The Black Angel (Charlie Parker Series #5)

The Black Angel (Charlie Parker Series #5)

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by John Connolly
     
 

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To those who have been forsaken, hell has no geography.

The Black Angel begins with the disappearance of a young prostitute from one of New York City's seamiest neighborhoods. Like so many tormented souls before her, the girl's mother is inevitably drawn to Charlie Parker's doorstep desperate for redemption and revenge. Despite the danger thatSee more details below

Overview

To those who have been forsaken, hell has no geography.

The Black Angel begins with the disappearance of a young prostitute from one of New York City's seamiest neighborhoods. Like so many tormented souls before her, the girl's mother is inevitably drawn to Charlie Parker's doorstep desperate for redemption and revenge. Despite the danger that his chosen profession imposes on his wife and newborn daughter, Parker knows that the woman and her troubles cannot be ignored. As always, he is driven as much by the evil that simmers in the hidden honeycomb world as he is by the ties of friendship and blood.
As Parker gets closer to the girl's captors, he discovers that her disappearance is linked to a church of bones in Eastern Europe, to the slaughter at a French monastery in 1944, and to the myth of an object known as the Black Angel -- an object considered by evil men to be beyond priceless. But the Black Angel is not a legend. It is real. It lives. It dreams. And the mystery of its existence may contain the secret of Parker's own origins.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The first 60,000 copies of Irish thriller master Connolly's fifth Charlie Parker novel arrive signed, and with a CD. (The latter features tracks that either play a role in his darkly atmospheric novels, or are favored by their characters: everything from Kate Bush to Neko Case.) But fans won't need that much enticement to pick up his latest set of intricately plotted forays into the violent world of the undead. Parker has settled in Maine, still mourning his murdered wife and child while attempting devotion to his new partner, Rachel, and their infant daughter, Sam. At Sam's christening, Parker's sometime collaborator Louis receives an uninvited guest from New York: his aunt, distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, Alice, an NYC prostitute. It doesn't take much to draw an ambivalent Parker back into the game, and soon he's in New York and stumbling onto clues regarding the Black Angel, a statue associated with a Czech ossuary and sought by various evildoers for centuries-or perhaps a living, bloodthirsty spirit. Trips to the Czech Republic and elsewhere ensue as Parker seeks to know this latest face of evil. Connolly delivers a very intense blend of Parker's authentic soul searching and of his own distinctive, moody grue. 22-city author tour. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The latest problem for Big Problem Guy Charlie Parker is fallen angels, on a mission to recover one of their nasty number from centuries' long imprisonment. The Portland (Me.) Chamber of Commerce has to have mixed feelings about Irish journalist-turned-thrillmeister Connolly (Bad Men, 2004, etc.), who plugs the place relentlessly but who also continues to populate the beautiful coastline with busloads of murderers and the undead. The latter haunt the opening of Connolly's return to the torments of private investigator Parker as Parker's specters of dead wife and child, brutally murdered several thrillers prior, seem to be lurking around the house he now shares with psychologist girlfriend Rachel and their new baby. The hypertension of the domestic atmosphere ratchets up when an uninvited guest arrives at baby Sam's christening. She's the bereft mother of a missing heroin-addicted prostitute, up from the South to confront her nephew, Charlie's associate Louis, whom she had charged with protecting her daughter Alice. What Charlie and Louis and Louis's boyfriend Angel will learn when they dig into her exceptionally sordid past is that Alice had accidentally got involved in the theft of one of the fragments of a 16th-century map originally dispersed to trustworthy abbots of Cistercian monasteries. Reassembly of the fragments would reveal the spot where a Czech Cistercian hid one of the bad angels, a location long sought by the angel's chums and their hangers-on who call themselves Believers. How the bad angel fell into a vat of molten Bohemian silver and why one would hide the resultant statuary are bits slowly revealed to Charlie and his associates who must travel to New York, Mexico and theCzech Republic in their search. It is also revealed to Charlie that the exiles from Paradise, especially the morbidly obese eater of souls Brightwell, think that the p.i. properly belongs to their side. It's no wonder Rachel's gone home to mum and taken the baby. Stylishly literate gore and terror. Author tour
From the Publisher
"In the crowded killing fields of crime ficion, John Connolly is a unique voice." -- Michael Connelly

"Relentlessly readable." -- The New York Sun

"One of the best thriller writers we have." -- Harlan Coben

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416510147
Publisher:
Atria Books
Publication date:
06/01/2005
Series:
Charlie Parker Series , #5
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
30,889
File size:
2 MB

