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  Also by James W. Hall

  Hell’s Bay (2008)

  Magic City (2007)

  Forests of the Night (2005)

  Off the Chart (2003)

  Blackwater Sound (2001)

  Rough Draft (2000)

  Body Language (1998)

  Red Sky at Night (1997)

  Buzz Cut (1996)

  Gone Wild (1995)

  Mean High Tide (1994)

  Hard Aground (1993)

  Bones of Coral (1992)

  Tropical Freeze (1990)

  Under Cover of Daylight (1987)

  Hot Damn! (2001)


  * * *

  James W. Hall

  Minotaur Books Press New York

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  SILENCER. Copyright © 2009 by James W. Hall. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.


  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Hall, James W. (James Wilson).

  Silencer / James W. Hall. — 1st ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-0-312-35959-1

  1. Thorn (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Family secrets—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3558.A369S55 2010



  First Edition: January 2010

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For Richard, Charlie, and Sally,

  a great team

  Disaster does not always enter the house with thunder, high winds, and a splitting of the earth. Sometimes it burrows under the foundation and, like a field mouse on tiptoe, and at its own deliberate speed, gnaws away the entire substructure.

  —William Kennedy, Very Old Bones



  * * *

  THE RAPPER AND HIS GIRLFRIEND, Janiqua, stood in the sunny corral, paging through the color brochure, selecting the animal they wanted to kill.

  With the Remington twelve-gauge tipped against her shoulder, Claire Hammond drifted away, letting her husband, Browning, walk the couple through their choices. She waited in the shade of a cabbage palm, listening to him work his sales pitch, pointing out the Manchurian sika deer, the blackbuck antelope, the wildebeest, the eland, and the rest, describing which might be most challenging to stalk, which horns or heads would make the most impressive mount on the rap star’s living room wall.

  An hour earlier, DirtyX and Janiqua had arrived without reservations at the front gate of Coquina Ranch on a day Browning was scheduled to go down to Miami for business. So the way it was shaping up, once these two made their choice, it would fall to Claire to supervise the hunt.

  After another minute of conversation, Browning broke away from the couple and came over. He put his arm around Claire’s shoulders and steered her to a wedge of shade near the far side of the barn.

  “Ten thousand bucks,” he said quietly. “How could I say no?”

  “Ten thousand?” It was five times their daily rate.

  “I took one look at the limo, the way he was dressed, I said ten grand. The guy didn’t flinch. He’s doing a concert tomorrow in Miami, wants to bag something big to impress his homies back in L.A.”

  “What am I supposed to call him? Mr. Dirty?”

  “Come on, Claire. Ten thousand bucks. Be cool.”

  Thirty yards away, over at the lodge, Earl Hammond, Browning’s grandfather, stepped outside into the sun, paused for a moment on the deck to stare across the corral at the would-be hunters. From that distance Claire couldn’t read his expression, but his disgust was unmistakable as he turned sharply and slipped back inside the lodge and shut the door.

  The rapper wore a magenta jumpsuit, a bright yellow pirate scarf wrapping his skull, and big white shades like early Elton John. Janiqua had on a tight green dress that shimmered in the October sunlight. Scooped low in front, barely restraining her breasts. Not exactly regulation hunting outfits. Normally their customers, beer-drinking good ol’ boys with their cheeks full of chaw, favored fatigues and camouflage.

  Earl Hammond didn’t much care for those fellows, either. He’d never approved of the whole hunting preserve venture. Thought it was cheesy and disreputable. A violation of the time-honored traditions the ranch stood for through the generations of Hammonds. But Earl didn’t have the heart to deny his grandson anything, so he silently endured this desecration.

  “Look, Claire, I have to get going. I’m late as it is. If you don’t want to do it, say so. I’ll send them away. But you know we could use the money.”

  “I’ll do it,” she said.

