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Read by Jefferson Mays
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A startling crime with dozens of victims. Appearing out of nowhere to horrify the quiet resort town of Sanibel Island, Florida, dozens of identical, ordinary-looking shoes float in on the tide and are washed up on the tropical beach—each one with a crudely severed human foot inside.
A ghastly enigma with no apparent solution. Called away from vacation elsewhere in the state, Agent Pendergast reluctantly agrees to visit the crime scene—and, despite himself, is quickly drawn in by the incomprehensible puzzle. An early pathology report only adds to the mystery. With an ocean of possibilities confronting the investigation, no one is sure what happened, why, or from where the feet originated. And they desperately need to know: are the victims still alive?
A worthy challenge for a brilliant mind. In short order, Pendergast finds himself facing the most complex and inexplicable challenge of his career: a tangled thread of evidence that spans seas and traverses continents, connected to one of the most baffling mysteries in modern medical science. Through shocking twists and turns, all trails lead back to a powerful adversary with a sadistic agenda and who—in a cruel irony—ultimately sees in Pendergast the ideal subject for their malevolent research.
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WARD PERSALL WALKED along the narrow beach in a deliciously cool strip where the waves slid up and down on the glistening sand. He was just seventeen, short and skinny for his age and acutely aware of both. It was a cloudless day, the surf creaming in from the Gulf of Mexico. His flip-flops sank into the wet surface, the pressure oddly pleasing, and with each step forward he flung a small gobbet of sand from his toe.
“Hey, Ward.” It was his dad speaking, and Ward turned to see him, sitting alone in a beach chair a dozen feet back from the water, Nationals baseball cap on his head and beach towel draped over his legs. The fat green Boorum & Pease notebook that never seemed to leave him lay open on his lap. “Keep an eye on your sister, okay?”
“Sure.” As if he hadn’t already been doing that for almost a week now. Besides, Amanda wasn’t going anywhere. Certainly not into the ocean. She was a little farther down the beach, shell hunting, crouched over in what he’d learned was called the “Sanibel stoop.”
Ward let his eyes linger on his father as the man turned back to his notebook, writing equations or notes or other things he never let Ward see. His father worked for a private defense contractor in Newport News, and he made a big deal of not being able to tell his family over dinner about how each workday had gone and what he had done—all very top secret—which only helped widen the gulf between them. Funny how Ward was beginning to observe things like this—things that had always been there, but that he’d never been able to articulate exactly, like the reason his father always wore baseball caps (to cover his baldness), or the way he covered his pasty legs with the beach towel (to avoid the skin cancer that ran in the family). He supposed his mother had seen these things and a lot more, too, and no doubt that had contributed to the divorce three years ago.
Now his sister ran back to him, pail in one hand and plastic shovel in the other. “Look, Ward!” she said excitedly, dropping the little shovel, digging her hand into the pail, and bringing something out. “A horse conch!”
He took it from her and peered closely. To his left, the repetitive sound of the surf continued, unceasing. “Nice.”
She took it back and replaced it in the pail. “At first I thought it was a cantharus with all its bumps smoothed off. But the shape is kind of wrong.” And without waiting for his reply she returned to her shelling.
Ward watched her for a few moments. It felt better than watching his father. Then he glanced around quickly to make sure no new treasures had washed ashore while he was speaking to her. But this section of Captiva Island beach was quiet, and competition was minimal: no more than a dozen people were in sight, walking along the verge of the surf in that same curious position he and his sister had adopted.
When they’d first hit Sanibel Island five days ago, Ward had been hugely disappointed. The ocean vacations he’d taken before had been to Virginia Beach and Kitty Hawk. Sanibel seemed like the end of the earth, with no boardwalk, few shops or amenities, and worst of all, lousy internet connectivity. But as the days had worn on he’d grown used to the quiet. He’d downloaded enough movies and books to last the week, and he didn’t need online access to compile new builds of the side-scroller he was developing for his class in Applied Python. Since the divorce, his dad didn’t get many chances to take them on vacations—with the alimony and everything, there wasn’t a lot of extra money—and when some work friend had offered him a week at his small Sanibel beach house, just off Gulf Drive, he’d said yes. Ward knew even that was a financial stretch, with the plane tickets and restaurants and everything, and he’d been careful not to complain.