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Chapter One

The woman stepped carefully from the Greyhound bus, her right hand holding firmly on to the bar as she eased herself down. A relieved sigh escaped from her lips once both feet were on level ground, the relief that she always felt when a simple task was negotiated without incident. She was not old -- she was barely into her fifties -- but she looked, and felt, much older. She had endured a great deal, and accumulated sorrows had intensified the predations of the years. Her hair was silver-gray, and she had long since ceased making the monthly trek to the salon to have its color altered. There were horizontal lines stretching from the corner of each eye, like healed wounds, paralleled by similar lines on her forehead. She knew how she had come by them, for occasionally she caught herself wincing as if in pain while she looked in the mirror or saw herself reflected in the window of a store, and the depth of those lines increased with the transformation in her expression. It was always the same thoughts, the same memories, that caused the change, and always the same faces that she recalled: the boy, now a man; her daughter, as she once was and as she now might be; and the one who had made her little girl upon her, his face sometimes contorted, as it was at the moment of her daughter's conception, and at other times tattered and destroyed, as it was before they closed the coffin lid upon him, erasing at last his physical presence from the world.

Nothing, she had come to realize, will age a woman faster than a troubled child. In recent years, she had become prone to the kind of accidents that bedeviled the lives of women two or three decades older than she, and took longer to recover from them than once she had. It was the little things that she had to look out for: unanticipated curbs, neglected cracks in the sidewalk, the unexpected jolting of a bus as she rose from her seat, the forgotten water spilled upon the kitchen floor. She feared these things more than she feared the young men who congregated in the parking lot of the strip mall near her home, watching for the vulnerable, for those whom they considered easy prey. She knew that she would never be one of their victims, as they were more afraid of her than they were of the police, or of their more vicious peers, for they knew of the man who waited in the shadows of her life. A small part of her hated the fact that they feared her, even as she enjoyed the protection that it brought. Her protection was hard bought, purchased, she believed, with the loss of a soul.

She prayed for him, sometimes. While the others wailed "Hallelujah" to the preacher, beating their breasts and shaking their heads, she remained silent, her chin to her chest, and pleaded softly. In the past, a long time ago, she would ask the Lord that her nephew might turn again to His radiant light and embrace the salvation that lay only in relinquishing violent ways. Now she no longer wished for miracles. Instead, as she thought about him, she begged God that, when this lost sheep at last stood before Him for the final judgment, He would be merciful and forgive him his trespasses; that He would look closely at the life he had lived and find within it those little acts of decency that might enable Him to offer succor to this sinner.

But perhaps there were some lives that could never be redeemed, and some sins so terrible that they were beyond forgiveness. The preacher said that the Lord forgives all, but only if the sinner truly acknowledges his fault and seeks another path. If this was true, then she feared that her prayers would count for nothing, and he was damned to eternity.

She showed her ticket to the man unloading the baggage from the bus. He was gruff and unfriendly to her, but he appeared to be that way to everyone. Young men and women hovered watchfully at the periphery of the light from the bus's windows, like wild animals fearful of the fire yet hungry for those who lay within the circle of its warmth. Her handbag gripped to her chest, she took her case by its handle and wheeled it toward the escalator. She watched those around her, heedful of the warnings of her neighbors back home.

Don't accept no offers of help. Don't be talking to nobody seems like he just offerin' to assist a lady with her bag, don't matter how well he dressed or how sweetly he sings....

But there were no offers of help, and she ascended without incident to the busy streets of this alien city, as foreign to her as Cairo or Rome might have been, dirty and crowded and unforgiving. She had scribbled an address on a piece of paper, along with the directions she had painstakingly transcribed over the phone from the man at the hotel, hearing the impatience in his voice as he was forced to repeat the address, the name of the hotel near incomprehensible to her when spoken in his thick immigrant accent.

She walked the streets, pulling her bag behind her. She carefully noted the numbers at the intersections, trying to take as few turns as possible, until she came to the big police building. There she waited for another hour, until at last a policeman came to talk to her. He had a thin file in front of him, but she could add nothing to what she had told him over the phone, and he could tell her only that they were doing what they could. Still, she filled out more papers, in the hope that some small detail she provided might lead them to her daughter, then left and hailed a cab on the street. She passed the piece of paper with the address of her hotel through a small hole in the Plexiglas screen. She asked the driver how much it would cost to go there, and he shrugged. He was an Asian man, and he did not look pleased to see the scribbled destination.

"Traffic. Who knows?"

He waved a hand at the slow-moving streams of cars and trucks and buses. Horns honked loudly, and drivers shouted angrily at one another. All was impatience and frustration, overshadowed by buildings that were too high, out of scale with those who were expected to live and work inside and outside them. She could not understand how anyone would choose to remain in such a place.

"Twenty, maybe," said the cabdriver.

