Neon Prey · Preview Chapters
Deese was a thin man. He was fast, with ropy muscles, and mean, like an aggressive orangutan. His face was a skull, tight, sly, except where a half-dozen wrinkles crossed his sunburnt forehead. He had black eyes and a nose that had been broken into angles like a lump of shattered pottery. He had a red-and-blue tattoo of a wolf with a biker's head in its jaws, on one shoulder, and a witchy Medusa on the other, in black ink, with spitting cobras as hair.
Smart? Smart enough for the job, anyway.
People who got close to him usually moved further away: Deese smelled bad. He didn't know it and people didn't tell him, because... because he was Deese. His boss told one of his associates that Deese smelled like ferret shit; and the boss would know, because he kept a pair of ferrets as pets.
Like a lot of southerners, Deese was large on barbeque and wanted it done right. He brushed the meat lightly on both sides with extra virgin olive oil, seasoned with kosher salt from the Louisiana salt mines, and coarse black pepper. He added a sprinkling of filé, a powder made of ground sassafras leaves and mostly used with gumbo; but it worked on barbeque, too. He cooked the steaks over peach charcoal, brought by a Georgia peckerwood to the Red Stick farmers' market in Baton Rouge.
He'd take the tenderloins out of the refrigerator, slice them vertically to get two long, thin steaks. He'd cover the steaks with a pie tin and leave them on the kitchen counter, protected from the flies, while the grill got right. He wanted high heat, and then he'd lay the meat down close to the charcoal and let it go about four minutes, which would get them done to medium rare.
His old man probably would have slapped him on the face if he'd seen him putting Heinz 57 sauce on his dinner plate, and while it was true that too much sauce could flat ruin a steak, all Deese wanted was a tiny dab per bite. Every once in a while, he'd get a fresh liver, slice it and cook it in his oven, crispy with onions, and a pile of ketchup.
Cooking was a form of meditation for Deese, though he'd never think of it that way; meditation was for hippies and nerds and people you pushed off the sidewalk. On this night, as he went through his routine, he thought about the man he'd been hired to hurt. Not kill, but hurt. Hurting was harder than killing.
When he was hired to kill somebody, he'd walk up and do it with a street gun, which he threw in the nearest sewer. Most of the time, he left the body where it landed. In some cases, where the target had to disappear, there was more planning involved, but usually not a struggle. He'd hit the guy, boost his ass into the back of his pickup and bury the body in a piece of swampland behind his house.
When you were hired hurt someone, as opposed to killing him, or her, there was always one big problem: a living witness. The solution to that was to make it known that being a loud-mouthed witness would lead directly to something worse than pain.
In this case, the conversation with the boss had gone like this: "Legs?"
"No, not legs. That'd just lay him up," the boss said, tapping his clean-shaven chin with an index finger. A ferret scuttled under the couch, between the bosses' ankles. "I need something that people can see. I'm thinking hands. I'm thinking he's walking around for a year with hands that look like they went through a wood chipper."
"Hands are hard to get at," Deese had said. "I'd have to put him down first. You put somebody down, hard, and sometimes they don't get back up."
"Be careful then. I want my money back. Even more than that, I want my money back from everyone, and an object lesson is always helpful. I'm still thinking, hands."
"All right," Deese said. "You want hands, hands is what you'll get."
Hands were hard. In a fight, they were moving fast and unpredictably, and he might not have a lot of time to get the job done. So, no fight. Surprise him, hit him in the face, knock him down, stand on one arm and bust up the hand, and maybe the arm, too. Then do the other side and get out.
Deese had already done the scouting. The guy lived alone in an apartment with outdoor hallways, so he answered his own door. If Deese did it just right, that'd be the spot... Watch him go in, and if there was nobody else around, do the old shave-and-a-haircut door-knock: bop-bodda-bop bop, bop bop.
When people heard that knock, it tended to disarm them. If you did it lightly enough, they usually thought it was a woman and the target, Howell Paine, did like his women.
Deese moved the meat to the grill, arranged it perfectly over the oval mound of glowing hickory charcoal. When that was done, he went back into the house, dug his walking stick out of a hall closet.
He'd bought it at a cane store in London, England, where he'd once taken a vacation because a man named Lugnuts was looking for him. Lugnuts got his name because a karate guy once kicked him in the balls and he hadn't flinched. He only did one thing, which was kill people, and he was good at it.
Luckily for Deese, Lugnuts fell to his death in a hotel atrium in downtown New Orleans before he could get to Deese, although luck hadn't had much to do with it. The man who'd hired Lugnuts to kill Deese had subsequently been kicked to death by his underpaid bodyguards, who'd also been witnesses to Lugnut's crash landing: an object lessons for all assholes who needed bodyguards. Pay them well or somebody else will pay them better.
Deese swished the walking stick back and forth, renewing his feel for it. Walking sticks had been adopted by the European aristocracy as replacements for swords. While the best of them were undeniably elegant, they were also effective weapons, especially in the administration of a beating.
In 1856, a southern congressman named Preston Brooks had administered a vicious beating to the abolitionist U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, after Sumner made a speech attacking another southern Senator for his pro-slavery views: "The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight I mean the harlot, slavery."
Sumner hadn't recovered for years. Deese didn't know that, not being a historian, or even a reader of comic books, but he knew about the uses of walking sticks.
Deese's walking stick was made of coffee-brown blackthorn, with a rounded knob head, weighted with lead, and a steel rod inserted down the length of the shaft. Getting hit with the knob was like being hit with a hammer, but a hammer with a 37-inch handle.
He closed his eyes, visualizing the approach, the attack, the departure. He stood like that for a minute or more, thinking about Howell Paine, until the smell of the sizzling steaks called out from the grill.
Howell Paine bumped into a forties-something MILF at a downtown dance-and-cocaine club. She had a nice post-divorce seventy-footer parked at the Orleans Marina, which is why Deese couldn't find him the first four times he went by Paine's apartment.
As it happened, the MILF could dish out more than Paine could take, though he struggled manfully to stay with her. In the end, though, he left her snoring in the fo'c'sle double-bunk and snuck out, barefoot until he was on the dock, pausing only to steal two bottles of eighteen-year-old Macallan scotch and the ex-husband's 18-karet solid gold bracelet as he passed through the saloon.
Dressed in a rumpled blue seersucker suit, a white shirt and dark blue Tom's sneaks, he hurried along the dock to his Volkwagen, climbed in and sped away.
He stopped at Hymen's Rougarouin' for a ham-and-cheddar quiche with waffles and a quick read of the Times-Picayune, before continuing on to his apartment. Paine's apartment was one of those places that, when looked at with a skeptical eye, might be considered a middle-income structure on its way to the slums. That is, green-painted concrete block, two floors, outside walkways to the multi-colored doors. The place looked fine, at a glance, but the apartments would smother you if the window air conditioners stopped working, and there were rust stains coming through the concrete on the stairways.
Paine found a free on-street parking place under a sweet gum tree and was walking down the street toward the apartment, admiring the new gold bracelet on his wrist, when Deese, who was just leaving, spotted him. Deese pulled over and watched as Paine climbed the outer stairs to the second floor and walked along to his apartment, carrying a brown paper bag, and whistling.
Deese hated whistlers.
No time like the present, he thought, as Paine opened the door to his apartment. Night would be better, but Paine had been hard to find, and by nightfall, could be gone again. Besides, if everything went as planned, most of the beating would be administered inside the apartment, out of sight from the street.
Deese found a parking place, got his walking stick, crossed the street to the apartment building, climbed the stairs and ambled casually down to Paine's apartment.
Instead of knocking when he got to the door, he turned and leaned on the railing, looking out over the street. He watched for a full minute, looking for eyes. He saw nothing moving except a red tiger-striped cat that padded across the street and disappeared into a hedge. There was somebody close by in the apartment building, because he could smell frying bacon, but anyone who was frying bacon wouldn't be running outside anytime soon.
He slipped the tan ski mask out of his pocket, turned toward the door and pulled it over his head, and knocked on the door, got ready to kick it open, raised the cane. Like many perfect plans, his didn't go quite right.
He did the knock, shave-and-a-haircut, bop-bodda-bop bop, bop bop. Inside, Paine had taken the two bottles of Macallan out of the paper bag and still had one bottle in his hand when he heard the knock. He assumed it was the woman from next door, with whom he sometimes shared a bed when nobody richer was available. He knew she did the same, but still, a civilized relationship.
So he was moving when he reached out and twisted the doorknob, and was further away from the door than he normally would have been, when Deese kicked it and the door exploded inward and Deese was swinging his cane at Paine's face.
Paine blocked the blow with the whiskey bottle, which shattered, spraying glass across his face and into the room. Paine screamed in pain and rage, and found, in his hand, a jagged broken bottle. Deese was off balance, having swung at a man further away than expected and it took him a split-second to recover. In that split-second, Paine jabbed at his eyes with the broken bottle.
