Thorn is back-with a vengeance-in the latest white-knuckle thriller from "Master of suspense" (The New York Times Book Review) James W. Hall
It has been one year since Thorn Moss's son, Flynn, disappeared into the eco-underground, his only contact with Thorn a series of postcards chronicling his exploits. When a new postcard from Flynn arrives-with a plea for help-Thorn sets off for North Carolina to save him. But before Thorn gets there he's intercepted by a federal agent who tells him he's too late: Flynn had been acting as an informant for the FBI, and when his traitorous acts were discovered, he was summarily executed.
"Keeps the tension mounting."-Publishers Weekly
The agent proposes a scheme to catch Flynn's killer using Thorn as bait. Full of rage, Thorn agrees to the mission. Soon he's among a gang of eco-terrorists planning an attack on a hog-farming operation...only to realize that the trap the FBI's setting is not for Flynn's killer at all. It's for Flynn's partner, a woman who has her own dangerous agenda. Now, with her help, Thorn must unravel a deadly conspiracy that stretches far beyond this small Carolina town. And he will stop at nothing until justice is won...
"Clever and cinematic, The Big Finish explores, entertains, and educates."-Richmond Times-Dispatch
This edition of the book is the deluxe, tall rack mass market paperback.
About the Author
JAMES W. HALL is an Edgar and Shamus Award-winning "master of suspense" (The New York Times) whose books have been translated into a dozen languages. His novels include the Thorn Mysteries (which begin with Under Cover of Daylight and include Blackwater Sound, Hell's Bay, and The Big Finish) . He divides his time between South Florida and North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
IT WAS A BRISK, MOON-DAZZLED November night when Flynn Moss and several of his closest friends were gunned down.
For a week, they’d been camping in a forest of evergreens on the bank of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. Might sound picturesque, but it wasn’t. Nothing like the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains a day’s drive west, or the gorgeous sweep of dunes and squeaky white sands two hours east along the Outer Banks. These woods weren’t the least bit scenic, and neither was the flat, barren terrain surrounding them. And good lord, Pine Haven, the nearby town, if you could even call it a town, was as hellish a shithole as anywhere they’d staged an operation in the last year. Even the desolate coal mining settlement of Marsh Fork, Kentucky, was idyllic in comparison.
As for Flynn, he was once again nursing an acute case of homesickness, the familiar gnawing ache in his chest, the hard magnetic pull of the seaside city he’d cherished since he’d drawn his first breath. At the moment their campsite in the Carolina forest was just shy of eight hundred miles from Miami. Eleven hours by car, a long damn way. But somehow it felt even farther. Like suspended animation would be required to travel the light-years back home to the blue waters and soothing sunshine and those exquisite breezes flavored with nutmeg and cloves and ripening mangoes.
Around the dwindling campfire the other three were silent, everyone on edge, waiting for Caitlin to return. Late in the afternoon she’d received an SOS text from one of the two Mexican farmworkers she’d recruited as spies. Their attempt at espionage had apparently gone bad.
With a grim face, Caitlin had set off alone to discover just how bad.
Hours later, the group had settled into a fidgety hush. All the others had finished their dinners, while Billy Jack was still polishing off his third helping of baked beans. A brawny guy with black hair and a neck thicker than Flynn’s thigh, Billy Jack had played football for Auburn. But after shattering an opponent’s jaw in an on-field brawl, Billy Jack was tossed from the team and would’ve spent a stretch in jail except his girlfriend’s dad bribed the injured man to drop the charges.
Caitlin was that girlfriend. A fragile, high-strung belle, Caitlin started out as a true believer, a nature-loving free spirit who’d impulsively enlisted in the Earth Liberation Front minutes after hearing one of Cassandra’s rousing recruitment speeches near the Auburn campus.
Caitlin dragged Billy Jack along on the righteous adventure. Caitlin full of idealistic rebellion, Billy Jack simply along for the ride. But in the last few months their romance cooled, and while Billy Jack’s thrill for combat kept him engaged in the group’s efforts, Caitlin lost her fervor for the cause. Recently she’d confided to Flynn that she’d been sneaking phone calls to her daddy, and the old guy was begging her to cut loose and head home. A new BMW was waiting for her, no questions asked.
