An excerpt from HUNTER: A Thriller

 

I know, I know: We’re in a recession. You’re careful about spending. Which is why some readers like you have asked me if they can sample a few pages of my new thriller, HUNTER, before deciding whether to purchase it.

Well, I’m happy to oblige. Today I gave permission to a writers’ website, “Writing on the Rocks,” to publish the following excerpt from early in the novel. No, it’s not from one of the many action scenes; instead, it’s a sequence that motivates the later action scenes.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

~*~

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA

Monday, September 1, 6:45 p.m.

 

They stood in the hallway of the funeral home. Susanne Copeland, clutching a tissue, stared at the open door of the parlor just ahead of them, on the left. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen; her dark-red, shoulder-length hair bordered a pretty face now lined with pain and fatigue, a face that seemed to have aged ten years in the past three days.

She breathed deeply. “Okay. I guess it’s time.”

Annie took her arm gently and they began to walk slowly toward the room, followed closely by about a dozen of Susie and Arthur Copeland’s closest family members.

The funeral director who had greeted them at the building entrance had walked ahead, and now stood to one side of the parlor door. On the opposite side of the entrance a small, marble-topped table supported a spray of white roses, the visitors’ register, and a golden pen. The director smiled sadly as they approached, his hands clasped before him like a maitre d’.

“Mrs. Copeland,” he said, placing a consoling hand on her shoulder, “please take all the private time you need, and let me know if you require anything, anything at all.”

She blinked and swallowed. “Thank you, Mr. Reynolds.”

He moved to greet the relatives following them. She glanced at Annie, then at the door yawning open before her, as if it were the entrance to hell. Annie gave her arm a supportive squeeze. Susie took another deep breath, let it out, and they entered.

Soft string music was playing over the intercom—some banal, bittersweet religious hymn. She felt Susie’s arm go rigid at the first sight of the casket. Illuminated by hidden lights, it rested in a recessed alcove to their right. It was a gleaming bronze thing lying on a bier draped in cascades of rich white fabric, surrounded by what seemed to be a solid wall of floral wreaths and displays. The sickly sweet scent of hundreds of flowers was almost overpowering.

Arthur Copeland’s face and folded hands were visible against the white satin of the casket’s open lid.

As they neared, Susie’s pace slowed; then her steps became halting, each punctuated by a little gasp. The gasps became sobs. She sank onto the kneeling pad at the side of her husband’s body.

“Oh God. Oh God. Oh Arthur!” she cried out, her voice high and thin. She reached out a trembling hand, touched his sleeve. “Oh Arthur!”

Annie found hot tears running down her own cheeks. She knelt beside her friend, wrapped her arm around her quaking shoulders. Susie turned into her, and they hugged and cried together.

Annie didn’t know how long they remained like that. She became dully aware of the family members around them, sobbing and praying.

Eventually, Susie regained her composure. Annie helped the young widow to her feet and then stepped aside to let her lean in close to her husband’s body.

It was a cliché, she thought, but Arthur looked as if he were merely asleep. The man’s face, so anguished during the past two years, was serene now—unlined, unmarked, bespectacled, just as it had been earlier in his life. She had dreaded seeing his body tonight almost as much as Susie had; but she marveled now that there was no sign of the gunshot wound that he had inflicted to his own skull. Clearly, the funeral director was as skilled at his own reconstructive craft as Dr. Arthur Copeland had been at his. At just forty-four, Arthur had been one the nation’s most renowned plastic surgeons.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” Susie said, shaking her head. “Oh, Arthur, why?” She touched his clasped hands, flinched a bit—the shock of the hard coldness, Annie realized—but then let her palm rest on them. She touched his wedding ring with her forefinger. Then she leaned her face over his, and began to talk to him so quietly that Annie could no longer hear what she was saying. As she spoke, she patted his loose blond strands. Smoothed the lapel of his charcoal suit. Ran her palm down his tie.

Annie had to turn away. Each of her friend’s tender gestures felt like the thrust of a knife.

At last, Susie bent and kissed Arthur’s forehead. She straightened and hesitated, swaying slightly.

“Susie dear, would you like to sit down, now?”

Her cheeks were wet, her eyes dazed; she was beyond exhaustion. “Yes. Thanks. And maybe a little water.”

They took seats in a line of chairs positioned not far from the casket. Annie fetched a paper cup of water from a cooler in the corner and found a box of tissues. The rest of the family members joined them, consoling each other quietly as they took their seats. After a while, the director entered, closing the door behind him, and approached.

