Box Nine

Box Nine

by Jack O'Connell

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 A narcotics detective wages war against a deadly new stimulant

The drug is called Lingo, and it’s the most powerful narcotic Lenore has ever seen. This cheaply manufactured pill races straight for the brain’s language center, supercharging it so that even a dimwitted person can speak and read at 1,500 words per minute. It induces…  See more details below


 A narcotics detective wages war against a deadly new stimulant

The drug is called Lingo, and it’s the most powerful narcotic Lenore has ever seen. This cheaply manufactured pill races straight for the brain’s language center, supercharging it so that even a dimwitted person can speak and read at 1,500 words per minute. It induces giddiness, confidence, and sexual euphoria—with a side effect of murderous rage. The drug has come to Quinsigamond, a fading industrial center in the heart of Massachusetts, and it’s going to tear this town apart. Lenore believes she can stop that from happening. A narcotics detective with a few addictions of her own—amphetamines and heavy metal, to name a couple—she loves nothing more than her gun, until she meets Dr. Frederick Woo, the linguist assisting her on the case. Together they can stop the drug—if it doesn’t take hold of them first.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Garry Smout
Too dark and brooding to be a page turner like Willard, Box Nine is nevertheless an absorbing read with the only niggle being the coincidence of the siblings in totally different professions getting independently mixed up in the same mess. -- Barcelona Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
O'Connell shows talent in his prize-winning debut, which teams detective Lenore Thomas with a Chinese linguist to track down a drug ring in a city very much like Worcester, Mass. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“Stunningly original . . . Jack O’Connell’s vision is spellbinding: by turns hilarious and terrifying.” —James Ellroy
“This dark, disturbing book . . . speaks with a fine fury about the yearning for forbidden knowledge and the language to articulate the mysteries it unlocks.” —The New York Times
“Strong stuff, all right: O’Connell gets so deep inside his small-town cast that it'’s a relief to turn the last page.” —Kirkus Reviews

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Box Nine

By Jack O'Connell


Copyright © 1992 Jack O'Connell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3249-1


Talk to God. Clean up your slate. The Rapture is coming and your time is running out. Mary is doing all she can to hold back the hand of her son. All but the elect will be chastised.

Lenore lowers the orange foam headphones to her neck and shuts off the radio. Ray, the born-again Nazi from WQSG, has kicked into another screaming rant, another variation on his normal tirade against communism, Satan, and Mayor Welby's latest budget proposals.

She shouldn't have brought the radio in the first place. It's too distracting, a piece of equipment without a purpose. But the thought of spending another night listening to Zarelli debate divorce was too much. It exceeded her tolerance level. She had a hunch things could get ugly if she didn't take some kind of preventive action.

But listening to Ray rasp and suck air till he's overcome and close to vomiting is no solution.

So she sends her partner, Zarelli, across the street early, tells him to look for any surprises, and attempts to concentrate on her food. She's eating some kind of rice and raw tuna dish out of a carton. It's cold and she has no idea whether it's supposed to be served this way or if Zarelli was just suckered again, handed a cold carton of last night's house special out of a kitchen doorway. She can picture a trio of teenage Chinese dishwashers, soaked aprons sticking to their legs, pocketing Zarelli's money and laughing for the balance of their shift.

It's the Monday before Thanksgiving and Lenore is in the basement of a slaughterhouse called Brasilia Beef, sitting on a splintery shipping crate in the boiler room, hidden behind a double oil tank and an enormous, ancient monster of a cast-iron furnace. This is her third night in the basement. She's listening for sounds, distant voices. She's anticipating the noise of a business transaction, a semi-friendly deal, earnest handshakes over platters of marinated monkey livers and shooters of bourbon.

Across the street from the slaughterhouse is the Plain Jar Café, a new Laotian bar and grill. The place is owned by a new player that everyone calls Cousin Mo. It may or may not be a fresh money bin for a new company setting up in the Park. So far there's been no way to cross-check this information.