She hoped it would be less than twenty. Twenty dollars was a lot, and she did not know how long she would have to stay here. She had booked the hotel room for three days, and had sufficient funds to cover another three days after that, as long as she ate cheaply and could master the intricacies of the subway. She had read about it, but had never seen it in reality and had no concept of its operations. She knew only that she did not like the thought of descending beneath the earth, into the darkness, but she could not afford to take cabs all the time. Buses might be better. At least they stayed above ground, slowly though they seemed to move in this city.

He might offer her money, of course, once she found him, but she would refuse any such offer, just as she had always refused it, carefully returning the checks that he sent to the only contact address that she had for him. His money was tainted, just as he was tainted, but she needed his help now: not his money, but his knowledge. Something terrible had happened to her daughter, of that she was certain, even if she could not explain how she knew.

Alice, oh Alice, why did you have to come to this place?

Her own mother had been blessed, or cursed, with the gift. She knew when someone was suffering, and could sense when harm had come to anyone who was dear to her. The dead talked to her. They told her things. Her life was filled with whispers. The gift had not been passed on, and for that the woman was grateful, but she wondered sometimes if a faint trace of it had not found its way into her, a mere spark of the great power that had dwelt in her mother. Or perhaps all mothers were cursed with the ability to sense their children's deepest sufferings, even when they were far, far from them. All that she could say for sure was that she had not known a moment's peace in recent days, and that she heard her daughter's voice calling to her when sleep fleetingly came.

She would tell that to him when she met him, in the hope that he would understand. Even if he did not, she knew that he would help, for the girl was blood to him.

And if there is one thing that he understood, it was blood.

I parked in an alleyway about fifty feet from the house, then covered the rest of the distance on foot. I could see Jackie Garner hunched behind the wall bordering the property. He wore a black wool hat, a black jacket, and black jeans. His hands were uncovered, and his breath formed phantoms in the air. Beneath his jacket I made out the word sylvia written on his T-shirt.

"New girlfriend?" I said.

Jackie pulled open his jacket so I could see the T-shirt more clearly. It read, tim 'the maine-iac' sylvia, a reference to one of our local-boys-made-good, and featured a poor caricature of the great man himself. In September 2002, Tim Sylvia, all six-eight and 260 pounds of him, became the first Mainer to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, eventually going on to take the Heavyweight Championship title in Las Vegas in 2003, knocking down the undefeated champion, Ricco Rodriguez, with a right cross in the first round. "I hit him hahd," Sylvia told a postmatch interviewer, making every Down-Easter with flattened vowel sounds feel instantly proud. Unfortunately, Sylvia tested positive for anabolic steroids after his first defense, against the six-eleven Gan "The Giant" McGee, and voluntarily surrendered his belt and title. I remembered Jackie telling me once that he'd attended the fight. Some of McGee's blood had landed on his jeans, and he now saved them for special wear.

"Nice," I said.

"I got a friend who makes them. I can let you have some cheap."

"I wouldn't take them any other way. In fact, I wouldn't take them at all."

Jackie was offended. For a guy who might have passed for Tim Sylvia's out-of-condition older brother, he was pretty sensitive.

"How many are there in the house?" I asked, but his attention had already wandered onto another subject.

"Hey, we're dressed the same," he said.

"What?"

"We're dressed the same. Look: you got the hat, the same jacket, the jeans. Except you got gloves and I got this T-shirt, we could be twins."

Jackie Garner was a good guy, but I thought that he might be a little crazy. Someone once told me that a shell accidentally went off close to him when he was serving with the U.S. Army in Berlin just before the Wall came down. He was unconscious for a week, and for six months after he awoke he couldn't remember anything that happened later than 1983. Even though he was mostly recovered, there were still gaps in his memory, and he occasionally confused the guys at Bull Moose Music by asking for "new" CDs that were actually fifteen years old. The army pensioned him off, and since then he had become a body for hire. He knew about guns and surveillance, and he was strong. I'd seen him put down three guys in a bar fight, but that shell had definitely rattled something loose inside Jackie Garner's head. Sometimes he was almost childlike.

Like now.

"Jackie, this isn't a dance. It doesn't matter that we're dressed the same."

He shrugged and looked away. I could tell he was hurt again.

"I just thought it was funny, that's all," he said, all feigned indifference.

"Yeah, next time I'll call you first, ask you to help me pick out my wardrobe. Come on, Jackie, it's freezing. Let's get this over with."

"It's your call," he said, and it was.

I didn't usually take on bail skips. The smarter ones tended to head out of state, making for Canada or points south. Like most PIs, I had contacts at the banks and the phone companies, but I still didn't much care for the idea of tracking some lowlife over half the country in return for a percentage of his bond, waiting for him to give himself away by accessing an automated teller or using his credit card to check into a motel.

