan spill of light over checkered bath towels, a porcelain sink with a dripping tap, a toilet with the seat up, a shower stall.

"Abby!" Closer.

She unclasped her purse. Inside she carried a Smith & Wesson Model 38 Bodyguard, a lightweight, snub-nose pocket revolver. She nearly took out the gun but hesitated. Even now, it might not be necessary to precipitate a direct confrontation. There was no reason to assume he had caught on to her. As long as she could explain her absence from the living room, she could probably alleviate any suspicions he might have.

She left the gun in her purse.

"Abby? You in there?" He was right outside the door.

"Yes, Frank, I'm here. Hold your horses, will you?"

The doorknob rattled. "Come on out!"

"I said keep your shirt on!" She flushed the toilet, splashed water in the sink, then unlocked the door and opened it, and there he was, Frank Harrington, standing a foot away in the dark hall. "Guess you're the impatient type," Abby said, sounding harried.

Frank didn't answer. The light through the bathroom doorway glazed his face, throwing his eyes into darkness beneath his heavy brows. But Abby wasn't looking at his face. She was looking at what he carried in his right hand, down at his side.

And suddenly she knew that her life was about to get a lot more complicated.

* * *

Two hours earlier she had been sharing a very civilized drink with Frank Harrington. She had watched him enter, and when he surveyed the dark barroom she made eye contact. For the next half hour, whenever he looked in her direction, she turned away demurely, until finally he carried his drink to her table.

She let him think he was picking her up. It was a skill of hers. She knew how to initiate contact without seeming to, just as she knew how to ask a direct question in the most indirect way or how to casually steer a conversation down some necessary path.

"Then they canned me," Frank told her as he started on his second drink. "Just like that. After eight years on the job. You know how that feels? Like you're garbage."

"Did they give a reason?" she asked, no judgment in her tone.

"Lots of reasons." He gulped his whiskey and wiped his mouth with the back of his corduroy sleeve. He was a big man with a leathery, careworn face that made him look older than his age, thirty-nine. "They said I exhibited poor social skills, disrupted the work environment, damaged plant morale. Basically, they said I was a hard case, and they were sick of me. But it was all a lot of bull. Sure, I didn't always get along with the other guys. They were assholes. Always joking behind my back, saying stuff about me, making cracks."

"You heard them?"

"Didn't have to hear them. I knew it from the way they always piped down as soon as I walked into their sight. They'd be all laughing and yukking it up, and then here comes Frank, and whoa, coffee break's over, better get back on the job."

She nodded. Everything he'd told her was the truth -- as he saw it. She knew from her discussion with the plant's personnel supervisor that Frank's coworkers had avoided him for fear of his violent outbursts. She knew he'd sent a man to the hospital with a broken arm. His termination had followed soon after.

Then threatening mail had started arriving in the plant managers' in-boxes. Unsigned letters produced by a dot-matrix printer, the sort of equipment that could be picked up for twenty dollars at a yard sale. Taped to one letter was a .308 Winchester Super-X Silvertip round, suitable for killing large game; the message read, There's more where this came from.

That letter had been delivered last week. She had been called in three days later. Now she wished she had been hired sooner. Frank Harrington was closer to the edge than anyone had guessed. Her intervention might have come just in time.

She sipped her beer, careful to drink only a little; she needed to be sharp. Frank studied her with a calm, appraising stare. "You have pretty eyes," he said.

"They're functional. They get the job done."

"No, really. There's something special about your eyes. I know it sounds like a line, but ... you know what? It's the color. That golden brown color. I've never seen eyes like that."

"It might be the light in here."

"They go with your hair."

"My hair's darker. Although you wouldn't know it from my driver's license. Brown and brown, that's how they describe me."

"They've got no poetry at the DMV."

She laughed. "I'd never thought of it that way."

"They give you a number. They make you a number. Brown and brown -- that's no way to capture a woman like you. It makes you sound ordinary."

"And I'm not?"

"Not at all."

"You're trying to charm me, aren't you, Frank?"

"I guess so."

"It's working."

He took this in. She saw him swallow slowly. "You come to this place often?" he asked.