In the twelve months Flynn had been a member of ELF, he’d seen recruits come and go, so her departure wouldn’t be surprising. But Cassandra would be pissed because Caitlin had proved to be remarkably adept at using her powers of enchantment to the group’s advantage. Gaining access to people and opening doors that would have stayed shut without her southern charms.
On the log beside Billy Jack, Jellyroll was hunched over his laptop, his fingers flying. Twenty years old, he looked thirteen. A black kid from Philly. His mother dead, father serving life in some supermax joint in Virginia, Jellyroll was the group’s computer geek. Back in July he’d first appeared at a fracking protest rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, sidled over to their group, and to establish his hacking credentials he presented Cassandra with her entire FBI dossier on the same laptop he was using tonight.
“Half of this is total bullshit,” she said when she finished reading.
“No worries,” Jellyroll said. “I’m a wizard with the delete key.”
By midnight, the dinner plates were cleaned and stowed, the fire was down to a red glow, and the moody silence had grown deeper.
Flynn said, “I’m going to look for her.”
“No, you’re not,” Cassandra said. “We stay together.”
“She’s in trouble,” said Flynn. “She should’ve been back hours ago.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” said Billy Jack, “if that girl hasn’t run off. Been months since her last manicure, those raggedy nails are driving her batshit.”
“Probably her right now.” Jellyroll motioned at the dark tangle of woods, the wobble of a flashlight heading up the trail.
Everyone rose and stood flat-footed, waiting.
Moments later Caitlin came thrashing out of the woods, halted abruptly, and washed the beam of her flashlight over their faces.
“It’s over, we’re finished,” she said, panting from her run. She stooped forward, hands on her knees. “They caught Javier, they’ve got his camera. We need to get the hell out of here. And I mean right now.”
Cassandra squatted by the embers, waved for Caitlin to quiet down.
“Whoa, girl. They’ve got Javier’s camera? You’re sure?”
“Jesús told me one of the security guys spotted the wristwatch, made Javier take it off, figured out what it was, and dragged Javier away. Jesús is scared he’ll be next.”
The tiny spy camera embedded in the wristwatch had remarkable clarity for something so small. They’d bought the two watches from an online dealer. USB interface, four gigs of flash memory, audio recorder. A battery that could last for two hours of continuous recording. A hundred and fifty bucks for each.
“Took him away?” Jellyroll was using one finger to slice and dice the touch pad on his laptop. “Is that a euphemism? Like they killed him?”
Caitlin said she wasn’t sure, but it was likely, very likely because these people were fucking scary, far more dangerous than anyone they’d encountered before. She circled the dying campfire, behind everyone’s backs, repeating over and over: We’re finished. We need to go. We need to go now.
“Take a breath, Caitlin.” Cassandra came to her feet. “Slow breaths, deep. Count them; one, two, three, four.”
Technically the group had no leader, but Cassandra was the oldest by a decade and had by far the most experience in the movement, plus she had an intimidating-as-hell glare framed by wild and abundant red hair, so the others deferred to her, even Billy Jack.
“Okay, I’ve finished the edit,” Jellyroll said. “Fifty-six seconds long. It’s rough, but there’s good shit here. This could kick some serious ass.”
Flynn moved behind Jellyroll and the others crowded in to see.
“Did you hear me? We need to go,” Caitlin said from across the fire. “If you don’t want to, fine. But I’m done. I didn’t sign on for violence.”
“So go,” Billy Jack said. “You see anybody trying to stop you?”
“Javier knows where we’re camping,” Caitlin said. “If they torture him, he’ll confess. They could be on their way here right now.”
“Play it,” Cassandra said to Jellyroll. “Let’s see what we got.”
A few days earlier Caitlin, who spoke basic Spanish, had recruited Javier and Jesús and gave each a watch and a hundred dollars to wear them on the job. Both were senior workers, eight years at the Dobbins Farm with free access throughout the facilities. But Javier was either too nervous or too hurried to follow the training Caitlin gave him, various ways to keep the camera steady.
Despite the jumpy, off-angle images, the video was decent. It started with an establishing shot, the Dobbins Farm sign in green and gold. Then the bouncy drive up the entrance road. Javier with his arm out the truck’s window, capturing the manure ponds, the giant Rain Bird sprinklers shooting arcs of hog shit over a pasture. Not a pretty sight, but nothing criminal.
