1 Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Friday / 4:01 a.m.
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 it out," Marta told the men.
"What the hell for?"
"It will be abundantly clear to you, Mr. Mahoney, when they take it out."
"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.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Faith Ann Porter yawned and looked over at the venetian blinds for any sign that the sun was rising. Her watch's display read 6:13.
The small reception area always smelled like a place where somebody really old lived. The space was strictly a prop, because there was no receptionist. Usually Faith Ann's mother could hardly afford to pay the office rent, much less hire someone to sit there at the desk to greet the few people who ever came there. Not a single one of her clients had ever been to visit her, and the fact was that the vast majority of her mother's calls were outgoing. Even so, it was absolutely necessary to maintain a professional office.
The upper part of the front door to the five-room suite, which was at the end of the hallway, had a frosted glass panel in it where each tenant's name had been hand-painted backward on the inside since 1927, the year the building had been constructed. At that moment, Faith Ann was lying prone, peering through the brass mail slot, watching the fifty feet of hallway between herself and the elevator lobby. Not that she believed the mysterious woman was going to show up this time either. Most likely she'd been awakened and dragged all the way down here before dawn for nothing.
"Watching won't make her get here one second sooner. If she sees your eyes looking out at her from down there, she'll think we have rats. You shouldn't snoop," Kimberly Porter said from the door.
"You just told Mrs. Washington that you liked my inquisitive nature. You said my curiosity shows intelligence."
"You were listening in on the extension while I was talking to your teacher!"
Time to change the subject. "I bet you got me up early for nothing. I'll be sleep-deprived when I get to school . . . for nothing. I'll bet you a dollar she won't even show up. I'll bet you another dollar if she does she's just some lunatic trying to get money for some old letters she probably scribbled up herself, knowing you'd do anything to save Harry Pond."
"Horace," Kimberly corrected automatically. "If she's right, he's really not guilty."
"You think everybody you represent is innocent."
"I don't think any such thing. There are lots of other lawyers with investigators who try to prove innocence. When that fails, they call me."
"To do legal mumbo jumbo. Hocus-pocus high jinks. Pick a card, Your Honor." Faith Ann plopped onto her back and clapped her hand to her chest. "No sir, that isn't really an ace of hearts, I say it's a two of clubs, your honor. So, since it isn't the ace at all, like you thought, my client is not guilty."
"You little monkey!" Kimberly said. She leaned down and tickled her daughter's ribs.
"Child abuse!" Faith Ann said, laughing, squirming, and trying to push her mother's hands away.
Kimberly straightened. "What I do is not trickery. Horace Pond might be one in a hundred. This is exactly why there shouldn't be a death penalty. It is preferable to ---"
" 'Free a hundred guilty people than punish one innocent one,' " Faith Ann interrupted. "Like freeing a hundred criminals to go out running around doing crimes is going to happen. You know most people don't agree with whatever old jerk it was said that. Uncle Hank, for one."
"For your information, Miss Know-It-All --- that 'whatever old jerk' was Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren of Brown v. the Board of Education. And I know Hank Trammel does too agree."
"Then why does Uncle Hank have a sign on his office wall that says LET NO GUILTY MAN ESCAPE? You know who said that?"
"I somehow doubt it was Earl Warren."
"Old Hanging Judge Parker. He hanged men as quick as his marshals could round them up."
"I believe that sort of behavior is precisely why Earl Warren said what he did." Kimberly walked from the reception area.
Just as Faith Ann was about to get up and follow her mother, she heard the elevator door open, so she looked out through the mail slot. Sure enough a woman stepped out. It had to be her because her mother's office was the only one on the fourth floor except for an eyeglass repair shop run by a frowning man who just came to work when he felt like it. People didn't bring their eyeglasses, either. The glasses came by UPS and the mail, from optometrists all over the city. Lots of times, boxes and mailing envelopes containing broken glasses sat in the hall outside his door, waiting for him to show up. Faith Ann made it her business to know what was going on around her at all times.
Faith Ann called out over her shoulder urgently,
"I'm coming," her mother called back from her office.
The woman, who was rapidly approaching the office on high heels, reminded Faith Ann of a movie star, probably because of the scarf that seemed to be there to keep the balloon of blond hair from rising right off of her scalp. Her cinched-up trench coat accented a narrow waist and substantial breasts. Faith Ann's eyes locked on the rolled-up manila envelope protruding from her shoulder bag, which the woman was gripping like she expected someone to run up and try to snatch it. She removed her sunglasses and shoved them into the pocket of her coat.
Faith Ann stood and pulled open the door for the woman just before she reached for the knob, which startled her. Faith Ann was instantly assaulted by a wave of sickeningly sweet perfume.