Zarelli is sitting at the bar of the Plain Jar. Zarelli's supposed to be sipping club sodas, but when he dropped off her supper, Lenore could smell booze. Now she's starting to think she should have been the one inside the bar. But Zarelli's so bad with the equipment, what he calls the machines, and lately he's taken to dozing on stakeout.

Earlier in the night, they managed to wire Zarelli with a voice-activated mike. The tech guys promised Lenore it was the latest thing. She didn't bother to tell them that the equipment she's most worried about is her partner. Right now, Cousin Mo and his meatboys could be sacrificing infants at the other end of the bar and Zarelli would talk right through it, choke himself spitting out his newest jokes about feminists and Orientals.

She pictures him now, her partner and lover, elbows planted on the bar, a long teak slab resting on a pedestal that's hand-carved to look like a parade of elephants, all attached, tail to trunk. She sees him fire a punch line to the barkeep, then fit his mouth around another Genesee cream ale. As always, he's dressed in this sport coat that might as well have orange neon across the back blinking I'm a cop, I'm a cop.

She looks down at her own lap and has to smile. She's got on the leather miniskirt that Zarelli's so hot for and a pink tank top under a denim jacket. It's a challenge finding the right outfit, hitting the perfect note between enough sleaze and not too much theatrics. Last night, sitting on the same crates, Zarelli said to her, "Jesus, you were born to wear clothes like that." She responded by throwing a water chestnut at him. She caught him in the eye. He said it stung all night and she said, "It's just a reminder not to be stupid."

But she knows no amount of eye-poking will help. Zarelli's a stupid guy. It's a fact of nature. Nothing can be done.

The problem with dressing like a hooker, she decides, is that there's no place to put the gun. You can tape a razor up high on the thigh, then spend the rest of the night hesitant about sitting down, a little worried that the only blood you draw might be your own. And besides, down in the Park a razor just isn't going to be enough. In fact, at this time of the night in Bangkok Park, a razor is probably worse than nothing at all. It's all taunt and threat and no backup. No delivery. So she's got a small .38 jammed into the pocket of the denim jacket.

She puts down her carton and fits the black department headphones over her ears. How many nights has she wasted just like this, alone in some basement or attic, waiting hours for some word, some information, a clear sentence from the mouth of another rookie broker overstimulated by speed and the legend of Cortez? Every other week it seems, some new player moves into the Park and wants to kick Cortez off the top of the hill. Last week, Zarelli gave her five-to-one odds that Cousin Mo would be dead before he could take delivery on his new Mercedes. Lenore shook off the bet.

Lenore has her own theories about Cortez, the king of Bangkok Park. She's got ideas that don't jibe with the legend, hunches she won't share anymore. Everyone in the department, Miskewitz included, thinks Cortez is headed for the Cartel Hall of Fame. Lenore thinks this may not be the case, that there's both more and less to Cortez than the current myth allows for.

Through the headphones comes the sound of a door opening and a volley of unintelligible talk interspersed with a high-pitched laugh. Lenore puts her hands to her ears and wishes she'd listened to that "Intro to Laotian" cassette she bought mail-order. Clearly there's someone in the bar besides Zarelli who enjoys a good, filthy joke.

The sound quality surprises her. She'll have to pat a few backs tomorrow. Usually, she's trying to pick incriminating syllables out of a garbled hiss of grunts and coughs. Tonight, the words come pretty sharp and clear, and she can't translate even one into English. She thinks irony should be added to death and taxes as one more certainty in life.

"What's this? Sit? You want me to sit down?"

It's Zarelli's voice. He's giving his nervousness away like free advice.

"Is there a language problem here? I assumed we'd all speak English. Am I wrong here?"

Cousin Mo speaks English like the Queen. But he probably thinks this is a smart business tactic, rattling the customer. First sign of a short-term player. Cortez will eat this guy inside a month.

"Is there any chance of getting a translator?"

The whole room laughs.

"I say something funny?"

Finally, Cousin Mo speaks:

"Could you do me a favor, Mr. Watt?"

"A favor?"

"A very simple request."

"Yeah. Request?"

"Could you please unbutton your shirt?"

"My shirt?"

"If you would indulge me."