Then a jump cut took them inside a containment barn. Noisy hogs full-grown, restless in their tight cages, jostling, snorting, biting each other, scarfing down food, shitting in their pens. Then another cut. A quick shot of Burkhart dragging a sick hog by its hind legs out of a pen and into the concrete passageway, then using a hand sledge to kill the animal. Two hard whacks to its skull. The animal on its side bleating and squirming. Two more whacks.
Some of the other hogs were bumping the bars of their pens in protest. Ten seconds of ugliness, fairly mild compared to the undercover videos Flynn had seen online, hogs being hung by their necks on steel cables, hogs covered in bleeding sores, their legs giving way under their unnatural weight, left lying helpless, some truly horrendous shit, all of it perfectly legal. Excluded from state cruelty laws, farm animals were regularly subjected to sickening abuse. That was part of the group’s mission, to share the revolting realities of industrial food production and put pressure on state governments to change those lax cruelty laws. Make it hard for the public to ignore what was going on.
The video moved to a new location. Javier was entering a greenhouse, a gold Dobbins logo over the doorway. He walked slowly down the rows of tall flowering trees, their ghostly trumpet blooms facing downward. After three or four seconds scanning the blooms, the camera turned to the ground, showing the gravel path where Javier was walking, and a quick image of another Mexican worker passing by. The worker was wearing a surgical mask.
“Great shot,” Cassandra said. “Rising tension.”
Javier entered a door at the far end of the greenhouse, passed by the drying racks that were hung with blooms, and took a seat at a long table where a row of other men were working. All of them in similar surgical masks. Then a few seconds that showed the entire pill room.
The camera was badly tilted, but Flynn could still make out what was taking place. The man sitting beside Javier at the table poured a test tube of fine powder through a paper funnel and filled a small hole drilled into a block of wood. Then the worker inserted a brass tamping rod into the hole, tapped it twice with a rubber-tipped mallet, tapped it again, then turned the block of wood over and shook the block until a bright red tablet fell onto the table in front of him. Then the worker scraped the pill into a jar with dozens of other similar tablets and began the process again. A primitive production line.
“Bingo,” said Billy Jack. “We got us some major felonies.”
The video flickered and ended.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Caitlin moaned to herself and stepped away from the others.
“I thought we were here for the hogs,” Flynn said.
“We were,” Cassandra said. “But this trumps the hogs.”
“Sure,” Flynn said. “Maybe this could shut Dobbins down, send him to jail, but even if it did, it’s a one-off. It doesn’t do anything for the big picture. That shot of Burkhart killing the sick pig, that’s the stuff we’re after, animal cruelty, not some pissant drug operation. That just muddies our message.”
“Dobbins is a big deal. Take him down, it’s a blow to his corporate bosses, a blow to the industry.”
“They’ll say Dobbins was an outlier. Throw him under the bus. Their hands stay clean.”
“How do we know that?” Cassandra said. “Maybe Pastureland is fully aware of what’s happening at one of their farms and they condone this. Maybe they’re even getting a cut.”
“They make billions on pork. Why risk a sideline in dope?”
Jellyroll raised his hand like a kid in class. Cassandra nodded his way.
“If I’m going to post the video to YouTube, we need to drive over to Goldsboro to hijack a wireless signal.”
“Use your damn smartphone,” Billy Jack said. “Post it tonight.”
“File’s too large. Need a wireless connection. That motel we stayed at last week, we could get a room, take showers, upload the video, then blow this taco stand.”
Billy Jack was all in for that. Scrub off the putrid hog stink.
“You deleted the video from the watch, right, Jelly? Before Caitlin gave it back to Javier?”
“So even if they have the watch, they don’t know what we’ve got.”
“Big deal,” Caitlin said. “They know we’ve been spying. They’re bound to think the worst. They’ll come for us. I know they will. We’re finished.”
“Once it’s on YouTube,” Jellyroll said, “we send a link to the authorities. Maybe use Flynn’s FBI contact. Someone like that.”
“Your buddy Agent Sheffield will handle it, right? If you ask him nice.” Cassandra was smiling, giving Flynn some shit.
“He’s not my goddamn buddy.”
“Okay, your father’s buddy.” Cassandra and Thorn had crossed paths last year. Sparks flew, but not the romantic kind.
