2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller

Thirty years ago, Sean Coleman’s father abandoned his family in the Colorado mountain town of Winston, and was never heard from again. The reason for his disappearance was always a mystery, but a lifetime of blaming himself put Sean on a rough, dark path that took him years to return from. Now content in his life, Sean receives unexpected word that his father has finally reemerged, on the other side of the country…as a murder victim. When Sean flies out to South Carolina to retrieve the body, and hopefully find answers to why his father left, he discovers a second family, a web of deception, and a brutal killer who’s isn’t finished killing.

To the north, a tall, rippling barrier of walls and fences seemed to go on for an eternity, marking multiple sprawling properties edging the beach. In the distance was a row of street lamps that hovered above Pritchard Bridge. He dredged his way along clumps of sand toward it. If he could make it to the bridge, he’d at least stand a chance. He’d get away with his life—and the money.

The rocky landscape up to the road would be tough to negotiate, but the stretch of marsh below it was thick with tall grass and private piers. Coupled with the bridge’s concrete piles leading all the way to the island, there’d be plenty of hiding spots. There, he could wait things out—even until daybreak if needed.

The chain-link fence rattled. Someone’s scaling it. Jack boosted his pace, nearly crying out in pain with each step forward. Thoughts of his family and how long it had been since he’d seen them fluttered through his mind. For perhaps the first time, he wondered how they’d react to knowing what his life had become . . . this man, Jack Slate, who’d lost himself so long ago.

“Broken Slate” by John A. Daly. (Handout)

Crossing over another large grassy mound of sand, he suddenly felt a glass bottle shatter below his feet. He tripped and fell forward, landing across a large object that felt like neither sand nor rock.

“What . . . the fuck?” a groggy voice moaned from directly below him.

“Jesus!” Jack gasped.

The man beneath him squirmed, trying to roll over to his side, but Jack kept him pinned to his back. The smell of alcohol wafted over him before he covered the man’s mouth with his hand.

“Shh!” Jack pled with wide eyes, knowing the man could not see how serious he was. “Hold still!”

The man pulled at Jack’s hand, kicking weakly in the sand as he tried to shout. Jack held his hand tighter to the man’s mouth.

When the beam of a flashlight crept over the mound of sand beside them, Jack lowered his body as best he could.

“Goddammit!” he whispered through clenched teeth, just inches from the man’s face. “Stop moving and shut up or I’ll fucking kill you!”

The threat proved fruitless. The man was so incoherent that Jack was convinced he hadn’t the capacity to understand a word. He arched just high enough to deliver a wicked uppercut. The drunken man’s head snapped to the sand and he stopped moving.

Jack fell flat to the man’s chest, ignoring the pain in his ribs as the flashlight beam lit up the area just beyond them. His pursuer was close. At any second he would be right on top of them. Jack twisted his head to the side, searching for anything he could use as a weapon. No rock, no driftwood. A dark object lay just within reach—a surfboard about six and a half feet in length, with the telltale Harbour brand triangle logo in white print on its deck. Jack knew a little something about surfing.

The man he’d just cold-cocked was a surfer, probably having snuck onto the private beach to catch some early morning waves before any of the residents or crew showed up, but then getting carried away with the booze. Jack had fallen victim to the same habit a few times over the years.

The board was too big and heavy to use as an effective weapon, and the thought of pulling it over the top of their bodies to hide behind lasted only seconds.

Author John A. Daly. (Handout)

The beam of light bounced off of something reflective just above the mound of sand providing Jack’s only cover—another empty beer bottle. A small crab poked at its lip with its pincher.

When the light left the bottle, Jack grabbed its neck. When he sensed his pursuer was within a few feet, the man’s trudging steps steady and unaware, he lunged to his knees with a snarl and threw the bottle like a battle-axe directly at the man’s face.

The bottle exploded on impact and the flashlight fell to the ground. The man wobbled backwards, clutching his nose. Jack tackled him to the sand before he could get off a shot. He blindly punched the man’s face and gouged what he thought were the man’s eyes, and then kneed his groin. The man doubled over and Jack struck his head with fist after fist. The man became limp, sagging to the sand.

Jack’s fingers traced the man’s left arm up to his hand, then did the same with his right. The gun was in neither. He found the flashlight and lit up the small section of beach around his body, searching the sand. The gun was nowhere. “Shit!”