The shells had helped.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands, off the southwestern coast of Florida, were known for some of the best shelling in the world. They reached out into the Gulf of Mexico like a net, catching all sorts of mollusks, dead and alive, and strewing them along the sand. A brief storm had passed through the night before they’d arrived, which turned out to be a piece of luck: apparently, that always brought in more shells. Their first day on the beach had revealed an almost unbelievable treasure trove of unusual and beautiful specimens—not the crab pincers, broken scallop shells, and other crap you found on the Outer Banks—and shelling fever had claimed both him and his sister, Amanda in particular. Already she’d become something of an expert, able to differentiate cowries from whelks from periwinkles. Ward’s own fascination had cooled after a few days, and his eye had grown much more discerning. Now he only picked up a few really good specimens here and there. His father had limited them to one bag of shells each for the flight back, and Ward knew that tomorrow night’s culling—and Amanda’s protests—were going to be hell.
The tide was coming in, the wind had picked up, and the surf was beating against the shore with a little more energy. A wave broke across Ward’s feet, sending a spiral-shaped pink shell rolling and bouncing over his toes. As he picked it up, another sheller hustled up behind him—bright colors in the shallow water drew them like flies—and peered over Ward’s shoulder, breathing heavily.
“Rose petal?” the man asked excitedly. Ward turned to look at him—maybe fifty, overweight, with a Ron Jon sun visor, cheap sunglasses, and arms sunburned from the elbows down. A tourist, of course, like everyone else around. The locals knew the best times for beachcombing, and Ward rarely saw them.
“No,” said Ward. “Just a cone. Alphabet cone.” His sister, instinctively alerted to a possible Find, came skipping over, and he tossed it to her. She gave it a quick glance, made as if to fling it into the water, then on second thought dropped it into her pail.
The man in the sun visor fell back and Ward walked on, trailing Amanda, the bones of ancient sea creatures crunching beneath his flip-flops. Thoughts of packing up reminded him they’d be home the day after next, which meant resuming his life—finishing his junior year, then starting the grind of tests, essays, and college applications that would inevitably follow. Recently, he’d begun worrying about ending up like his father—working like a dog but somehow never getting ahead, overtaken by younger people with shinier degrees and more marketable skill sets. He didn’t think he could stand that.
Another wave broke over his feet, and he automatically corrected course, veering inland. Fresh shells went tumbling back with the undertow: an auger, a conch, another auger, yet another. He’d already collected enough damn augers to last a lifetime.
Another wave, heavier still, and he looked out to sea. The water was definitely getting rougher. That was probably a good thing: tomorrow was their last full day, and maybe they’d get another storm that would bring in a bonanza like when they’d first arrived—
Just then, his eye caught a flash of green directly ahead. It was a lighter shade than the turquoise water, and it was rolling end over end, receding with the surf. And it was big. A fighting conch? No, the color was wrong. It wasn’t a whelk, either.
In a moment, his jaded attitude evaporated, replaced by a collector’s lust for rarity. He glanced furtively up and down the beach. Neither his sister nor the man in the visor had noticed it. He casually increased his pace. It would be back again on the next wave, or maybe the next.
Then he saw it again, half-submerged, about six feet out from the shore. And this time he realized it was not a shell at all, but a sneaker. A brand-new, light-green sneaker. Not quite like any he’d seen before.
Even if he couldn’t afford them, he knew from high school that certain sneakers were super collectible. Balenciaga Triple S or Yeezys often sold for three or four hundred dollars, when you could find them in stock. And if you were really lucky, and scored a rare pair like the Air Jordan 11 Blackouts, you could sell them used on eBay for four figures, easy.
For all Amanda’s shelling, the best specimen she found all week might get ten bucks, tops.
One sneaker, just one, and a uniform green. What the hell brand was this? It was rolling in to shore again and he’d know in a moment.
The surf swarmed around his ankles with a muted hiss. Deftly, he snagged the shoe from the water. Shit, it was heavy—no doubt waterlogged. Still, it was in great shape. Automatically he turned it over to check the sole, but there was no logo or brand on the rubberized surface.
