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Black Jack Point
By Jeff Abbott
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They found Whit Mosley’s missing friends at Black Jack Point-dead and buried, along with bones and relics from a legendary past. When Whit opens an inquest into the murders, he’s plunged into a shadowy world of ruthless treasure hunters, double-crossing tycoons, and money-hungry sharks — all chasing a long-lost fortune in emeralds and gold. His only ally, police detective Claudia Salazar, is kidnapped at sea and held hostage in a deadly game of betrayal and greed. To survive, both Claudia and Whit must stay one step ahead of their common enemy — a desperate killer far more dangerous than any pirate of old…
Table of Contents
A Preview of Inside Man
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THE DEVIL'S EYE
There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.
IN SHIMMERING HEAT, Jimmy Bird smoked a cigarette and paced off a rectangle of dirt. About the size of a grave, a little wider, a little longer. Jimmy wasn't good at math—that algebra in high school where they mixed letters and numbers together had been his undoing—but he could eye a piece of ground and calculate how long it took to clear and dig to a certain depth. Ditches. Garden beds. Graves. The earth on Black Jack Point fed salt grass and waist-high bluestems and Jimmy pictured a hole six feet across, six feet down. He figured it would take him and his partners three hours of steady digging, being a little slower in the dark. Then an hour or so to sort through the loot, load the valuables on the truck, and good-bye poverty. In a few days he'd be poolside in the Caribbean, chatting up coffee-colored girls in bikinis, fishing in water bluer than blue, buying a boat and lazing on its warm deck and watching the world not go by.
But he felt uneasy even with millions in the dirt under his feet. What if somebody sees us? he'd asked this morning.
Then we take care of them, Jimmy, Alex had said.
What do you mean take care of them?
I mean just what you think. Alex said it with that odd half smile, caused by the little crescent-moon scar at the corner of his mouth. Like he was talking to a child.
I don't want none of that, Jimmy Bird said, and as soon as he said it he knew he'd made a big mistake. It showed a lack of drive, a complaint he'd heard about himself from his wife, his mama, his daddy, even his little girl.
Alex had kept smiling like he hadn't heard. That smile made Jimmy's bladder feel loose.
I mean we shouldn't leave a mess, Jimmy quickly amended. That's all I meant.
Alex smiled, patted Jimmy's back. No messes. I promise.
Jimmy Bird took a stake with a little flutter of fluorescent orange plastic ribbon topping it and drove it into the middle of the ground. Make it easier for them to see in the dark. He felt relief that old man Gilbert wasn't going to be up at his house tonight. He couldn't see the Gilbert place through the density of oaks, but that was for the best. No one to see them. No one to get hurt.
No messes. I promise.
Jimmy Bird didn't like those four words the more he considered them—maybe he had gotten demoted to mess—and he patted the pistol wedged in the back of his work pants for reassurance. Patted the gun three times and he realized it was just the bop-be-bop rhythm of his little girl patting the top of her teddy bear's head. He'd miss her most of all once he left the country. He'd send her some money later, anonymous like, for her schooling. She might get that math with the letters and numbers mixed together way better than he had.
By his reckoning he would go from ditchdigger to multimillionaire in about twelve hours. Jimmy Bird slung the metal detector back over his shoulder and moved through the heavy growth of twisted oaks.
They drove home early because the bedsprings squeaked.
Patch Gilbert was a romantic but a bed-and-breakfast full of artsy-fartsy bric-a-brac was not his idea of a love nest. But his lady friend, Thuy Linh Tran, had wanted to go to Port Aransas, even though it wasn't terribly far from Port Leo and could hardly count as a real getaway. Thuy thought Port Aransas romantic because it was actually on an island; you rode a little ferry to get there, and you could watch the porpoises darting in the ferry's wake. They'd had a nice dinner and red vino at an Italian place, Patch had taken his pill to rev his engine, they'd snuggled into bed, and he didn't even have Thuy's modest gown off before they discovered the bedsprings on the genuine antique bed screamed like banshees every time they moved.
"We're not making love in this bed, Patch," Thuy said.
"But I took a pill." At seventy he felt no erection should be wasted.
"It's Monday night. This place is mostly empty. Ain't nobody gonna hear us, angel." He started nibbling on her ear.
"No." She was sixty-nine and more stubborn than he was. So they had quarreled—the trip was her idea but it was for his birthday, and he wasn't happy with this squeaking turn of events—and in a fit, they got dressed and checked out and just drove back to Port Leo, to Patch's old house on Black Jack Point. The drive was mostly awkward silences. It was midnight and they were both in sour moods and Patch suddenly worried that Thuy needed a little courting. She wanted to go straight home when they got back to his house but he convinced her to come in and make up and drink a little wine.