  “Thanks, babe, I owe you one.” He kissed her cheek, then stood back and gave her the hangdog grin he’d charmed her with in their college-sweetheart days. Though lately its magic had been waning.

  Claire climbed into the back of the open Jeep, settled the Remington on her lap. Browning strolled back to DirtyX and Janiqua to close the deal.

  “Cute couple,” Jonah Faust said.

  Behind the steering wheel, Jonah sat erect, giving Claire a grin in the rear view mirror as if they were in on the joke together. Jonah had a shaved head, a sneaky manner, and a bleak glitter in his eyes. She’d never liked him, felt a creepy vibe, and didn’t understand what Browning saw in him and his brother, Moses. A couple of moochers, as far as Claire was concerned. They bunked in the primitive cabin on the game preserve and guided hunting parties now and then, did a few odd jobs around the ranch, but mainly they loafed. Old college buds of Browning’s still hanging out six years after graduation.

  It was a warm morning, cloudless with just enough breeze to stir the tops of the live oaks, the pines and sabal palms, and riffle the tall grass beyond the corral. In the barn the horses were nickering as Gustavo Pinto mucked their stalls. From a stand of palmetto near the lodge came the tetchy call of a scrub jay, and filtering through the yellowed light was the scent of brittle grass blowing in from the sunbaked rangeland. Early October in central Florida felt a lot like midsummer anywhere else.

  Across the corral, DirtyX raised his hand and gave Browning a jive-ass, three-part handshake, then came strutting over to the Jeep, his girlfriend tagging behind, plugged into her iPod. Browning waved good-bye to Claire and headed for his car.

  The rapper was a skinny man, short, with dreadlocks, unimpressive till he got close, removed his shades, and gave Claire a look at his fierce glare. Then, yeah, she could picture him up on stage, swaggering and chanting for an arena full of screamers. The harsh brown eyes of a man whose secrets outmatched anyone he met.

  “I didn’t see no rhinos or elephants in your pamphlet,” he said to Claire.

  “We don’t have any of those.”

  “Your husband says to ask you what’s the biggest baddest monster you got? I’m after something nasty, with fangs and shit.”

  Right there, Claire was ready to cancel things. Climb out of the Jeep, march back to the lodge, get busy with her chores. Screw the ten thousand. They didn’t need the money. Not this bad. Browning would be pissed, but he’d get over it.

  “Baddest thing on the ranch is the Watusi bull,” Jonah said.


  “Biggest horns you ever saw,” said Jonah. “Eight feet tip to tip. Fucker gores you, you stay gored.”

  “Don’t be scaring my little boy,” Janiqua said.

  “Ain’t nobody scaring me.” DirtyX gave his girl a snarly look. “They ain’t nobody been born could scare me.”

  Jonah Faust glanced in the rearview mirror again, sent Claire
a wink.

  “Not the Watusi,” Claire said. “We’re not hunting that one.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s old and slow. There’s nothing sporting in going after Immambo.”

  Janiqua plucked one ear bud out.

  “The thing has a name?” she said. “Like what, it’s a family pet?”

  DirtyX leafed through the brochure until he found the photo of the Watusi bull. He tapped the page with his skinny finger, held up the picture.

  “I want this fucker,” DirtyX said. “That’s what we’re going for.”

  “Then it’s twenty thousand dollars, nothing less,” Claire said. She was pissed, just wanted to spin this guy around and kick him back where he came from.

  “Boss man said ten for anything on the preserve.”

  “Okay, forget the whole deal. I don’t negotiate. Case closed.”

  Claire started to climb from the Jeep, but the rapper said, “Okay, twenty.”

  Then he settled his butt in the passenger seat and that was that.

  “Twenty K is lunch money,” he said to Jonah. “Lock and load, bitches. Let’s go whack this beast.”

  “Last I saw,” Jonah said, “the Watusi was in Crook’s Meadow.”

  “Big-ass horns, right?” Man to man, leaving the women out.