"You look rather young to be a lawyer," the woman said, trying to make a joke. Her brown eyes hardly rested on Faith Ann at all as they darted around the room.
"My mother is the attorney."
"You're what, sixteen, seventeen?"
"Twelve." Faith Ann didn't let on that she knew the woman was being all hokey with her, trying to make friends or something. "You can hang your coat up," Faith Ann offered, pointing to the standing coatrack.
"I'll just keep it on." Faith Ann was disappointed that she wouldn't get to see what kind of outfit was under it. The woman's eyelashes looked like spider legs, and her brows were arched lines that had been carefully drawn on her forehead, maybe with a sharp-pointed laundry marker. Faith Ann just couldn't help but stare at her.
The woman looked relieved when Kimberly appeared in the doorway. "I'm Kimberly Porter, Ms. Lee. I see you've met my daughter, Faith Ann."
"She's just cute as a bug. I'm sorry," Ms. Lee said, "could you lock the door?"
"Nobody ever comes here this early," Faith Ann said.
"Of course I can," Kimberly answered.
Faith Ann turned the deadbolt herself. She was amazed at how calm and professional her mother was acting. Faith Ann knew that what her mother really wanted was to jerk that rolled-up envelope out of Ms. Lee's purse and rip it open to see if it really was "explosive eleventh-hour evidence."
"Call me Amber," the woman said and put her hand on the envelope like she'd caught Faith Ann thinking about it. "I'm sorry I've been so vague about things, but you'll see I have good reason. Do you have the thing we discussed?"
She means money, Faith Ann thought.
Kimberly nodded. "Come into my office," she said, leading the woman into the hall and into the first door on the right. Faith Ann started to follow, but her mother's raised brow stopped her. "Faith Ann, you go do your homework in the kitchen while I meet with Ms. Lee."
"I already did it all."
"Well, then paint me a picture I can frame."
"I don't have my art stuff here."
"Well, then draw something with a pencil." She raised her brow and through clenched teeth said, "Please, Faith Ann."
As soon as Kimberly closed the door, leaving Faith Ann in the hallway, she scooted down the hall and turned into the next doorway, which opened into the conference room. She stopped in her tracks when she saw that her mother was closing the other door in her office, which connected the two rooms. The conference room held a large table with eight wooden office chairs around it that the building's owner had robbed from other vacant offices as an added incentive to get her mother to move into his building. The shelves were loaded with her mother's law books, most of which were full of cases you couldn't be a lawyer without knowing. Stealthily, Faith Ann slithered down on the floor, placing her ear as close to the crack at the bottom of the adjoining door as possible. It was a heavy wooden one and might as well have been a vault door for the sound it allowed through --- or so her mother believed. Being an adult, Kimberly had never bothered to lie down and put her ear to the crack to make sure nobody could listen in.
"I'd like to record this," Kimberly's professional voice said, "if you have no objections. It'll help me later, and it will simplify things down the road when I am in front of the Governor."
"If you want to, but I wouldn't trust the Governor," Amber's voice said. "I mean, I've personally seen him in the club. Jerry owns half the cops --- all the ones that run things. He could never have pulled off doing what he did to Judge and Mrs. Williams and framing your client without the police being involved. Nobody in this state can be trusted --- especially not in law enforcement. After he found out I had this, the police put out a warrant for my arrest, for embezzling of all things. Jerry did that easy as snapping his fingers. If the cops get me, I'll be fish food."
"Don't worry, my uncle is a U.S. marshal. He'll be in town late this afternoon. He is on a first-name basis with the Attorney General of the United States. I doubt your Jerry owns him."
"I guess he'd be all right . . ."
"Let's start by having a look at your evidence."
Faith Ann heard the contents being removed from the envelope, followed by the familiar muttering that signaled her mother was giving her undivided attention to something that she believed was very important.
"Who is this Jerry?" Kimberly asked, sounding like she did after a long run.
"You're obviously not from around here. Anybody around here would know who he is."
"Is he a gangster of some sort?"
"Well, yes, but not so's you'd know it by the papers . . ."
"Dear God!" Kimberly blurted out. "Is this him in the picture? This is sick."
Faith Ann realized that she was holding her breath and exhaled slowly. This was great! Of all the neat conversations she'd ever spied on, this one was better than all the others put together.
"This isn't a hoax," Kimberly stammered, sounding confused. "Forgive me for ever doubting your claims, but in cases like this people often say they have evidence exonerating a death row inmate --- especially at the eleventh hour. They almost always turn out to be . . . less than helpful. No, I've seen the crime scene pictures and this is the same room and those are the same people. But they are both alive in all but two of these."
