Authors: John Ramsey Miller
To my father, Rev. Rush Glenn Miller.
If a better man exists, I have yet to meet him.
Raves for John Ramsey Miller's spellbinding
novels of suspense
“John Ramsey Miller's
needs to come with a warning label. To start the story is to put the rest of your life on hold as you obsessively turn one page after the other. With a story this taut, and characters this vivid, there's no putting the book down before you've consumed the final word. A thrilling read.” —John Gilstrap, author of
is a great read! John Ramsey Miller's tale of big-city mobsters, brilliant killers and a compellingly real U.S. marshal has as many twists and turns as running serpentine through a field of fire and keeps us turning pages as fast as a Blackhawk helicopter's rotors! Set aside an uninterrupted day for this one; you won't want to put it down.” —Jeffery Deaver, author of
The Vanished Man
The Stone Monkey
“[Full of] complications and surprises . . . Miller gifts [his characters] with an illuminating idiosyncrasy. This gives us great hope for future books as well as delight in this one.”
—Drood Review of Mystery
“Twists and turns on every page keep you in phenomenal suspense until the last page. Superb novel.”
The Last Family
“A relentless thriller.”
“Fast-paced, original, and utterly terrifying—true, teeth-grinding tension. I lost sleep reading the novel, and then lost even more sleep thinking about it. Martin Fletcher is the most vividly drawn, most resourceful, most horrifying killer I have encountered. Hannibal Lecter, eat your heart out.” —Michael Palmer
“The best suspense novel I've read in years!” —Jack Olsen
“Martin Fletcher is one of the most unspeakably evil characters in recent fiction. . . . A compelling read.”
“The author writes with a tough authority and knows how to generate suspense.”
“Suspenseful . . . Keeps readers guessing with unexpected twists.”
Thanks to my agent, Anne Hawkins of Hawkins & Associates, NYC, and my editor, Kate Miciak, who introduced me to Faith Ann Porter, and whose patient guidance and support have been crucial in the Winter Massey series. My thanks also to Nita Taublib and Irwyn Applebaum, and all of the people at Bantam Dell who worked to make sure
's best foot was put forward.
I apologize for any and all inaccuracies in this book. My wife and I lived in New Orleans for ten wonderful years, and it seems that my characters keep insisting I go back down there to refresh my memory and accuracy since the city changes things without consulting me. When practicable, I am faithful to actual locations, businesses and the street names, but sometimes accuracy is inconvenient and begs for alteration.
Thanks to my dear friends in New Orleans: Nathan Hoffman and his wife, author Erica Spindler, and to William, Stephanie and Garrett Greiner for their hospitality while Susie and I were doing research for this book.
I appreciate the help of NOPD's Captain Marlon Defilo, Homicide Lt. James Keen, Sgt. John Rice, the Assistant Commander of Homicide.
Thanks to the copilot and engineer on the Canal Street ferry, the USS
for patiently answering my “what if” questions without calling Homeland Security.
To my friend, fellow author John Gilstrap, whose sense of humor never fails to cheer me up, and whose understanding and love of our craft always inspires me to try harder.
Heartfelt thanks to all of the doctors and staff at North East Medical Center's George A. Batte Cancer Center in Concord, N.C., who saved my wife Susan's life.
Thanks to childhood friends, Johnny Ward and Larry Levington, and to the revitalizing effects of their company. Thank God for the C.H.S. Memorial Gramling Art Class Wildlife Sanctuary & Gun Club—where the woodstove is hot, the conversation is easy, the wine plentiful, the cigars smooth, and the deer couldn't be safer.
I wish I could individually thank all of the people who inspire me and support me and those people who are my friends. I cherish every one of them. They know who they are, and I do too.
|1||Baton Rouge, Louisiana|
Friday / 4:01
From ground level, the automobile graveyard looked boundless. The moon was like an open eye that, when it peered through holes in the clouds, was reflected in thousands of bits of chrome and glass. After the four figures passed under a buzzing quartz-halogen lamp set on a pole, long shadows ran out from them, reaching across the oil-stained earth like the fingers of a glove.
The quartet entered a valley where rusting wrecks, stagger-stacked like bricks, formed walls twenty feet tall. One of the three men carried a lantern that squeaked as it swung back and forth.
The woman's tight leather pants showed the precise curve of her buttocks, the rock-hard thighs, and the sharply cut calf muscles. A dark woolen V-neck under her windbreaker kept the chill at a comfortable distance. The visor on her leather ball cap put her face in deeper shadow.