She chose a safely meaningless answer. "Now and then. You?"

"All the time. Funny I haven't seen you before."

"Maybe you never noticed me."

"I would have noticed."

She smiled, accepting the compliment, then eased him back to the main subject. "Maybe you had other things on your mind. Sounds like life hasn't been treating you too well."

"It's not life. It's people. People who think they can walk all over you. Sons of bitches, saying I had the attitude problem? What about the rest of them? What about the provocation every goddamned day?"

He paused for another gulp of whiskey. He had already drained half his glass, which meant he had consumed half the dose of Rohypnol she'd dissolved in his drink while he was using the restroom. Rohypnol was a benzodiazepine sedative which she had bought in Mexico and smuggled across the border. It had been outlawed in the U.S. since 1996 after gaining notoriety as the "date-rape drug." The penalty for simple possession was three years in prison.

"So of course there was trouble sometimes," Frank was saying. "I mean, what man would take that kind of treatment? Some of these white-bread college boys in management would take it, but they don't know anything about what really matters. They don't know."

"What really matters, Frank?" She asked the question openly, leaning forward. It was the most personal issue she'd raised with him, and to answer it, he had to trust her.

He narrowed his eyes, taking her measure. "The code," he said slowly, "A man's code. That's our dignity. You can take away our strength, and time does that, the passing years. You can take away our money, our property -- goddamned government sees to that. Your wife leaves. Your dog gets too old and riddled with arthritis to even fetch a stick. You get fired from your job after eight years. You lose everything in the end." His speech was slurred, but only from the alcohol; the drug would take longer to kick in. "All you've got is the code. You have what your father taught you, and his father before him, and all the way back."

"A code of honor," she whispered.

He nodded, pleased to be understood. "You earn your way, take no shit from anybody, stand up for yourself. When you're wronged, you set things right, no matter what it costs you, even if it costs your life." He stopped, abruptly aware of having said more than he should.

"You think some things are worth dying for?" she asked.

He hesitated, and she knew he was calculating risks. Part of him wanted to tell her exactly what he thought, but another, warier part insisted on holding back. She waited.

"Some things," he said finally. "Honor. A man's honor. It's what makes him a man. I'd die for that. I'd be proud to."

She had her answer.

"It's nice to meet someone who knows himself so well," she said. Her voice was always soft, a gentle, throaty voice in a low register, but now she pitched it still lower, in a husky whisper that conveyed something more than understanding.

He steepled his hands, signaling confidence. "How'd you like to come back to my place for a drink?" He'd taken the hint carried in her voice.

"I think that's a good idea," she said with a calm smile.

"Great. Let's go."

"Don't you want to finish your whiskey?"

"I've had enough for now. Don't drink and drive, right?"

She'd been hoping he would empty his glass. He'd ingested two milligrams of Rohypnol, half the usual dose. The drug would make him drowsy in twenty minutes. With the sedative effect boosted by alcohol, he might conk out. But he might not. There was no way to be sure.

He was already on his feet. She rose also. There was some fussing with overcoats. The night was cold, the March wind humming against the barroom's frosted windowpanes. Spring, she had been told, often came late to New Jersey.

At the door Frank turned to her, embarrassed. "I hate to ask this, but ... what's your name again?"

"Abby." She never gave a last name unless she had to, and even then it was always a fake.

"Abby. I like it. And I like you."

Of course he did. She had planned it that way.

The door opened, and he ushered her through. She stepped out into the cold, a slender, soft-spoken young woman of medium height, twenty-eight years old, hazel-eyed, her dark brown hair worn in a pageboy that swung loosely across her shoulders as she walked. Framed by the smooth fall of hair, her face looked pale and angular, the jaw line a bit too prominent, her cheekbones high and strong. It could have been a hard face, but it was softened by a delicate nose and a dusting of faint freckles and the slender stem of her neck.

She and Frank crossed the parking lot under a moonless sky. Abby's flat-soled, sensible shoes crunched on patches of ice. Each exhalation of her breath painted the air with frost. She kept her breathing slow, inhaling from the bottom up, exhaling without pause.

Frank asked which car was hers. She pointed out an old Subaru. The car was a rental, but there was no way for him to know that.

