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Red Sky At Night (Thorn Series Book 6)
 


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Red Sky At Night (Thorn Series Book 6)


  JAMES W. HALL

  RED SKY AT NIGHT

  Copyright © 1997 by James W. Hall

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  This book is dedicated to my uncle, Scott Hall, whose courage is powerful medicine for all of us.

  My deepest thanks go to Dr. Charles A. MacNeill and Gale MacNeill. Great and inspiring friends who opened their lives and helped me find my way through difficult material. I couldn't have done this without you.

  And to Patrice Flinn for her valuable technical assistance, and to Pam Brown of the DEA, who filled in several crucial blanks.

  And as always, for Evelyn, who was there at every stage with intelligence, good humor, and love.

  "What falls away is always. And is near."

  —Theodore Roethke

  RED SKY AT NIGHT

  CHAPTER 1

  It was Monday around two on a painfully bright April afternoon. Overhead a flock of white ibis labored by like gorgeous aeronautical blunders. The sky was scrubbed clean of clouds, as it had been for weeks. No rain, no sign of it. What grass there was in Key Largo had yellowed and turned crisp as toast.

  In the saltwater tank two of the dolphins were nosing against the scar on Thorn's arm—a glossy pockmark where several years ago a lump of lead had passed through the meat of his shoulder in a red-hot hurry. For the last few minutes the larger of the two dolphins had been bombarding the shiny, thickened flesh with her sonar. Echolocation, it was called.

  "Does it tickle?" Monica asked. She was treading water beside him in the twenty-foot-square pool. So far none of the dolphins had homed in on her. Monica's short blond hair was bright in the midday sun, plastered against her head, revealing the shape of her perfect skull.

  "More than a tickle," Thorn said. "Like my shoulder's a tuning fork."

  "Bliss with flippers," said Roy Everly. "That's what some California idiot called them last week."

  Roy sat on the edge of the dolphin tank, feet dangling in the water. He was the owner and caretaker of the dolphin center. He'd been a year behind Thorn at Coral Shores High back in medieval times. Roy had the distinction of being the first person on the island to own a computer. Built it himself; the thing filled half a room. He'd won a scholarship to Stanford in computer science, but had to turn it down because his mother was dying of cancer. That was twenty years ago and she was still dying.

  These days Roy weighed well over three hundred pounds, most of it hanging over the waistband of the red thong he wore continually. He still cut his thick blond hair the same way he had his whole life—in a one-inch burr.

  "Big debate these days," Roy said. "Are dolphins aliens from outer space come to enlighten us, or are they angels?"

  Thorn smiled civilly.

  "Bunch of California horseshit," Roy said. "Dimwits eating way too much granola and alfalfa sprouts."

  The Down syndrome kids in the adjacent pool had quieted. No more screams of fright, rapturous shrieks. Now all Thorn could hear were soothing gurgles and low croons coming from over there, ten kids and their two teachers, bobbing amid the angels. And in the third tank the cancer patients and paraplegics were finished with their session and were being helped out onto the wood deck by a large black man in a white uniform.

  "Now they go back to their van and do the blood tests. Doc Wilson draws a few cc's before they go in, then after the half hour in the tank he gets another sample. Looking for elevated levels of beta-endorphin, lipotropin, serum cortisol, and catecholamines. Brain chemicals, pain regulators. Trying to pin down exactly what's happening, why their intractable pain subsides. Why they suddenly start performing better on all the tests, mental and physical and psychological."

  "Bean Wilson's working here?"

  "Last year or two," Roy said. "Nice old man. Good doctor too. Helping out some VA clinic down in Key West. Saddest bunch of assholes I ever saw—twisted, mangled old vets. But they seem to get a kick out of the dolphins. They go home happy, anyway."

  The two dolphins that had been analyzing Thorn's scar backed slowly away to the far end of the pool. They hovered there for a moment as if in serious deliberation.

  "They're getting another angle on you. Sonar's so highly developed, they can spot a shark a half mile away, tell whether it's stomach is empty or full. Doesn't work as well up close."

  Suddenly the water surged in front of the two dolphins and they headed directly toward Thorn, twenty miles an hour in less than ten feet. His skiff with a one-fifty Evinrude couldn't accelerate that fast.

  As they rushed forward, Thorn held his position, less from bravery than a lack of any other option. Then a foot from his face, the duo split apart like fighter jets passing in review, each dolphin whispering against one of Thorn's shoulders. A moment later they circled back and once again focused their pings on his gunshot wound.

  "Wow," Monica said. "What the hell was that about?"

  "They're trying to figure out his scar," said Roy. "Violence, guns, bullets. It upsets them; it's too weird. They don't understand it."

  "Neither do I," said Thorn.

  A small bottlenose had finally taken an interest in Monica and seemed to be nuzzling against the belly of her black bathing suit. Monica's smile relaxed and her head dropped back in the water. There was a rule against touching the animals. Everyone was instructed to let the dolphins determine all contact.