They stopped. When the man fired up his lantern, hard-edged white light illuminated the four as mercilessly as a flashbulb.
Marta Ruiz's hair fell down the center of her back like a horse's tail. In an evening gown she could become an exotic, breathtaking creature that made otherwise staid men stammer like idiots. “How far now?” she asked. Her accent had a slight Latin ring to it.
“Not too far,” Cecil Mahoney said, looking down at the much shorter woman. An extremely large and powerfully built man, Mahoney looked like a crazed Viking. His thick bloodred facial hair so completely covered his mouth that his words might have been supplied by a ventriloquist. He wore a black leather vest over a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, filthy jeans with pregnant knees, and engineer boots. His thick arms carried so many tattoos that it looked like he was wearing a brilliantly colored long-sleeved shirt. Silver rings adorned his fingers, the nails of which were dead ringers for walnut hulls.
The other two men were dull-eyed muscle without conscience or independent thought. Cecil Mahoney was the biggest crystal methamphetamine wholesaler in the South and the leader of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club. Stone-cold killers pissed their pants when a thought of Cecil Mahoney invaded their minds. Few people could muster the kind of rage required to use their bare hands like claws and literally rip people into pieces like Cecil could.
The three men didn't see Marta as a physical threat. How could such a small woman harm them—kick them in the shins, bite and scratch? They had seen that she was unarmed when she stepped out of the car and put on a nylon jacket so lightweight that any one of them could have wadded up the garment, stuffed it into his mouth, and swallowed it like a tissue.
They turned a corner, moved deeper into the yard.
“Over there,” Cecil said.
They stopped at the sharply angled rear of a Cadillac Seville with its front end smashed into a mushroom of rusted steel. Marta's sensitive nose picked up the sickly sweet odor, folded somewhere in the oily stench of petroleum and mildewed fabric, of something else in decay. One of the henchmen lifted the trunk lid while the other held up the lantern so Marta could see inside.
“Careful you don't puke all over yourself, little girl,” Cecil warned.
Marta leaned in, took the corpse's head in her bare hands, and twisted the face up into the light. The way the skin moved under her fingers told her a great deal. There were two bands of duct tape surrounding the head; one covering the mouth and nose and another over the eyes and both ears. It made the features impossible to read, which was now irrelevant. Other than hair color, this corpse was not even close to the woman she had come to identify and to kill.
“Where's the reward?” Cecil grunted.
“The money is in my car's trunk, but whether or not it belongs to you is a question I can't yet answer,” Marta told him.
“That's her, and I'm getting that reward.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.”
“Okay, gal, you've seen her enough.”
The low position of the lantern made Cecil look even more menacing—his small water-blue eyes glittering. He used a lot of what he sold. From the start he had made it abundantly clear to Marta that dealing with a woman was beneath him. His first words to her had been that he didn't know why anybody would send a “split tail” to do important business. He had referred to her as a “juicy little thang.” If she played this wrong, she would be raped and murdered in some unspeakable manner. She knew the piece of trunk cheese was no more Amber Lee than Cecil Mahoney was the Son of God. The needle marks on the dead woman's arm alone were enough to tell her this girl was some overdosed waif. It followed that the envelope Amber had in her possession would not be there. Marta hoped Arturo was having luck tracking the woman in New Orleans.
“You failed to mention that she was dead. Why is that?”
Cecil's patience was thinning. “Bitch choked on her own vomit. Look, honeypot, a hundred thousand clams was the deal. So stop with the questions. Let's go get my money.”
“It wasn't a dead-or-alive offer, Mr. Mahoney. There were questions that we needed to ask her, and can't now. My boss expects accuracy in the information he receives from me. You said that she was alive. When did she die?”
“It's damn unfortunate. Boomer found her dead yesterday evening choked on puke. Ain't that right, Boomer?”
The man holding the lantern nodded. “I found her dead yesterday. Choked on her puke.”
“I wonder how she gained so much weight in so few days.”
“Well, she's just bloating up 'cause it's hot in a car trunk.”
“Hot in there,” Boomer agreed.
The temperature had not risen above fifty-five degrees in the past two days. “Take
out,” Marta told the men.
“What the hell for?”
“It will be abundantly clear to you, Mr. Mahoney, when they take
“Get old Amber out, then,” Cecil ordered. Boomer put the lantern on the ground and both he and the third man reached in, wrestled the body from the trunk, and dropped it to the oil-crusted black dirt like a bag of trash. In the lantern light the men looked like depraved giants. As Marta squatted beside the corpse, she pinched her cap's brim as if pulling it down and withdrew from it a wide matte-black double-edged ceramic blade that fit inside the bill. She palmed it, holding the blade flat against her forearm. She knew what was going to happen in the coming few seconds just as surely as if they had all been rehearsing it for days. “You are right, Cecil, it doesn't smell so good. Like it's been dead longer than one day.”