Deese ducked and the bottle slashed through his mask and into his scalp and blood spattered on the wall, the door and began running down into his eyes. The sight of the blood made Paine hesitate for the small corner of a second, which was time for the cane to come around again, and Deese used it to break Paine's arm, the one with the broken bottle.
Paine screamed as the bottle flew off somewhere and smashed into even more pieces. Paine grabbed Deese by his shirt, with his working arm, and swung him toward the couch. Deese involuntarily sat down as the couch hit him behind the knees, but he had the stick free again and this time he hit Paine on the side of the head and Paine went down. Deese clambered to his feet and whipped the other man hard across the top of his back, once, twice, three times, and then pinned the broken arm and Paine screamed again and Deese screamed back, "Motherfucker!"
He smashed the head of the cane into the hand on the broken arm, once and then again, and again and again, then kicked Paine over, and Paine raised the unbroken arm just in time to catch the next blow on his forearm, which broke, and Deese pinned that arm with his foot and began beating the hand, shattering the bones. Deese was hurting and bleeding which he hadn't expected and was screaming 'motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker,' in time with the beating. Paine rolled up on his side, not screaming, but choking in pain, and Deese's pantleg had pulled up, and Paine, with no other weapon, bit him on the calf, like a feral tomcat, wrenching his head from side by side as his teeth sank in.
Deese screeched again and dealt Paine a glancing blow on the head and Paine came away from Deese's leg with a half-dollar-sized chunk of meat in his mouth. He tried to roll away, but now Deese, still howling "motherfucker" over and over began beating Paine on the upper arm and back with the cane and was so angry, had blood in his eyes and mouth now, his own blood, that it took him a few seconds to realize a young woman was standing at the door, gawking at them.
He straightened and looked at her and when she ran off, he staggered toward the door but tripped over one of the couch cushions and went down, cracked his head on the side of the couch. Dazed, he floundered for a moment, then crawled to the door, his walking stick in his hand, and looked down the walkway... but nobody was there.
Wherever she'd gone, he thought, she was calling the cops. This was not one of those live-and-let-live places; she'd definitely be on the phone. He looked back at Paine, who was lying motionless on the carpet. Blood everywhere. Maybe he'd hit him too hard? He'd sort of let it out there.
Had to move...
He half-jogged, half-limped out to his car, wiping blood from his eyes. Didn't see the woman come back out on the walkway with her cell phone, taking the video that would help hang him.
The cops came for him later that day.
He'd gotten all cleaned up... but then they pulled up his pantleg, ripped off the bandage and looked at the half-dollar-sized hole.
Nothing to say about that, except, "I want a lawyer."
Seven months later.
Two dusty dark-blue Chevy Tahoes turned off Louisiana 405, away from the Mississippi River and the levee, into the patchwork of black-earth cottonfields and woodlots. A quarter-mile in, they slowed as they approached a dirt side road. Rae Givens, who was driving the lead vehicle, peered down the road and asked, "You sure this is right? Looks like a jungle back there."
Her partner, Bob Matees said, "Checks on mileage..." He looked at his cell phone, "And on the GPS. It seems right, as far as I could tell from the satellite pictures."
"Wouldn't want to come out here at night," Rae said, as she rolled off the highway and onto the dirt track. "The mosquitoes gotta be the size of crows."
"Or at noon; it's already hot as a bitch out there," Bob said. Though it was only ten o'clock, and not yet summer, they could see heat waves coming off the blacktop.
"Dependin' on which bitch you be talking about," Rae said, falling into her phony hip-hop accent. Rae was a six-foot-tall black woman with a degree in Art History from UConn, where she'd been a starting guard on an NCAA championship basketball team.
"Have I mentioned snakes?" Bob asked. Bob was a short, wide white man with a soft southern accent, a one-time wrestler at the University of Oklahoma.
"No, and you don't have to," Rae said. She took the turn onto the dirt road, a two-track with weeds growing up between the tracks. "Where's that turn-off?"
"Maybe... another hundred yards."
There was no particular reason that they could see for the turn-off, when they got to it: a crescent of hard-packed dirt sliced back into the jungle, partially occupied by an aging Ford F-150 with a camper back.
A man had opened the back of the camper and they could see a cot, and on the wall opposite the cot, a small television set with rabbit ears. He turned toward them when they pulled in, looking doubtfully at the two oversized vehicles. He was slender, middle-height, with close-copped hair the color of wheat, wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt with sweat stains in the armpits, wear-creased jeans, and boots.
Bob and Rae climbed out of the truck. They were both wearing blue tee-shirts and khaki fatigue pants, with "US MARSHAL" emblazoned across both the chest and back of the shirts, and combat boots. Both had marshal badges and guns clipped to their belts. Bob nodded to the man and asked, "How you doin'?"
"Doin' fine, sir."
"You live round-abouts?"
""Well, sir, I live right here," the man said. He patted the side of his truck. "Come down looking for work in the oil," he said, though he actually said oll, the way Texans do. The far side of the Mississippi was lined with chemical plants. "Sorta using this as my scoutin' headquarters."
"Best of luck with that, then," Rae said. "You know the gentleman that lives down at the end of this road?"
"No, no, I don't, ma'am. I been here three days, off and on, and never seen nobody comin' or goin', except one colored lady who goes down there every morning. She down there now."
Another marshal got out of the trailing truck. He was wearing a tan marshal tee-shirt and green tactical pants, razor-type sunglasses, a baseball hat with a black-and-white American flag on the front, and boots. A second man got out of the passenger side, tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed, with an olive complexion, who would have fit neatly into the local Cajun population. He was wearing pressed khaki slacks and a blue long-sleeved dress shirt, a New Orleans Saints ball cap and high-polished cordovan loafers. He had a pair of tortoise-shell sunglasses his hand, which he put on as he climbed out onto the dirt track. They came up and the man in the dress shirt asked, "What are we doing?"
"This gentleman has been here for three days, off and on, and hasn't seen anybody coming or going except one black woman," Rae said. "So... let's get it on."
The third marshal said "Oorah," like they might have once done in the Big Army, and maybe still did, but he was a former Ranger and said it with a sarcastic overtone and trekked back to his truck and popped the back lid.
Rae did the same and she and Bob and the other marshal pulled on heavy bullet-proof vests and helmets with chin straps. The man in the dress shirt got back in the trailing truck and closed the door, where he had some air-conditioning. The marshals armed themselves with semi-auto M15-style rifles, went through a nearly unconscious series of checks everybody loaded up and ready to go and the man in the F-150 asked, tentatively, "You got a bad guy down there?"
"Pretty bad," Rae said. "You stay here, you'll be okay. Or, you might want to drive out a way."
"Maybe I'll do that," the man said.
As they pulled away from the turn-off, Rae saw the F-150 do a U-turn and head out to the blacktop road in a hurry. She said, "The oll man's going out."
Bob was contemplating his cell phone and muttered, "We pick up Deese's ass, right? Or maybe he's run and we don't pick up Deese's ass. Either way, we go on down to New Orleans and drop off Tremanty and then get outside some crawfish boil. Should be perfect right now. Mmm, mmm."
Tremanty was the man in the blue dress shirt, an FBI agent who'd originally arrested Clayton Deese on charges of assault with a deadly weapon in aid of racketeering activities. The 'in aid of racketeering activities' made it a federal crime. That is, Clayton Deese had beaten the living shit out of Howell Paine. When Deese had finished with him, Howell Paine had been howling with pain, the bones of his hands broken into pieces that, on an X-Ray, looked like a sock full of golf tees.
Paine had owed a few thousand dollars to a loan shark named Roger ("Rog") Smith and had been unwilling to pay it back, even when he could. He'd been known to say in public that Smith could suck on it. A lesson had to be taught, and was, and now Paine, seriously worse for the wear, was in the marshal's witness protection program until Deese's trial. Tremanty didn't want Deese all that bad; who he really wanted was Smith, and Deese could give him up. Nothing like looking at fifteen years in the federal prison system to loosen a man's tongue.
Unfortunately, Deese, who was out on a bond, had failed to show for trial and his ankle monitor had gone dead three days earlier. They would have gotten to him sooner, except... bureaucracy.
On the way down to Deese's house, with Bob driving now, because Rae had the machine gun, Rae said, "Three days. Deese could be in Australia by now. Up in the mountains."
"They got mountains in Australia?" Bob asked.
"Must have. They got skiers in the Olympics."
"Could be dead," Bob said. "Deese not the skiers."
"Could be," Rae said. "But Tremanty says he's the baddest guy that Roger Smith has available. He thinks Smith would want to keep him available if he can. Smith thinks Deese can beat the rap the judge isn't known as Cash McConnell for nothing."