Flynn Moss was the product of a one-night stand between Thorn and April Moss, Flynn’s mom, a fact both father and son discovered by accident a year ago. Flynn had grown up without a father and had no interest in having one now, especially this guy. A hard-core loner, Thorn lived in a primitive cracker house along the coast in Key Largo and tied custom bonefish flies for a living. The guy came across as mellow, living the laid-back life, but puncture the veneer, piss him off, endanger his friends, and molten lava spewed. The guy could flare so hot it was scary. Flynn had to admit he admired that. The lava part. A year after their first meeting, Flynn still didn’t want or need a dad, but damn it, he wished he’d inherited more of Thorn’s latent ferocity.
Jellyroll said, “I’m going to post on the message board. Not a mayday or anything, just let our associates know where we are, the broad outline, you know, in case some bad shit happens and we go dark.”
“All right, that’s it, goddamn it, I’m leaving,” Caitlin said. “I’m packing my gear and taking my canoe.”
“Happy paddling.” Billy Jack shot her a grin. “Watch out for white-eyed rednecks strumming banjos.”
Cassandra walked over to Caitlin, took hold of her shoulder, swept back her hair, and leaned in close. Cheek to cheek, Cassandra spoke for half a minute while the others watched. Caitlin’s panicked expression slowly dissolved, she nodded, then her head sagged and she looked up at Cassandra.
“Okay, okay,” she said. “One more night.”
“We’re tired, we’re spooked,” Cassandra said, facing the group. “A lot’s been going on. But I don’t think we have anything to fear from these yahoos. We’ve heard their kind of bluster before. Let’s just absorb this news, get some rest; tomorrow we’ll consider our options, figure out the best way to help Javier. He’s been loyal. We can’t just leave him and Jesús hanging.”
“Fuck ’em,” Billy Jack said. “They got paid. They knew the risks.”
* * *
Flynn had first watch. He sat cross-legged with his back against a pine. He’d chosen a spot fifty yards from their campsite on the north bank of the Neuse River.
That Monday before Thanksgiving, the night was crisp and a bright full moon dusted the branches with a silvery powder, enough radiance for him to keep watch on the narrow trail that led to their campsite. Only that one way in. These woods were too snarled with thickets and vines for anyone to sneak up on the camp from another direction.
Cassandra and Caitlin were in their sleeping bags, stretched out side by side on beds of pine straw, Billy Jack and Jellyroll in the hammocks they’d rigged inside the group’s Ford van.
Flynn was armed only with a whistle. If he heard anyone approaching, he’d blow it twice, a signal for the group to abandon their sleeping bags, grab their escape kits, and sprint the half mile along the bank of the Neuse to the sandy shoreline where they’d hidden their canoes. Flynn would take a different route to the same location. On previous operations they’d drilled for this contingency, joking at what seemed like a senseless precaution. But when they reviewed it a while ago, there was no laughter.
Running from danger was their only option. Weeks ago they’d voted to outlaw weapons, and they’d tossed the group’s single handgun in a river in Marsh Fork, Kentucky. Cassandra wasn’t happy about parting with her .38, but the group had spoken. Four to one against her. Having guns led to laziness and lack of ingenuity. If they couldn’t resolve their conflicts peacefully, what good was their entire mission? Guns were antithetical to all they espoused.
Above him a breeze stirred the limbs. Flynn lifted his head and listened to them rustle, tried to make out any human sounds the wind might be concealing. Around him the strawberry scent of evergreen was banished and overwhelmed by the harsh reek of hog manure. The stench of it had given Jellyroll and Caitlin headaches all week. Their eyes reddened and Caitlin’s throat was raw. But their suffering was nothing compared to those in the communities living downwind of the farm. It’s why they’d come. To give voice to the voiceless, stand against the powerful.
Most of all they were here to mobilize the locals and bring attention to the outrageous crimes committed against them. Only they hadn’t counted on unearthing something like this. Their discovery had been unintentional but they saw immediately how volatile their information was.
It was well after midnight. Flynn was in the middle of a reverie about Thorn’s oceanside house in Key Largo, surrounded by dazzling blue waters that teemed with manatees, brightly colored reef fish, and rolling tarpon, and the sky above it thick with pelicans and ospreys and roseate spoonbills, a gorgeous, Technicolor, heart-soaring vision.