"The negatives are in there. I don't know much about photography, but I don't think you can fake those. So, is it worth a grand so I can get out of town until he's in prison?"
"Why did he make these? Why did he keep them? This is insanity."
"You're right. No person in their right mind would have." Amber continued, "I can't hardly sleep a wink without seeing those pictures in my head."
"And he knows you have these?"
"Yes, he does. It's a long story."
"I've got time."
Faith Ann was so fascinated by everything she heard during the next couple of minutes that she was still lying on the hardwood floor absorbing the information when
Kimberly suddenly opened the door. After having to step over her daughter, she pulled the door closed and lifted Faith Ann up off the floor with the hand that wasn't holding the fat envelope full of evidence. "I guess you heard all that, Miss Nosey-Britches?" she said in a low voice.
"I dropped something."
"It's a clear violation of professional etiquette to eavesdrop."
"Why did you tell her that fib --- Uncle Hank was coming tonight?" Faith Ann asked accusatorily.
"Because it's true."
"No, it isn't. Today is Friday. They're going to be here tomorrow ---
"They're coming in tonight. They're staying at a guesthouse and having dinner with some old friend of Hank's. Then they're coming to see us tomorrow."
"Can I see the pictures she brought?" She knew asking was a waste of breath. Her mother had already commented on how horrific they were. Faith Ann had heard tales of mayhem and murder since she was old enough to understand the adult conversations going on around her.
Every capital case her mother took on came with lots of boxes, most of them containing crime scene pictures taken by the cops. Faith Ann looked through those whenever she got a chance, despite her mother's best efforts to hide the graphic files. "Pretty please?"
"Absolutely not!" Kimberly went over to the copier and, one after the other, put each of the eight original photographs facedown on the glass, then pressed the button to make copies of the pictures. Faith Ann couldn't see any of the images, which was infuriating. No dead judge and his wife, no rich killer named Jerry doing something truly horrible to anybody. Of course Faith Ann didn't want to see anything like that, but as a lawyer in training, she needed to study all of the legal evidence she could.
Kimberly gathered the photocopies from the bin. At the table, she slid the copies into an envelope, added a glassine sleeve containing dark strips of negatives, and sealed it by licking the glue strip and pressing it closed. Faith Ann's heart sank. Kimberly put the curved original photographs back in their envelope. She swung away the corkboard adorned with pictures of her clients to expose a wall safe that some doctor had used once upon a time to store his drugs. Kimberly opened the safe and took out a stack of bills, which she put in her pocket.
"I want your word of honor that you will not attempt to open that envelope," she scolded. "I want your absolute word of honor."
"I give you my mile-high word of honor," Faith Ann said, knowing that the envelope was sealed, which placed snooping inside it outside her tampering abilities. She made the appropriate X motion with her trigger finger. "I cross my heart and hope to die and stick a needle in my eye. I will never look at those pictures unless you tell me to."
"There are times to be curious and times, like now, to refrain from snooping. Tell you what. I'll fill you in on all of this after Horace Pond is free. Word of honor. And, Faith Ann, I am so very proud of your intelligence and . . ."
The two distinctive voices originating from the office changed Kimberly's expression to a look of terror. The voices weren't coming under the door into Kimberly's office, so they had to be carrying down the hallway, meaning that Kimberly's office door was open like the conference room door.
"Hide!" Kimberly whispered, pushing her down under the table.
Faith Ann obeyed instantly, climbing up into the hard seats of the chairs parked under it. This was a place she had hidden before to annoy her mother --- make her think she wasn't in the office. Faith Ann knew that as long as she was quiet, and nobody pulled the chairs out or got down on all fours, it was the safest place available. She got in there just in time. Her mother had just shoved her backpack under the table, when a man jerked the adjoining door wide open. From her hiding spot, Faith Ann saw him from the waist down. Beyond him Amber sat in the chair in front of the desk, her face ashen with blind terror.
"Who are you?" Kimberly demanded. "How dare you come in here like this? Put that gun away before there's an accident."
Gun? Faith Ann thought. Why does he have a gun?
"Get in here," he ordered, like he hadn't heard her. "Amber has been a very, very bad girl," he chided. "Jerry would like to have back the private property she stole from him." His calm voice had a Spanish accent. He didn't sound at all like somebody who would break into the place and be holding a gun.
"It's in her hand," Amber told him, pointing at the manila envelope containing the real pictures.
Kimberly held it out to him. "Take it and get out." She didn't sound afraid at all to Faith Ann.
"Is anybody else here?" he asked, taking the envelope from her.
"No," Kimberly said. "But my paralegal volunteers will be here any minute. I suggest you take that and go. Up to this moment you haven't committed any crimes we can't forget about."