She wasn't sleepy. Arguing had riled her up, made her more talkative; so he was hopeful she'd spend the night.
"How long's it been, baby, since you walked on a beach late at night?" Patch Gilbert poured Thuy another glass of pinot noir. "Now that's romance, a beach real late at night."
Thuy smiled. "I ran across a beach at midnight, with three children in tow, hoping not to get shot and to find a spot on the boat. When I left Vietnam, Patch. It wasn't romantic." She leaned over and kissed him, a chaste little peck against his wine-wet mouth. "I should go. I haven't been up this late in years."
He felt their time slipping away. Her kiss gave him that shivery energy of being twenty-five. At least inside. "Come down to the beach with me."
"I thought you retired from sales."
"Well, honey, if I have to sell you on the idea—"
"You didn't sneak another one of those pills, did you?"
"Don't need 'em."
"We don't have time for shame. Listen, we'll just get the sand in between our toes." His voice went husky and he took the wineglass from her hands. "It feels good, the wet sand against your skin."
"Baby." He kissed her gently, almost shyly. He felt the neediness in his own kiss, the hopeful wondering—not felt since high school, before the marines, before selling drilling equipment for so many years, before cancer took Martha and left him alone—if there was going to be any dessert on his plate. He loved Thuy but had never broken the habit of lovemaking as careful conquest.
"I'm too old for anyone to call baby," Thuy said.
"Never too young," Patch said. "Let's go." He took her hands in both of his and stood. Gentle insistence worked wonders. After a moment, she stood with him.
The night was clear but the moon was an ill-lit curve. Patch frowned, because he loved the moonlight on the bay, on the sands, on the high grasses. It silvered the world, made it lovely as a dream. Tonight was too dark. He and Thuy walked down the long path, a line of gravel threading through the salt grass, down to a small curve of beach. The blackjack oaks were gnarled and bent from the constant wind from St. Leo Bay. He and Thuy slipped off their shoes—boots and socks for him, espadrilles for her—and they walked to the edge of the surf, the summer-warm water tickling their toes.
"The Milky Way." Thuy pointed at the wash of stars. "We call it vãi ngan há."
"What do you call kissing?"
"Hôn nhau." She ran a finger down his spine and he grinned at her. "I counted those same stars as a little girl. I wanted to know exactly how many there were. I wanted them all. Like most children I was a little greedy."
"I'm greedy for you," Patch said.
They kissed, and she leaned into him, the surf wetting the cuffs on his jeans. He was sliding a worn hand under the silk of her blouse when he heard a motor rev steadily, then purr and die. He leaned back from her.
He heard it again, a truck motor, the engine rumbling, a door slamming, down the beach and over to the west, deep in the grasslands, in a thick growth of oaks, from the southern end of Black Jack Point.
"Damn it," he said.
"What is it?"
"Kids joyriding on my land." He walked up the beach, smacked sand off the bottom of his feet, hopped, pulled on socks, yanked on his cowboy boots.
"Let them be. Let's count the stars."
"They're trespassing," he said. "Digging ruts in my land."
"Maybe they're looking for a makeout spot."
"Not here. This is our spot."
"Just call the police," she said.
"Naw. I'm gonna go talk to them. You go on back to the house."
"No." She slipped on her flats. "I'll go with you."
"Might be snakes out there."
"I'm not afraid." She took his hand. "I'll show you how to lecture kids."
They walked up the beach, into the grasslands, into the darkness.
AS STONEY VAUGHN wiped the smear of blood and brains from his hands, a sick fluttering twist in his guts announced: You just screwed up your life forever, buddy. It was an unusual feeling. Failure. Shock. The loss of control that flooded his heart. He glanced up at Jimmy Bird, loading the newly boxed coins into the dark hollow of the storage unit. Intent on his work, Jimmy wasn't looking at him, or at Alex either. Alex was watching along the corridor of storage units, a gun in his hand, making sure that no one saw them. The only light was from the truck's headlights.
Stoney wadded up the hand wipe Alex had thoughtfully offered, threw it on the floor, reconsidered the wisdom of that act, and tucked the bloody wipe into his backpack. Against the hard heavy lump of stone he kept wrapped inside. He had to be careful now. He swallowed the dryness in his throat, kept the shudder out of his voice. "Alex. This changes everything."
Alex Black didn't even glance his way. "Not really. I planned for this."