“Mrs. Copeland, many of your friends and family have already gathered outside. Just let me know when you feel ready to receive them.”

“I’m ready. Ready as I can be.”

He smiled gently. “He obviously was a beloved man. We haven’t had this many visitors here for a very long time.”

He returned to open the door, and people began to file in slowly. They first approached the body to kneel and pray, then turned to the waiting family, most of whom stood to receive them. Annie stood beside Susie, who remained seated. The visitors, some in tears, leaned over to hug her and whisper the painfully trite things that people always struggle to say to those who have lost a loved one. Once past the receiving line, many stayed for a while, taking seats in the rows of padded folding chairs that filled the rest of the parlor.

Annie was not surprised to recognize and greet a number of those filing past her: They were co-workers from Langley. Susie was a long-time European analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence, and Arthur had worked for the Agency on a consulting basis for over a dozen years. She was astonished, though, when the CIA director himself entered, flanked by several top Agency people, including Grant Garrett. Nobody had told her about this. But then again, they wouldn’t announce in advance the itinerary of such a group. She knew the two OS security officers flanking the door; many more would be outside, forming a protective cordon around the building and the armored limos.

The intelligence chiefs paused as a group at the casket for a solemn moment, then made their way to Susie. Each of them hugged her and expressed sadness that Annie knew was heartfelt. When they reached her, they greeted her quietly and by name. Garrett, his face stony, nodded, said a terse hello, and gave her a brief hug before moving on. After they passed through the receiving line, they wandered among the seated guests, exchanging handshakes with some of those whom they recognized and—she had to smile to herself—pointedly ignoring others whose identities it would be unwise to acknowledge….

Her eyes roamed the endless line still wending its way into the parlor. Then rested on a man framed in the doorway.

He was not exceptionally tall, but his lean physique made him look so. He had an arresting face: dark, curly hair and craggy features—a somewhat broad nose, gaunt cheeks, and eyes that moved constantly and seemed to be taking in everything. Upon entering, he glanced at the two OS men at the door. Then his eyes wandered and rested on the Agency bosses circulating among the seated visitors. She saw or imagined some fleeting expression cross his face before he turned and moved toward the casket.

Susie asked her for another cup of water, so she headed back to the water cooler. As she returned, she noticed that the man was standing over Arthur Copeland’s body. He did not kneel; he simply remained there a long time, motionless, hands jammed in the pockets of his long, dark cloth coat. Finally, he turned away to join the procession approaching the receiving line. His glance met hers and she looked away quickly, as if she’d been caught.

When the man reached Susie, he leaned over and took her hand in both of his.

“Mrs. Copeland,” he said in a soft baritone, “I join your husband’s many friends and admirers in sharing your grief.”

“Thank you so much…. Forgive me, Arthur knew so many people. You are—?”

“I’m sorry. Dylan Hunter.”

“And how did you know my husband, Mr. Hunter?”

He hesitated, just an instant. “I met him in a professional capacity.”

“You’re a doctor, then?…. Oh!” She glanced knowingly toward the CIA chiefs, now heading toward the exit. “I think I understand—”

“I’m a journalist, you see,” he interrupted smoothly, “and your husband was helpful to me, once. With some medical research. It was for an important story that I was working on. I regret that I never had the opportunity to tell him just how grateful I was. I came by to pay my respects to him and to you. He was a—” The man paused. “He was someone I can’t forget.”

“Thank you. It’s so kind of you to tell me that. Arthur touched so many people.”

He smiled at that. He lifted Susie’s hand gently in both of his and kissed it.

Then he turned to her.

“Hello. Dylan Hunter. I’m so terribly sorry for your loss.”

His eyes were hazel-green and locked onto hers. She suddenly felt awkward.

“Actually, I’m just a friend. Of Susie’s. I mean—of course, it is a loss. A great loss to all of us. Thank you.”

Her words felt clumsy, but he nodded, still holding her eyes. She suddenly felt aware of her body. Found her hand moving instinctively toward her hair before she caught herself and extended it to him instead.

He took her hand. His was big and warm and strong. He held hers and he held her eyes.

Then he released her hand and her eyes and was gone.

She watched his receding figure as he strode toward the exit. He wore black, low-cut boots. His long, loose cloth coat tapered down from his shoulders, falling cape-like behind him.
 

 

BETHESDA, MARYLAND

Friday, September 5, 9:45 a.m.

 

Maaooww.

“Not now.”

“Maaaaaoooow.”

“Let me finish this.”