"Amber, you show this to anybody else? Make copies?"
"No! No, I haven't," Amber stammered. "Please?"
"There a back door?"
"No," Kimberly told him truthfully.
Amber blurted, "She can't say anything on account of attorney-client privilege. You've got the pictures. It's over."
"Lawyer lady, did you make any copies?"
"I intended to, but I didn't have time," Kimberly told him, her voice full of false regret.
Faith Ann, terrified he would see them on the table, reached up, felt for the envelope, and pulled it to her.
"He threw me out," Amber whined. "I only wanted him to take me back. Just tell him I'm --- "
Amber's words ended with a dull pop followed by her chair turning over. Kimberly screamed out. Faith Ann pressed her hand over her own mouth so she wouldn't.
Faith Ann saw her mother dart around the desk and grab the phone, but the man moved and blocked her view of what happened next. Faith Ann heard two of the pops and the sound of two things hitting the wooden floor --- her mother and the telephone. When the man bent down to pick up the three empty casings, Faith Ann stared at his profile. All he had to do was turn his head and he'd be looking straight at her --- no more than fifteen feet away.
The manila envelope seemed to be glowing, surely he would see it!
Frozen in place, Faith Ann fought back the terror that had seized her, trying to remember what her mother had drilled into her. In an emergency, stay calm. Never panic. Fear freezes you and it can kill you, Faith Ann. Always follow your instincts.
After snagging the shells, the man straightened. He went around the desk, aimed the gun down, and to Faith Ann's horror fired one more time. As he bent down to collect the final casing, she glimpsed the manila envelope curled up in his coat pocket. He came into the conference room and stopped at the edge of the table --- opening and slamming the top of the copy machine. Faith Ann focused on the hem of his long coat, on his gray pants with sharp creases and cuffs and his shiny two-tone shoes. He went through the things on the table above her; scattered papers fluttered to the floor.
Faith Ann pushed away the thought of what his gun might have done.
You can't find me.
I'm not here.
Don't look for me.
As if commanded by her thoughts, the man left the room.
She listened to his footsteps as he checked the other rooms down the hall. After he looked in both the vacant office and the kitchen, he hurried back up the hall and left through the front door.
Faith Ann lay there trembling in silence for a very long while, afraid his closing the door was a trick designed to flush her out. Then she slipped down onto the floor and came out from under the table on all fours. "Mama?" she said, testing the sound of her voice.
The only sound inside the office was the steady beeping of the telephone, off its hook behind the desk. The smell of cordite, which reminded her of shooting cans with Uncle Hank, mixed with Amber's gardenia perfume.
Faith Ann could hardly see through her tears. She had never seen a real dead person before, and it was terrifying. Amber was sprawled out on the threadbare Oriental carpet where the chair had dumped her. Her face was bloody, but Faith Ann didn't focus on that --- didn't want to look at the person who had brought this horror to the Porters.
Slowly Faith Ann rounded the desk and stared down at the ruined woman she loved more than anyone on earth. The terrible reality of it slammed into her, giving her the sensation of being hollowed out and filled with superheated air. Scared she would faint, Faith Ann inhaled sharply, fighting to remain conscious.
Cold-blooded murder. This is how it comes --- all of a sudden, out of the blue. Nobody warns you. A door opens and there it is. Mama, this is exactly what your death row men did --- those friendly-looking men on the corkboard who can smile at your camera like saints, even though one day they did something just like this to people just like you. Faith Ann knew she shouldn't be hysterical.
The large red stain on her mother's white blouse was so bright and wet it seemed to glitter. The pearl, run through with a thin gold chain --- a Mother's Day gift from Faith Ann --- rested in the hollow of Kimberly's throat.
Faith Ann dropped to her knees, placed her hands on her mother's chest, and pressed down hard. Air hissed, and bubbles rose from her chest. Her face was so pale. . . .
Faith Ann put her mouth on her mother's and blew in, trying to make her all right. That made more bubbles, and Faith Ann was crying so hard she couldn't see. She tried to wipe away the tears, but she wiped blood across her face, tasting it.
Faith Ann reached up to the desk and found the box of tissue there, pulled several out and wiped her eyes and face.
No lifesaving effort would matter. After she had wiped her eyes, Faith Ann studied Kimberly's face. It was slack, her mouth open the way it did when she slept on her back, her eyes partly open, the irises rolled back.
Faith Ann knew her mother wasn't ever going to say anything --- never again tell Faith Ann that she loved her, or scold her for goofing off. Faith Ann ignored the hole in her mother's forehead and, closing her own eyes, kissed her warm cheek, inhaling the familiar, comforting scent of her. She could almost pretend that her mother was sleeping. Faith Ann understood that she was now suddenly all alone, and she didn't care if the man came back and killed her too while she was kneeling there.