This one was different. His name was David Torrans, and he had tried to steal my car to make his getaway from an attempted robbery at a gas station on Congress. My Mustang was parked in the lot beside the station, and Torrans had wrecked the ignition in a doomed effort to get it started after someone boxed in his own Chevy. The cops caught him two blocks away as he made his getaway on foot. Torrans had a string of minor convictions, but with the help of a quick-mouthed lawyer and a drowsy judge he made bail, although the judge, to his small credit, did set bail at twenty thousand dollars to ensure Torrans made it to trial, and ordered him to report daily to police headquarters in Portland. A bondsman named Lester Peets provided the coverage for the bond, then Torrans skipped out on him. The reason for the skip was that a woman who had taken a knock on the head from Torrans during the attempted robbery had subsequently lapsed into a coma in some kind of delayed reaction to the blow she had received, and now Torrans was facing some heavy felony charges, and maybe even life in jail if the woman died. Peets was about to go in the hole for the twenty if Torrans didn't show, as well as sullying his good name and seriously irritating local law enforcement.

I took on the Torrans skip because I was aware of something about him that nobody else seemed to know: he was seeing a woman named Olivia Morales, who worked as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in town and had a jealous ex-husband with a fuse so short he made old nitrol look stable. I had spotted her with Torrans after she finished her shift, two or three days before the robbery went down. Torrans was a "face" in the way that such men sometimes were in small cities like Portland. He had a reputation for violence, but until the robbery bust he had never actually been charged with a serious crime, more through good fortune than any great intelligence on his part. He was the kind of guy to whom other lowlifes deferred on the grounds that he had "smarts," but I had never subscribed to the theory of comparative intelligence where petty criminals were concerned, so the fact that Torrans's peers considered him a sharp operator didn't impress me much. Most criminals are kind of dumb, which is why they're criminals. If they weren't criminals, they'd be doing something else to screw up people's lives, like running elections in Florida. The fact that Torrans had tried to hold up a gas station armed with only a pool ball in a sock indicated that he wasn't about to step up to the majors just yet. I'd heard rumors that he'd developed a taste for smack and OxyContin in recent months, and nothing will scramble a man's intelligence faster than the old "hillbilly heroin."

I figured that Torrans would get in touch with his girlfriend when he found himself in trouble. Men on the run tend to turn to the women who love them, whether mothers, wives, or girlfriends. If they have money, they'll then try to put some ground between themselves and those who are looking for them. Unfortunately, the kind of people who went to Lester Peets for their bond tended to be pretty desperate, and Torrans had probably used all of his available funds just rustling up his share of the money. For the moment, Torrans would be forced to stick close to home, keeping a low profile until another option presented itself. Olivia Morales seemed like the best bet.

Jackie Garner had good local knowledge, and I brought him in to stay close to Olivia Morales while I was taking care of other business. He watched her buying her food for the week, and noticed her including a carton of Luckys in her buy, even though she didn't appear to smoke. He followed her home to her rented house in Deering, and saw two men arrive a little later in a red Dodge van. When he described them to me over the phone, I recognized one as Torrans's half brother Garry, which was how, less than forty-eight hours after David Torrans had first gone off the radar, we found ourselves hunched behind a garden wall, about to make a decision on how best to deal with him.

"We could call the cops," said Jackie, more for form's sake than anything else.

I thought of Lester Peets. He was the kind of guy who got beaten up by his imaginary friends as a child for cheating at games. If he could wheedle his way out of paying me my share of the bond, he would, which meant that I'd end up paying Jackie out of my own pocket. Calling the cops would give Lester just the excuse that he needed. Anyway, I wanted Torrans. Frankly, I didn't like him, and he'd screwed around with my car, but I was also forced to admit that I was anticipating the surge of adrenaline that taking him down would bring. I had been leading a quiet life these past few weeks. It was time for a little excitement.

"No, we need to do this ourselves," I said.

"You figure they have guns?"

"I don't know. Torrans has never used one in the past. He's small-time. His brother has no jacket, so he's an unknown quantity. As for the other guy, he could be Machine Gun Kelly, and we wouldn't find out until we hit the door."

Jackie considered our situation for a time.

"Wait here," he said, then scuttled away. I heard the trunk of his car opening somewhere in the gloom. When he returned, he was clutching four cylinders, each about a foot in length and with the curved hook of a coat hanger attached to one end.

"What are they?" I asked.

He held up the two cylinders in his right hand -- "Smoke grenades" -- then the two in his left -- "and tear gas. Ten parts glycerine to two parts sodium bisulfate. The smokes have ammonia added. They stink bad. All home made."