Lenore pulls the headphones off and starts running to the street, thinking, Zarelli should come with a warning. She stops herself from bolting into the Plain Jar, looks down the length of Voegelin Street, and sees two girls in front of El Topo. She looks to the doorway of the Plain Jar and makes her decision, runs to El Topo, and pulls a wad of bills from her jeans jacket pocket.

One of the girls is Hispanic, the other a tall Grace Jones type, all cheekbone and leg. The Hispanic girl is shaking her head, saying, "No, honey, you want Melinda," as Lenore counts off two hundred dollars in tens and twenties. She pulls off her wristwatch, holds it out, and says, "Look, can't argue. This is a real Movado. You can have it and the cash. I need you for ten minutes. You won't even have to take off your shoes."

They walk into the Plain Jar without looking at the bartender and head straight for the stairway. At the top landing is a dim corridor that breaks right and left. At the right-hand end, a meatboy in a bad-fitting suit sits on a barstool before a closed door. Lenore starts an even march toward him, as he rises up off the stool and holds a flat palm up like a traffic cop. She responds with a classic index finger to the lips, a shush to an excited child.

The guy puts his hand inside his suit coat and leaves it there as Lenore leans up to his ear and whispers, "Welcome wagon gift from your new neighbor," then she gives his lobe a small lick.

He scrunches his brow to show confusion, but doesn't speak.

Lenore smiles, indicates the girls, who've fallen in behind her, and says, "A little something Mr. Cortez sent over. For the boss. For Cousin Mo. You know —welcome to the neighborhood."

He stares at her for a few seconds, holds up a finger to indicate wait a second, then gives two knocks on the door and without waiting for an answer turns the knob and sticks his head inside, up to his steroid-enhanced neck. There are some low, guttural barks back and forth and before the meatboy can extract his head and tell her to wait at the bar, Lenore checks her good shoulder into his back and he falls forward onto his knees, throwing the door wide open. Zarelli is on his knees in the center of the room. Lenore jumps over the meatboy, draws out the .38, pulls down the hammer, grabs Zarelli in a headlock, and pushes the barrel up against his temple.

Suddenly, everyone in the room has a gun drawn, and Cousin Mo clearly isn't sure what's happening. Lenore knows that what she's about to do probably doesn't make much sense, but she's betting that fact won't dawn on anyone, Zarelli included, for another five minutes. She speaks fast, directly to the boss.

"Don't. This guy's a cop, for Christ sake."

Cousin Mo raises both his hands in a weird, nervous, birdlike gesture that seems to restrain his associates.

Lenore tries for a little arrogance. "You should really learn who it is that you're doing business with, my friend."

A long minute passes while Cousin Mo stares and thinks, then he says, "And you are?"

"I'm an employee of your new neighbor, Mr. Cortez. Owns Hotel Penumbra. You might have heard. You now owe him a favor."

Cousin Mo comes forward to his desk. The meatboy is up, dishonored, shamefaced. The guy next to Cousin Mo head-signals him away and the kid closes the office door behind himself.

"Why would my neighbor be so concerned about my welfare?" Cousin Mo asks.

Lenore instinctively tightens her grip around Zarelli's neck, possibly cutting off some air. She gives a sigh and says, "I'm sure he has his reasons. He'll probably be letting you know what they are very soon."

Cousin Mo looks down at Zarelli and then back up at Lenore.

"He's as filthy as they come," she says, "but he's on Mr. Cortez's leash."

"Are you saying Mr. Cortez wants to discuss a deal?"

She loosens up on Zarelli, steps backward, and pulls him to his feet. "I'm saying we're leaving now. And I'm saying you should show a little more discretion in the future. And I'm saying you may be getting a call soon. Any problems with that?"

Cousin Mo looks like he doesn't know whether he's had his ego stroked or his shoes spit on. He looks around at his men, then lowers his voice and says, "I understand."

Lenore nods, puts the gun back in her pocket, lifts the back flap of Zarelli's sport coat, and grabs hold of his belt.

"Someone wants to talk with you," she says to Zarelli's back. "You try to bolt on me and I'll shoot right through your spine."