When she became aware of a wet warmth and saw to her horror that she was kneeling in a growing pool of her mother's blood, Faith Ann shrieked and jumped back. And she knew that she really did not want to die.
Tell me what to do, Mama.
She alone knew why the man had killed her mother and Amber. Kimberly's client, Horace Pond, was being executed at ten P.M. on Saturday night for two murders the man in the pictures did.
Today is Friday. Tell me what to do, Mama. Please.
Faith Ann felt herself growing lighter, the fog in her mind clearing. It was almost seven o'clock. Later, Napo, the law student from Tulane who was helping her mother on the Pond case, would come.
Faith Ann's mind locked on something else. The killer took those pictures! He stole the Pond evidence!
The negatives! Faith Ann straightened and hurried into the conference room. She looked at the corkboard, meeting the basset hound eyes of Horace Pond, an aging, narrow-shouldered man who actually was that one innocent man in a hundred. She pulled a chair over to stand on, opened the corkboard door, and rolled the numbered dial. Three times around to thirty-one. Left to sixteen and right passing ten once and stopping at it next time.
She heard the snap as she twisted the lever and eased the heavy door open. She opened the cigar box, gathered up the remaining currency, and stuffed the wad into her jeans pocket before closing the door and replacing the corkboard. She reached to her hiding place, pulled her backpack up onto the table, took out the textbooks, and slipped the sealed envelope into it. The plastic bag containing her mother's rain poncho was in there, as was the lunch her mother had made her and a bottle of water. Then Faith Ann went to the bathroom.
She screamed at the sight in the mirror of her bloodsmeared face. She used a bar of soap to scrub her hands and face. As she washed, the water running to the drain turned red. Faith Ann started crying, and she slumped over the sink and let the grief enclose her. Only when the tears stopped flowing did she dry her hands and blow her nose into a paper towel.
I can't call the police.
Jerry owns the police.
Tell me what to do, Mama.
Faith Ann went into the conference room, grabbed her backpack from the table, and went out into the hallway. She paused at the door to her mother's office to take one last look. When she did, she noticed a faint reflection from a steadily blinking red light. She hurried to the desk and moved the loose papers covering her mother's cassette recorder, which was still running.
The killer missed it! When she recorded interviews, Kimberly liked to cover the machine up so people would forget it was sitting there. That way they'd be less selfconscious, she'd told Faith Ann.
Faith Ann couldn't believe her luck. She pressed the Stop button once, then pressed it down again to eject the tape, which she put inside her backpack next to the sealed envelope containing the photocopies and the negatives. Everything her mother and Amber had said was on that tape.
Faith Ann leaned over and touched her mother gently on the cheek. "I love you, Mama."
That said, Faith Ann went straight out through the front door and was gone.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Often when Winter Massey sat still for a period of time, his right foot would grow numb and tingle. In order to restore the feeling to it he had to get up and walk. The lingering nerve damage was the only thing left over from being shot a year earlier. The entrance and exit scars were islands of white scar tissue on the front and back of his right thigh. He had been on crutches for six weeks after he was shot and had used a cane for another three. The injury made sitting at a desk to fill out reports, and stakeouts conducted while sitting in cramped spaces, rather unpleasant. Few things blew a surveillance more effectively than for a watcher to get out of a parked vehicle every thirty minutes or so to walk around in circles before getting back in. He still participated in his favorite activity, fugitive recovery, but no matter how many fugitives he apprehended, Winter Massey would always be best known for his ability with a handgun.
Over a year had passed since Winter had been wounded. At that time his reputation had been such that he could have chosen to head up any marshals office in the country or have any position near the top of the United States Marshals Service organizational chart he wanted.
The name Winter Massey had been golden, but now he was burned out on playing cops and robbers.
Doctors said the dead spots in his leg and foot would regain sensation and his circulation would vastly improve in time. At thirty-seven, he could still run ten miles without breaking a sweat, but he would never again compete in an Ironman contest. Considering all he had been through in his career as a deputy U.S. marshal, just being alive put him among the luckiest people on earth.
He had left I-85 and was on I-77 negotiating the sweeping left-hand turn when his cellular rang. As he straightened the Explorer's path, and with the Charlotte, North Carolina, skyline looming before him, he looked down at the displayed name and number.
"Hey, old man," he said, after opening the phone.
"Just a courtesy call to remind you about lunch," Hank said.
"Sean said she'd be finished at her doctor's in the BB&T building by eleven," Winter replied. "I'm about six minutes out on I-77."
