The Assassins Gallery, by David L. Robbins, paperback, 544 pages, list price: $7.50
January 1, 1945 Newburyport, Massachusetts
Five hundred yards from the beach, a gloved hand choked the outboard motor. Six black-clad men took up silent oars. They rowed toward shore, urging the raft through whitecaps with a strong wind at their backs. Two hundred yards out, where the breakers began to build, Judith in her wetsuit slid, practiced and liquid, over the side.
She said nothing to the six and they did not speak to her. She merely sucked in breath at the bite of the icy water through her rubber sheath, then pushed off from the raft. The boat eased away. She turned to kick for shore. Behind her, slaps of water against the raft faded beneath the wind.
Judith spit saltwater. The immense cold clawed her cheeks and stung through the wetsuit. She kept her arms wrapped to her chest, letting the suit and the knapsack and her fins keep her buoyant in the surging surf.
A hundred yards from shore, Judith lowered her legs to float upright. A wave boosted her. At its crest she took a quick look at the beach under a veiled quarter moon. The coming storm flung foam off the whitecaps, a rabid water. She lifted the dive mask from her eyes to see better. She sank into a trough but another, taller roller swept in fast. Judith scanned the dark coastline. She saw nothing but vacant sand flats. No light glowed from the blacked-out town four miles beyond.
She lowered her mask. Kicking the last hundred yards to the shore, she went numb.
"It's sure blowin' stink," she said.
With a hand on his belly, the man agreed. Spray from the surf speckled the windshield of his pickup truck parked on the packed sand of Plum Island.
"Nor'easter." He pointed out the direction of the wind to the woman on the seat beside him.
"Forecast called for it," she replied. "Gonna be a bitch of a New Year's Day."
"Yeah, happy New Year's."
The two leaned across the seat to the center and kissed lightly. He had to angle down because she was short. He patted her leg when he straightened.
"What time you got?" she asked.
He dug under his cuff for his watch. "We're getting here a little late. We left the party a little before two. So I figure it's . . . yep, two-ten."
"What do you think?"
"I think it's blowin' stink, like you said. You dressed warm enough? You got a couple sweaters under them oilskins?"
"Yeah, but geez. Look at it. It's cold as a well-digger's ass out there. Why we gotta be so gung ho all of a sudden? Who's gonna invade Newburyport?"
"Honestly, Bonny, don't start. You and me got the graveyard shift this week. You knew that. Take the good with the bad, that's how it goes."
"Yeah, but . . ." She raised a hand at the crashing surf out in the dim light, water bashing the sand so hard that mist spewed. The pickup rocked a little with the wind, but it might have been Otto's weight as he shifted to face her.
"This is what we volunteered for," he said. "Guarding the coastline. Think about the boys in uniform, they're doin' tougher shit than this all the time. You know that."
"Yeah, I know."
"Look, I understand we been kind of slack about this Civil Defense thing. All of us, the whole town. But I been doing a lot of thinking since that Battle of the Bulge started over in Belgium. You don't think our boys are cold over there?"
She spread her hands.
"Huh?" he prodded. "You think?"
"Yeah, but look at this."
"I am lookin' at it, Bonny. And I think it's time we started doin' our jobs here. That's all I'm saying."
"But Otto, geez Louise. Nobody's doin' nothing in this weather. You think the Germans are coming tonight? They're not gonna, okay? You and me are the only ones out in this."
"And that's a good thing. Come on, gimme another kiss. It'll warm you up."
"You. All you think about."
"Is you. Come on."
With a sigh, she considered him. "Alright. C'mere." She gave him more than a peck.
"Yeah, thatta girl," he said, pulling back to sit straight again. His gut extended far enough to rub the steering wheel. "Hey."
She wrinkled her nose at him, feigning annoyance that he wanted to get out of the pickup into this wintry, blustery night.
"What?" she asked.
"Look, I gotta ask. You don't think Arnold knows, does he? He was acting kind of weird yesterday when he came in the store. And tonight, at the party."
"Naw. Arnold's always weird. He still thinks I'm crazy for joinin' the C.D. What the hell. I told him he should join, too, you know, do somethin'. But he just goes to work and comes home and sits with his damn stamp collection. All night. Every weekend. Unless he's fishing. I swear to God."
She grimaced, exasperated with the image of her husband. Slothful, skinny, only thinks about himself and his postage stamps.
"Okay," she said, fighting her temper, "okay, I won't do that. He's not your problem. He ain't here right now. Just you and me, right?"
The big man had tilted the back of his head against the window, away from her. He watched while she took hold of herself.