"There's mine." He showed her a battered Dodge pickup. "I guess you can follow me home."

"Why don't you drive me? I'll leave my car here and pick it up tomorrow." She knew this was how he wanted it. He would feel comfortable with her only if she put herself at his mercy, with no escape route.

She walked with him to the car. His hand brushed hers, and she let the moment of contact last longer than necessary.

Throughout the drive she kept him talking. As they cruised through a stretch of pine forest, she asked if he went for walks in the woods. He said he'd gone hunting plenty of times, if that counted. Duck hunting? White-tailed deer, he said. Many trophies? A few; he fancied himself handy with a rifle. She said she couldn't imagine killing anything. He didn't answer. His silence was more unsettling than any reply.

The forest fell away, and a spread of muddy fields appeared. Cranberry bogs, bordered by distant woods of pitch pine and white cedar.

Frank's place drew near. It had been a farmhouse once. Abby had driven past it in daytime for a glimpse of peeling paint and missing roof tiles. Had Frank been employed, she could have found a way into the house and searched it, but he was home nearly all the time.

Never having seen the house at night, she had not realized how isolated it was. By day the road was heavily traveled, but now it was empty and dark. West lay a bog; east, a tangle of woods. No help for her if she needed it. She could scream. No one would hear.

Frank parked in the driveway and shut off the engine. "We've arrived," he said.

She looked up at the house, two stories of weather-worn cupolas and rusted window screens. "It's a big place for one person."

"Belonged to my wife and me. Carol was her name. She left."

Abby already knew this. "I'm sorry."

"I got over it," Frank said, but of course he hadn't.

She let him open the passenger door for her, because she knew he wanted to. When she climbed out of her seat, she had a sudden vivid sense of how big he was, six feet tall, his wide frame packed solidly with muscle, going to flab only at his waist. He must be all of two hundred pounds. She was five foot five and weighed a hundred fourteen.

"Old homestead isn't much to look at," Frank said with uneasy jauntiness as he led her up the walk.

Abby shrugged. "Looks fine to me. Better than my place."

"Where's that?"

"Pemberton." Like all her lies, this one came easily. "I'm renting a cottage."

They went up the swaybacked porch steps into the glare of an unshaded bulb. The front door opened on a living room furnished with mismatched chairs and end tables and a long sofa scattered with throw pillows that did not quite hide the coffee stains. All of this came to light when Frank flipped the wall switch near the bay window.

"Been meaning to fix it up," he said awkwardly, as if the shortcomings of his decor had only now become apparent to him. "But things always get in the way. You know."

Abby nodded. Frank must have bought the house in the expectation of making some improvements and selling at a profit. Of course he'd never gotten around to the job. Most evenings after work he must have been drained by anger. Anger at his coworkers and the plant management and the traffic on Route 72 and the checker who'd shortchanged him at the A & P. Too angry and tired and sick of it all to do more than pop the tab on a beer can and kick back in front of the TV. On weekends he wouldn't have stayed in the house, not after his wife left him. The silence must have been suffocating -- the deep, surreal silence of a phone that never rang, of air that was never stirred by another human presence.

She knew all of that, not from anything she'd been told in her preliminary briefing, but simply from the feel of the place and the chilly, percolating tension of the man who owned it.

"It's nice," she said brightly. "Kind of homey."

"Take your coat?" he asked.

She slipped it off, then unwound her scarf and wadded it into the coat's side pocket. Her neck was pale and smooth and slender -- an Audrey Hepburn neck, her mother had said -- and she could feel him studying it from under his lowered eyelids.

"Your purse, too?"

"I'll hold on to that, thanks."

Frank hung up the coat and scarf in a small closet. Somewhere nearby a dog barked briefly, a plaintive sound.

"What was that?" Abby asked.

"My dog. I keep him out back."

"In this cold weather?"

"He's got a doghouse to crawl into. He's not cold anyway. He's hungry, I guess." Frank shrugged. "He missed his supper tonight."

"Maybe we ought to feed him."

"Don't worry about it. Forget the damn dog." He shut the closet door, then turned to her and seemed to stop, as if seeing her for the first time. She realized he had not looked at her in good light before. "God, you're pretty."