I looked at the coat hanger, the mismatched tape, the scuffed pipes. "Wow, and they seem so well put together. Who'd have thought?"

Jackie's brow furrowed, and he considered the cylinders. He lifted his right hand. "Or maybe these are gas, and these are smoke. The trunk's a mess, so they've been rolling around some."

I looked at him. "Your mom must be so proud of you."

"Hey, she's never wanted for anything."

"Least of all munitions."

"So which should we use?"

Calling on Jackie Garner was looking less and less like a good idea, but the prospect of not having to hang around in the dark waiting for Torrans to show his face, or trying to gain access to the house and facing down three men and one woman, possibly armed, was certainly attractive.

"Smoke," I said at last. "I think gassing them may be illegal."

"I think smoking them is illegal too," Jackie pointed out.

"Okay, but it's probably less illegal than gas. Just give me one of those things."

He handed a cylinder over.

"You sure this is smoke?" I asked.

"Yeah, they weigh different. I was just kidding you. Pull the pin, then toss it as fast as you can. Oh, and don't jiggle it around too much. It's kind of volatile."

Far from Portland, as her mother made her way through the streets of an unfamiliar city, Alice emerged from a deep sleep. She felt feverish and nauseous, and her limbs and joints ached. She had begged, again and again, for a little stuff just to keep her steady, but instead they had injected her with something that gave her terrible, frightening hallucinations in which inhuman creatures crowded around her, trying to carry her off into the darkness. They didn't last long, but their effect was draining, and after the third or fourth dose she found that the hallucinations continued even after the drug should have worn off, so that the line between nightmare and reality became blurred. In the end, she pleaded with them to stop, and in return she told them all that she knew. After that, they changed the drug, and she slept dreamlessly. Since then, the hours had passed in a blur of needles and drugs and periodic sleep. Her hands had been tied to the frame of the bed, and her eyes had remained covered ever since she was brought to this place, wherever it was. She knew that there was more than one person responsible for keeping her here, for different voices had questioned her over the period of her captivity.

A door opened, and footsteps approached the bed.

"How are you feeling?" asked a male voice. It was one that she had heard before. It sounded almost tender. From his accent, she guessed that he was Mexican.

Alice tried to speak, but her throat was so terribly dry. A cup was placed to her lips, and the visitor trickled water into her mouth, supporting the back of her head with his hand so that she did not spill any upon herself. His hand felt very cool against her scalp.

"I'm sick," she said. The drugs had taken away some of the hunger, but her own addictions still gnawed at her.

"Yes, but soon you will not be so sick."

"Why are you doing this to me? Did he pay you to do this?"

Alice sensed puzzlement, maybe even alarm.

"Who do you mean?"

"My cousin. Did he pay you to take me away, to clean me up?"

A breath was released. "No."

"But why am I here? What do you want me to do?"

She remembered again being asked questions, but she had trouble recalling their substance or the answers that she gave in reply. She feared, though, that she had said something bad, something that would get a friend into trouble, but she couldn't recall her friend's name, or even her face. She was so confused, so tired, so thirsty, so hungry.

The cool hand passed across her brow, brushing the damp hair from her skin, and she almost wept in gratitude for this brief moment of solicitude. Then the hand touched her cheek, and she felt fingers exploring the ridges of her eye sockets, testing her jaw, pressing into her bones. Alice was reminded of the actions of a surgeon, examining the patient before the cutting began, and she was afraid.

"You have nothing more to do," he said. "It's nearly over now."

As the taxi neared its destination, the woman understood the reasons for the driver's unhappiness. They had progressed uptown, the area growing less and less hospitable, until at last even the streetlights grew dark, their bulbs shot out and glass scattered on the sidewalk beneath. Some of the buildings looked like they might have been beautiful once, and it pained her to see them reduced to such squalor, almost as much as it hurt her to see young people reduced to living in such conditions, prowling the streets and preying on their own.

The taxi pulled up in front of a narrow doorway marked with the name of a hotel, and she paid the driver twenty-two dollars. If he was expecting a tip, he was now a disappointed man. She didn't have money to be giving people tips just for doing what they were supposed to do, but she did thank him. He didn't help her to get her bag from the trunk. He just popped it and let her do it herself, all the time looking uneasily at the young men who watched him from the street corners.

The hotel's sign promised TV, AC, and baths. A black clerk in a D12 T-shirt sat behind a Plexiglas screen inside, reading a college textbook. He handed her a registration card, took her cash for three nights, then gave her a key attached to half a brick by a length of thick chain.

"Got to leave the key with me when you go out," he told her.

The woman looked at the brick.

"Sure," she said. "I'll try to remember."

"You're on the fourth floor. Elevator's on the left."

