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Authors: John Lutz

Ride the Lightning

AN ALO NUDGER MYSTERY

RIDE THE LIGHTNIN
G

Two-time Shamus Award-winner JOHN LUTZ has produced more than thirty novels and 200 short stories, becoming “one of the most reliable pros of American P.I. writing,” according to
The Washington Post
. His
SWFSeeks Same
was the basis for the 1992 movie
Single White Female
starring Bridget Fonda. A for
mer president of both the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America, he was awarded Lifetime Achievement honors from the PWA in 1995. Lutz lives in Webster Groves, Missouri, where he once worked as a switchboard operator for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

RIDE TH
E

LIGHTNING
JOHN LUT
Z
ibook
s

ne
w york

www.ibooksinc.co
m

An Original Publication of ibooks, inc.

Copyright
©
1987, 2001 John Lut
z
Afterword copyright
©
2001 John Lutz

An ibooks, inc. Book

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book
or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
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http://www.ibooksinc.co
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ISBN 1-5901-9096-3
First ibooks printing June 2001

Cover photograph copyright
©
2001 Studio MPM/The Image Bank
Cover design by Mike Rivilis
Interior design by Michael Mendelsohn and MM Design 2000, Inc.

Fo
r
I. Ingelsfeld,
by any other name

RIDE TH
E
LIGHTNING

It is a fact‚ or I have dreamt it—that by means o
f
electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve,
vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?
Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with
intelligence: or shall we say it is itself a thought, nothing but
thought, and no longer the substance which we dreamed it.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

The House of the Seven Gables

This is a marvel of the universe
To fling a thought across a stretch of sky—
Some weighty message, or a yearning cry
.

—Josephine L. Peabody

Wireless

I

slanted sheet of rain swept like a scythe across Placid Grove Trailer Park. For an instant, an intricate web of lightning illuminated the park. The rows of mobile homes loomed square and still and pale against the night, reminding Nudger of tombs with awnings and TV antennas. He hadn’t been back long from a trip to New Orleans, where, because of the swampy soil, the dead are interred above-ground. That was how the trailer park seemed at that moment in the storm, with no sign of anyone outside the mobile homes. Only here the dead had cars parked nearby, and occasionally one of the entombed could be seen moving behind a draped window.

Nudger shivered, and held his black umbrella at a sharp angle against the wind as he walked. He slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. Squinting fiercely, tilting his head to the side to catch faint light off the paper, he double-checked the address he was trying to find in the maze of trailers. Though the night was warm, the rain was oddly cold and seemed to find its way down the back of his neck no matter how he held his umbrella. He
stuffed the water-spotted paper back into his pocket and walked on, trailing a wing-tip shoe through a deep puddle and cursing softly.

Finally, at the end of Tranquillity Lane, he found num
ber 307 and knocked on its metal door.

He didn’t have long to wait. There was a light on inside the trailer; he saw someone’s shadow cross a drawn shade, moving toward the door. The wind shot some more rain his way and threatened to snatch the umbrella away from him and play roughly with it. He felt the wet plastic handle rotate powerfully in his grip and squeezed it tighter, edging in closer to the trailer for shelter.

“I’m Nudger,” he said, when the door opened.

For several seconds the woman in the doorway stood staring out at him, rain blowing in beneath the trailer’s small metal awning to spot her cornflower-colored dress and ruffle her straw-blond hair. She was tall but very thin, fragile-looking, and appeared at first glance to be about twelve years old. Nudger’s second glance revealed her to be in her mid-twenties. She had slight crow’s feet at the corners of her pale blue eyes when she winced as a raindrop struck her face, a knowing cast to her oversized, full-lipped mouth with its slightly buck teeth. There was no one who could look much like her, no middle ground with her; men would consider her scrawny and homely, or they would see her as uniquely sensuous. Nudger liked coltish girl-women; he catalogued her as attractive.

“Whoee!” she said at last, as if seeing Nudger for the first time as she’d stepped out to check the weather. “Ain’t it raining something terrible?”

“It is,” Nudger agreed. “And on me.”

Her entire thin body gave a quick, nervous kind of jerk as she smiled apologetically. “I’m Candy Ann Adams, Mr.

Nudger. And you are getting wet, all right. Come on in.”