He sensed more than saw Amanda and the fat guy in the visor approaching him again. He ignored them as he stared at the sole. Maybe it was a prototype. They probably tested them out down here on the beach. People would pay even more for a prototype. Instinctively, his eye traveled back to the line of surf. If the mate was floating nearby, this single discovery just might turn a so-so vacation into something special, even…
Suddenly, his sister screamed. Ward looked at her, frowning. She screamed again, even louder. For some reason, she was staring at the shoe in his hand. Curiously, he glanced down, twisting his wrist to get a better look.
He could now see inside the sneaker. It was filled with something, a pulpy red-pink with a shard of pure white projecting up from the middle. Ward froze, his mind not quite able to process what he was staring at.
His father was on his feet and running toward them. From what seemed very far away, Ward could hear the man in the visor cursing, and his sister squealing and backing up, then vomiting into the sand. Abruptly released from his paralysis, Ward dropped the shoe with a convulsive jerk and staggered backward, losing his balance and falling to his knees. But even as he did so, his gaze turned instinctively out to sea, where he could now make out—rolling among the creamy swells—more sneakers, dozens and dozens of them, bobbing lazily, inexorably, toward shore.
P. B. PERELMAN PULLED his Ford Explorer into the public parking area of Turner Beach. It had taken him only five minutes from the first PSAP squawk to get there—his house on Coconut Drive was less than a mile away—but he was relieved to see two of his beach patrol officers, Robinson and Laroux, already on the scene. Robinson appeared to be clearing the beach, getting people back into their cars prior to roping off the lot with crime scene tape. Laroux was perhaps a quarter mile down the sand, talking to a small knot of people. As Perelman watched, the officer looked back toward the water, then turned and ran down into the surf, plucked something out, and set it carefully on the sand, out of reach of the waves.
What—as Dorothy Parker used to say—fresh hell was this? All dispatch had told him was “beach disturbance.” But he knew from personal experience that, even in a place as sleepy as Sanibel and Captiva, those two words could include anything from drunken weekenders beaching their speedboats in the dark to equinoctial ceremonies held by the blue-rinse North Naples Nudist Colony.
Perelman walked from the Explorer across the thin line of dune grass and sea oats and onto the beach. As he did so, he passed Robinson, briskly escorting two stricken-looking families—blankets, beach chairs, coolers, boogie boards, and all—toward the parking area.
“Better call in the cavalry, Chief,” Robinson murmured as they passed each other.
In response, Robinson just nodded toward Officer Laroux.
Perelman proceeded down the beach, walking faster now. Laroux, who had returned to the small group of people, broke off again and ran back down to pluck something else out of the surf. As Perelman drew closer, he could see that it was a shoe or slipper of some kind, made of light-green material.
Laroux, catching sight of him, stopped. When Perelman approached, he saw that the shoe had a foot in it. A severed foot, by all appearances.
Laroux showed it to him in silence and then gently placed the shoe in the sand. “Hello, Chief.”
Perelman didn’t answer for a moment, staring downward. Then he turned to his deputy. “Henry,” he said. “Mind getting me up to speed on the situation?”
The officer looked back at him, a strangely blank look on his face. “Reece and I were in the DPV, headed for Silver Key. Just before we reached Blind Pass I saw some kind of commotion here on the public beach. I called it in and we pulled over to—”
“I mean that situation.” And Perelman pointed to the shoe.
Laroux followed his gaze. Then, with a kind of helpless shrug, he gestured over his shoulder.
The chief followed the gesture. And he now saw many shoes, lined up above the high tide mark. They all appeared to have feet in them. And as he turned his gaze seaward, he spied several others, rolling and tumbling around loose in the surf. Seagulls were beginning to circle above them, crying loudly.
Perelman grasped why his officers had been too busy, too overwhelmed with surprise, to do more than make a flat call when they pulled over in their DPV five minutes ago. He felt it, too: an unexpected nightmare so bizarre and outlandish it was hard not to struggle with disbelief. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, then another. Then he pointed at the small group up by the dunes. “Is that the party that found the, ah, first foot?”
The chief looked around again. Laroux’s instincts were good—until they had more resources, the best he could do was pluck the feet from the gulf and place them on higher ground, roughly in line with where they had come ashore.
“Get much out of them?”
“They didn’t have much to say, beyond what we’re seeing ourselves.”
Perelman nodded. “Okay. Good job.” He glanced toward the surf. “Keep at it, save every single one, and remember: we’re dealing with human remains.”