"Tremanty says? You been going out for cups of coffee with the FBI? Meetin' Agent Tremanty for little tete-a-tetes?"
"It's pronounced tet-a-tet, not tit-a-tit, you ignorant Oakie," Rae said. She always got a tight on a job like this. Her M4 had a sling and she was clinking the sling swivel against the handguard, and it went dink-dink-dink, as they talked.
"It's pronounced tet-a-tet if you mean a face-to-face meeting," Bob said. "It's pronounced tit-a-tit if you mean..."
"Off my back, dumbass," Rae interrupted. "Here we go."
Deese's home was a low rambling building clad with wide unpainted pine weatherboards gone dark with the sun and wind. The house looked old, nineteenth century, but wasn't; it had been built in 1999 on a concrete slab, according to the parish assessor's office.
A narrow porch stretched down the length of the structure, a foot above ground level, with a door opening off the middle of the porch. Two green metal patio chairs on the porch, the paint faded by sunlight and rain. The third marshal popped out of his truck and ran toward the back of the house, while Bob and Rae went straight in from the front, watching the windows for movement, their rifles already up, safeties off, fingers hovering off the triggers.
Rae crossed the porch and stood to one side of the door and pounded on it with her fist and shouted, "Mr. Deese! Mr. Deese!"
Bob was to one side, in the yard, watching windows, but with his rifle now pointed in the direction of the door. Rae pounded on the door again: "Deese! Deese!"
No reaction. Bob moved back to the center, at the bottom of the porch steps. "Ready?"
"Anytime," Rae said.
Bob cocked himself to kick the door, but then the door moved and he went sideways and shouted, "Door!"
The door opened further and a frightened, round-faced black woman stuck her head out. She said to Rae, who was pointing a gun at her, "Mr. Deese ain't here."
"Where is he?"
"Don't know. He been gone."
Bob said, "Please step back, ma'am."
They followed the muzzles of their rifles into the house, which was dark and well-cooled. They walked through to the back, shouted out at the other marshal, then opened the back door to let him in. Together, they cleared the place.
The black woman was named Carolanne Pouter and she worked three days a week cleaning house, mowing the yard, doing Deese's laundry and occasional grocery shopping, and keeping a daily eye on the place when he was traveling.
"Did he tell you where he was going?" Bob asked.
"No, sir. He never does. But this time..." She eyed their marshal shirts. "... this time, it ain't like the other times. He was two days burning paper out back. He was coming and going and coming and going for three weeks, and then he loaded all his baggage into his pickup and he went on down the road. Took all his cowboy boots, too. Told me to lock up and gave me five hundred dollars to watch the house for six months. Which I been doin', faithful."
Tremanty had come inside and now he asked, "Did Mr. Deese have an office in the house or a place where he did his paperwork?"
"Yes sir, upstairs next to the bedroom."
Tremanty said to Bob, "Why don't you get Miz Pouter to show you where he was burning paper. See what the situation is. I'll check out the office."
Rae followed Tremanty up the wooden staircase and Tremanty said, "The whole place is pine. If he's running, I'm surprised he didn't torch it. It'd burn like a barn full of hay."
Deese's office space was small, only about ten by ten feet, with one window looking out toward the jungle in back. An inexpensive office desk, the kind you might buy from a big box office-supply store, sat next to two empty filing cabinets. There were no closets, no place to hide, so when the marshals had cleared the house, they'd spent no more than five seconds in the room.
Tremanty said, "He's gone and we won't find him in a hurry."
"That's some fine detectin'," Rae said. "Since we only been here one minute."
"I found a clue you missed," Tremanty said. He was really handsome, and when Rae first saw him, she'd had to bite her lip. "On the desk."
Rae stepped over to look. Sitting on the desk, on a piece of white computer paper, was Deese's ankle monitor, which had been severed with a pair of wire cutters. The paper had a straight-forward note, apparently to Tremanty: "Fuck you."
"That's so rude," Rae said.
Outside, Bob and the third marshal, with Pouter, were looking at a 55-gallon drum that had been used as a burn barrel and was half full of powdered ash. A six-foot dowel rod, heavily singed, was lying on the ground next to the burn barrel. Bob used it to stir around in the ash, and found nothing but more ash. Deese had not only burned a lot of paper, he'd carefully broken it up so there'd be no chance of reconstituting it; and there were no partially burned pages. It was all gone.
They had turned back toward the house when Rae came out, followed by Tremanty. "Lot of ash," Bob said. "Nothing we can save."
"He's cleaned the place out," Rae said. She turned to Pouter. "Did Mr. Deese have a computer?"
"Yes, ma'am and a printer, too. They were old but they worked okay. They gone now."
"We noticed," Tremanty said.
He walked down to one back corner of the house, looking this way and that, and then down to the other corner, and when he rejoined the group, he said to Bob, "There's a walked-in trail goes back into the trees, right over there. Go back and take a look, see if there's anything we need to see."
"Ah, man, it's a swamp..."
"So stay on the path."
"Shouldn't do that. There're poison snakes back there," Pouter said. "Mr. Clay said he seen moccasins bigger round than his leg. He told me, if I ever go back there, he'd fire me, because he didn't want to go hauling some dead black ass out of the woods. That was what he said. Except he didn't say 'black.' You know what I mean."
"I do," Rae said.
"But he paid regular," Pouter said.
"You hear that?" Bob asked Tremanty. "Snakes. Water moccasins the size of tree trunks."
"Life sucks and then you die," Tremanty said. "Besides, I'm wearing loafers and if there are snakes back there, I got nothing between my ankle and the snakes except a pair of Ralph Lauren dress socks."
"I'll go with you," Rae said to Bob. "Bring that pole with you."
But Bob went, and even led the way. The trail looked like something that might have been used by deer, or even pigs, only a foot wide, and here and there overgrown with sedges, which Bob carefully probed with the dowel before crossing them. The place had a wet-dirt odor, and Bob broke through some round green plant stems and the air was immediately suffused with the smell of green onions, or garlic. A tiger swallowtail flittered in and out of shafts of sunlight, now there, now gone, now there again.
They saw no snakes, but the trail went on, and so did they, cutting around downed trees and live ones, and around low spots filled with stagnant water, until Rae said, "Bob? Look."
She pointed at an oval depression, six feet off the trail, in which the weeds were half the height of the surrounding foliage; they were younger, and a lighter shade of green. "What does that look like?"
"Looks like this one, over here," Bob said, pointing to a similar-sized depression on the other side, well off the trail. Ten feet further along the track, they saw another, but with taller brush growing over it.
"Let's go have a tit-a-tit," Bob said.
They went back out, told Tremanty that they hadn't seen any snakes, but they needed an opinion. Tremanty followed them back, stepping high, keeping a sharp eye out for slithers. When they showed him the low spots, he looked at them and said, "Could be natural."
"Nature often fools the eye," Bob said. "Since that's decided, let's get out of here and down to New Orleans and get some crawfish. I'll buy."
"Goddamnit. Every time I go out with marshals, weird shit happens," Tremanty said. He took a cell phone out of his pocket.
"So in your opinion..."
"My opinion is, those are natural depressions, or maybe Deese was burning something back here."
"Let me say it again. Crawfish," Bob said.
Tremanty shook his head. "I gotta make some calls."
"If those are graves, there could be a hundred of them back here," Rae said, looking into the twisted, fetid brush around them.
"Pray that there's not," Tremanty said, as he punched a number into his phone. "I'm serious. Pray."
Five guys sat around the backroom bar table, all with the broken-in look that identified them as street cops. They were playing dealer's choice poker, five-card draw on this particular hand, and they were cheap. The most valuable chips, the white ones, were worth a buck.
Lucas Davenport was in the awkward position of holding a pair of Fives after the draw, with three people still in the pot, and, at the same time, defending the FBI.
"They're not all assholes," he said. He was the only one wearing a suit, a silvery-gray ensemble too relaxed to be currently fashionable, except maybe in certain parts of Milan, where he'd never been, but would like to go, for the shopping. He was tieless in a checked shirt, open at the collar. He looked again at his hand, threw the cards face-down in the center of the table, and said, "I'm out."
"Name one who isn't an asshole. Just one," Shrake said, referring to the agents at the FBI. The backroom smelled of beer, deli sandwiches and a hint of cigar, though none of them smoked.
Lucas: "There's this chick I met in Washington..."
"I mean one that I know," Shrake said, pointing the top of a beer bottle at Lucas. "Maybe there's one, somewhere, but here..."
"I gotta think about it," Lucas said. He had a corned beef sandwich sitting on a paper plate on the table, picked it up and took another bite. The genuine French mustard moutarde bit right back.
Shrake and his partner, Jenkins, both large men with battered faces, wore gray sport coats over short-sleeved open-necked golf shirts, pastel green and baby blue, respectively.