"Oh, I don't know." She wanted to buy time. "I think I'm more like everybody's kid sister."

"Not mine."

He reached for her and drew her close. She smelled liquor and sweat and need, and she didn't want to be here, because she knew what was coming next.

"Pretty," he said again, and then his mouth was pressing hard on hers, his hands moving over her back and hips. "So pretty ..."

Things were happening too fast. Already he was leading her to the sofa, the two of them locked together like drunken dancers. The world tilted, and she fell backward onto the seat cushions while he leaned against the armrest, his weight overwhelming her, the purse slipping from her hand. He unbuttoned her blouse. His breathing filled the room.

"I want you ... want you ... Carol ..." His ex-wife's name. "Want you ..."

The words slurred with something more than drunkenness. Abruptly he pushed himself away, his eyes looming big and confused.

"What?" he whispered. Just that one word, as if she'd said something he hadn't quite heard.

Then he slumped sideways, and his eyelids stuttered and closed. Unconscious. The Rohypnol had kicked in.

Abby let out a relieved sigh. "Close one," she muttered. "Talk about your proverbial fate worse than death."

She rebuttoned her blouse, picked up her purse, and proceeded to search the house.

The room she wanted was on the second floor. It had been a spare bedroom once, but Frank had converted it into a work area. Two card tables stood side by side against one wall, holding a computer and dot-matrix printer. Scattered around the room were unframed snapshots of Carol and mementos of their marriage. Frank was a guy who didn't know how to let go.

In a closet she found a semiautomatic rifle, an HK91 with a sling and a twenty-round magazine. Not his deer-hunting gun; that would be the Remington propped in a corner. The HK was the gun he meant to use for revenge against the powers that had wronged him. Extra magazines were stacked on the floor. There must be four hundred rounds. They were .308-caliber Winchester Super-X Silvertips, the same ammo that had been taped to the latest threatening letter.

She turned her attention to the computer. It was an old Magnavox, a 386. When she switched it on, the amber monitor glowed to life, displaying a C prompt. Frank was running DOS. "Blast from the past," she said. She had this habit of talking to herself when she was alone.

She typed the command line dir /p and scrolled through the hard drive's contents until she found the word processing program, then brought up a list of documents, the titles written in strings of numbers: 021600, 022100, 030200 ... It took her a second to understand that these were dates: February 16, 2000; February 21, 2000; March 2, 2000. She loaded the March 2 document. It was an unsigned letter to the executive vice president of Hainesboro Industrial.

Your job is to take away men's dignity. Are you proud of what you do? Do you care? You cannot expect the aggrieved to stay quiet forever. Justice will be done.

The crisp, angry letters were seared in amber against the black background.

She had seen almost enough. But there was one more thing she had to know. She opened the most recent document, entitled 031800. March 18. Tomorrow's date -- or today's, actually, since it was after midnight now.

This was not a letter. It was a suicide note.

By the time you read these words, I will be dead.

All I wanted was justice. Hainesboro Industrial wouldn't give me even a hearing. They thought they knew it all. Now we see how smart they really are. They're so smart they posted only two guards at the front gate. Never occurred to them that a pickup truck could ram that gate, and a rifle modified to fire on full automatic is more than a match for two guys with sidearms. Never occurred to them that they could push a man only so far.

Fifty lives for mine. A fair trade. In case anyone doubts that I always meant to die at the end, check out the bullet that killed me. It's a .41 Magnum JHP notched with my initials, and I fired it from a Ruger Blackhawk single-action revolver, right through the roof of my mouth, into my brain.

I only hope I got all the guys who used to laugh at me behind my back, and all the gutless fuckers in their second-floor offices who hung me out to dry. If they had treated me with dignity, I would have spared them. It's the only thing I wanted, some acknowledgment of my honor ...

There was more, several pages, but she didn't need to read it.

The letter mentioned a Ruger handgun. She hadn't seen it in the closet. Frank must keep it elsewhere. In his bedroom or --

Wait.

She listened.

A creak of wood. Could be the house, settling. But it wasn't. It was a footstep. Someone was moving downstairs.