She moved aside and Nudger stepped up into the trailer. He expected it to be surprisingly spacious; he’d once lived in and had his office in a trailer and remembered it as such. But this one was cramped and confining. The furniture was cheap and its upholstery threadbare. A portable black-andwhite TV on a tiny table near the Scotch-plaid sofa was blaring shouts of ecstasy emitted by “Let’s Make a Deal” contestants. It was hot in here, and the air was thick with the smell of something greasy that had been fried too long.

Candy Ann cleared a stack of
People
magazines from a vinyl chair and motioned with a lissome arm for Nudger to sit down. He folded his umbrella, left it leaning by the door, and sat. Candy Ann started to say something, then jerked her thin body in that peculiar way of hers, almost a twitch, as if she’d just remembered something not only with her mind but with her blood and muscle, and walked over and switched off the noisy television; a heavyset dark-haired woman with bangs screamed joyfully as she disappeared from the screen. In the abrupt silence, the rain seemed to beat on the metal roof with inspired fury. Maybe the storm was a Monty Hall fan.

“That’s some quieter, so we can talk,” Candy Ann proclaimed, sitting opposite Nudger on the undersized sofa. Her voice had a soft Ozark lilt to it, not unpleasant. “You a sure-enough private investigator?”

“I’m that,” Nudger said. “Did someone recommend me to you, Miss Adams?”

“Gotcha out of the Yellow Pages. And if you’re gonna work for me, it might as well be Candy Ann without the Adams.”

“Except on the check,” Nudger said.

She grinned a devilish twelve-year-old’s grin. “Oh, sure, don’t worry none about that. I wrote you out a check already, just gotta fill in the amount. That is, if you agree to take the job. You might not.”

“Why not?”

“It has to do with my fiancé, Curtis Colt.”

Nudger listened for a few seconds to the rain crashing on the roof. The name Curtis Colt rattled around with familiarity in his mind, and with an unsettling connotation. It didn’t take him long to place where he’d heard it, read it. All over the news media a year or so ago, and again more recently. He said, “The Curtis Colt who’s going to be executed next week?”

“That’s the one. Only he didn’t kill that liquor-store woman. I know it for a fact, Mr. Nudger. It ain’t right he should have to ride the lightning.”

“ ‘Ride the lightning’?”

“That’s what convicts call dying in the electric chair, Mr. Nudger.” She crossed her thin bare arms, cupping her elbows in her hands, as if she were cold. “They call that chair lotsa things: Old Sparky . . . The Hot Squat ...The Lord’s Frying Pan. But Curtis don’t belong sitting in it wired up, and I can prove it.”

“It’s a little late for that kind of talk,” Nudger said. “Or did you testify for Curtis in court?”

“Nope. Couldn’t testify. You’ll see why. All them lawyers and the judge and jury don’t even know about me. Curtis didn’t want them to know, so he never told them.” Keeping her grip-locked arms drawn in close to her body, she crossed her legs and swung her left calf jauntily; the arms and legs might have belonged to two different people conveying two different moods. Her face went with the legs; she was smiling as if trying to flirt him into wanting to know more about the job, so he could free Curtis Colt by a governor’s reprieve at the last minute, just like in an old movie. Was Curtis Colt even now talking out of the corner of his mouth about tunneling under a wall?

Nudger studied her gauntly pretty, country-girl face and said, “Tell me about Curtis Colt.”

“You mean you didn’t read about him in the newspapers or see him on the television?”

“I only scan the media for misinformation. Give me the details.”

“Well, they say Curtis was inside the liquor store, sticking it up—him and his partner had done three other places that night, all of ’em gas stations, though—when this old man that owned the place came out of a back room and seen his wife with her hands up and Curtis holding the gun on her. So the old man lost his head and ran at Curtis, and Curtis had to shoot him. He had no choice whatsoever. Then the woman got mad when she seen that and ran at Curtis, and Curtis shot her. She’s the one that died. The old man, he’ll live, but he can’t talk nor think nor even feed himself.”

Nudger remembered more about the case now. Curtis Colt had been found guilty of first-degree murder, and because of the debate in the legislature over the merits of cyanide gas versus electricity, the state was breaking out the electric chair to make him the first killer executed in Missouri by electricity in over a quarter of a century. Those of the back-to-basics school considered that progress.