As he hung up, his cellular phone rang again. He didn't check the caller I.D. "Yeah?"
"Yeah what, Massey?"
Winter smiled at the sound of his wife's voice.
"So, what did Dr. Wanda say?" he asked. Sean hadn't been feeling well for a couple of weeks, and Winter had finally convinced her to visit his doctor, a youthful blonde with an enthusiasm, an infectious smile, and a talent for making everybody feel like they were her only patient.
"Dr. Wanda said, ‘Get dressed, you perfectly healthy young lady,' and she wrote me a prescription to head over to the café for lunch with my favorite man."
"What about the --- ?"
"Jesus, Massey. I'm fine. Okay? Did you finish the letter?"
"I did." He glanced at the console to the letter addressed to the director of the United States Marshals Service --- a letter he had spent a week drafting to make sure the tone was perfectly pitched, respectful, and that the resignation it announced was clearly stated. Everybody understood his decision and there were no hard feelings or regrets. The letter was a formality, because he had already told the director, Richard Shapiro, that he was going to accept the offer from Guardian International Security. The company had offered him an enormous salary, yearly stock options, and about a hundred attractive prequisites they figured were necessary to close the deal. Winter would have been insane not to take the executive position that would allow him to lock his carry weapon away in his gun safe. Sean, who knew how dangerous his job had become, had been deliriously happy when he made the decision.
"I can't wait to get you on the slopes and teach you how to ski," she said. "You're gonna love it."
"I know how to ski," he said.
"Water skiing isn't the same thing as snow skiing, Massey."
"You teach me to snow ski and I'll teach you a thing or two in the chalet."
Her laughter was glorious.
Although Sean and Winter had only been married for eight months, he felt as though he had known her his entire life. They had met when Winter joined a witness protection detail and was charged with protecting a professional killer who was going to testify against an aging mobster. Sean had been married to the killer, and when the operation turned deadly and went as wrong as things can go, it had been Sean Devlin whose life needed protecting and only Winter who had been in a position to save her. That had happened a little over a year before. After their shared experiences --- each having trusted the other and after each had saved the other's life --- neither of them wanted to be apart from the other.
Winter believed that he had twice been married to perfect women, who had both been his closest friends. His first wife, Eleanor, had been killed in an airplane crash four years earlier. For three years he had lived with a deep grief that was only made bearable because of his love for their son, Rush. After Eleanor's death Winter's mother, Lydia, had moved into his home to help him raise his son and both of them took immediately to Sean. After a short formal courtship, Winter had asked Sean to marry him, and she had accepted. Winter still thought daily about Eleanor, but he knew that Eleanor would have wanted for him to love someone and to again be loved by them. Someone who would be a good and nurturing mother to her son. And Winter knew that she would have approved of Sean.
"Hey, Massey, you know what?"
"You know what," she said, hanging up.
"I love you too," he said before he put the phone in his pocket.
He hoped mailing the letter would lift a great weight from his shoulders --- that leaving the badge behind might somehow cause the ghosts of the people he had killed to vacate his mind.
He repeated a familiar prayer. God, please release me from my guilt and give them peace. In return, I promise that if there is any possible way to avoid doing so, I will never take another human life.
Winter Massey had asked God for favors before. He understood that although He had the power to do so, God might not take the deal.
Until 1802, Charlotte had been a sleepy community founded in the 1750s by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutheran farmers. That year, a farmer named John Reed discovered that a yellow rock the size of a shoe, which he had unearthed years earlier with his plow blade and had been using as a doorstop, was in fact a gold nugget. Until the California strike at Sutter's Mill in 1848, the mines in North Carolina supplied all of the gold used for coinage by the United States. The railroads made Charlotte a commercial hub. After the mines played out, textile and tobacco barons like the Cannons and the
Reynolds turned the area into an industrial center. As a consequence of enterprising individuals, the banks filled up with money and began an expansion that had never stopped.
When Winter arrived at 10:55, the City Grill was nearly empty. He took a corner table near a front window. Five minutes later, Hank Trammel, who had been Winter's boss until he'd retired six months earlier, had been his superior officer, his mentor, and had become his closest friend, swaggered into the room like a sheriff in a Western movie, replete with a charcoal-gray handlebar mustache and gold eyeglasses with small round lenses and wraparound earpieces.
Hank Trammel was walking proof that being from south Texas wasn't something you could easily scrape off your boots. Although he hadn't lived there in over thirty years, Hank dressed like he still ranched in south Texas. Rain, shine, hell or high water, he wore cowboy shirts, khaki pants, sharp-toe boots, a hand-tooled belt with a turquoise-laden buckle the size of a man's fist, and a string tie. On formal occasions, he wore patent leather boots with his tuxedo. He had given up golf but had in his closet a pair of fire-engine-red Tony Lamas with metal spikes.