The elevator smelled of fried food and human waste. The odor in her room was only marginally better. There were scorch marks on the thin carpet, big circular black burns that could not have come from cigarettes. A single iron bed stood against one wall, with a space between it and the other wall just large enough for a person to squeeze through. A radiator sulked coldly beneath a grimy window, a single battered chair beside it. There was a sink on the wall, and a tiny mirror above it. A TV was bolted to the upper right-hand corner of the room. She opened what appeared to be a closet and discovered instead a small toilet and a hole in the center of the floor to allow water from a showerhead to drain away. In total, the bathroom was about nine feet square. As far as she could see, the only way to shower was to sit on the toilet, or to straddle it.

She set out her clothes on the bed and placed her toothbrush and toiletries by the sink. She checked her watch. It was a little early. All that she knew about where she was going she had learned from a single cable TV show, but she guessed that things didn't start to get busy there until after dark.

She turned on the TV, lay on her bed, and watched game shows and comedies until the night drew in. Then she pulled on her overcoat, put some money in her pocket, and descended to the streets.

Two men came to Alice and injected her again. Within minutes her head began to cloud. Her limbs felt heavy, and her head lolled to the right. Her blindfold was removed, and she knew that it was coming to an end. Once her vision had recovered, she could see that one of the men was small and wiry, with a pointed gray beard and thinning gray hair. His skin was tanned, and she guessed that this was the Mexican who had spoken to her in the past. The other was an enormously fat man with a belly that wobbled pendulously between his thighs, obscuring his groin. His green eyes were lost in folds of flesh, and there was dirt lodged in the pores of his skin. His neck was purple and swollen, and when he touched her, her skin prickled and burned.

They lifted her from her bed and placed her in a wheelchair, then wheeled her down a decaying hallway until she was brought at last to a white-tiled room with a drain in the floor. They transferred her to a wooden chair with leather straps to secure her hands and feet, and there they left her, facing her reflection in the long mirror on the wall. She barely recognized herself. A gray pallor hung behind her dark skin, as though her own features had been thinly overlaid on those of a white person. Her eyes were bloodshot, and there was dried blood at the corners of her mouth and upon her chin. She was wearing a white surgical gown, beneath which she was naked.

The room was startlingly clean and bright, and the fluorescent lights above were merciless in their exposition of her features, worn down by years of drugs and the demands of men. For a second, she believed that she was looking at her mother in the glass, and the resemblance made her eyes water.

"I'm sorry, Momma," she said. "I didn't mean no harm by it."

Her hearing became acute, a consequence of the drugs pumping through her system. Before her, her features began to swim, mutating, transforming. There were voices whispering around her. She tried to turn her head to follow them, but was unable to do so. Her paranoia grew.

Then the lights died, and she was in total darkness.

The woman hailed a cab and told the driver where she wished to be taken. She had briefly considered using public transportation, but had made the decision that she would use it only during daylight hours. By night she would travel by taxi, despite the expense. After all, if something were to happen to her on the subway or while waiting for a bus before she spoke to him, then who would look for her daughter?

The cabdriver was a young man, and white. Most of the others were not white, from what she had seen earlier that evening. Few were even black. The races that drove the cabs here could be found only in big cities and foreign lands.

"Ma'am," the young man said, "are you sure that's where you want to go?"

"Yes," she said. "Take me to the Point."

"That's a rough area. You going to be long? You're not going to be long and I can wait for you, take you back here."

She didn't look like any hooker that he had ever seen, although he knew that the Point catered to all tastes. The cabdriver didn't like to think about what might happen to a nice gray-haired lady moving among the bottom dwellers of the Point.

"I will be some time," she said. "I don't know when I'll be coming back, but thank you for asking."

Feeling that he could do nothing more, the driver pulled into traffic and headed for Hunt's Point.

He called himself G-Mack, and he was a playa. He dressed like a playa, because that was part of what being a playa was all about. He had the gold chains and the leather coat, beneath which he wore a tailored black vest over his bare upper body. His pants were cut wide at the thigh, narrowing down to cuffs so small he had trouble getting his feet through them. His cornrows were hidden beneath a wide-brimmed leather hat, and he kept a pair of cell phones on his belt. He carried no weapons, but there were guns close to hand. This was his patch, and these were his women.

He watched them now, their asses barely hidden beneath short black imitation-leather skirts, their titties busting out of their cheap bustier tops. He liked his women to dress alike, felt like it was kind of his brand, m'sayin? Anything worthwhile in this country had its own recognizable look, didn't matter you was buying it in Buttfreeze, Montana, or Asswipe, Arkansas. G-Mack didn't have as many girls as some, but then he was just beginning. He had big plans.