  “Eight feet tip to tip,” Jonah said.

  “That’s what I’m talking about.”

  Claire settled back in her seat.

  Last month the vet from Miami had visited to check on Immambo. The bull had been stumbling around, lethargic. After running tests he’d determined it was nothing infectious, nothing that might spread to the other animals. Just a failing heart. The time had come to put the old boy down. Jonah knew the story. Probably thought it was a big goof, suggesting the Watusi. Taking the man’s money for doing what they had to do anyway.

  It took almost an hour to travel from the lodge to the game preserve, crossing a hundred acres of Hammond ranch land, all the rutted roads, gates to open and close, passing through cattle pastures and the tomato fields. Janiqua jiggled with her music, making little peeps of song.

  On a bumpy jeep trail crossing Telegraph Prairie, DirtyX put his elbow on his seatback and cranked around to face Claire.

  “What is this place, the Everglades?”

  She shook her head.

  “Everglades is half an hour south, a shallow river, eighty miles across. This is pine flatwoods. Completely different.”

  DirtyX shrugged, whatever.

  They made it to Crook’s Meadow by eleven. Immambo was standing in the shade of a grove of loblolly pines, grazing on knee-high wire grass. So old and weary, the bull didn’t even look up when they arrived.

  Jonah stopped forty feet off, cut the engine. Claire had been battling with it the entire way and had finally resigned herself to the inevitable. The twenty thousand didn’t tip the scales one way or the other. Immambo had to be put down. The fact was, she’d been stalling for the last week. That’s how she was going to look at this: euthanasia by rapper.

  “There’s your monster,” Jonah said.

  The Watusi gazed across at them blankly. He was no bigger than an average feedlot cow, but his horns extended four feet from either side of his head, thick and unwieldy, more burden than menace.

  “Fucking horns, man.” DirtyX’s face shined with sweat. “Those are some big-ass horns. Got to weigh four hundred pounds, horns like that.”

  “You have a wall big enough for those puppies?” said Jonah.

  The rapper took off his white sunglasses, and he and the Watusi checked each other out. A staredown that seemed to wake Immambo from his stupor.

  “You ever used a shotgun?” Claire said. “You need a lesson?”

  DirtyX grinned back at Janiqua.

  “Fired a sawed-off once or twice. Believe I can manage.”

  “That’s one strange-ass animal,” Janiqua said. “It’s staring at us funny.”

  “Give me the gun.” DirtyX got out of the Jeep, never looking away from Immambo. “I’m shooting this bad boy.”

  “No,” Claire said. “Forget it. This is wrong.”

  “What’s wrong?” Janiqua said.

  “That’s a gentle creature. It’s sick and dying. This isn’t hunting. I’ve changed my mind. I can’t let you do this.”

  “Gentle?” the rapper said. “I don’t fucking think so. Watusi, man. I never heard of no gentle Watusi.”

  “Those horns keep him cool,” Jonah said, off in his own time zone.

  The rapper grinned uneasily.

  “Hey, Niqua, you hear that? Horns keep him cool. Just like my horns.”

  “I don’t know about this, baby. Maybe we should go shoot something else.”

  “How those horns keep him cool?” DirtyX asked. “Like a hat in the sun?”

  “There’s blood vessels inside them,” said Jonah. “Blood flows through the horns, gets cooled by the air, flows back into the body. Like a radiator.”

  “Like a radiator.”

  “Go ahead, baby,” Janiqua said. “Do what you gonna do. I’m sweating through my clothes, all this sun.”

  The rapper couldn’t take his eyes off Immambo. And the bull seemed to sense this was a showdown like none he’d experienced before.

  “I think we got us a chickenshit,” Jonah said.

  “Who you calling names?” The rapper didn’t look away from the bull.

  “I don’t see anybody else around here pissing all over himself.”

  DirtyX tramped around to Claire’s side of the Jeep and held out his hand. She took a long breath, let it go, then handed him the Remington.