"Lotta assholes in the BCA and St. Paul and Minneapolis cops..." Lucas said, around a mouthful of corned beef.
"Yeah, but we're not all assholes, like in the FBI," Jenkins said. He threw a white chip into the pile in the middle of the table. "I'm in for a buck."
"I'm telling you..."
Virgil Flowers, a BCA agent visiting from southern Minnesota, said, "How about Terry McCullough? He never seemed that bad."
They talked about Special Agent Terry McCullough for a couple of minutes and by a vote of three to two, found him to be an asshole.
"Then I got nothing," Flowers said. He was wearing a canvas shirt and jeans; he'd found out earlier that week that in six or seven months he would become the father of twins, God willing and the creek don't rise. He threw a white chip and a red one into the pot and said, "See your buck and raise you a half."
Jenkins said, "Fuck you and your raise, you sand-bagging piece of shit."
Lucas: "Just because all the feds got college degrees..."
"We all got college degrees," Shrake said.
"A real college, not a four-day putting school," Lucas said.
Jenkins said, "Oh."
"Feds are like classical musicians," said Sloan, a former Minneapolis homicide cop who owned the bar where they were playing cards, and who sometimes played guitar in a J.J. Cale tribute band. He was a narrow man who dressed mostly in shades of brown and wore hats with brims. "They can read music like crazy, but you want them to play a Cmajor7 chord, they got no idea what the fuck you're talking about."
"I got no idea what the fuck you're talking about," Lucas said.
"Take my word for it, it's exactly the same thing," Sloan said. And, "Buck and a half to me? I'm gone."
Lucas' phone buzzed in his pants pocket and he slid his chair back and looked at the screen: Rae Givens.
"I gotta take it," he told the others.
He stepped away from the table, put a finger in his off-ear, and said, "Rae. What's up, sweetheart?"
"You been reading about the bodies coming out of the woods in Louisiana?"
"Yeah, the newspaper stuff," he said. "Four dead, right?"
"Five, as of an hour ago, could be more. Probably more."
"Are you and Bob involved?"
"Yeah. We spotted the graves, but we're on the edge of it for the moment," she said. "We got FBI like a rat's got fleas. We need you to use some of your political shine to get involved and take us along for the ride. Me and Bob."
"Any reason why I should?" Lucas asked.
"He's major, Lucas. A bad dude, the kind you like. I don't think the FBI is gonna find him," Rae said. "They're way too zone defense and we need a man-to-man. We need somebody chasing him down, not circulating bulletins around the places he might be."
"Five dead makes it more interesting..."
"How about this? He ate them," Rae said. "We think he barbequed them on his home grill. We found a woman's body, a girl really, with the muscle taken out of her lower back and we found some unburned fat in the grill with human DNA."
"He's a fuckin' cannibal, man," Rae said. "Don't go telling anybody, it hasn't leaked out yet."
"Huh. Any idea where he's gone?"
"No. But get your slow white ass down here before the musical chairs stop. We need a chair if we're gonna do this," Rae said.
"He's standing right here next to me and he's already been emailing back and forth with Washington. He wanted me to call because, you know, I'm better looking, and he knows that's important to you."
"Let me make some calls tomorrow morning," Lucas said. "Who's the agent in charge at the scene?"
"A guy named Tremanty. I gotta tell you, he's cute."
"C-U-T-E." She laughed, said, "I slay myself," and then spelled Tremanty.
Lucas told her he'd get back before noon the next day. When she'd rung off, Lucas went back to the table and Flowers asked, "What was all that about?"
"That killer guy down in Louisiana? You know, they're digging up the bodies? Turns out he ate some of the victims," Lucas said, ignoring Rae's warning about leaks.
Shrake: "Say what?"
Jenkins: "Do they know what kind of rub he used?"
"Not yet, apparently," Lucas said.
Flowers: "They want you to buy in?"
"That's what they say."
Flowers: "From what I read, he sounds like a mean bastard. Don't get shot."
Sloan asked, "Are we gonna sit here and bullshit or are we gonna play cards?"
Jenkins: "Asked the man who's losing his shirt."
"We all lose our shirts when that fuckin' Flowers is in the game," Shrake said.
Flowers: "I have been lucky, I guess. I can't apologize."
The other four all said "Right," at the same time, and Jenkins added, "Deal, dickweed."
Lucas Davenport was a tall man, broad-shouldered with dark hair speckled with gray, blue eyes and a smile that could turn mean. He was fifty-two and a dedicated clothes horse, which was why he was wearing a suit to play poker in the back of a bar.
When the game broke up at midnight, he and Flowers chatted for a while in the parking lot about Flowers' upcoming fatherhood. "I gotta tell you, I'm about as excited as I ever get, but my mother is totally out of control," Flowers said. "I think my folks had given up on having grandchildren. Now I think my mom wants to move in with us."
"No, no, no, no..."
"Nah, that ain't gonna happen," Flowers said.
"There was some talk that you might leave the BCA and run for sheriff down there," Lucas said, leaning his butt against the back corner panel of his Porsche 911.
"That's not something I have to decide right away the current guy's got almost four more years, but he's sorta recruiting me to run when he retires," Virgil said. "There'd be some advantages I'd be home all the time..."
"I got two words for you," Lucas said. "Health insurance. Your state insurance is terrific and with twins, and you'll need it. When my kids were small, they were down at the clinic once a week. Elementary school is a germ farm: the kids get everything known to mankind. Look before you jump..."
They went on for a while and Lucas finally patted Flowers on the back and said, "The best advice I got is, Virgie, is stop worrying and enjoy it. Kids are wonderful, even when they're not."
When he got home, Lucas' wife, Weather, was asleep. Lucas tried tiptoeing around the bedroom, but she woke up and asked, "Talk to Virgil?"
"Yeah. He's all over the place about the kids," Lucas said. "We gotta get them up here this summer. More than once. Maybe you can calm him down. He asked me the difference between Huggies and Pampers and wanted me to recommend one, for Christ's sakes."
"How about next week?"
"Ah, Rae called. She might have a job I want to look at," Lucas said.
"Louisiana?" Weather asked.
"Talk in the morning," she said.
Lucas had an office in Minneapolis, but didn't work out of Minneapolis. He worked out of Washington, D.C., and reported to a bureaucrat named Russell Forte. The relationship was purely notional.
Because of the political arrangement that brought Lucas to the U.S. Marshal's service he was a deputy U.S. Marshal he was free to pick his own cases. There was a caveat: if a Washington politician called for help, he was bound at least to listen. The arrangement initially created some dissension within the Minneapolis office, but that had mostly gone away. The U.S. Marshal for the Minnesota District, Hal Oder, had been warned to keep his hands off Lucas, and he did, though he didn't like it.
If that were to change, Lucas would quit; and he'd proven valuable to a number of powerful politicians of both parties, so his protection was unlikely to go away. Not that he completely trusted any of them even the best politicians were, in his mind, sneaky, unreliable motherfuckers. While he did occasional errands for them and sometimes took cases for the Minnesota District, his main occupation was chasing down hard-core killers.
Not any killers. Because of the way the federal law enforcement bureaucracy divided up tasks, he was mostly limited to killers who'd already had some contact with the federal court system. He didn't have the back-up resources of the FBI, but that was okay. Chasing down fugitives was more a matter of street work than technical processes, and that was what he was best at.
He was happy, as much as he'd ever been inside a law enforcement unit. Being a vigilante would be even better, but, of course, was both expensive and illegal.
He and Weather talked in the morning, and a bit later, he called Russell Forte in Washington.
"I've gotten some rumblings that the Davenport machine may be cranking up," Forte said. "I looked into it and while the FBI might not necessarily actively seek your help down there in New Orleans, they probably wouldn't drive you away with nunchucks."
"Bob and Rae?"
"Absolutely. Bob sent me a note yesterday saying that you might call and begging to get in on it, poor bastard," Forte said. "Listen, this guy, this Deese, the cannibal. Man, it would be nice if a marshal were to nail him. The PR would be, like, galactic."
"So I can pack my bag?"
"Yes. The FBI guy in charge of the site is named Sandro Tremanty and my friends among the FBI say that he is competent, which means he's probably on his way up. Try to treat him as an equal."
"That's not realistic, but I'll try."
"Then we're set. Sally's cutting your travel orders now. Usual terms. Did you ever get your LEO traveling-armed certification?"
"Yeah. I'm all set."
"Keep me up on what happens. And try to keep better track of your expenses. Sally said that last batch of expense forms looked like it was compiled by chickens."
