Clayton Deese looks like a small-time criminal, muscle for hire when his loan shark boss needs to teach someone a lesson. Now, seven months after a job that went south and landed him in jail, Deese has skipped out on bail, and the U.S. Marshals come looking for him. They don’t much care about a low-level guy–it’s his boss they want–but Deese might be their best chance to bring down the whole operation.
Then, they step onto a dirt trail behind Deese’s rural Louisiana cabin and find a jungle full of graves.
Now Lucas Davenport is on the trail of a serial killer who has been operating for years without notice. His quarry is ruthless, and–as Davenport will come to find–full of surprises . . .
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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, on one shoulder, of a wolf with a biker’s head in its jaws, and, on the other, a witchy Medusa in black ink, with spitting cobras for hair.
Smart? Smart enough for the job anyway.
People who got close to him usually stepped back: Deese smelled bad. He didn’t know it, and people didn’t tell him because . . . well, 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 big on barbecue 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 barbecue, 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 for about four minutes, which would get it done 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 with onions in his oven, crispy, then pile on the 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 the swampland behind his house.
When you were hired to hurt someone, as opposed to killing him, or her, there was always one big problem: a surviving witness. The solution to that was to make it known that being a loudmouthed witness would lead directly to something worse than pain.
In this case, the conversation with the boss had gone like this:
“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 boss’s 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 woodchipper.”
“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 flying 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 CARRIED 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 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 an abolitionist U.S. senator named Charles Sumner after Sumner had 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 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 getting hit with a hammer, but a hammer with a thirty-seven-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 to him from the grill.
He was tired, Deese was. He’d murdered a young woman that day and had buried her body an hour ago. Now he had Howell Paine. Busy, busy, busy.
Howell Paine had 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 wouldn’t be able to 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, only pausing to steal two bottles of eighteen-year-old Macallan scotch and the ex-husband’s 18-karat 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 Hyman’s Rougarou 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 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 multicolored 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 paint 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 of 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 looked for a full minute, watching for eyes. He saw nothing alive 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 somebody who was frying bacon wouldn’t be running outside anytime soon.
He slipped the tan ski mask out of his pocket, pulled it over his head, turned toward the door and knocked, raising the cane, ready to kick it open. 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 of the bottles 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.
He was farther away from the door than he normally would have been as he reached out and twisted the doorknob as Deese kicked it and the door exploded inward and Deese was swinging his walking stick at Paine’s face.
Paine blocked the blow with the whisky bottle, which shattered, spraying glass across his face and into the room. Paine screamed in pain and rage, and found, in his hand, the jagged remnants of the broken bottle. Deese was off balance, having swung at a man farther away than expected, and it took him a split second to recover. In that split second, Paine jabbed at Deese’s 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 a fraction of a second, which was time enough for the stick to come around again, and Deese used it to break Paine’s arm, the one with the bottle.
Paine screamed as the bottle flew off somewhere and smashed into even more pieces. Paine grabbed Deese by the 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 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 knob of the cane into the hand of the broken arm—once, then again, and again and again—then kicked Paine over. Paine raised the other, unbroken arm just in time to catch the next blow on the 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 to the beating. Paine rolled up on his side, not screaming but choking and in pain, and with Deese’s pant leg now pulled up, Paine, with no other weapon, bit him on the calf, like a feral tomcat, wrenching his head from side to side as his teeth sank in.
Deese screeched again and dealt Paine a glancing blow on the head as 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 walking stick and was so angry, with blood in his eyes and mouth now—his own blood—that it took him a few seconds to realize a young woman was standing in the doorway, gawking at them.
He straightened and looked at her. When she ran off, he staggered toward the door but tripped over one of the couch cushions and went down, cracking his head on the arm of the couch. Dazed, he floundered for a moment, then crawled to the door, his 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 get out of there . . .
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 pant leg, ripped off the newly applied 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 cotton fields 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 waves of heat 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 onetime 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 turnoff?”
“Maybe . . . another hundred yards.”
There was no particular reason that they could see for there being a turnoff 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-cropped hair the color of wheat, wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt with sweat stains at the armpits, wear-creased jeans, and boots.
Bob and Rae climbed out of the truck. They were both wearing blue T-shirts with “U.S. MARSHAL” emblazoned across both the chest and back, khaki fatigue pants, 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 roundabouts?”
“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’s T-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 tortoiseshell sunglasses in 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 bulletproof vests and helmets with chinstraps. The man in the dress shirt got back in the trailing truck and closed the door, where he had some air-conditioning. Two of the marshals armed themselves with semiauto M15-style rifles, while Rae had a fully automatic M4. They 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 ways.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” the man said.
As they pulled away from the turnoff, 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, Paine had been howling with pain indeed, 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 Marshals Service Witness Protection Program until Deese’s trial. Tremanty didn’t want Deese all that bad; the one 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 was holding 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 might 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 a little tit-à-tit?”
“It’s pronounced tête-à-tête, not tit-à-tit, you ignorant Oakie,” Rae said. She always got tight on a job like this. Her M4 had a sling, and she was clinking the sling’s swivel against the handguard and it went dink-dink-dink as they talked.
“It’s pronounced tête-à-tête if you mean a face-to-face meeting,” Bob said. “It’s pronounced tit-à-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, their 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 over 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 stepped 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 farther 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, doing Deese’s laundry and occasional grocery shopping, mowing the yard, 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 had first seen him she’d had to bite her lip. “On the desk.”
Rae stepped over to look. Sitting on the desk, on a sheet of white computer paper, was Deese’s ankle monitor, which had been severed with a pair of wire cutters. The paper had a straightforward note, apparently to Tremanty: “Fuck you.”
“That’s so rude,” Rae said.
OUTSIDE, Bob and the third marshal, with Pouter, were looking at a fifty-five-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 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 burnt 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. …
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