He watched Chantal, this tall black hooker with legs so thin he marveled at how they could support her body, teeter on her heels as she headed over to him.

"Whatchu got, baby?" he asked.

"Hunnerd."

"Hunnerd? You fuckin with me?"

"It's slow, baby. I ain't had but some blow jobs, and a nigga try to stiff me in the lot, makin like he goan pay me soon as I'm done, wastin my time. It's hard, baby."

G-Mack reached out for her face and held it tightly in his fingers.

"What'm I goan find and I take you down that alleyway and check you out, huh? I ain't goan find no hunnerd, am I? I goan find bills hidden in all them dark places, ain't I? You think I'm goan be gentle with you, huh, when I go lookin inside? You want me to do that?"

She shook her head in his grip. He released her, and watched as she reached under her skirt. Seconds later, her hand emerged with a plastic Baggie. He could see the notes inside.

"I'm goan let you get away with it this once, y'hear?" he said as he took the Baggie from her, holding it carefully with his fingernails so as not to sully his hands with the smell of her. She gave him the hundred from her handbag too. He raised his hand as if to strike her, then let it drop slowly to his side and smiled his best, most reassuring smile.

"That's just cause you new with me. But you fuck with me again, bitch, and I will fuck your shit up so bad you be bleeding for a week. Now get yo ass back out there."

Chantal nodded and sniffed. She stroked his coat with her right hand, rubbing at the lapel.

"Sorry, baby. I just -- "

"It's done," said G-Mack. "We clear."

She nodded again, then turned away and headed back onto the street. G-Mack watched her go. She had maybe another five hours before things got quieter. He'd take her back to the crib then and show her what happened to bitches who fucked with the Mack, who tried to embarrass him by holding back on him. He wasn't about to discipline her on the street, because that would make him look bad. No, he'd deal with her in private.

That was the thing with these hos. You let one get away with something, and the next thing they were all holding out on you and then you weren't nothing better than a bitch yourself. They needed to be taught that lesson early on, else they weren't worth having around. Funny thing was, you fucked them up, and they still stayed with you. You worked it right, and they felt needed, like they was part of a family they'd never had. Like a good father, you disciplined them because you loved them. You could screw around on the ones who were sweet on you, and they wouldn't say boo, because at least they knew the other whores you were seeing. In that sense, a pimp beat a square any day. It was all okay as long as you kept it in the family. They were your women, and you could do with them what you pleased once you gave them a sense of belonging, of being wanted. You had to get psychological with these bitches, had to know how to play the game.

"Excuse me," said a voice to his right.

He looked down to see a small black woman in an overcoat, her hand inside her bag. Her hair was gray, and she looked like she might break in two if the wind was strong enough.

"What you want, Grandma?" he said. "You a little old to be trickin."

If the woman understood the insult, she didn't let it show.

"I'm looking for somebody," she said, taking a photograph from her wallet, and G-Mack felt his heart sink.

The door to Alice's left opened, then closed again, but the lights in the corridor beyond had also been extinguished, and she was unable to see who had entered. A stench assailed her nostrils, and she found herself retching. She could hear no footsteps, yet she was aware of a figure circling her, appraising her.

"Please," she said, and it took all of her strength just to speak. "Please. Whatever I done, I'm sorry for it. I won't tell nobody what happened. I don't even know where I am. Let me go, and I'll be a good girl, I promise."

The whispering grew louder now, and there was laughter intermingled with the voices. Then something touched her face, and her skin prickled, and her mind was bombarded with images. She felt as though her memories were being ransacked, the details of her life briefly held up to the light, then discarded by the presence beside her. She saw her mother, her aunt, her grandmother...

A houseful of women, set on a patch of land by the edge of a forest; a dead man lying in a casket, the women standing around him, none of them weeping. One of them reaches for the cotton sheet covering his head, and when it is removed he is revealed to be near faceless, his features destroyed by some terrible vengeance wrought upon him by another. In a corner stands a boy, tall for his age, dressed in a cheap hired suit, and she knows his name.

Louis.

"Louis," she whispered, and her voice seemed to echo around the tiled room. The presence beside her withdrew, but she could still hear its breathing. Its breath smelt of earth.

Earth, and burning.

"Louis," she repeated.

Closer than brother to me. Blood to me.

Help me.

Her hand was clasped in the hand of another, and she felt it being raised. It came to rest upon something ragged and ruined. She traced the lineaments of what once was a face: the eye sockets, now empty; the fragments of cartilage where once was a nose; a lipless gap for a mouth. The mouth opened, taking her fingers inside, then closed softly upon them, and she saw once again the figure in the casket, the man without a face, his head torn apart by the actions of --

"Louis."