Three days after Rae's late night call, Lucas kissed his wife and two at-home kids and flew out of MSP and into MSY: Minneapolis-St. Paul International to Louis Armstrong/New Orleans International, his Walther PPQ tucked away in his carry-on pack. Bob met him in baggage claim wearing a black t-shirt, tan cargo shorts and cross-training shoes. Bob was a wide man, with a neck that extended out past his ears.
"Nice to see you, man. Bring your gun?" he asked, as they shook hands.
"Right in my pack. I'd take it out and show you, but somebody would shoot me," he said, looking around the crowded baggage claim area.
They got Lucas' bag and went out the door, which was like stepping into a bowl of Slap Ya Mama hot sauce: fiery and wet. Bob was driving a Tahoe and was parked in a police-only zone: "I showed them my badge and told them I was undercover, investigating aggravated interstate mopery and they said okay," Bob explained. "We gotta get out of here before they look up mopery in the dictionary."
"Like a cop would have a dictionary," Lucas said. "Where's Rae?"
"She's still up at the site," Bob said. "I'll tell you, Lucas, I've seen some disgusting stuff in this job, but this one takes the cake. These bodies are straight out of a horror show. And that fuckin' Deese was eating these people. Most people, he eats what Tremanty says is the tenderloin, or would be the tenderloin on a deer, but this one guy, it looks like he ate his liver."
"And then he buries them in this boggy ground. When they bring them up... ah, you'll see. The FBI brought in cadaver hounds and we're going over his property inch by inch, but it's six acres of jungle and it's nasty out there. We think we've got another grave spotted, and we're not halfway through it yet."
"Parked all over, all day. WVUE outa New Orleans is running a promo saying they've got big breaking news on it, and I suspect they've heard about the barbeque thing. They're holding it close, they wanted to interview Tremanty at 6:05 this evening, but he told them to suck on it... so... You bring anything but suits?"
"Oh, yeah. Talked to Rae. I got my backwoods gear. Even brought a pair of gum boots."
"You'll need them. We've killed three canebrake rattlers and a cottonmouth. We had a Fish & Game guy there who didn't like it, he wanted to move them, but most of the guys shoot first and talk to Fish & Game later. Somebody bought a box of CCI snake shot and we're all loading it at the top of the stack."
"I basically don't do snakes," Lucas said.
"I noticed that about you, when we were down in Texas," Bob said.
On the way north, they talked about their previous work together in Washington, D.C. and Texas, and about the Minnesota senator who was shot to death after their Washington investigation had ended, and exactly who might have done the shooting.
Bob gave Lucas an inch-thick stack of paper on Deese and the man believed to be his main employer, Roger ("Rog") Smith. Smith was a graduate of the University of Alabama's law school in Tuscaloosa, who'd turned to loan sharking as a natural outgrowth of his law practice, along with his principal ownership of a major bail-bond business. Lucas tucked the paper away in his pack: "I can't read in a car, I'd puke on your front seat," Lucas said. "Just talk to me."
"Smith loans some chump twelve hundred dollars at twenty percent so the chump can call up Smith's bail-bond business and give the money back on a ten-thousand-dollar bond, which requires him to hire Smith's firm to defend him."
"Got the whole thing sewn up," Lucas said. "What happens if the client is convicted?"
"Well, for one thing, the judge would probably have to give back his share of the $1,200 in bond money."
"You're a hopeless cynic," Lucas said.
"I'm a hapless Louisianan," Bob said.
They arrived at Deese's place at two o'clock in the afternoon. A line of TV vans was parked out on the highway, but the track to Deese's house had been closed with a Louisiana State Police car parked across it. The cop recognized Bob and waved them through.
"I understand this Tremanty is cute," Lucas said.
"Rae is mooning over him." He glanced sideways at Lucas. "She told him that he looks like your son. And, you know? He does."
"I'm not old enough to be an FBI agent's father," Lucas said.
"Sure you are, if you started early." They had to pull to the roadside a hundred yards short of the house. "Come on, I'll introduce you to Sandro."
"No. It's Sandro. Or Tremanty. Rae calls him Ess-Tee," Bob said.
"He's not a total asshole?"
"I hesitate to say it, but he's okay."
"That helps. Let me get my boots."
They got out of the truck and Lucas popped the back door, unzipped his Tumi suitcase, folded his suit coat into it, got the gum boots out, traded his shoes for the seventeen-inch boots, and tucked his pantlegs neatly inside. They walked down to the house, past another cop checking IDs, and went inside. Several tables with folding legs had been set up in the living room, stacked with computers and paper. The house was cool, an air conditioner rumbling from the second floor, but humid enough to make the air feel liquid.
Tremanty was standing behind a computer operator. He was as tall as Lucas, with the same dark hair and blue eyes, but slender. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Lucas and Bob, came around the table and said, "How ya doing, Dad?"
"I'm okay," Lucas said, as they shook hands. "As your father, I'd like to tell you how to run this investigation."
"Fuck that," Tremanty said.
Lucas turned to Bob: "A fed said fuck."
"Not for the first time. It's shocking, I know."
Rae came in from the back: "Lucas Davenport, suites hotels and business class travel. You sweetie."
She gave him a hug and said to Tremanty, "See? I told you. He must have visited Virginia thirty-one years ago."
Tremanty said, "I'll check with mom." To Lucas: "Listen. I'm glad to have you. I've heard about you from a couple people in Washington. You're welcome to everything we've got, but you ought to start by following Bob and Rae around the scene in the back."
"I'll do that," Lucas said. "And thanks. I'll try to help without getting in your way."
They nodded at each other and Rae said, "This way... Hey: Like your shoes."
Rae called the back lot a jungle, and it was, but now roped through with crime scene tape and new-cut trails. The undergrowth was so heavy that Lucas worried about getting bit above the knee, by a snake wrapped around a vine. He'd seen pictures like that Garden of Eden pictures, with a snake wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
He said that, and Rae said, "Garden of evil. No good in here."
Fifty yards back into the jungle, all of them yet unbitten, they found a tall, skinny, weathered man wearing mud-caked white Tyvek coveralls, a baseball hat and gum boots identical to Lucases.' He wore a belt over the coveralls, with three holsters, one carrying a .40-caliber Glock, the second a plastic canteen, and the third a Marshalltown trowel.
Bob asked him, "What about six?"
"Doc's down there taking DNA samples. It's old, it's all falling apart, we're gonna box the skull, we can see some dental work. He says it's male, for sure. We got one hand, but the flesh is gone, so there won't be any prints. Barb thinks she's got seven, by the back lot line, and Dave thinks he has eight. The dogs aren't indicating, so they may be really old and there's so much organic matter on top that they get confused. Whatever, we'll have to dig them out."
Rae said to Lucas, "This is Cory Laird, FBI, he does old bodies; Cory, this is the marshal I was telling you about, Lucas Davenport." They shook, Laird smiling and saying, "Clean hands, we all work with gloves, in case you're worried. You need the tour?"
"Like to take a look," Lucas said. "You got IDs on any of the bodies?"
"On two of them. We're shipping the DNA scans everywhere, seeing if we can pick up the others. We think that most of them come from New Orleans, or the parishes right around New Orleans. We're looking for relatives of missing people that we think might have been Deese's targets, so we can cross-check the DNA with them. Deese worked for several different mob guys over the years, some of them are dead, so figuring that out has been complicated. My best bet is we'll get all but one. It seems like in these situations, there's always one you can't identify."
Laird led them along the narrow but now well-worn path, and behind Lucas, Bob said, "Newest body is only eight months old, a woman named Bailee Wheelwright, nicknamed Bill, who kept company with Rog Smith, who I told you about."
"The lawyer, bail-bondsman, loan shark."
"Right. She was his best girl for two years and Tremanty said they were having problems and she supposedly moved to Chicago and disappeared. He'd been looking for her, hoping she'd talk about Smith, but made contact. Tremanty thinks that when they had their falling-out, she might have known too much about his operation, so... Deese."
They'd been stringing along the narrow track behind Laird, walking through shallow mud puddles along the way, past deep excavated pits, around the larger trees. Somebody had used a chain saw to open up pieces of the swamp, with the cut limbs stacked back in the heavier brush.
They took a new-cut side track to an isolated pit, where two people were working side-by-side in the hole, both dressed in Tyvek. A lunch-box like container sat outside the hole, filled with cylindrical bottles with screw-on tops. The excavations had been cut wide enough to allow the men to stand on clean earth separate from the grave hole.
"All the digging is done with trowels, an inch at a time," Laird said. "It takes a while."
Peering into the hole, Lucas could make out a dirt-colored skeleton with some rags of clothing and skin and hair. The visible bones had collapsed on top of each other, the vertebrae, arm bones and ribs crushed down over the folded leg bones, the skull on top. The only odor was that of swamp mud. The men looked up and one of them said, "Where's Larry? We need the box."
"He's coming," Laird said. "You see anything?"