"Okay," he said. "Look, you stay in the truck a little while, calm down. I'll make one trip down to the Rowley line, then come get you. How's that? Okay? You stay here, baby."
"You gonna be warm enough?"
"I'm fine," he chortled, thumping his stomach. "I got my winter fat on me. Be back in about an hour. I got some schnapps in the glove compartment there. Have a snort. What the hey, it's New Year's, right?"
"Right. You're a good man, Otto."
"I try, baby. So, I'll be back. You bundle up. I'll leave the keys, case you want to run the heater some."
He squeezed her knee before opening the car door. He moved fast into the blowing chill to shut the door quickly. With a gloved fist he thumped the hood, then lifted his hand in a wave.
Inside the cab, Bonny watched him walk up the beach. Moonlight lay across his broad back. He soon slipped it and stepped into the dark.
When he had disappeared, she pushed the starter to crank the engine and run the heater full blast. She took his bottle from the glove compartment for a single, long pull. She put the bottle away, and stared straight out to sea.
On hands and knees, Judith crawled over the last film of bubbles and saltwater. On dry sand, she dropped to her stomach. Her skin was so frozen she did not feel the grit of the beach against her cheek. She closed her eyes and caught her breath, angry at the frigid water but glad of the storm which blew her ashore; without the waves sweeping her forward, she might not have made it.
Inside her rubber suit she wriggled finger and toes; they felt like cadaver's digits. She hacked up a slime of mucous and salt, barely lifting her face to spit. Then she opened her eyes and rolled to her back, finding the knapsack there. She sat up and shrugged the straps from her shoulders.
The pack was waterproof and difficult to pry open with clumsy hands inside thick gloves. With her teeth, she gripped one glove to pull it off and flexed her bare hand to flush blood to her fingers. The second glove came off with trouble, too. She kicked the fins from her feet and hurried with the knapsack. The soaked wetsuit sapped her body's remaining warmth on this icy beach. Her hands trembled. She needed dry clothes, quickly.
The twin zippers of the pack slid reluctantly. Judith pinched the grips by sight, not by feel; her fingertips relayed nothing. The top item was a black wool watch cap. She peeled the hood of the wetsuit off her head, rubbed her ears hard to animate them, then tugged on the cap, tucking her wet hair under it. Her eyes probed the darkness and mist. She'd made landfall right on target. The beach road should be about ninety yards north from where she knelt.
Judith hauled down the zipper of her wetsuit. She spread apart the wetsuit from her naked chest, molting the rubber off her shoulders and arms. The thin moonlight diluted her coffee skin to a milky pallor. Her breasts and sternum prickled. From the pack she plucked a flannel long-john top and a thick wool fisherman's sweater. She brushed sand from her buttocks, skimming the hard, cold muscles there, then shoved her legs into the bottom of the long johns and a pair of oilskin pants, cinching the waist. Using socks to swipe sand from her feet, she sensed nothing of her toes. The laces of her boots were tied badly, in a rush. A dark peacoat unfolded out of the bag, and Judith was dressed like a New England lobsterman. She rolled her wetsuit around the fins and mask to cram them into the satchel. She was ready to move off the beach. The last item taken out of the pack was a long, sheathed blade. She tucked this in a boot, then covered the haft with her trouser leg.
Judith looked north and south. At her back, breakers unfurled and pounded, wind drove froth and sand; snow would fall out of this storm before morning. Intelligence stated that this part of the beach, a mile south of the Coast Guard station and summer homes of Joppa, near the head of the Plum Island road, would be clear for fifty minutes following every hour dusk to dawn. The report said the townspeople guarded their territory sloppily, like a community hobby.
Judith stood, warm now, and limber.
She took three steps and did not see or hear the idling truck before the headlights nailed her.
Bonny muttered, "Who the hell . . . ?"
The figure caught in the headlights stopped. The guy just popped up out of the sand, maybe forty yards straight ahead down at the water's edge. How could Otto have missed him, just standing there?
And what the hell was the guy doing out in this godforsaken weather? Watching the waves on a freezing New Year's morning? Drunk?
The man started walking toward the truck. He didn't look drunk, he strode erect. A little in a hurry. He had one hand up to his armpit, tucked in the strap of a sack or something on his back. Dressed like a fisherman but he was slender; those men tended to be thick, hard, and bearded. Besides, with the war on, all the young ones were gone. Bathed in the headlights, coming on, he seemed tan-skinned, maybe one of those Portuguese up from Gloucester.
"Son of a bitch," Bonny grumbled to Otto, him and his do-the-job-for-the-boys-overseas bullshit. If he'd stayed right here in the warm truck, he'd be getting the chance, instead of leaving her alone to do it.
She opened the glove compartment. Losing sight of the stranger for seconds, she took one more pull on the schnapps. She screwed the cap back on, growing nervous, and tossed the bottle on the seat.
"Okay," she breathed. "Okay."
Without taking her eyes off the advancing stranger, she reached her arm over the seat, down into the space behind. She rattled her hand through trash, oil cans, rags, and coffee mugs until she found what she was looking for, a tire iron. She grabbed it.
Bonny clapped it once into her palm, satisfied it had enough heft. She left the motor running, the headlamps on, and got out of the truck.
"Can I help you?" she called the moment her boots were on the sand, even before she slammed the truck door. The wind blew her question back into her face. "Sir?" She shouted louder. "Can I help you?"
The figure, washed in the lights, walked closer, unconcerned. Bonny held the tire iron out where the fellow could see it. Maybe he didn't speak English.
"Sir? You understand this is a restricted area after dark? There's a curfew in effect."
Bonny took a few strides to the stranger, to put herself in front of the lamps where she could be seen and appreciated as an authority figure with a weapon in her hands. The slender man stayed silent, raising a gloved hand in greeting. He smiled.
"I need you to stop right there, sir."
He came ahead, waving, friendly but ignoring her command.
Bonny gripped the tire iron with both hands.
When the stranger was a dozen steps away from the truck and casting a long shadow on the beach, he held his position.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I did not hear you. The ocean."
He had an accent. Bonny couldn't place it. Probably one of the Portuguese.
"I said, sir, that this is a closed beach after dark. There's a curfew. I need to see some identification." Bonny enunciated clearly. The guy must be stupid and foreign since he wasn't drunk.
The stranger screwed up his face. It was a lean face on a tall frame. He raised his hand to his dark cap. He pulled off the hat and black hair tumbled to his shoulders.
Bonny eased her grip on the tire iron.
"Honey, what are you doin' out here like this? It's the middle of the damn night in a damn storm. Where you from?"
The woman shrugged, hat in hand. "I had a fight, with my husband. He tried to hit me. I took a walk, that was all."
The accent was French-like. Some kind of European, anyway. The woman had blue eyes, odd to go with that skin.
"I was here, just here." She pointed off to the water's edge. "Sitting when you drove up."
No, you weren't, Bonny thought. Otto would've seen you, missy.
"Let me see some ID." Bonny's right fist closed again around the base of the tire iron, the knobby end in her left palm. She didn't know and couldn't guess who or what this woman was, or what her business was out here in a restricted area with a damn nor'easter on its way in the dark. Or how she got here. But all that would be hashed out before this gal walked on.
"Yes, yes," the woman answered eagerly. "I have here."
She dug into her peacoat for a slip of paper, then held it out. Bonny stayed where she was, making the woman step up to hand it over.
Bonny raised the slip to the headlights. A Massachusetts driver's license, made out to Arcadia Figueroa of Newburyport. On East Boylston Street.
This woman wearing a New England waterman's clothes carried a lot of unanswered questions about her. But one thing Bonny was certain of: This gal was not living on East Boylston Street. Not with that hair and that smile and those blue eyes. Bonny would know. Every married woman in Newburyport, and maybe Ipswich and Rockport, would know if Arcadia Figueroa lived anywhere near their husbands.
Bonny returned the driver's license. The black leather of the glove the woman extended was thin, not made for warmth, not waterproof, not fit for hauling lobster pots and nets.
"How long you lived on Boylston?"
Long enough to get yourself a driver's license, though you walked out here four miles from town in wicked cold.
"What's in the knapsack?"
The woman dropped the bag from her shoulder, settling it between her boots.
"I thought I would leave my husband. I packed clothes. Is all."
"Let me see."
The woman cocked her head. Her eyes flickered.
"Just let me go my way." Her voice had changed, withdrawing something.
"Can't do that, honey."
"Why do you want to look in my bag?"
The accent was gone.
Bonny stared at her, lit up in the headlights. The first snowflakes of the year tumbled into the beams.
"I don't know. The boys over in Belgium, I guess."
The woman shook her head. She did not understand. Bonny almost did not.
Bonny stood as firm as she could, not tall but dutiful. She held the tire iron ready, while the mystery woman kneeled to her satchel in the sand.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Assassins Gallery by David L. Robbins Copyright © 2006 by David L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.