She was crying now, crying for them both. The mouth upon her fingers was no longer soft. Teeth were erupting from the gums, flat yet sharp, and they tore into her hand.

This is not real. This is not real.

But the pain was real, and the presence was real.

And she called his name in her head once again -- Louis -- as she began to die.

G-Mack kept his face turned from her, taking in his women, the cars, the streets, anything to divert his attention and force her to go elsewhere.

"Can't help you," he said. "Go call Five-O. They be dealin with missin persons."

"She worked here," said the woman. "The girl I'm looking for. She worked for you."

"Like I said, can't help you. You need to be movin on now, else you goan get into trouble. Nobody want to be answering yo questions. People here want to make money. This is a business. This like Mickey D's. It's all about the dollar."

"I can pay you," said the old woman.

She raised a pathetic handful of ragged bills.

"I don't want yo money," he said. "Get out of my face."

"Please," she said. "Just look at this picture."

She held up the picture of the young black woman.

G-Mack glanced at the photograph, then tried to look away as casually as he could, the sick feeling in his stomach growing suddenly stronger.

"Don't know her," said G-Mack.

"Maybe -- "

"I said I ain't never seen her."

"But you didn't even look prop -- "

And in his fear, G-Mack made his biggest mistake. He lashed out at her, catching her on the left cheek. She staggered back against the wall, a pale spot against her skin where his open hand had struck her.

"Get the fuck out of here," he said. "Don't you be comin round here no more."

The woman swallowed, and he could see the tears starting, but she tried to hold them back. Old bitch had some balls, he'd give her that. She replaced the photograph in her bag, then walked away. Across the street, G-Mack could see Chantal staring at him.

"The fuck you lookin' at?" he shouted to her. He made a move toward her, and she backed away, her body eventually obscured by a green Taurus that pulled up alongside her, the middle-aged business type inside easing down the window as he negotiated with her. When they'd agreed on a price, Chantal climbed in alongside him, and they pulled off, headed for one of the lots off the main drag. That was another thing he'd have to talk about with the bitch: curiosity.

Jackie Garner was at one side of the window, and I was at the other. Using a little dentist's mirror I'd picked up, I'd seen two men watching TV in the living room. One of them was Torrans's brother, Garry. The drapes on what I took to be a bedroom nearby were drawn, and I thought I could hear a man and a woman talking inside. I signaled to Jackie that he should stay where he was, then I moved to the bedroom window. Using the raised fingers of my right hand, I counted three, two, one, then hurled the smoke canister through the window of the room. Jackie tossed his through the glass of the living room, then followed it with a second. Instantly, noxious green fumes began to pour from the holes. We backed away, taking up positions in the shadows across from the front and back doors to the house. I could hear coughing and shouting inside, but I could see nothing. Already, the smoke had entirely filled the living room. The stench was incredible, and even at a distance my eyes were stinging.

It wasn't just smoke. It was gas too.

The front door opened, and two men spilled out into the yard. One of them had a gun in his hand. He fell to his knees on the grass and began to retch. Jackie came at him from out of nowhere, put one big foot on the gun hand, and kicked him hard with the other. The other man, Garry Torrans, just lay on the ground, the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes.

Seconds later, the back door opened and Olivia Morales stumbled out. David Torrans was close behind her. He was shirtless, and a wet towel was pressed to his face. Once he was away from the house he discarded it and made a break for the next yard. His eyes were red and streaming, but he wasn't suffering as badly as the others. He had almost made it to the wall when I emerged from the darkness and swept his feet from under him. He landed hard on his back, the wind abruptly knocked out of him by the impact. He lay there, staring up at me, tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Who are you?" he said.

"My name's Parker," I said.

"You gassed us."

He vomited the words out.

"You tried to steal my car."

"Yeah, but...you gassed us. What kind of sonofabitch gasses someone?"

Jackie Garner shambled across the lawn. Behind him, I could see Garry and the other man lying on the ground, their hands and legs bound with plastic ties. Torrans's head turned to take in the new arrival.

"This kind," I told him.

Jackie shrugged.

"Sorry," he said to Torrans. "At least I know it works."

G-Mack lit a cigarette and noticed that his hands were shaking. He didn't want to think about the girl in the picture. She was gone, and G-Mack didn't never want to see the men who took her again. They found out someone was asking after her, and then another pimp would be taking care of the Mack's team, because the Mack would be dead.

The Mack didn't know it, but he had only days left to live. He should never have hit the woman.

And in the white-tiled room, Alice, now torn and ruined, prepared to breathe her last. The mouth of another touched her lips, waiting. He could sense it coming, could taste its sweetness. The woman shuddered, then grew limp. He felt her spirit enter him, and a new voice was added to the great chorus within.

Copyright © 2005 by John Connolly

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