"Shot in the back of the head, bullet passing through the brain and out through the left eye socket. Looks like the subject was kneeling, to get that angle. Or, the shooter could have been standing on a chair, but..."
Laird said, "Yeah."
The other man in the hole said, "This goddamn mud gets on everything. Drives me crazy. You scrape it off and one minute later, it's back on."
Lucas took the rest of the tour: two unexcavated suspicious depressions were pointed out, with Laird saying one was a sure thing, in his opinion, the other was fifty-fifty. "We're more than halfway through and there are spots in the other half that we think would have been obvious choices for burials. So... it's a big deal and getting bigger."
Rae asked Laird, "You remember that case up in Minnesota a few years ago? The Black Hole?"
"Sure. Seventeen murders and a few old skulls stolen from cemeteries, if I remember correctly. Crazy guy living with a dead man. It's a classic."
"Lucas is the guy who broke that down," she said.
"No kiddin'." He looked at Lucas with raised eyebrows. "Glad to have you, then. I hope to hell we don't have seventeen, though. That's not a record I'd want to mess with."
Of the six recoveries, including the one in the grave still being excavated, the means of death had been determined in five all gunshot wounds to the head. "It looks to us, from what Tremanty's uncovered, that Deese used guns to kill, and a club to punish. Never straight-up fights. He favored ambushes."
In the last one, the one that got him arrested, the victim, Howell Paine, said he answered the door and had been hit in the face and was on the floor before he even understood what was happening.
By then, he'd been unable to resist. He never would have known who his attacker was the man had been wearing a ski mask if his next-door neighbor hadn't taken a picture of the atttacker's car, including the license plate. He'd also taken a bite out of the man's leg and the meat he'd spit out had matched the DNA of the meat still on Deese's body. Tremanty had a watch on anything Deese-related. Howell had been put under guard, in the hospital, and when he got out, was hustled into the marshals service witness protection program.
"Never would have found this place if he'd gone to trial," Bob said, tipping his head back to look up through the jungle to the skies. "If he'd been convicted, he might've gotten ten years, or fifteen, with the wrong judge. With Roger Smith's influence, he might have gotten two or maybe none. But he would've gotten out. Now, since he ran... and we found this place... He's looking at life, at a minimum. The needle is a real possibility."
Lucas looked around. "I've seen what I need. I want to look at Tremanty's paper, and maybe get a beer with him, if he's the beer-drinking type."
"He can be," Rae said. "You've got to be a careful, though. He's pretty straight. He won't want to hear about... unorthodox investigative techniques."
On the way out, Bob suddenly blurted "Snake!" and pointed at Lucas' foot. Lucas levitated and Rae and Bob fell out laughing.
Lucas said, "I won't kick your asses right now. Revenge is best when it's cold and I've had time to think about it. Can you say, "economy class?" Can you say, seventeen-inch seats? Motel 6?"
"You wouldn't fuckin' do that," Bob said. He looked at Rae. "Would he?"
Rae: "Who are you again?" And to Lucas, "Do I know him?"
"Best for you if you don't," Lucas said. He looked around his foot, and back into the weeds, and muttered, "Snakes."
Back in the house, Tremanty asked Lucas if he'd had a chance to look through the printouts that Bob had given him: "I can't read in cars," Lucas said. "I need to do that now."
"There's a spot upstairs," Tremanty said. "Deese's office. It's cool and there's a decent chair in there."
"Any guesses on how many bodies you'll find?"
"I'm thinking ten, twelve? That's only a guess," Tremanty said. "What worries me is all the publicity we've been getting. By now, Deese knows for sure that we've found the bodies, so he's gotta be digging himself in deep. He hasn't had a lot of time to do that yet, but the longer it goes..."
"Does he have the resources to do that?" Lucas asked.
"I dunno. When we busted him, we went after his bank accounts and we got eight thousand dollars. This is a guy who was probably spending that much every month on hookers and blow. So, he wasn't keeping his income in his above-ground bank account."
"If it was hookers and cocaine, over any long period of time... those guys tend to spend everything they have. It's an addiction."
"Yeah. Even if he had a stash, it might not have been too much. His housekeeper never saw any money around the house, and she was all over it. It's possible that he's broke."
"Okay. Let me read," Lucas said. "Preferably in a place that's snake-free."
"Hey: snakes are more afraid of you, than you are of them. Not many rattlers survive an encounter with a human, but it's a rare thing when a rattlesnake kills a human being," Tremanty said.
"Right. I needed a pro-snake lecture. I'm gonna go read," Lucas said.
He spent the rest of the afternoon working through the paper with a high-lighter pen, taking breaks for Diet Cokes supplied by Rae, to walk in the jungle and look into the pits while avoiding snakes, and once, as the day faded into evening, to chat with Tremanty.
"We need to go somewhere quiet, and talk," Lucas said. "Maybe when you quit for the day?"
"There's a bar a few miles out where people go when we finish for the day," Tremanty said. "It's got booths that give you a little privacy."
"Then let's get Bob and Rae down there, and talk."
At six o'clock, everyone in the house gathered around Deese's wide-screen television to watch the news. The talking head immediately passed the camera off to a dark-haired woman who began by saying, in her best hard-news voice, "We have learned exclusively that the bodies being dug up at the home of Clayton Deese are showing signs of cannibalism..."
Everyone in the room groaned and a neatly dressed woman in a blue dress said to Tremanty, "There goes my night."
Rae leaned toward Lucas and muttered, "FBI spokeswoman."
"I'm two-thirds of the way through the paper," Lucas said. "I'm going back upstairs."
Sunset was about eight o'clock, but the jungle started getting dim at seven, even dimmer in the muddy pits, and the recovery crews began pulling out. Six men and a woman who were doing the excavations took turns in Deese's showers and were gone by eight. A dozen overnight guards began patrolling the site, under perimeter lights supplemented by laser trip-wires.
Lucas, Bob and Rae followed Tremanty out at eight o'clock, seven miles to a low, rambling concrete-block bar called Remy's. The bar was decorated with beer and wine signs, and on the door, a poster that showed a man's fist holding a revolver, with the words, "We Don't Call 911."
A twenty-foot-square dance floor sat at one end of the building, with an elevated platform against the wall that might have accommodated a five-piece band. Everything inside was old wood, fake wood, or concrete block, including a digital jukebox which was a bit of all three; a Brooks & Dunn song, Neon Moon, was burbling out into the dim interior.
The bar was populated by wary locals, most in working clothes, jeans and t-shirts, who gathered at the dance-floor end; by a few reporters who were jammed into the middle; and by cops and technicians from the Deese crime scene, who dominated the other end. Everybody seemed to be eating deep-fried shrimp or deep fried catfish, or deep-fried potatoes, string beans or cauliflower buds.
As they walked past the reporters, a photographer lifted a hand-sized camera and took a picture of Lucas. Annoying, but perfectly legal, and the photographer nodded at him. Tremanty led the way to the last booth, the only one that was empty. Lucas got the impression that it was reserved for him, and a waitress hustled over as soon as the four of them slid into it.
They ordered two beers, one Diet Coke and one lemonade, and when the waitress had gone, Tremanty looked at Lucas and asked, "What do you think?"
"I won't be any help for you at the crime scene. Neither will Bob or Rae, except maybe as tour guides. We need to go after Deese, starting now," Lucas said.
"How would you do that?" Tremanty asked.
"I've had some complicated dealings with the FBI," Lucas said. "In my experience, the FBI doesn't always want to know how the sausage got made."
"I don't want to hear about anything overtly criminal, but if it's arguable, I do want to hear about it," Tremanty said.
The waitress arrived with the drinks, beers for Bob and Rae, a lemonade for Tremanty and a Diet Coke for Lucas, and they shut up for a minute, and when she was gone, Lucas said, "I want to interview Roger Smith. I want to ask him where he thinks Deese went."
"Good luck with that," Tremanty said. "There's no way he'll going to tell you a thing. If Deese flipped on him, he could be looking at the needle himself."
"This would not be a formal recorded interview," Lucas said. "I'll ask him to take a walk. I might lie to him a little."
Tremanty gazed at him for a moment, then said, "Huh." And, a moment later, "Now that the cannibalism thing is out, the pressure is going to get intense."
"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Lucas said.
Rae was sitting next to Tremany and pushed an elbow into his arm. "We wouldn't want to use the word 'blackmail' about a Smith interview. That would be wrong."
"Why would the word even come up?" Tremanty asked.
"We've worked with Lucas before," Rae said.
"Ah. If you did use the word, what would scare him enough that he might cooperate?" Tremanty asked. "He's got a lot of reasons not to."
"That might be something that you don't want to discuss," Lucas said.
"Let's try not to wreck my career," Tremanty said. "But, if you were to do this, when would you do it?"
"Tomorrow morning, early. If you have an address for Smith? And a phone number?"