Hank was a substantial man who, at fifty-eight, still wore his hair in the same flattop he'd had in high school. Both his grandfather and father had died from gunshots. His grandfather had been ambushed by cattle rustlers, and his father, a Texas Ranger, had been shot in the back by a teenager on a thrill-killing spree. On duty, Hank had always carried his father's gun in the same hand-tooled highrise hip holster. Trammels were stone-tough people who lived hard lives because they didn't know any other way. Hank crossed to Winter's table, dropped his "Lyndon Johnson" Stetson on the wide window ledge next to a potted plant, and sat with his back to the glass.
"We ran into Sean outside, and she and Millie went to go powder their noses," Hank said. "She's smoking a cigarette."
Millie Trammel was a secret smoker. Hank had quit, and he acted like he didn't know his wife still did, and she acted like she didn't do it. It was sort of a sanctioned denial game.
A waitress with curly black hair and a silver bead on one side of her nose swept up and stopped in front of the men. "Our wives are joining us," Hank told the young woman. "We'll all have tea."
"What, darlin', don't I look sweet enough to you?"
"Don't pay my grampy any mind," Winter told her.
The waitress walked away.
"So you're really doing it?" Hank asked Winter.
"I'd hoped you would change your mind."
"No way. You're retired now, so why the hell do you care whether I'm still on the job? Ain't like there aren't fifty to take my slot."
"I was looking forward to having you nearby in my golden years. In case I have a stroke and need somebody to bathe me, change my diapers." Hank wiped his head as though there was some hair over his ears that needed pushing back. "I suppose Virginia or Maryland is close enough. You're going to miss the job."
"I owe Rush and Sean my nights and weekends. And I've just been plain lucky for just too long. The odds of me walking away from another scrape like the last couple is slim. I've seen enough action to last me awhile."
"My old daddy always said the only man you can't ever walk away from is one you kill."
Without any words to add, Winter just shrugged. He didn't want to talk about the weight of the dead men perched on his shoulders. It was something no amount of churchgoing, psychiatry, or emptying bottles could lessen. Neither self-defense nor heat of battle made the slightest difference in the anguish that killing brought a normal man.
"Massey, I have to say that the idea of you teaching ex-football players how to protect executives whose biggest threat is not hitting a green in regulation gives me some pause."
"It's done. I stuffed my resignation letter into that blue box right out there before I walked in. As of November the fifteenth, I will be a civilian."
"Then congratulations," Hank said, extending his hand across the table. "Those security guys want the best, that's what they're getting. I told them so back when they called me."
"Millie excited about the trip to New Orleans?"
"Ask her yourself," Hank said, rising from his chair.
As Hank's wife and Sean crossed the room together,
Winter was aware of men's heads turning, their eyes following
Sean. With her height, shoulder-length raven hair, almond-shaped golden eyes, slim build, and elegant features, she looked like a model. He stood and pulled a chair back from the table for her. Hank went to do the same, but Millie waved him off and seated herself. "It's much too late to make anybody believe you're a gentleman, Hank
Millie Trammel was five-one, weighed maybe ninety pounds, and wore her hair in a salt-and-pepper pageboy.
"Winter, I was just telling Sean you'll have to bring Rush and come out and have dinner with us when we get back. Next Saturday."
"So tell us about the trip," Winter asked Millie.
"It sounds exciting," Sean offered. "New Orleans is wonderful this time of year."
"We're leaving from Greensboro, which saved us a fortune, and getting in around three this afternoon. A friend of Hank's, Nicky Green --- "
"You've heard me talk about Nicky," Hank interrupted.
"Nicky's the one put the skunk in --- "
"Please," his wife interrupted, "not that story again.
He's only going to be there for one night."
"Millie only acts like she doesn't like Nicky. He's a laugh a minute."
"I can like Nicky for one night every few years. Actually he means well. He's just a little odd."
"Eccentric," Hank said. "He's a private eye. Works mostly for oil companies, that sort of thing. They kinda like his eccentricities, and he does good work. Travels all over the world."
"I recall you talking about him," Winter said.
"And you need to meet him one of these days real soon. His father was my commanding officer in Nam --- boy grew up on Army bases. Nicky's forty, I think. Was a Western nut from childhood. Always wanted to live in the Wild West, and he used to get me to tell him all about what it was like growing up on the ranch. He did a four-year stint with the Army, but he didn't fit. Now he lives outside Houston, in Big Spring."
"He's an urban cowboy who's never ridden a horse in his life," Millie declared. "He has the accent and he dresses like he just stepped off the stage at the Grand Ole Opry."