"How, exactly, did you do that?"
"We lay low for a while. We can't buy the land right away, obviously."
"So we wait a bit. One of those nieces will be wanting to sell soon, and then you can unfold the wallet and play your little get-famous game." Alex stepped back inside the storage unit, unclipped a flashlight from his belt, played it over the boxes. "Which one's got the Eye?"
"There. Small box on the top," Jimmy Bird said.
Stoney forgot to breathe. He felt the heavy weight of the emerald in his knapsack, feeling bigger than a fist, bigger than a heart. Oh, Alex would kill him. Alex pried open the box, played the light over the big fake green chunk of rock Stoney had slipped into the emerald's place. He'd been so careful, going through the loot, finding the stone first, replacing it with the fake before the others even spotted the emerald. He waited, watched Alex glance over the stone.
Then Alex shut the box.
"Gentlemen," he said, his head down, his round wire-rim glasses catching the glow from his flashlight, "here's the plan. We double lock the doors. Stoney, you got the key to one lock, I got the key to the other. Alibis, those are your own problem. But none of us knows the others, none of us ever heard the others' names." He glanced over at Jimmy. "You come with me. We'll clean up your truck, get rid of the evidence."
"The bodies—" Stoney started.
"Aren't going to be found for a long time," Alex said. "If ever."
"I knew him. The cops'll come talk to me," Jimmy Bird said. His voice was hoarse, trembling.
"I don't want to sit around. I want my cut now."
Alex stared at him.
"I'm just asking for what's fair," Jimmy Bird said.
"Sure. I understand. But first, man, we got to get your truck cleaned up. We'll give you your cut tomorrow, help you redeem it for cash, get you out of the country."
"Thanks. I just want what's fair."
After the three men stepped out of the storage unit, Alex slid down the door, fastened a lock onto one side. Stoney, his hands steadier than he thought possible, fastened the other. Click. Click. Locked.
"Now," Alex said. "Mr. Bird. Mr. Vaughn. I know you'll both behave. Now that you're accessories." He turned the flashlight's beam up into his boyish face.
"Don't threaten me, Alex," Stoney said. "You don't have a dig without me. You wouldn't have any of this without me."
"That's right, Stone Man," Alex said. "I also killed two people for you tonight. So maybe you owe me more than I owe you right now."
Stoney kept his mouth shut.
"Let's go, Jimmy. Stoney, we'll talk in a week. Not before. Calm down. I just made all your wishes come true." Alex smiled, slapped him hard on the shoulder. "Go home, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."
Stoney forced a smile. He watched Alex and Jimmy Bird climb into the winch truck. Stoney got into his Porsche. He followed the truck out of the storage lot; it turned right, heading south back to Port Leo. Stoney turned left, heading up toward Copano Flats and the comfortable sprawl of his bayside mansion. He jabbed at the radio and head banger rock—Nirvana, great, he thought, the voice of a dead guy—turned up too loud, blasted the car.
He kept one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand in the knapsack where he'd placed the emerald. It felt hot in his hand, which was crazy; buried in the ground for nearly two hundred years, it should be cool.
You just stole a couple million dollars from a homicidal maniac, he thought.
Stoney Vaughn made it a half mile down the road before he had to pull over and throw up.
FOUR O'CLOCK TUESDAY AFTERNOON, court done, justice dispensed, and the Honorable Whit Mosley wanted nothing more than to swim twenty hard minutes with his girlfriend in the warm Gulf off Port Leo Beach, eat a big steak at the Shell Inn, cuddle with Lucy on the couch, watch the Astros raise his hopes again, make love at the end of the game, right there on the couch like they'd done night before last while the postgame show droned. Lucy liked baseball as much as he did. But now Lucy was standing in his office door, frowning, not looking in the mood for a steak or a swim or a ninth-inning delight.
"I think Uncle Patch is missing," Lucy said.
Whit shrugged out of his judge's robe, let the black silk fall to the floor, glad to be just in his regular Hawaiian shirt and old khakis and Birkenstocks again. The air conditioner in the courtroom sputtered with signs of age, and this July in Port Leo had been blister-hot, everyone in traffic court cranky, and his robe smelled a little stale. He'd have to wash it tonight. Judicial laundry. Not listed in the job description.
"He's not down here at the jail," Whit said. "No senior citizen discount."
"Don't joke, Whit," Lucy said. "He's not at his house. His car is there—he's not."
"I thought he and Thuy went to Port A."
"I called the B and B I booked for them and they checked out last night. Didn't even stay a few hours."