“Bodies,” Cecil said. “Who can account for spoil rates?”
She shrugged. “You have a knife?” She held out her right hand, palm up.
“Knife for what?” he asked.
“A knife, yes or no?”
She didn't know how much longer Cecil would allow this charade to run. Still entertained, he reached into his vest pocket and placed a stag-handled folding knife in her hand. She opened it using her teeth and tested the edge for sharpness with the side of her thumb. Much better than she would have hoped.
A man and his tools
“You could shave your little pussy with it,” Cecil muttered.
Nervous snickers—six fiery, obscene pig eyes.
She reached out suddenly and sliced through the duct tape, laying the corpse's cheek open from the jaw to the teeth twice to form parentheses that crossed at the top and bottom. She jabbed the blade into the flesh and lifted out the plug in the same way one might remove a piece of pumpkin to make a jack-o'-lantern's eye. The dark purple tissue was crawling with what looked like animated kernels of rice.
“Aw, man!” Boomer exclaimed.
“You're trying to pull one over on me,” she chastised.
“Hell, honey,” Cecil said, “I never was too good with times and days and all. I'm better with arithmetic like adding up you and this corpse and getting a hundred thousand in cash money.” Cecil and the other two men had her boxed in, the open trunk at her back. That was fine, she wasn't going anywhere.
Marta remained on her haunches, tightened her leg muscles, and bounced up and down gently so maybe they believed that she was nervous. She would have preferred to be barefoot, because she had gone without shoes for most of her life and felt more secure that way. The sharp clutter in the junkyard made that impractical. “You think you are getting a dime for this fraud, you're even a bigger moron than people say you are.”
“How about I dump you and the maggoty little whore in the trunk and take the cash?”
“What will you tell my boss's men when they come to find me?”
Cecil slipped a revolver from behind his back and held it by his side, barrel down. He cocked the hammer, probably imagining the sound intimidated her. “That you never showed up. Must a run off with his cash. Or I'll say, ‘Just kiss my ass.' Boys, I think it's gonna be plan two.”
“What is plan two?” she asked. She was aware that the man on her left had pulled a pistol from his coat pocket. The man called Boomer had something in his right hand. She didn't care what it was, because unless they all had grenades with the pins already pulled, they might as well be holding tulips. She turned Cecil's Puma knife in her hand so the blade was aimed up.
“Plan two is the old ‘snuff-the-Beaner-cunt' plan.”
“You aren't man enough to snuff this Beaner, Cecilia Baloney.” Her next words were hard as Arkansas stone, certain as taxes. “And as a woman I resent the C-word coming from the rotten-tooth stink-hole mouth of a stupid, syphilitic, dog-fucking redneck puke.” Keeping her left fist in shadow, she twisted the flat blade she had taken from her cap into position.
The other two men sniggered at her insult, which infuriated Cecil. “Watch it happen . . . you stinking wetback blow job.” As he raised the gun up, she launched her light body into the air, slicing, the Puma up through Cecil's right bicep like an oar's edge through still water. Before his handgun hit the ground, Cecil had spun and fled for the front gate, howling and holding his useless arm.
Marta spun a full revolution, a whirling dervish with her arms extended so that one blade was much higher than the other. After the spin, she squatted between the confused men. Balanced on her haunches, she looked like a jockey on the home stretch—her elbows out like wings, her hands in front of her face level with her chin like she was pulling back hard on reins. Instead of leather leads, the wetly lacquered blades radiated out from her fists. Knowing the men were no longer a threat, she focused straight ahead, her eyes following Cecil as he ran through the valley of wrecks.
The nameless third man pulled his hands up to his neck, perhaps to see what the sudden blast of cold against his throat meant. His scream gargled out from a new mouth below his jawline. He stamped his boots a couple of times like he was marching in place to music and collapsed. His feet quivered as though he was being electrocuted.
Boomer dropped to his knees and stared at the bloody pile growing on the ground below him. When he turned his eyes to her in disbelief, she smiled at him.
She said, “That was the Beaner cunt's plan number one.” She stood and, laughing melodiously, loped out into the dark after Cecil.
By the eerie lantern light, the kneeling man worked to gather up the steaming mess that had slid out of him and put it all back.