Crooked River Page 1

Author: Douglas Preston

Series: Pendergast #19

Genres: Mystery , Thriller


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.