"Oh, yeah. We've got all of that. He's out late every night and sleeps in. Usually starts stirring around about ten o'clock," Tremanty said. "He has live-in help. A housekeeper, plus a driver who carries a legal gun."
"You've done surveillance on him," Lucas said.
"Sure. He's got links to every organized crime outfit in the city. Actually, more disorganized crime than anything else, but you know what I mean. Ratshit gangs trying to peel money off anything they can. A lot of dope goes through here, that's where the money is. There's some gambling and so on, but not like it used to be. Smith knows the players and his law firm does a lot of work for them."
"Was he a competent lawyer?"
"He was okay, when he was practicing," Tremanty said. "He doesn't practice anymore. He has a dozen or so associates to do the trial work. He mostly coordinates, he's the CEO. He's the biggest loan shark in town. We've heard... no, we know, that he's got a million or more on the street at any one time. He charges ten percent per week, that's around five hundred percent per year. It comes back all-cash."
"Ten percent isn't bad, for a shark," Lucas said. "New York, Chicago, they get fifteen or twenty percent."
"That's why he's the biggest in town. He's driven most of the others out of business," Tremanty said. "He's smart. Takes a smaller bite that still brings in five mil a year, donates money to windows and orphans at Christmas, only gets mean when he really has to. Like with our boy Howell Paine."
"Okay. I've read all the paper on him, tell me what you think about him."
"One thing... I'm not sure you could use it, I'm not sure I'd approve of you using it, it sort of offends my basic principles... but there's a possibility that Smith is a closeted gay. In his particular milieu, you know, thugs, he might not want that to get out."
They talked through a second round of drinks and when they were done, Lucas said, "I'll roll this out tomorrow. Right now, I need to know where there's a WalMart."
Bob and Rae were staying at a Best Western in Palquemine, but Lucas suggested that they check out and go with him to New Orleans: "I've already got rooms reserved for the three of us. I'll need you down there depending on what we find out tomorrow, we might be flying."
"We thought we might," Rae said. "We're basically packed, we've got our gear bag."
Lucas nodded. Their gear bag contained enough weaponry to start a revolution.
After leaving the Best Western, and a brief stop at a Walmart, they went on to downtown New Orleans and checked into a Hampton Inn. The trip down took an hour and a half, and they agreed to meet in the restaurant for breakfast at eight o'clock. "We should be at Smith's place by nine o'clock at the latest. I don't want to miss him," Lucas said.
Alone in his room, Lucas opened up his new burner phone, the one he'd bought at WalMart, and called WVUE. "I need to talk to the producer on the Clayton Deese cannibal story. I just got back from there and I have a tip for you."
They put him on hold for two minutes, then a producer came up and asked, "You're calling about the Clayton Deese story?"
Lucas pitched his voice up a half-octave and tried to simper. "Yes. I've been working up there and I don't agree with the way the FBI is handling the information. Your story about the cannibal aspects is correct, but what they're not telling you is that some of the victims are children. He was kidnapping and eating children. Check with the FBI and they'll be forced to tell you the truth about this."
"Could we get your name...?"
Lucas clicked off, yawned, went online, emailed Weather about his day, read her email about her day, turned on the TV and watched a ballgame. He was asleep by midnight, and up at 7:30.
He turned on the television before he went into the bathroom, hoping to get the news, and was shaving when a news alert came up and a woman said, "After our exclusive report last night, that cannibalism was involved in the Clayton Deese serial killer investigation, a tipster called a producer at this station and alleged that some of the victims now being uncovered were children. The FBI refuses to comment..."
Lucas took the razor away from his chin, smiled at himself, and muttered through the shaving cream, "You're so great, Davenport. You're a fuckin' PR genius, you know that?"
Lucas wrote a note to Roger Smith before he went downstairs. Bob and Rae were waiting in the restaurant: They all had pancakes and sausage, and Rae said, "Smith is going to tell you to stick your note where the sun don't shine."
"Maybe," Lucas said. "And maybe not."
Bob said he was intimately familiar with New Orleans, so he drove, promptly got lost, and resorted to the navigation system. They went past Audubon Park, and Lucas said, "I've heard of that place... never seen it."
"You should go someday," Bob said. "Great place to bird watch."
"You bird watch?"
"Not unless it's buffalo wings on a platter," Rae said.
"But I see people bird-watching," Bob said. "It's a nice place. This whole area is nice."
"As long as you got a Porsche," Rae said.
Smith lived in a pale green two-story house behind a wrought-iron fence on St. Charles Avenue, a few blocks from the park, with a lush yard spotted with flower gardens and manicured trees. The street was actually a boulevard, with a grassy strip between lanes and trolley tracks down the middle of the grassy strip. There were narrow on-street parking lanes, and Bob pulled into one, behind a Porsche Panamera, a half-block down from Smith's house. "You sure you don't want us to come with you?"
"Nah, I'm fine. I want to be as unintimidating as I can be, at least until I get inside," Lucas said.
Entry to Smith's yard was either through the driveway gate, which had an elaborate lock, or through an old-looking wrought iron gate that led up a stone sidewalk to the front door. The gate was closed with a simple latch, but when Lucas pushed it opened, he noticed a copper stud on the side latch: an electronic switch. He'd triggered an alarm inside the house.
The front door was set up three limestone steps and into a deep recess; there were both a lighted doorbell and a bronze knocker on the door and he leaned for an extra beat on the doorbell, and then banged the knocker a few times. A moment later, a slender, dark-complected man with close-cropped curly black hair opened the door, looked at Lucas and asked, "Jehovah's Witness?"
He made Lucas smile and Lucas said, "No, I'm a U.S. marshal. I want to visit with Mr. Smith for a moment. No warrant, no recording, a friendly conversation. I have a note for him."
"He may not be up, but after you nearly knocked down the door, he may be. Can I have the note?"
Lucas passed it to him and asked, "If you can't knock down a door with a knocker, what can you knock it down with?"
The dark eyes flicked up at him and then back down to the note, which he read aloud: "Your employee ate children? Really?"
"I thought I should ask," Lucas said.
"Wait here," the man said.
He was back in five minutes. "Roger will be down in a minute. He was awake, but he wanted to brush his teeth and splash some water on his face."
Lucas stepped inside and the man said, "Stand there for a moment." Lucas noticed that he had an electronic device in his hand that looked something like a television remote control. He passed it over Lucas' suit and up and down his legs, and Lucas said, "No wire. Or gun."
"I see that," the man said. He pushed a button on the device which made a high-pitched beeping sound, and added, "And your phone isn't recording. Come this way."
As Lucas followed him through the professionally decorated living room, down a hallway with a thirty-foot Persian runner underfoot, into a sprawling kitchen, he asked, "What's your name?"
The man thought about it for a while, then said, "Dick."
He put Lucas at a long breakfast table that appeared to be hewn from a single log and went to a coffee machine. "Cappuccino?"
"A cappuccino would be great," Lucas said. The table had a centerpiece: three ceramic chickens, molded as one piece and unglazed. They weren't simply chickens, Lucas realized, but Art with a capital A.
Dick brought Lucas a cappuccino in a china cup with a matching saucer, and went back to the coffee machine, and a moment later, Smith came through the kitchen door. He was middle height with blond hair, cut like a banker's, over pale blue eyes and a short nose. He was stocky, not fat, with a clear, pink complexion. He was wearing blue-and-white vertically striped pajamas and blue slippers. He looked, Lucas thought, as though he spent a lot of time swimming.
"Could I see some ID?" he asked, as he took a chair across from Lucas.
Lucas passed his ID case, with its badge, across the table, and Smith studied it, then passed it back and said, "No recording, no warrant, a friendly conversation."
"I can explain about that," Lucas said. "I've spent most of my life as a homicide cop in Minneapolis and with the Minnesota state police. I got the marshal's appointment through political pull. I chase guys down and put them in prison. Or kill them, if they need killing. I'm looking for Clayton Deese. I understand he worked for you from time to time and I thought you might know where he is."
"I do not," Smith said. He turned to Dick. "Do you know where Deese is?"
"I have no idea," Dick said. He gave Smith a cappuccino in another china cup and saucer. "Haven't seen him for what? A year or two? That was down at a club somewhere."
Smith turned back to Lucas. "So, are we done here?"
"In a minute," Lucas said. He and Smith both took a slip of their cappuccinos. "Here's where the street cop thing comes in. I don't really operate like a fed. I spend most of my time talking to dirtbags, like you two."
Neither man flinched, or commented.
Lucas continued: "My spider sense is telling me that you might have some idea of where he might have gone, and that's all I'm looking for. I need something specific to work with. I won't tell anyone where the information came from. If I can confirm it from federal files, I'll tell anyone who asks that the files were my source, not you guys."