  A couple of years back Immambo had been the first exotic Browning brought to the ranch. In the two years since, Claire had witnessed many large and remarkable creatures tracked down and shot. She’d learned to blunt her sentimental attachments to most of them. But there was something about Immambo that still stirred her. She supposed it was the dignified way he endured the weight of those oversized horns. Rambling around as if the load he carried was of no consequence.

  Until today she’d managed to steer all the hunters away from the Watusi. Even when the bull was younger and healthy, it was hardly fair game. A ten-year-old child could outrun the thing. There were no Watusi females on the ranch for it to protect, so it had never shown aggression of any kind. Though what she saw in Immambo at that moment was clearly different. Its hackles rising, a forward shift in its stance.

  “Shoot him in the brain or what?” the rapper said.

  “Don’t mess up his face,” Jonah said. “Taxidermist hates that shit.”

  “Go get him,” Janiqua said. “Do it, baby.”

  Claire got out of the Jeep. She looked back at the sandy road they’d followed out to this meadow and thought briefly of hiking back to the lodge, just leave these craven children to their blood sport, let them assume the moral consequence. But of course she couldn’t. This was her own weight to manage.

  She’d never heard Immambo’s bellow before. It startled her. It startled all of them. Beginning as little more than a wheeze but deepening quickly into a throaty rumble, then rising in pitch to a bleating scream that sent the rapper stumbling sideways into the Jeep.

  He swung the shotgun up and aimed from his waist, the barrel wavering as if he couldn’t locate his target. The Watusi had caught the scent of peril and started forward in a shaky canter, its massive horns cutting from side to side.

  Janiqua squealed and spilled from the Jeep into the dry grass at Claire’s feet.

  “What the fuck!” the rapper yelled.

  “Not in his face,” Jonah said.

  DirtyX dodged to his left as Immambo trotted toward him, the rapper waving the shotgun from side to side as if simply brandishing such a weapon had always worked for him in the past.

  Claire circled the Jeep, and cut in front of the rapper, putting herself in the path of the Watusi, waving her arms back and forth for it to halt. But the bull had disappeared into its dream of
combat, eyes as vacant and sightless as chips of coal. Claire yelled its name, a futile and silly act, losing a second and another as she waited for Immambo to respond. The bull trotted onward as though the rails it was mounted on ran directly through the Jeep and shot west across the farthest prairies.

  “Get back!” she yelled to the others.

  Claire kept her focus on the closer horn, waited till it was a foot away, then cut to her right, ducking below the slash, feeling a hot rush of air as the Watusi passed.

  Immambo rammed the Jeep just above the front right wheel. He twisted his head and dug the point of his horn into the rubber tire and gouged away a fist-sized chunk. He rooted under the chassis as though whatever demon he’d conjured might be hiding in the shadows there.

  The rapper dropped the Remington and backed toward the sandy trail, his girlfriend huddled at his shoulder.

  Immambo jimmied his head beneath the carriage of the Jeep and seemed intent on flipping the vehicle onto its back. Some imaginary rhino armored for battle must have been flickering in its head, a squat adversary sheathed in metal. The Watusi found the leverage it was after and the right side of the Jeep rocked a foot from the ground.

  “Get out of there, Jonah! Get out!”

  “Hey, fuck this, okay.”

  Jonah bent forward, dug beneath his seat, and came out with a compact automatic weapon with a banana clip. He climbed atop his seat, lurching once, then grabbed hold of the windshield with one hand and aimed at Immambo with the other.

  Before Claire could order him to stop, Jonah fired twenty rounds, then twenty more into the back and shoulders of the furious bull. Another dozen were required before Immambo gave up the battle it must have been anticipating for years, sinking silently to its belly in the yellow grass.


  * * *

  “COQUINA RANCH,” RUSTY SAID. “YOU ever heard of it?”

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