She quit the word processing program and powered off the computer. Purse in hand, she left the room, killing the lights. The hallway was dark, illuminated only by the glow from the ground floor. Crouching near the top of the staircase, she peered through the bars of the banister.

Frank was climbing the stairs, a tall, broad-shouldered figure in silhouette against the faded wallpaper. He moved slowly, groggy with the effects of the Rohypnol. He had consumed enough of the drug to knock him out but not enough to keep him unconscious for long. Now he was looking for her.

There was a bathroom across the hall. She ducked inside, shut the door, found the light switch. Her face gazed back at her from the mirror over the sink. A face that showed no fear ...

* * *

Now she stood facing Frank Harrington in the bathroom doorway, looking down at the heavy, gleaming item in his right hand. She had wondered where to find the Ruger Blackhawk revolver. She didn't have to wonder any longer.

Frank coughed. "Abby, what the hell happened ...?"

"You conked out, Frank. I think you might've had too much to drink."

He shook his head, instinctively disbelieving her. "Doesn't usually hit me that hard." His speech was slurred, his pupils dilated. The sedative was still working in his system, but a rush of adrenaline was counteracting its effects.

"This time it did." She said it with a shrug.

"I guess so. What are you doing up here?"

"Well, I'm in the bathroom. Do I have to draw you a picture?"

"There's a bathroom downstairs."

"I didn't see it."

His gaze strayed to the den where his computer and printer were set up. She didn't want him thinking about that.

"What's with the gun, Frank?" she asked.

He didn't seem to hear. He stared at the den a moment longer, then returned his gaze to her. "I'm sorry things turned out like this."

"It's okay."

"I really wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be perfect. It's my last time, you know. My last time with a woman."

"No, it's not. You're tired. You don't know what you're saying." She didn't like where this was leading. And something had prompted him to bring the gun upstairs.

Her purse was still unclasped. All she had to do was reach inside and grab the .38.

"I know exactly what I'm saying. And exactly what I've got to do." He spoke in a sleepwalker's monotone. "See, things haven't been going so good for me. Guess you figured that out. It's the goddamned company -- the way they screwed me. I can't get it out of my mind. I decided to do something about it." The sigh that escaped him held a lifetime's weariness. "I'm going to blow the fuckers away, as many as I can. I'm going to teach them a lesson. Only way they'll learn is the hard way. It's the only way the world ever learns." There was no anger in his voice, just the dull steadiness that signaled a decision reached.

He wouldn't confess so much unless he had already determined that she would not be left alive to pass on the information. She had a pretty good idea of what a .41 Magnum round would do to her. It would plow through her ribs like a cannonball.

"Look at me," he whispered, and she realized she had let her gaze drop to the gun in his hand. "Please, I want you to look at me. What I'm saying to you -- it's the most important thing I've ever told anyone."

"But you don't even know me."

"Yeah." A chuckle shuddered out of him. "Even so, I couldn't keep it inside me anymore. I had to tell somebody face to face. And it's funny -- I can't explain it -- but there's something about you, Abby, something that makes me want to open up. You're a good listener. You seem to understand."

She remembered how to smile. "It's a gift."

"Is it?" He revealed a small, sad smile of his own. "If it is, it's not such a good gift to have. See, the thing is, now that you know what I'm going to do, I can't let you go."

"Sure you can. You can trust me. I'm a trustworthy person. Ask anybody."

"No." His voice turned hard, and all the humor left his face. "You'll tell the police about me. You'll try to stop me from doing what I have to do."

"Not me. I have this short-term memory problem. Five minutes from now I won't remember a thing you've said."

"I'm sorry, Abby." Frank lifted the gun, studying it as if it were something unfamiliar and distasteful. "I figure I'll be killing a lot of people in the morning. I'm even going to shoot my damn dog. That's why I didn't bother feeding him tonight. Now" -- his voice broke with his first show of emotion -- "if I'm going to kill a pet that I love, a pet that's been loyal to me for thirteen years, why wouldn't I kill a stranger I picked up in a bar?"