  "Oh, my god, he's doing it," she whispered. "He's pinging me.

  "I can't watch," Thorn said.

  "Been verified with EEGs." Roy stood up, stretched lazily. "Half hour in the tank, brain waves are smoother, more regular.

  Left brain and right brain in much better harmony. Neurological functioning on a much higher level. Half hour swimming with them boosts the immune system, increases T-cell count. Even evidence it can shrink tumor mass. What I think is the sonar is causing cavitation inside the soft tissue of the body. Cavitation, as in cavities or bubbles, you know. Those echoes you feel are ripping apart your molecules, opening up spaces."

  "Sounds painful," Thorn said. "But this feels good."

  "You wouldn't feel molecular pain. A little buzz, that's all. It's like your molecules are being rolfed, loosened up, all the calcified masses broken apart. It's pain, but a pain you don't feel. A pain that stimulates endorphin release, which, voilà, creates the deep relaxation and increased T-cell production."

  "You know a lot about them," Monica said,

  "Of course, on the downside," said Roy, "as the word spreads about the beneficial effects of swimming with them, every charlatan from Miami to Seat
tle is starting to trap dolphins, open healing centers. Angels for rent."

  Roy stood there staring gloomily at Thorn and Monica, as if they were the first wave of barbarians.

  Monica groaned, eyes closed, off in a euphoric cloud.

  Since January, Monica Sampson had been renting a downstairs apartment next to the dolphin center and she and Roy had become friends. For weeks she'd been badgering Thorn to come swim with the dolphins, but he'd resisted. Among other things, he didn't want anyone to get wind of his connection with the place.

  When Kate Truman, Thorn's adoptive mother, died a few years earlier she'd left several million dollars' worth of income-producing property to Thorn. He immediately signed it all over to Millie Oblonsky, a cranky Russian matriarch who'd practiced law down in Islamorada for the last sixty years. Nearing ninety, Millie had been Kate's closest friend and had shared her fierce dedication to preserving the Keys in as natural a state as possible. Thorn never asked what charities or environmental groups were receiving the financial help. The money was no longer legally his and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. The scant income he got from selling his bonefish flies to local tackle shops and a handful of guides was sufficient to get him through. Anything more was a burden.

  Ordinarily Millie kept him out of the loop. But last December, on her Christmas card, she'd scratched a quick message: Check out Kate's dolphins. Included was a photograph of the Key Largo research center, three connecting tanks carved out of the limestone behind a conventional concrete block house that sat alongside a mangrove canal a half mile east of US1 The eleven dolphins were penned inside the wire fences and were available as swimming partners seven days a week.

  Thorn knew the place well. He'd passed by it hundreds of times over the years. Just another shabby roadside petting zoo, as far as he could tell. He'd pictured a bunch of fat, noisy Midwesterners trying to straddle the dolphins' backs, yee-ha. But he'd been wrong.

  Last week when Monica finally coaxed him into going, Thorn found the place to be quiet and meditative, and even though penned in such small tanks, the dolphins seemed as amused by the humans as the other way around. Roy admitted tourists only when he didn't have sufficient sick or damaged folks to occupy the tanks.

  Thorn had come back twice, though today was his first swim. It had been pleasure enough to stand with the usual gathering of onlookers and watch the sick and crippled slip into the dark pools with those powerful creatures and thirty minutes later to watch them climb out with the exhilarated expressions of the newly sanctified.

  "Better than a hit of morphine," Roy said. "Dolphins discover what ails you and more often than not they set about making it right."

  Thorn found himself agreeing. The two dolphins who'd been bombarding his glossy pockmark with their invisible rays seemed to be trying to ease the tension in his scar. A tension he hadn't even realized was there until now.

  "Your time is up," Roy said. "I'd let you stay longer except I got a busload of schizophrenics coming in at five. I want to clear the place out before they arrive. There's only ten of them, but what with all their multiple personalities, it gets a little crowded around here."

  Roy didn't smile, didn't seem to get his own joke. A lifetime of caring for his mother had sapped the humor from him. He might even have been beyond the help of dolphins.

  As Thorn and Monica were toweling off, he noticed a tall, heavyset man standing at the back of the half dozen tourists gathered at the fences. He'd seen the same man on one of his other visits that week. The guy's paunch was so pronounced it looked like a German helmet beneath his shirt. He wore a red baseball hat with the brim tipped very low and a pair of gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. But what snagged Thorn's attention was the way the man wasn't watching the dolphins or the swimmers. His gaze was fixed on Roy Everly as he went about his duties, opening and closing the gates between the pens to keep the dolphins circulating among the groups, turning the pumps on and off, tinkering with the aerator. As Monica ruffled the towel across her hair, Thorn watched the man insert his thumb into his mouth and work at something that was lodged between his front teeth. When he got it free, he examined it briefly, then flicked it over his shoulder into the grass.

  ***

  All that night Thorn's scar tingled. Monica came over for dinner and they talked for hours on the upstairs porch, stars flooding the sky. They laughed and held hands and shared a bottle of excellent red wine she'd brought along. If there were any mosquitoes, neither of them noticed.