"Maybe they went to another hotel."
"But his car is here, Whit."
"What about his fishing boat?"
"Still here. His doors were unlocked. And there's wineglasses out on the table. Two of them, one with wine still in it."
"So they came home and didn't clean up. Maybe he's just out with Thuy in her car."
"I called Thuy's daughter. They haven't spoken to her today either, which is unusual. They said she calls them every day. Whit, really, I'm worried. They're old."
"They sure don't need chaperons."
"You're not listening," Lucy said. "I have a bad vibe about this." She fingered the little amber crystal around her throat. "Something has happened to them. Call your friends at the sheriff's department, or help me go look for them."
"The police won't do much of anything for twenty-four hours," he said, not thinking, and she burst into tears.
He had never seen Lucy cry before. He took her in his arms, let her rest her face against his shoulder. "Okay, Lucy, okay. I'll call the sheriff's office, all right? And we'll start making phone calls. We'll find them. But when Patch finds out you've made all this fuss, you got to take the blame for it."
She sniffled. "I will. Okay, thanks, baby. My aura's feeling calmer already."
"Sure, Lucy." He didn't pay much heed to her talk of auras and vibes, but it was part and parcel of Lucy and part of loving her. He kissed her forehead, wiped away her tears with the ball of his thumb.
He dialed the Encina County sheriff's office, figuring that within an hour or so Patch and Thuy would be found out fishing along a stretch of Black Jack Point, and all would be good and fine.
It didn't happen.
The sheriff's office, once called, found a broken window at the back of Patch Gilbert's house. Lucy noticed certain items missing: a silver candelabra, a cookie jar in which Patch kept ample cash, a jewelry box that was a family heirloom. The search began.
Patch Gilbert owned over two hundred acres on Black Jack Point, and on late Wednesday morning, the searchers found the turned earth along the edge of his property. The disturbed soil was a hundred yards up from the beach, a rectangle of torn loam hidden among the thick fingers of the oaks, broken grasses draped over the ground like a shroud.
The deputies and volunteers started digging and Whit made Lucy wait up at Patch's house.
"Wait here with me," she said. "Please." She was shaking, her freckled arms folded over each other, her hair a mess from having dragged her fingers through it nervously.
"I can't, sweetie. I got to be down there." He was justice of the peace, and because Encina County didn't have its own medical examiner, he also served as coroner. If there were bodies he'd order the autopsies, rule on cause of death, conduct the inquest if it was needed. His chest felt sucked dry at the thought of Patch and Thuy murdered and buried. But he didn't like the vacant, broken look in Lucy's eyes.
He put an arm around her and turned to Deputy David Power. "Maybe I should wait with Lucy."
David made a dismissive noise. "You're supposed to be down there," he said, as though comforting relatives of the dead was second-class duty compared to forensic investigation.
"You don't need me until you find bodies," he said, and he felt Lucy's skin prickle under his fingertips.
"Sure, Judge, whatever." David Power turned and headed down toward the thick copse of oaks.
Lucy watched him leave. "Well, he's got lots of negativity."
"He doesn't like me," Whit said. "I'm friends with his ex-wife."
"Maybe you should go down there," she said. "I'll be okay."
"I'll stay here as long as I can."
He and Lucy sat in Patch's den, a dark room covered with thick brown paneling in turn covered with fishing trophies and a fake muscled marlin. He held her hand and watched All My Children to avoid thinking about what the shovels might be unearthing.
Lucy stared at the screen. "I cooked dinner for the two of them last week. Meatloaf. I burned it a little 'cause we got to talking and I was drinking too much beer. It tasted like a shingle. They didn't complain, ate it with a smile."
Whit squeezed her hand.
"I should call Suzanne," she said. Her cousin, her only family other than Patch.
"Let's just wait and see."
They watched a commercial offering tarot card readings for a call-per-minute charge while an energetic woman with a doubtful Caribbean accent proclaimed the future to amazed callers.
"That approach is so misleading," Lucy said. "Look at her. She's hardly listening to that caller—she's just slapping those cards down." Her voice was flat as she pretended the searchers weren't tearing up her uncle's land.
"I'm sure your psychics do a better job, sweetie." Lucy owned the Coastal Psychics Network, which, as she put it, served the needy and the bored across Texas.
"At two bucks ninety-nine a minute, that is robbery." She fingered the amber crystal on her necklace. "I at least run a clean ship. Maybe I ought to advertise more. I'm cheaper than Madam Not-Reading-the-Cards-Right."