"I'm assuming that's a rhetorical question." She eased her hand into her purse --

And Frank seized the strap and yanked the purse away. "What've you got in there?" He glanced inside. "A gun? You carry a gun, you little whore?"

"Frank, listen to me."

With a sweep of his arm he flung the purse away.

She ought to be scared, but she was too busy trying to come up with a game plan. There was always something to do in any situation. Nobody was helpless, ever.

"Who are you?" Frank whispered. "What the hell are you doing with a gun?"

"Lots of women carry them." She leaned backward and let her left hand rest against the bathroom wall near the light switch. "It's the times we live in. Permissive judges, societal breakdown, muggers in parking garages --"

"Don't give me that bullshit. That wasn't any ladies' gun. That was a thirty-eight, a cop's piece. Are you a cop? Is this some undercover thing? Is this --"

A flick of her wrist, and the bathroom light winked out.

Darkness.

She flung herself to one side, brushing past him as the gun cracked, its muzzle flash bursting like lightning behind her.

The flash blinded him for an instant, and an instant was all she needed to chop his wrist with a palm-heel strike that splayed his fingers in a reflex of pain. The gun fell, and she caught him in the face with an elbow thrust, crunching his nose. The blow should have dropped him, but fury had supercharged his strength, and he barely staggered. He grabbed her by the shoulders, shoved her through the bathroom doorway. She collided with the shower stall, the glass door rattling in its frame.

He was big and he was angry, but she could use his anger against him. It made him predictable, and so she knew the punch was coming even before his fist flashed at her out of the dark. She dipped low, and glass fractured as he connected with the stall door. The surprise of pain immobilized him momentarily, and by the time he recovered she was already behind him, delivering a single hard blow to the base of his skull.

He tottered, fighting dizziness, but she had the advantage now, and it was a simple matter to clap both hands to the sides of his neck and dig her thumbs into the carotid arteries, stopping the blood flow to his brain.

There was a moment of frantic struggle, and then he groaned and pitched headfirst onto the floor.

He was out. Out for good this time.

For the first time Abby noticed that Frank's dog, alarmed by the gunshot, was howling steadily in the backyard.

She turned on the light and checked her body for a gunshot wound. She was pretty sure the bullet had missed, but it was possible to be shot and not know it. Sometimes shock numbed the pain. But she was okay. No blood.

Frank was bleeding, though. His right hand had been shredded by glass shards. She wrapped the hand tightly in a towel, then retrieved his gun from the floor, lifting it by the trigger guard to avoid leaving prints, and stowed it in the closet with the rifle and the boxes of ammo. She left the closet door open, the overhead light on. Then she found her purse and went downstairs to feed the dog.

Well, somebody had to do it. And she was pretty sure that in the commotion soon to ensue, the chore of attending to a hungry dog would be low on anybody's list of priorities.

She let the dog inside and made friends by letting him sniff her hand. He was a spindly, elderly, arthritic mutt with an ice-crusted snout and a gash in his left ear. "I'll bet you've got quite an appetite," Abby said gently, and the dog quivered all over and made a soft mewling sound that saddened her.

There were cans of Alpo in the pantry. She filled the supper bowl and watched him dig in.

Upstairs she printed out Frank's suicide note, all seven pages. She fanned the long ribbon of formfeed paper down the staircase, where even the least promising member of the local constabulary couldn't fail to see it.

In her purse she carried a cell phone. She called 911, reported a shooting at Frank Harrington's address, and requested an ambulance. She switched off the phone while the 911 operator was asking for her name.

Carefully she wiped off the computer keyboard, the bathroom faucet and the handle of the commode, and every doorknob and kitchen item she had touched. From the closet she retrieved her coat and scarf. Sirens were rising in the distance, and in the kitchen Frank's dog heard them and howled in response.

She exited quickly, leaving the front door unlocked. Crossing the yard, she speed-dialed a second phone number.

"This is Abby. I made contact. Subject was about to go Code Red. He's been neutralized. It's a police situation now."

"Sounds like a close call." The voice on the other end seemed worried.

Abby shrugged. "Just another day at the office."

As the first ambulances and patrol cars arrived, she disappeared into the woods to the east of Frank Harrington's house.

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