“Mrrraaaaaaoooooow.”

Hunter sighed, folded the newspaper and tossed it aside on his small dining table. “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.” He took another sip of coffee from an oversized brown ceramic mug.

Luna was strutting back and forth across the kitchen entranceway like a furry black-and-white sentry. Then she stopped to glare at him impatiently.

He got up, cinched tight the belt on his white terrycloth bathrobe, and padded in his bare feet past her into the kitchen. She pranced after him eagerly, her tail standing straight up like a wobbly periscope. He pulled off the lid of a large tin can he kept on the floor beside the refrigerator. The fishy scent assaulted his nostrils. He grabbed a handful of the dry food and dumped it into her empty metal dish.

“There. Crunchies.”

She sniffed the contents, then looked up at him expectantly. The black patch of fur over one eye made her look like a feline pirate.

“Maaaaoow.”

He sighed again and bent to pet her. At that, she happily plunged her face into the brown spirals and stars. His petting elicited a combination of contented purring, crunching, and snuffling noises.

“Okay. You’ve eaten. I’ve pet you. Now let me alone.”

He returned to his coffee and the morning Inquirer and finished reading his article. To his inner ear, as he thought of it, his writing sounded different in newsprint than on the computer screen.

“All right. Listen up and tell me what you think of this:

What happened in the Copeland case is not rare. Today, eighty to ninety percent of all convictions stem from pre-trial guilty pleas, invariably to reduced charges, negotiated between prosecutors and defense attorneys, and rubber-stamped by judges. These cynical maneuvers let criminals evade the full penalties of their crimes; permit lazy prosecutors to enhance their political careers by boasting of high ‘conviction rates’; let defense attorneys quickly handle a large number of clients (and collect a large number of fees) without having to prepare for trial; and help harried judges clear clogged court calendars and jammed jails.

In short, plea-bargaining is the triumph of expediency over justice. Everyone leaves the courtroom smiling—except for crime victims like Susanne and Arthur Copeland. Ignored by all during the proceedings, they can only look on in shocked disbelief. And too often, at the end of their day in court, they discover that they have been mugged again.

He lowered the paper, looked at the cat.

In the kitchen entranceway, Luna raised her front paw and started to lick it.

“Once again you fail to appreciate the nuances of literary craftsmanship.”

He poured himself another mug of coffee from his four-cup pot and took it into the bathroom. While he showered, he thought of Arthur Copeland’s funeral.

He dressed and stepped out onto his bedroom balcony. It overlooked the courtyard pool area inside the apartment complex. Because it was past Labor Day, it was deserted down there now. A green tarp covered the pool. White plastic reclining chairs were folded up against the walls. He glanced at the sky. Overcast. The weather guy had said today’s outlook was uncertain.

For sure.

He came back in, closed the sliding glass door, went into his small den. Removed the false front below the bottom shelf of his wooden bookcase, reached in, and extracted a small pile of file folders. He tossed them onto his computer desk and slid into his swivel chair.

The first three files were copies of the ones Wonk had obtained. He spread them apart.

Bracey. Valenti. Wulfe.

He rocked back, closed his eyes, and could still see their faces.

You can still walk away, you know.

He remembered the faces of Susanne and Arthur Copeland.

He opened his eyes. Saw his reflection in the blank gray of his computer screen.

No. You can’t.

You’ve never been able to walk away.

He moved the three folders aside and opened another. It contained over a dozen sheets, each listing a name and related biographical data. He studied them for a while, then pulled out five.

Something touched his leg. The cat had followed him into the den and now was stropping back and forth across his shins.

He reached down, picked her up, put her on his lap. Started to scratch her head.

“So, what do you say, Luna?”

She purred and closed her eyes while he rocked and scratched.

“It would be a huge step for us, you know. If we do this, there will be no turning back. Ever.”

She rubbed her cheek against his stomach.

“So you’re okay with this.”

She raised her face, looked at him, and blinked.

“But this time Dylan Lee Hunter can’t go it alone. It’ll have to be a team effort.”

He turned the biographical sheets toward the cat and fanned them out. Five names. For all the specialized roles. Planning, logistical support, intelligence, infiltration, and field operations.

“What do you think of these five characters?”

She jumped down from his lap and trotted away, back toward her bowl.

“Nice vote of confidence.”

~*~

I hope you enjoyed this brief sample of HUNTER: A Thriller. The novel is available in both print ($15.95) and ebook ($3.99) formats. For information, check the “Purchase HUNTER” tab at the top of this page.

 

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