She starts to move for the door.

Cousin Mo says, "Thank Mr. Cortez for me."

She marches Zarelli out in front of her, a sweaty, shallow-breathing shield, all the way back to her Barracuda. They don't speak until they cross out of the Park, at which point Zarelli smashes his fist into the dash and says, "You put it up to my fucking head—"

She cuts him off and yells back, "Who knows what Mo would have done if I hadn't come in. He's untested. He could have done anything—"

"—my fucking head. Right here." He points to his temple with his index and middle fingers.

"I had to shock them," she yells.

"Shock them? My heart. My goddamn heart."

She pulls the Barracuda into the curb with a screech, jams it into park, and they start to slap each other around the upper torso. This is not the first time this has happened. Things escalate and Lenore loses herself, makes a fist, and comes up under Zarelli's jaw.

He drops his offense, takes his face in his hands, yelling, "The bridge, oh no, the new bridge."

Lenore sinks back in her seat, punches the steering wheel.

"Is it the bridge? Did I break it?" she asks grudgingly.

He doesn't answer right away, sits there stroking his jaw like a shaving cream commercial.

A few minutes go by. Finally, he says, "You know, word's going to get back to Cortez."

She says, "Let me worry about Cortez."

There's another pause and he adds, "Thanks for getting me out of there."

"Sorry about the gun. I probably shouldn't have pulled back the hammer."

"You had to shock them. You had to move quickly."

"I made a decision. I acted on it."

He slides a hand over onto her thigh.

She shakes her head no, shifts back into drive.

"We've got a briefing in about five hours."

He makes a face that says please, changes it, pitifully, into I beg you.

Lenore stomps the gas and thinks, I should have popped the weasel when I had the chance.


After she dumps Zarelli, Lenore cruises home to the green duplex. There's no chance of sleep, so she takes a cold shower, pops a hit of crank, and sits on the end of her bed, naked, pumping ten-pound weights and watching metal videos with the sound off. She's waiting for signs of life from her brother Ike, next door.

Lenore lives on the other side of his apartment, in the other half of the green duplex. The arrangement has worked out pretty well, all things considered. They often work different hours, but manage to have meals together a few times a week. Ike thinks their parents would be pleased to know this. They've been dead just over seven years now. They died within six months of one another. Ma went first, a coronary. Dad followed in the fall with a lethal embolism in the front of the brain. A month after the estate was settled–there wasn't much, a small savings account, and the house and car–Lenore and he went in halves on the duplex. She'd gotten a promotion on the force, and things down at the post office looked stable enough for him. They took a twenty-year fixed mortgage and moved in in the spring.

When they do eat together, it's Ike who does the cooking. Lenore, like Pa, enjoys eggs and sausages. Anytime, day or night. Ike tries to warn her about cholesterol and fat intake, but he can't talk to Lenore about crap like that. She takes her life in her hands, and in a big way, like three or four times a week. Last year, down the projects, Zarelli kicks a door in on this upstart smack dealer and Lenore leaps into his pigsty, all pumped up for a big-time collar. But the guy's been tipped, he's expecting them and he's ready around a corner of the apartment, with a gun to Lenore's head. Before Zarelli can move, the dealer pulls the trigger, but, thank God, the gun is this piece of garbage, unregistered and off the street from, who knows, like Taiwan or someplace, and it explodes in his hands–puts the bullet intended for Lenore into the dealer's own throat.

How do you warn someone about the danger of sausage after a day like that?

A guy on the TV screen with semi-permed, peroxide-blond hair grabs his own behind and makes a face like he's in agony. Lenore gets a kick out of this. Nobody could be more shocked than herself that she's become addicted to heavy-metal music. And like most addictions, she's attempted to hide this new habit from everyone she knows. She thinks she's been fairly successful in this attempt, but it's difficult since one of the inherent factors, and, yes, attractions, of heavy metal, at least for Lenore, is its deafening volume.


Excerpted from Box Nine by Jack O'Connell. Copyright © 1992 Jack O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of A
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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