When the intruders came, the rustle of the dried leaves jerked him alert and Flynn barely stifled a panicky yelp.
After he steadied himself, he leaned out for a glimpse.
Twenty feet away, out on the dirt track, the point man was carrying an automatic weapon and crouching low. The man flanking him held a shotgun. The man in the lead wore night-vision goggles, training them forward as he moved toward the campsite.
Silently, Flynn came to his feet, pressing his back to the pine. He raised the whistle to his lips. If he blew it now with the men so near, there’d be no escape for him. If he waited till they passed, the others wouldn’t have time to get away.
Shit. He’d set up the watch post too close to camp. He saw that now. Stupid mistake. Should have realized it long ago and moved farther up the trail.
Halting, the point man seemed to sense a presence nearby. In the moonlight Flynn saw the snowy bristles of his flat-top. A guy in his sixties, Burkhart was his name, the duly elected sheriff of Winston County and head of security at Dobbins hog farm. A cold-eyed guy with a military bearing, he’d confronted Cassandra in town a few days ago. Reached out a big hand and trickled his fingers across her cheek. Drawling with mock courtesy, a threat masked in avuncular concern. It might be better if she and her friends stopped stirring up trouble and got their sweet asses out of town and didn’t return. This, he told her, will be your one and only warning. You’re a grown lady, so you’ll have to decide, but he’d hate to see any harm come to such a sweetheart.
When Cassandra knocked his hand away, the man laughed, calling her a spitfire, and grinned into her eyes as though they’d forged an intimate bond.
Flynn moved behind the tree, squatted down and patted a hand across the ground. He risked another peek around the trunk. Both men had halted. They’d begun to scan the area, panning their weapons in a slow circle.
On the ground a few feet away Flynn found a rock—something from his storehouse of Hollywood clichés. Toss it into the nearby brush, misdirect the bad guys, and while their heads were turned, make a run. Most of the clichés Flynn had absorbed from his thousands of hours of film study were bogus, never worked offscreen, but he hoped, by God, this one might.
He stepped back from the pine, keeping the trunk in the attackers’ sight line, and he hurled the rock over their heads back into the woods behind them. It clattered into leaves and fallen brush. The man behind Burkhart swung around, tracking the noise, taking a step or two away from Flynn’s hiding place, but Burkhart wasn’t fooled. One-handed he adjusted his goggles and began a slow sweep of his weapon in Flynn’s direction.
Flynn ducked back behind the tree. His chest so constricted, he couldn’t draw a breath. The man hissed to his partner and Flynn heard the dry crackle of their steps fanning out around him.
Flynn brought the whistle to his lips and blew two sharp blasts. He blew twice more as he was sprinting away, the automatic fire shredding the trees around him, strafing the branches, spurting the dirt at his feet. The deafening bursts of gunfire made any more warnings unnecessary, but Flynn blew the whistle twice more as he raced through the darkness, leading the men deeper into the pine forest that smelled so lovely.
If his friends had followed their evacuation plan and fled into the darkness on foot, heading down the bank to the canoes, everything might have worked out differently. But they panicked, or Cassandra overruled them and herded them into the van, unwilling to abandon their vehicle and gear. He heard the van’s engine cough and fail to catch, then turn over again. The damn starter motor had been cranky for weeks, but they were short on cash and hadn’t replaced it. He heard one attacker change direction, rushing toward the campsite, and he heard the engine sputter to life, then the bark of gunfire, howls of rage, and even louder howls of agony.
Flynn veered toward the camp, sprinting low. He didn’t know what he could do to help the others, but he had to try.
All around him the pine forest was thick with scent. It was that rich odor he was thinking of, the sappy sweetness of evergreen, when he felt the hard electric tug on his shoulder, then another in his leg, and a second later a stinging spray of buckshot, then a creamy warmth spreading down his back.
After a breathless moment, he felt a surge of unexpected joy, a release from the tension of these last few days, these last months, an exhilarating letting go, and for the next hundred yards as the mindless bullets ripped apart the air around him, Flynn Moss seemed to float above the rough terrain, fearless and strong, his feet barely grazing the earth as he saw the moonlit water up ahead, the silver current that streamed through this fertile countryside, flowing and flowing, as all rivers did, their waters inevitably returning to the welcoming sea.
Copyright © 2014 by James W. Hall