The slumped man’s bloody face glistened under the beam. As Jack bent to search beneath the man for the gun, a loud voice sounded out from the gate. Another jostling flashlight beam approached from the south. Jack knew he didn’t have time to search.

He straightened and looked between the approaching flashlight and the faraway lights of the bridge—a lifeline too far out of reach. He’d never make it, even without an injured leg. His eyes shifted to the surfboard a few yards away and then to the ocean’s waves rolling ashore from the east.

Jack positioned the flashlight on the sand so it pointed in the direction of the man approaching him. He hoped its distracting glare was enough to earn him a few extra seconds. He grabbed the board with his good arm and limped into the waves. Once in thigh-deep, he laid out the board and dropped gently to his chest along its deck, letting his feet dangle behind him.

He swam forward, one arm hanging uselessly at his side, the other clinging to the board, and his feet kicking steadily. For a brief moment, he felt almost completely free, as he had once as a child in a crisp mountain lake. He remembered watching his parents from the water that day as they argued loudly over God knew what in front of a campfire; they never needed an excuse to fight. They were oblivious to his whereabouts that day, as they often were, so he had swam even farther until he could no longer hear their angry voices. From the heart of the lake, he’d looked up at the clear blue sky and told himself he’d never again let others dictate his life.

That memory vanished as saltwater entered the hole in his shoulder. Stings like a son of a bitch screamed through his mind, and he fought back the urge to cry out in pain.

Both he and the board were dark, but it would only be a matter of time before the man ashore figured out where he was. Sure enough, a beam of light quickly spread out across the whitecaps. Jack was already submerging when it homed in on his board. He heard a shot go off before water covered his head.

Keeping one hand around the board, he kicked to put more distance between him and the shore. When he lifted his head out of the water, gasping, the lights along the beach looked like lightning bugs.

He grinned, spitting saltwater from his mouth. With a sharp wince, he climbed up on top of the board again. His heart steadied and the pain of his injuries strengthened as the adrenaline rush petered out. His shoulder throbbed and his swollen leg felt tight against the inside of his pants. He lay flat along the board with his duffle bag beside him, the bulge of what was likely $50,000 in cash pressing against his side. With his cheek plastered to the board’s deck, he let himself drift for a few moments.

An intensely bright spotlight suddenly lit him up. He gasped and covered his face with his arm as his heart shot back into overdrive. After staring through slit eyes for several seconds, he finally made out the outline of a good-sized yacht whose broad deck hosted the light. He hadn’t heard its approach, but it was very close—only a couple dozen yards out. It was stopping, its engine barely purring.

He couldn’t fathom why such a boat would be there so early, right off the coast, without using its running lights. A concerned voice echoed out from behind the glare.

“Hey! Are you okay?”

Jack wasn’t sure how to answer. He was far from okay, but having gotten away with his life and a big haul of cash, fresh attention wasn’t something he wanted. He couldn’t play himself off as drifting around in the ocean at night, fully-clothed, with a hole in his shoulder, simply for the sport of it. He had to let this man help him, and he needed a quick story that made sense.

Before he could speak, the abrupt blare of radio static poured out from the deck of the yacht, followed by an angry voice. “I said shoot him, goddammit, or it’s yo’ ass!”

Jack watched with bulging eyes and mouth agape as the silhouette of the man with thick, curly hair peered down at him.

The man trembled as he reached for something at his side. “I’m s-s-sorry,” he wailed.

Jack flattened to his board again, arm and legs desperately paddling the water to escape the glare of the spotlight. He glanced back to the yacht. A flash and the roar of a gun met him. A forceful impact stunned him, and he heard something plop into the water. A chunk of the surfboard? When he reached to the top of his head, he felt his broken skull and what was likely brain tissue oozing out.

He collapsed to his board as his eyesight blurred. The sound of pulsating sirens echoed along the swaying water. The light fell away from his body and he was adrift again. Random images of children playing on a swing set and a scolding woman with wet, sunken eyes played through his broken mind. He felt no pain other than the torment of regret and it nudged him relentlessly until he succumbed to his body’s defeat.

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Interview with “Broken Slate” author John A. Daly.