He hugged her a little closer, gave her a tissue for her nose. "Need to tell you something about Patch."
"He was the one suggested I call you for a date."
She laughed but it was half tears. "Did he now?"
"Called me up after you were in my court. Said I had given you too heavy a sentence for those unpaid tickets."
"Not unpaid. Ignored on principle." Same argument she'd used in court. A little more effective with him now. Patch had settled her five hundred dollars' worth of fines. She'd done her community service, Whit checking on her a little more than needed.
"He said I ought to even it out by taking you to dinner."
"Old men playing matchmaker is a bad idea." Lucy wiped at her eyes. "Because they won the war they think they know everything."
A deputy—young, sunburned, blond buzz cut bright with sweat—appeared in the doorway. "Judge Mosley? Could I speak with you?" His mouth barely moved as he spoke.
"Are they dead?" Lucy asked. "Is it them?"
"Yes, ma'am. It looks like it's them. I'm real sorry."
Lucy put her face in her palms. "Well. It was a bad vibe," she finally said from between her hands.
CLAUDIA SALAZAR LET the sun warm her closed eyes. She had dozed on the pool lounge chair, the water evaporating off her skin, thinking, I could get to like this.
Claudia's past few days had been busy: finally closing out a series of burglaries on Port Leo's south side, aimed squarely at the tourist condos, by arresting a repeat offender who sadly had three kids and was bound back to jail; covering two extra late shifts for a patrol officer friend who was down with a bad summer cold, because the whole Port Leo police department was shorthanded; and then the terrible Gilbert/Tran murders, which were beyond Port Leo's jurisdiction but the sheriff's office and the police department helped each other with high-profile cases. David Power, her ex-husband, had politely declined the police department's help and her thought had been: Pride goeth before a fall. It was the most biblical thing she had thought in years. She wondered, without ego, if he was too irritated with her to want the department's help.
She decided not to care. As of today, she was officially on vacation.
She opened her eyes, sat up on the lounge chair, watched Ben standing by a table between the pool and the French doors, fiddling with a stubborn cork on a wine bottle.
"What a rotten guest I am," she said. "I fell asleep."
Ben Vaughn pried the cork out and grinned. "You're exhausted. Don't worry about it."
She smiled. If she'd gone swimming with David, drunk wine in the early afternoon, then dozed, he would have used it as a basis for analysis: Did I bore you? What's wrong with me? Ben just let her be, and she was grateful for that.
Claudia stood, feeling self-conscious in a new purple bikini a bit too adventurous for her, pulled a long T-shirt over her head, and smoothed it out along her hips. "No more wine. Two glasses is my limit."
"You're on vacation," Ben said. "I made lunch. Hope that's okay."
"I'll find it in my heart to forgive you. So what can I do to help?"
"Just sit. You're my guest." Ben disappeared back into the house.
The deck for the pool ran along the edge of St. Leo Bay, and in the summer heat the bay water looked green as old glass, the waves like white lips rising to the surface for a kiss, then vanishing. She put on her sunglasses. Vacation. Well, a few days off and then back to the grind. But sitting on a multilevel deck, with a private dock, backed by the house that had to be approaching seven thousand square feet… well, it was better than eating takeout and watching old movies on video, which was how she'd spent her last vacation.
Ben returned, carrying a tray. Two huge shrimp salads, the shrimp firm and pink, perfect crescent-morsels, slices of avocado, a small crystal pitcher filled with a homemade dressing, rolls steaming. He set the lunch down in front of her.
"Where's the chocolate?"
"Ingrate." He poured them each wine again, held his glass aloft in a toast. "To a great vacation for you. And to old friends."
"To old friends," she said, clinking her glass against his. Friends. Funny word, she thought. It could cover too much ground. They'd been lovers long ago but she couldn't look at him and think ex-lover. He was too different now from the shy, gangly boy she'd known.
"And we didn't even have to catch the shrimp," Ben said.
"Sometimes I'm relieved by that. Other times I think it's a shame. My dad's the last Salazar who's still shrimping." The smile dimmed slightly on Ben's face and she set down her fork. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up an unpleasant memory…"
Ben smiled again. She liked his smile, warm and happy, with a front tooth slightly crooked. "It's okay. My folks have been gone a long time, Claudia. I miss them but you keep going on." His parents had been lost in a sudden storm on the bay's edge, their shrimp boat swamped. Ben had been sixteen at the time, his brother, Stoney, just starting college. "I might have made a good shrimper."
"You would have gotten bored."
- On Sale
- Apr 29, 2014
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing