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Bait

A Novel

J. Kent Messum - Author

Paperback: Trade | $15.00 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780142180259 | 288 pages | 27 Aug 2013 | Plume | 7.75 x 5.07in | 18 - AND UP
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Summary of Bait Summary of Bait Reviews for Bait An Excerpt from Bait
No one is coming to your aid. We have ensured this.
 
Six strangers wake up on a remote island in the Florida Keys with no memory of their arrival. They soon discover their common bond: all of them are heroin addicts. As the first excruciating pangs of withdrawal make themselves felt, the six notice a yacht anchored across open water. On it lurk four shadowy figures, protected by the hungry sharks that patrol the waves. So begins a dangerous game. The six must undertake the impossibleswim to the next island where a cache of heroin awaits, or die trying. When alliances form, betrayal is inevitable. As the fight to survive intensifies, the stakes reach terrifying heightsand their captors motives finally begin to emerge.
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Prologue

six months ago.

Tick McCabe was sure he could make it. The shore seemed maddeningly close. Less than a hundred yards to go and he still had the strength to continue despite everything he’d endured. The same couldn’t be said for the others. Their luck had run out. Several minutes had passed since Tick heard the last of their waterlogged screams.

Screw them, he thought. All the more for me.

He picked out a large rock on the beach and aimed for it, front-crawling with all the energy he could muster. Progress seemed slow. His body was maxed, sore arms chopping waves, stiff legs scissoring, overworked lungs whistling for air. Cold water pressed inside his ear canals as salt stung his eyes.

Almost there. Keep your eyes on the prize.

From behind him the sounds of laughter rang out. Hoots and jeers working to undermine his confidence. Between splashing and breathing he could hear the taunts clearly, telling him everything he didn’t want to know. Tick turned over to do the back crawl, hitching in a chest full of air.

“Burn in hell, you sons of bitches!”

He expected a barrage of insults, but the howls ceased. Instead there was a lull, voices oddly pacified. Then a clamor arose and something large and rough bumped into Tick’s side, rocking him in the water, making him scream out. An indistinct mass of blue and gray stripes broke the surface and filled the corner of his eye, only to be gone the next instant. Tick treaded water, frantically sweeping glances over the waves. The big one had struck him that time. He was sure of it.

“Shit, shit, shit.”

It was the third bump Tick had taken in the water. This one had been harder and more confident than the others. Probably the last inquisitive hit he would get. Once curiosity was satisfied, Tick would undoubtedly be taken under.

So close.

His front crawl became more desperate. He needed more time, maybe two or three minutes. If only he was allowed to have that of all things. The irony left a bitter taste in his mouth. Tick had lived most of his life with nothing but time on his hands. Now he had precious little, sucked dry in the last few days, which had seen him living more and more on borrowed amounts.

Almost there.

He tried to occupy his mind with anything that would keep it from focusing on what was in the water with him. Muddled memories and half-truths distracted him a little, so many regrets, too many mistakes. If he’d listened, if he’d taken a left over right at a fork in the road, if he hadn’t been so damned hung up and strung out all the time, maybe things would have turned out different.

Stop it. Focus. You can do this. Your life depends on it.

Tick couldn’t focus. Twenty-seven years of age and half of that misspent. Rock bottom had been his status for a while now. His existence felt like it could be nothing else. There was no other way but further down, his failing body heavy, sinking under the scar tissue of an irreparably damaged life. Even the people he thought closest to him were distant. They called him Tick, after all. He was little more than lice to them.

Not far now.

Fuck Tick. Gerald was his name. Gerald Francis McCabe. He couldn’t get that out of his head. The full, proper name suddenly seemed important, key to his corporality. It was his original self, a true identity from long ago, the name his mother and father called him, the name that his siblings, friends, and lovers used. How long had it been since he’d spoken to anyone who called him by name?

Almost—

Something grabbed his right foot and pulled downward. Tick went under, taking a mouthful of salt water, refusing to open his eyes as a force shook him violently below the surface. He fought hard, shaking and twisting his leg against the ferocious grip. Kicking out with his other foot, he connected with something that didn’t like being hit. With one more savage shake there was a pop and release, freedom coming at a painful price. Tick broke the surface with a gasp. Sounds of nearby laughter stabbed at him. He tried to continue swimming, but his right leg didn’t seem as effective as before. A trail of maroon spread behind him as he kicked and stroked. Gray and white shapes writhed through the discoloration. Tick turned onto his back and raised his right leg out of the water.

“Oh, God,” he croaked.

His foot was gone. What remained was a torn stump, flap of skin flopping against ripped meat under the gleam of bone. Sea salt burned the wound. Tick wailed with so much despair he almost choked on it.

“Oh, Jesus, oh, Christ. Just another minute. That’s all I needed. Just one more goddamn —”

Again he went under, pulled by the other foot. He fought again to free himself, hammering painfully at that which gripped him with his new stump. In no time his left foot was separated from his body. He opened his eyes and saw every blurred color and shape he wished was not there. The most solid of these began to converge on him.

Gerald Francis McCabe, he thought. That’s who I was—

He was struck from every angle and with every measure of force. Blood bloomed thick around him. Tick did not resurface. Nearby, beer bottles clinked, cigars burned, and significant money exchanged hands.

One

now.

What an incredible dream.

Small waves hitting the beach, the cry of gulls, the baking heat on his face. All of it should have convinced him otherwise, yet he was certain it was all part of some vivid dream. The press of sun through his eyelids brightened his blackout, though he could not awaken. Trapped in the twilight of emerging thought, he could feel the weight of his body pressing into sand. A cool breeze rippled clothes and licked his hair. Fresh air filled his lungs, the smell of salt water dancing in his nostrils. Goose bumps rose on his forearms as grains of sand peppered him. The clarity of it all was astounding, absolutely electrifying. The good stuff had taken him to wondrous dreamscapes before, but never this real. Not even close.

Might be my best high yet.

Then it dawned on him that there was a difference at the center of this chimera, a horrible absence of euphoria that couldn’t be attributed to the devil’s dust. The hollowness he felt unnerved him. Nash Lemont was now full of doubt. Where was the worm inside his head?

This isn’t a dream.

Increasing clarity eroded his remaining slumber. Any similarities to dreams broke away in pieces like an eggshell, leaving soft-boiled sobriety underneath. The components of Nash’s body came sluggishly back to life. Feet kicked out for the feel of a mattress. Hands grasped for bedsheets. Ears strained for the sounds of city life. Eyelids cracked open, only to squint at the sun’s glare.

Nash rolled over and shook the grogginess from his head, coughing up phlegm, red-rimmed eyes straining open. He could define little. Wide blurs of blue and white streaked with shades of brown and green stretched before him. In the center of his vision sat a drab figure with slumped shoulders.

“Shit, you look like I feel,” a high voice informed him.

“Huh?”

Nash propped himself up on his elbows, blinking to clear his sight. He peered again at the figure, trying to focus. The figure shifted and hunched. It was slender with white, dirty skin. Long thick hair hung over the face. The hidden features and gargoyle posture made Nash uncomfortable. He wiped away sand stuck to his sweating cheek and looked around in a hundred-andeighty-degree sweep. What came from his mouth was little more than a croak.

“Where . . . ?”

From his ten to two o’clock a wall of tall grass made a natural fence along the shore. He ran his line of sight down the green divider until he reached his three o’clock. What he saw there made him gasp. The unexpected white beach did not alarm Nash Lemont. What alarmed Nash was the other bodies flopped on the sand.

Two

three days ago.

What alarmed Nash was how much no-namebrand shit he was putting into his grocery basket these days. There was a time, and not too long ago, when he would have insisted on some brand names among his purchases. Some things you just didn’t crap out on: ketchup, mustard, mayo, mac ’n’ cheese, margarine maybe. Now all he looked for was the cheapest alternative, willing to undercut any provision he once enjoyed with its poorer, dumber cousin. Nash picked up a bottle of ketchup.

“Heinz,” he said, looking at the label. “There are no other kinds.” But there were other kinds, for less than half the price too. Their names were suspect—he’d never even remotely heard of them. Some had writing on the labels in languages Nash had never seen.

Some Middle Eastern or Indonesian crap or something, he thought as he dropped one in the basket.

These shopping trips were where Nash felt most pathetic. Budget stretched so thin it was floss compared to the kind of money he’d dropped once upon a time. His eyes moistened as the full realization of his situation sank in once again. He looked at the discount peanut butter brands, gritty and oily, reserved for the poor.

“Rock bottom,” he mumbled.

So unbelievably broke all the time, that was what he was. When he was lucky enough to get some money it couldn’t stay in his wallet for more than a few hours before he pissed it away or blew it up his arm. The more he thought about it the shittier he felt. Shame coated the bottom of his belly in lead and cramped the smooth muscle around his heart. Nine out of ten addicts never recover. Nash never liked those odds.

The aisles weren’t busy. He strolled, taking advantage of the supermarket’s air- conditioning, a luxury he no longer enjoyed in his apartment due to his need for some fast cash. It was nice to get out of the hot Miami sun. Midday was a real bitch, even for your well-tanned types. Nash checked his watch, only to find it missing as well. A moment of confusion before the penny dropped.

He’d sold that too, to his superintendent, for a measly ten bucks.

Nash grabbed a jar of kosher dills and found himself inspecting his fingers instead of the pickles. They looked worn and leathery, flesh so dull it barely passed for pink. One of his thumbnails was a purplish black. Knuckles were scabbed too. Nash pressed on the discolored nail with the tip of his index. Throbs of pain drummed his nerve endings.

Did I shut that in a door or something? he thought, trying hard to remember. Did I deck someone?

No recollection. He replaced the jar on the shelf and that was when he caught the man looking. At the end of the aisle, standing in front of the shelves of canned soup, some dude was thoroughly checking him out. Nash scowled. The man turned his face away, void of expression.

“Not your type, fag,” Nash muttered, making a U-turn.

He found himself in the frozen food section, overly eyeing the tanned legs and cutoff shorts of a college coed to reaffirm his heterosexuality. She was tight and sweet, midriff bared and topped with a couple of candy apple tits in a tube top. Despite the sex appeal, she still had an air of innocence about her, as if she’d only accommodated a cock or two in her young life. That was the kind of girl Nash liked most, the almost-virgins, the ones you still had to show the ropes, toss around the bedroom a bit. He waited impatiently for his dick to chub in his pants. The erection never came.

Pick up some Viagra with my next order, he thought. Try Pablo, he might have some kicking around.

The girl felt Nash’s eyes on her and slipped away, leaving him staring at a stack of pizzas through a glass freezer door. He only had twenty bucks to spend on food for the week. His basket contained mostly instant noodles and canned soup. There were some oranges and carrots in there too: an oddity among the other goods, but a new necessity for Nash. A few weeks ago his pal Roon complained to a clinic nurse that his teeth felt like they were rotating in his gums. Turned out he’d come down with a case of scurvy due to the fact that he hadn’t eaten a fresh fruit or vegetable in months. Nash couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten anything nutritious either.

He wandered the frosted windows, perusing the microwave dinners and desserts. Most weren’t affordable, so Nash returned to the aisle of cheap shit where his admirer had been earlier, only to find him gone. He breathed a sigh of relief, dumped three cans of tuna into his basket, and headed for the checkout. As he joined the express line he made plans to swing a discount on his next score by offering one of his old acoustic guitars as collateral. That was when he noticed his admirer, still in the supermarket and still interested.

The guy stood in another line a few checkouts over, watching intently and holding a carton of milk. They made eye contact for three long seconds as Nash took in his details this time: crew cut, clean shaven, unfriendly manner, not an ounce of fat on the guy. There was a militant sense about him that Nash couldn’t ignore.

Narc, Nash thought. Fuck.

Nash was carrying. Not much, but enough on top of his existing record to get him put away in the realm of years, not months. The lady ahead of him paid for her groceries and left. Nash was being rung through. The double door exit was less than twenty yards to his right. He thought about making a run for it.

Not the front. They’ll have that covered.

Nash put his basket down on the conveyer belt and rolled his eyes.

“Jeez, I forgot milk,” he said to the checkout girl. “I’ll just grab it quick. It’s at the back, right?”

The checkout girl said nothing, only fluttered purple eyelids and chewed gum.

“Just gimme one sec.”

He moved quickly, past the line, down the aisle to the rear of the supermarket. A sign reading Employees Only on a metal door with a honeycombed porthole caught his attention. He breached it without a second thought, hearing a stock boy yell out after him for his violation. Nash was through the loading bay and out an emergency exit in seconds.

Don’t stop for one second, he thought. Don’t even dare.

Nash scrambled up the alleyway, dodging skids and jumping boxes, throwing glances over his shoulder the whole way. A panic he had not known before this day enveloped him.




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