  "Something's wrong with me," Thorn said. "I feel too good."

  "It's like we're getting the afterglow without the sex."

  "You feel that good?"

  "Better," she said, smiling. "Like all my knots have been untied."

  They watched a twinkling sailboat motor along the distant Intracoastal. In the woods nearby an owl shrieked. A pair of bats fluttered close overhead, skimming bugs from the breeze.

  "I wonder," Thorn said. "The dolphins make us feel this way, but what do we do for them? What the hell do they get out of it?"

  "Maybe they're altruistic. They get pleasure from giving it." Thorn looked over at her. Her legs were propped up on the porch railing, sleek and burnished with moonlight. She sipped her wine and stared out into the boundless dark. With her free hand she reached across and trailed her fingertips over his arm as delicately as fog. Thorn took a long drag of the sweet night air. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so good, so relaxed.

  And it worried him. It worried the hell out of him.

  CHAPTER 2

  The man suffering from phantom pain lay naked on top of the clean pink sheets. His name was Frank Hanes and he was a few years younger than the doctor, forty-two, forty-three. Another Vietnam vet, Frank had a small beer belly, a sunken chest, and his paralyzed legs had withered away to bones. His hair was gray and stringy and hung over his shoulder. He was a nice man, polite, never cursed once in the six months he'd been at the clinic. And he didn't whine about his pain like most of the others did. Just a wince now and then, a quiet moan.

  Frank had fashioned bracelets out of tinfoil, which he wore around his ankles and his wrists. He told Pepper that he believed space aliens were beaming rays into his body and that was what caused his terrible pain. The tinfoil was supposed to bounce the rays back into outer space, protecting the vulnerable spots. So far it had not worked. Frank was convinced it was his own fault for not getting all the creases out of the tinfoil. He spent hours and hours in his room at the clinic trying to flatten away all the tiny wrinkles.

  Over in the corner of the cabin, sitting primly with his white Panama hat in his lap, was Tran van Hung, the money man. He was wearing shiny gold shorts and a gold shirt he'd bought on Duval Street. He studied everything the doctor did and made little Vietnamese noises in his throat. For the last month Tran van Hung had been living at the Marquesa Hotel, supervising the project, waiting for the experiments to finally pay off. At night Pepper's job was to sit with the man in strip joints and bars, try to explain what was going on around him, and make sure he didn't say or do anything that would get him hurt. The doctor had also let her know that she was to tend to any other desires Tran van Hung might have, however weird or disagreeable they might be.

  Outside the starboard window of her ancient fifty-foot Hatteras she could see the roofs and widow's walks and dormers of Old Town a couple of miles away, and the bright flags lying limp behind one of the big hotels along Key West harbor. The water was as smooth and blue as the empty sky overhead.

  They were anchored in a leeward cove off Christmas Tree Island. Not a human being in sight. On the distant flats a tern swooped low over the water, about to strike at a fish, but it changed its mind at the last second and fluttered back into the sky. Pepper looked back at the doctor, watched him fill his syringe from the vial and then hold the syringe up to the light to check its level. She could see the milky solution as he tapped the plastic cylinder with his fingernail to get the bubbles out.

  While t
he doctor prepared his syringe, she continued to swab Frank's flabby belly with purple-tinted iodine. She coated the area again and again, because even the smallest speck of bacteria crossing the blood-brain barrier into the man's spinal canal could kill him quickly and spoil the whole experiment.

  Frank Hanes was looking up at her. All of them did that, because they didn't want to watch the syringe. Old soldiers who'd gone running out of foxholes into Japanese machine-gun fire or who'd fought in the jungles of Vietnam or out on the endless deserts of Iraq, never knowing what waited beyond the next hump of sand, and here they were, afraid of syringes. So far, six soldiers had come aboard the cabin cruiser, different ages, different races, different wars, but all six had looked at Pepper the way Frank Hanes was looking at her. Doing it so he wouldn't have to watch the needle moving toward his belly.

  The doctor was tall and handsome with blond hair and complicated blue eyes. He was a veteran too, and he had seen terrible things and had been injured over there many years ago, and a lot of those things still lived in the blue of his eyes. But Pepper loved his eyes anyway, and his tall thin frame, and she loved the way he talked, so slow and calm, so few words. And she loved the way he stood now, straight and strong and steady beside the bed, looking down at the naked man on the pink sheets.

  The doctor told Frank that there'd be a small burn when the needle entered. Frank nodded, his eyes on Pepper. He had stubble on his cheeks and bloodshot eyes and his penis was shrunken to the size of a thimble and hid in his nest of gray pubic hair.

  Pepper liked it when their dicks shriveled. These tough men who wouldn't look at the needle. She liked when they looked at her as this man was doing, studying her face, falling in love with her because she might be the last woman they ever saw. She even liked it when they died—the gray film that rose to cover their glossy eyeballs as they watched her.

 
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