"He drives a '65 Caddy convertible and he rides a Harley some. He's allergic to horses," Hank said defensively.
"He's bald, right?" Winter asked.
"From childhood," Millie said. "There's a name for it."
"Profeema, or propizza, or something," Hank offered.
"Alopecia," Sean said.
"No brows, not even any eyelashes," Millie continued. "It takes some getting used to. He looks surprised all the time. Always has a toothpick in his mouth, like he's just had a steak dinner. Awful."
"Well, it keeps him from smoking," Hank said. "How many people would put a skunk in the window of a motel room to flush out a cheating wife and her paramour?" He laughed as he thought about it. "Pair of 'em come out the door naked as baby mice and stinking to high heaven of skunk pee. Has it on video. I've seen it."
"So after a fun-filled night spent with Nicky reliving his experiences once again, we'll be spending the rest of the time with Kimberly and Faith Ann."
"Rush is very fond of Faith Ann," Sean said.
"If he told us to ask you to tell her hello for him once, he said it a hundred times," Winter told the Trammels.
"And Faith Ann's real fond of him," Millie said, chuckling. "That girl doesn't make friends easily. She's so independent and smart, it puts off most children her age. Kimberly was the same way. Knows what she wants. She wanted a child, but she didn't want a husband to complicate her life. She wanted to be able to pick up and go wherever her work led her."
"The Kimberly Porter Electric Chair Crusade and Traveling Sideshow," Hank said, drawing a frown from his wife.
"They've lived in interesting cities, like Houston, Dallas, Nashville, and New Orleans. It hasn't hurt Faith Ann one little bit," Millie said.
"Faith Ann has a built-in bullshit meter that would turn a seasoned Texas Ranger green with envy," Hank added.
"Hank Trammel!" Millie chided.
"Rush can't wait for her to come back up this summer. They instant message daily, e-mail constantly. He's been planning things for them to do," Sean said.
"We won't be here this summer," Winter reminded his wife.
"Rush and I have discussed that. Hank and Millie can bring her to Washington and stay with us. I'm sure she'd like to see the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum, the White House. It'll be fun."
"We would love to do that," Millie said. "That child's too energetic for me alone."
"Let's plan on it, then," Sean said. "How's Kimberly's practice doing?"
"She's struggling a bit, I think," Millie said.
"Kimberly Quixote," Hank said. "Always looking for a windmill to tilt at. And dragging Faith Ann along to hold the spear."
"Lance," Millie corrected. "I'm not always sure how I feel about things like capital punishment. But Kimberly has always known exactly how she feels about everything. She's an immovable object when it comes to her convictions. She isn't always hitting you over the head with her opinions, like some people."
"Her legal cases barely cover her living expenses. Soon as she starts getting herself a reputation --- and she does win more than she loses --- she moves somewhere else and starts over on sexual harassment or age discrimination or some danged liberal cause."
"I think it's good for Faith Ann to understand that believing strongly in something like justice is far more rewarding than making money practicing more profitable kinds of law," Millie countered. "And Faith Ann has never wanted for anything."
Hank told Winter, "All the Porter women since Texas belonged to Mexico have been cute as puppies, smart as whips, and as thickheaded and set in purpose as a mule lashed to a grist wheel."
Winter noticed Sean was being quiet, smiling but seemingly caught up in her own thoughts.
The waitress came to the table to take their orders. Hank contemplated the girl and leaned back slightly. "I knew this waitress once who reminds me of you. She wore a perfect three-carat diamond stud in her nose that an oilman gave her for a tip. Oh, it would catch the sun and would light up like a prairie fire. And this was before having things stuck through the side of your nose was at all common."
"That so?" the girl said flatly.
"Hank?" Millie's voice carried a note of warning.
"Well, one day at a chili cook-off at the state fair she went to sneeze, pinched her nostrils shut, and that diamond stud shot across the field like a bullet. Bunch of us got down on our hands and knees spent all afternoon searching through the grass for that rock."
"Hank, that's a terrible story," Millie groaned, shaking her head.
"But it has a happy ending."
"You found the diamond?" the waitress wondered.
"Heck no. She got the insurance she kept up on it and bought herself a pickup truck and a padded steel barrel and became a rodeo clown. But best of all, that hole in the side of her nose grew back in so you'd never guess it was ever there," Hank said, winking at her.
"I think we best order now," Millie said.
"Yep, the noon rush will be starting up any minute," Hank said.
"I meant while we still have appetites," Millie said, frowning.
Excerpted from UPSIDE DOWN © Copyright 2005 by John Ramsey Miller. Reprinted with permission by Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.