The two glanced at each other, then Smith asked, "Or what? There's something else in here, isn't there? The mailed fist in the velvet glove."
"The children Deese ate," Lucas said.
"I seriously doubt..."
"Yeah, but the media doesn't..."
"The media are a crowd of morons," Dick said.
"Who can be seriously annoying. If all the television stations were to find out that you were Deese's boss and that he ate children, I doubt you could find a parking spot out on your street. It would be filled with TV vans with those twenty-foot Christmas-tree antennas sticking out of their roofs. Your neighbors would love that. 'The cannibal's employer, right here on St. Charles.' And every time a car came down the driveway..."
"I get the picture," Smith said. "You can guarantee that wouldn't happen anyway?"
"I can't guarantee anything," Lucas said. "I can tell you two things for sure. Nobody would hear anything from me. And you know what the feds are like, with evidence: they won't be talking. You also have to consider the fact that not only did Deese butcher and eat his victims, but on at least one occasion, he ate a guy's liver. With onions, I'm guessing."
Again, neither man flinched, but they did exchange another glance.
Lucas added, "By the way, Rog, one of the victims was your ex-girlfriend, Miz Wheelwright. She was one of the first bodies they pulled out of the muck. And yeah, she was eaten."
For the first time, Smith seemed perturbed, his face going a shade paler: "Don't tell me that."
"I'm telling you that," Lucas said. "More grist for the media mills, since your relationship was well-known around town. I can't promise that won't get out, either, but it won't come from me."
"He really ate kids?"
"That's what WVUE is saying, on its morning newscasts."
Dick closed his eyes, tipped his head back and said, "Oh, shit."
Smith said "Give me a minute."
He turned away from Lucas and stared at a pastel-blue wall for at least a minute: thinking.
Then he turned back and said, "Sit right here. I've got to run upstairs."
He left the kitchen and Lucas asked Dick, "Where's he going?"
Dick shrugged: "Maybe he didn't take his morning pee."
Smith was back in two minutes, "I don't know where Deese went. You think he worked for me, but that's incorrect, in a sense. Deese was a freelancer and he worked for anyone who could pay him, as long as he didn't cross... certain lines."
"As long as he didn't work for your rivals," Lucas suggested.
"You said that, not I. As I said, I don't know where he is, but I could speculate. He has a half-brother out in Los Angeles. They are close. Very close. His brother is some kind of hard-core stick-up man," Smith said. "That's what I've heard, but I've never met him or spoken to him. He would have some resources that Deese needs, if he's running. I know that Deese would meet him in both in LA and in Vegas, when he went to visit. That would happen every few months. The brothers like to gamble and I think they may have an uncle out there, too. Out in the desert, near Vegas. Deese was joking about him one time. Called him a desert rat, said he mined for turquoise."
"His brother's name is Deese? Deese what? What's his first name?"
"No, it's Martin Keller or Martin Lawrence. Those are the two names I've heard. If either of those are his real name, you should be able to find substantial files on him. I know he's been in prison. A couple of years ago, Deese told me that if I ever had to get in touch with him in a hurry, in an emergency, when he was traveling, I could call a number. It's a... switchboard, so to speak."
He handed Lucas a piece of notepad paper with a phone number scrawled in blue ink.
"That's an LA area code. I've never called it because I've never had to, and to tell the truth, if I ever did call it, I'd do it from a pay phone or something. He said to call only after nine o'clock at night, LA time, and ask for Martin Lawrence. That's all the help I can give you, because that's all I know. From one dirtbag to another, I can tell you, I'd like to find that sonofabitch Deese myself. I won't explain that, other than to say, he never should have run."
"Why didn't he have a cell phone you could call him on?" Lucas asked.
"Think about that," Smith said.
"Okay, I get it. The FBI is probably wired into your testicles. And if Deese hadn't run, you wouldn't have this problem."
"No comment, though I'd appreciate it if you'd kill him," Smith said. And, "I'd offer you another cup of coffee, but I have a business meeting downtown in an hour and I need to get dressed."
"One more question: do you think, or have any reason at all to believe, that Deese had a lot of money stashed?"
Smith said, "I don't know. I'm sure he had some but I don't believe he had much. The guy put more cocaine up his nose than the average country singer. That kind of habit really eats up your cash."
Lucas stood up, nodded, and said, "I hope I don't have to talk to you again."
"I share that hope," Smith said. He turned to Dick and said, "Show the marshal the way to the door."
On the way out, Dick said, "I believe Roger misspoke. Clayton once told me his brother hung out in Marina Del Rey, not in the city of Los Angeles itself. Deese said the marina is a pussy-rich environment, which is why he'd go out there, in addition to seeing his brother."
Lucas said, "I'll check that."
Dick said, "Don't fall down the steps," which made Lucas smile again.
Dick was sort of a card.
When Davenport was gone, Santos made sure the door was shut, then watched him walk out to the street. A moment later, he was out of sight, and Santos climbed the stairs to Smith's bedroom, where Smith was buckling up a pair of dress pants.
"He's gone," Santos said.
"Luke Davenport. Do some of your computer shit, look him up, see if we need to worry. I have a feeling that he's not your average flatfoot. See if he might have money problems or any other levers we could use."
"I can do that."
"I'm talking to Dixon in..." Smith glanced at his Patek Philippe... "Fifteen minutes. Larry's coming with me, we're meeting outside the bank. Dixon's going to want to do something about Phil, and we might have to. Shouldn't take long to figure it out. I'll see you back at the office in an hour or so."
Santos nodded: "What about Deese?"
"Call him. Carefully. One of two things has to happen: Deese has to have enough money and ID that he can get out of the country and stay there; or, he's got to be killed. I'll take either. Getting the marshals to kill him would be a huge bonus. But just in case, call him and see how much cash he needs."
"Remember how he said that if the cops caught up with him, he'd shoot his way out or die?"
"A lot of guys say that, but when it comes time to take a bullet, they pussy-out," Smith said. "Make the call."
"I can do that. I'll go to the office, first, and I'll call from a pay phone over in Slidell, later in the afternoon. Different area code. And I think the marshal's name was Lucas, not Luke."
Santos drove to Smith's law offices, where he had a corner cubicle at the back, over-looking a neighbor's garden. He liked to open the windows in the spring, when he could smell the lilacs and the new flowers pushing up and opening, and the days weren't yet hot. A neighbor two more houses down the street had a chicken coop and he could sometimes hear the chickens complaining to each other. He'd never heard a rooster crow, and one of the women in the office said that roosters were illegal in New Orleans, but not hens.
Way of the world.
Santos sat behind his desk, turned on his laptop computer which opened with software that would route him around a couple of different continents before opening the target websites. The NSA might possibly be able to track him, he thought, but Smith was too small-time to draw that kind of attention.
When he put Davenport's name into the machine, he got several hundred hits. He took notes on a legal pad because, unlike a computer, the notes could be fed into a shredder.
There was always a hustle around the office, people coming and going, phones ringing, office doors opening and closing, talk in the hallways. He ignored it all until Smith stuck his head in the doorway, two hours after they'd parted, and asked, "Well?"
Santos leaned back.
"Davenport's smart and violent. Years ago, when he was a Minneapolis cop, he made some money designing role-playing games. Like Dungeons and Dragons, that kind of thing. Not a lot of money, but some. Later, he apparently got run out of the police department on brutality charges that were covered up. So he started a computer company that focused on software for cops and based on the kind of games he used to invent. He wrote out the concepts and hired some college kids to do the coding and he made a fortune. He's got more money than you do, Rog. We won't get at him that way. Then he joined the state cops, quit there after a few years and became a marshal. He's politically connected all the way up to Washington and with both parties."
"All reasons not to mess with him, then," Smith said.
"Here's another reason. It's hard to tell exactly what happened gotta give me a little rope here but he was apparently investigating free-lance military guys in Washington who were hired to kill a U.S. senator. They tried to get Davenport off their backs by going after his wife. They faked an auto accident, almost killed her."
"If it'd been us, we wouldn't have missed..."
"But here's the point," Santos said. "The military guys? They're dead. Well, one's missing and one's in prison, but the others are all dead."
"Huh. All right. If we have to get any further involved in this, we stay away from him."
"A good idea, I think," Santos said. "I'm worried about him getting to Deese. Deese knows..."
"Way too much."
Later that afternoon, Santos drove over to Slidell and called Deese to tell him about the marshal. Deese asked, "What's it to you? Don't tell me that Rog is worried about my personal safety."
"No, he's worried about his personal safety. If these marshals grab you, you'll be looking at the death penalty, and if that's the case, you might be tempted to make a deal. Rog wants you gone, and he's willing to pay. He thinks you probably need the money."
Deese laughed. "Man, I had a quarter-million six months ago, and I spent it. That ain't gonna do it. Tell him to call me when he gets real."