As Laroux headed back toward the water, the chief pulled out his radio. “Dispatch, this is Perelman.”
“Dispatch. Go ahead, P.B.”
So it was Priscilla doing desk duty that morning. He thought he’d recognized her squawk. Nobody else would have the temerity to call him “P.B.” Not only did she call him by his initials, but since he never told anybody what they stood for, she enjoyed guessing whenever he was in earshot. Perhaps she believed his being the unlikeliest of police chiefs gave her license to be a smartass. Anyway, she’d run a few dozen by him—including Parole Breaker, Peanut Butter, and Penis Breath—without getting close to the truth.
He cleared his throat. “Priscilla, I’m calling a condition red. I want you to bring in everyone with a gun or a badge.”
“Sir.” Priscilla’s voice tightened considerably.
“I want both lieutenants on duty, and all sergeants on full alert status, in case we have to impose a curfew on short notice. They know the drill. Tell them to handle it quietly; we don’t want to panic the tourists. We’re closing down the entire Captiva beach and western shoreline now. Have them make preparations for the possible evacuation of Captiva Island. And alert the mayor, if she doesn’t know already.”
Perelman was speaking fast now. It seemed his words were accelerating with each passing second. Meanwhile, Laroux had fished out another four or five shoes. At a rough estimate, that made about twenty-five, with more washing in. Now the officer was chasing away seagulls that were trying to make off with some of them. Robinson had escorted the last shellers and sunbathers from the beach and was taping off the access points.
“I want a checkpoint at the mainland end of the Sanibel Causeway, and a second at the Blind Pass Bridge. The second is to allow access to Captiva residents and renters only. Notify the Office of the District Twenty-One chief M.E., and get them out here, ready to handle significant human remains at Turner Beach.”
“Sir,” Priscilla said a third time.
“Get on the horn to the Coast Guard command in Fort Myers. Tell them to send a cutter ASAP; I think the USCGC Pompano is temporarily berthed in Station Cortez. Have the command staff liaise with me directly. And TFR the airspace above Captiva for emergency operations only, no media helicopters. Got all that?”
A brief silence in which Perelman heard the scratching of a pen. “Roger.”
“Good. Now, once the islands are secure and checkpoints up, have every free officer report to me here at Blind Pass. Perelman out.”
He replaced the radio and glanced again in Laroux’s direction. The officer was moving as fast as he could now, plucking shoes from the sea, but the seagulls were swarming in force, screaming and wheeling, and Laroux was outmanned. Distantly, Perelman was aware of how impossibly strange the situation was, but despite that, his attention was fixed on getting things under control. Twenty-five shoes, twenty-five feet, washed up on his beach, and from the looks of it plenty more coming in with the tide. It would be easier just to pile them together, but Perelman knew every clue here would be important and that the shoes should stay as close as possible to the point where they came ashore.
He pulled his departmental camera from his pocket and, ranging down the beach, took pictures and short video clips of the scene. Then he glanced back at the eyewitnesses, now behind tape, a small, spectral-looking group. He badly wanted to interview them—although he doubted there was much he’d learn—but for now his task was to stabilize and protect the scene until reinforcements arrived.
More seagulls were converging, the air thick with their cries. Perelman saw one land beside a shoe.
“Henry! Fire at the gulls!”
“Shoot at the gulls!”
“There’s too many, I can’t bag—”
“Just fire in their direction! Scare them off!”
He watched as Laroux broke leather, pulled out his Glock, and fired up and out toward sea. A huge cloud of screaming gulls rose wheeling into the sky, including the one that had almost snagged a shoe. Looking farther down the shore, he saw with a sinking feeling that even at a distance there were shoes rolling in. The entire western shore might need to be taped and locked down as a crime scene.
And now Perelman began to see figures appearing at intervals along the top of the dune. They did not try to approach; they simply stared without moving, like sentinels. More rubberneckers. His heart sank. These weren’t tourists; these were locals. People whose homes were on Captiva Drive, whose beach was being violated by this strange and awful tide. Glancing at them one after another, he realized he knew at least half of them by name.