“They’re gonna shoot Curtis full of electricity next Saturday, Mr. Nudger,” Candy Ann said plaintively. She sounded like a little girl complaining that the grade on her report card wasn’t fair.

“I know,” Nudger said. “But I don’t see how I can help you. Or, more specifically, help Curtis Colt.”

“You know what they say thoughts really are, Mr.

Nudger?” Candy Ann said, ignoring his professed helplessness. Her wide blue eyes were vague as she searched for words. “Thoughts ain’t nothing but tiny electrical impulses in the brain. I read that somewheres or other. What I can’t help wondering is, when they shoot all that electricity into Curtis, what’s it gonna be like to his thinking? How long will it seem like to him before he finally dies? Will there by a big burst of crazy thoughts along with the pain? I know it sounds loony, but I can’t help laying awake nights thinking about that, and I feel I just gotta do whatever’s left to try and help Curtis.”

There was a sort of checkout-line-tabloid logic in that, Nudger conceded; if thoughts were actually weak electrical impulses, then high-voltage electrical impulses could become exaggerated, horrible thoughts. Anyway, try to disprove it to Candy Ann, who whiled away her time with
People
and game shows.

“They never did catch Curtis’ buddy, the driver who sped away and left him in that service station, did they?” Nudger asked.

“Nope. Curtis never told who the driver was, neither, no matter how much he was threatened. Curtis is a stubborn man.”

Nudger was getting the idea. “But you know who was driving the car.”

“Yep. And he told me him and Curtis was miles away from that liquor store at the time it was robbed. When he seen the police closing in on Curtis at that gas station where Curtis was buying cigarettes, he hit the accelerator and got out of the parking lot before they could catch him. The police didn’t even get the car’s license-plate number.”

Nudger rubbed a hand across his chin, watching Candy Ann swing her leg as if it were a shapely metronome. She was barefoot and wearing no nylon hose. “The jury thought Curtis not only was at the liquor store, but that he shot the old man and woman in cold blood.”

“That purely ain’t true, though. Not according to—” She caught herself before uttering the man’s name.

“Curtis’ friend,” Nudger finished.

“That’s right. And he oughta know,” Candy Ann said righteously. The rain took another whack at the trailer; something metal moaned in the wind. The trailer rocked, caught in a Missouri summertime monsoon. All this rain was good for the farmers, the ones who still had farms.

“None of this means anything unless the driver comes forward and substantiates that he was with Curtis somewhere other than at the liquor store when it was robbed.”

Candy Ann nodded and stopped swinging her leg. “I know. But he won’t. He can’t. That’s where you come in.”

“My profession might enjoy a reputation a notch lower than dognapper,” Nudger said, “but I don’t hire out to do anything illegal.”

“What I want you to do
is
legal,” Candy Ann said in a hurt little voice. Nudger looked past her into the dollhouse kitchen and saw an empty gin bottle on the sink counter. He wondered if she might be slightly sloshed. “It’s the eyewitness accounts that got Curtis convicted,” she went on. “And those people are mixed up. I want you to figure out some way to convince them it wasn’t Curtis they seen that night.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but four people, two of them customers in the liquor store, picked Curtis out of a police lineup.”

“You ain’t wrong. But so what if them four did identify Curtis? Who thinks or sees straight when there’s a shooting going on? Ain’t eyewitnesses often mistaken?”

Nudger had to admit that they were, though he didn’t see how they could be in this case. There were, after all, four of them. And yet, Candy Ann was right; it was amazing how people could sometimes be so certain that the wrong man had committed a crime just five feet in front of them.

“I want you to talk to them witnesses,” Candy Ann said. “Find out
why
they think Curtis was the killer. Then show them how they might be wrong and get them to change what they said.”

“That might be like throwing chaff into the wind,” Nudger said, “to put it politely.”

“Except we got the truth on our side, Mr. Nudger. At least one witness will change his story when he’s made to think about it. Because Curtis wasn’t where they said he was. He was someplace else, and that’s a fact as solid and unchangeable as the sun and the stars.”

“The sun and stars are expanding,” Nudger told her. “Flying apart at millions of miles per hour. The Big Bang theory, scientists call it.”

“I wouldn’t know nothing about some big bang, Mr. Nudger. What I know is that Curtis didn’t kill nobody.”

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