Death’s a fierce meadowlark…The mountains are dead stone…
There was a sudden commotion; a yell and a curse, followed by furious barking. Looking around, temporarily disoriented by the unmanageable scene, Perelman saw a blur of copper: a dog had just darted past him, a shoe gripped in his mouth, headed northeast toward the preserve—an Irish setter named Sligo.
Son of a bitch.
“Sligo!” he shouted. “Sligo, come back!”
But the dog was running flat out away from them. Running with a mouthful of evidence: human remains. If Sligo reached the preserve, they might never see that evidence again.
It was no good: the dog, excited by all the activity, hunting instincts fully aroused, was beyond obeying.
Maintain the chain of evidence, his training practically shouted in his ear. At all costs, be respectful of human remains. The ultimate responsibility stopped with him as chief.
Perelman drew his service piece.
“What are you doing?” shouted a voice from the line of observers.
“No! No way!” someone screamed.
Perelman aimed; took in a long, quavering breath; held it; then—as the dog was about to plunge into the brush—he squeezed off a shot.
The dog flipped over without making a sound, landing on his back, the shoe tumbling out of his mouth. A terrible moment passed and something like a groan rippled through the people standing atop the dune.
“Oh my God,” someone said breathlessly, “he shot that dog!”
Perelman slipped his weapon back into its holster. Son of a bitch.
More shots echoed behind him: Laroux was chasing away the seagulls as he worked desperately to grab more shoes. Robinson was now jogging over to help him. In the distance, Perelman could hear the whir of a helicopter and the thrum of a marine engine cutting through water.
“Hey you, mister!” came a loud, accusatory voice. Perelman looked over toward the row of onlookers.
“You shot that dog!” It was a woman, about fifty years old, her finger pointed at him, shaking accusatorily. He didn’t recognize her; perhaps she was there for the season.
He said nothing.
The woman took a step forward, to the edge of the tape. “How could you? How could you do it?”
“I couldn’t let him get away with the evidence.”
“Evidence? Evidence?” The woman flapped her arm at the beach. “Isn’t there enough for you already?”
Abruptly, something—maybe the way the woman pointed so contemptuously at the motionless lumps of flesh placed here and there across the sand, maybe the very absurdity of the comment—made Perelman issue a bitter laugh.
“And now you think it’s funny!” the woman cried. “What’s the owner going to say?”
“No, it’s not funny,” Perelman replied. “Yesterday was his birthday.”
“So you knew the dog!” The woman stamped furiously. “You knew him…and you shot him anyway!”
“Of course I knew him,” the chief replied. “He was mine.”
AFTER LEAVING MIAMI, the FBI helicopter dropped low over the blue-green water of Biscayne Bay, heading south, then trending west as it reached the long green finger of national park marking the upper terminus of the Florida Keys. Assistant Director in Charge Walter Pickett, strapped into the copilot seat of the Bell 429, traced the route on a map he’d set atop a thin briefcase, which in turn rested on his knees. It was not quite two in the afternoon, and the brilliant sun, reflecting off the placid water below, was overpowering, despite his sunglasses and the tinted glass of the chopper. Sea plants and coral reefs gave way to a skinny chain of tropical islands linked, like beads on a string, by a single four-lane road. Groomed driveways appeared, then quite suddenly, mansions and yachts. These in turn gave way to what appeared to be a picturesque fishing village, then rows of identical condominiums, and then ocean again. And then another island; another thin ribbon of highway, surrounded only by water; yet another island. Plantation Key, ADC Pickett guessed: the speed of the chopper, and its low altitude, made it difficult to follow along on the map.
Now the chopper veered sharply east, heading away from the string of keys and out over open water. They flew for so long—ten minutes, maybe more—Pickett began to wonder if the pilot was lost. Ahead lay only blue, stretching out to the sea horizon.
But no—that was not quite true. Squinting through his dark glasses, Pickett could just make out a tiny speck of green, appearing now and then almost coquettishly over the most distant waves. He looked a moment longer, then reached back into the passenger compartment and grabbed the heavy marine binoculars. Through the glass, the speck turned into a self-contained oasis of greenery, a tiny ecosystem amid the ocean.
He lowered the binoculars. “Is that it?”
The man nodded.
Pickett glanced down at the map. “There’s nothing on the chart.”
The man nodded again, this time with a grin. “I’m still wondering how much that little bitty piece of land cost.”
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