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Shit, Blackie, this one’s dead, too. What’re we gonna do?” The speaker, scarcely more than a boy—the lines cruelty would carve deep into his face not yet showing more than petulance—looked with disgust into an aluminum cargo box half the size of a semitrailer. His nose, high bridged and straight, the only feature of his face that suggested an ancestry not devoted to the baser things, wrinkled at the stink, a stink not from the bodies, or from the way they had died, but from the way they had lived for nineteen days.
“Maybe more’n one.”
“We get rid of ’em.”
Drops of water on the younger man’s thick black hair glittered in the harbor lights like a cheap sequined hairnet. As his head pushed into the shadow of the shipping box, Blackie, fifty last birthday and made of hard muscles and hard times, turned away. For a second it had looked as if the head vanished and left the body standing stooped over by itself.
Blackie didn’t like magic. Didn’t like things that vanished or shifted or weren’t what they seemed to be; things that couldn’t be relied upon.
“Dougie, get your goddam head out of the box,” he snapped. “What’re you doing? Sniffing ’em? Jesus.”
Unoffended, Dougie did as he was told. “What’re we going to do?” he asked again, sounding plaintive.
Absurd burbling notes of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” swam through the moisture-laden air. Blackie tensed, his eyes seeking and sharp with the keenness of the hunter—or the hunted. He wished the night were darker. Seattle’s interminable drizzle caught the light from the quay and the street above the docks, giving everything a shadowless glow, robbing the place of depth, reality.
“It’s your cell phone,” Dougie said helpfully.
“Fuck.” Blackie fumbled the phone out of his jacket pocket and pawed it open, his blunt fingers clumsy as hooves on the tiny plastic cover. “Yeah? Oh, hi, sweetie-pie.” A vicious glare, at odds with the sugary voice, abraded the smirk from Dougie’s face. “No, Laura, Daddy didn’t forget. I thought you got to stay up later’s all. Okay. Ready? Nighty night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.” As he closed the phone, Dougie began his lament.
“What’re we gonna—”
It was cut off by another few bars of the children’s nursery song. Blackie’s daughter liked to program the ring on his cell phone.
He flipped it open again. “Sweetie . . .” he began, then trailed off. His flesh tightened over wide cheek and brow bones, drawing the rigid lines of a man in pain—or in thrall to someone who enjoyed the dark arts.
“Yeah,” he said. And “Yeah.” And “Clear.” Putting the phone back in his pocket, he jerked his chin toward the freight container. “Throw ’em in the back of the van. We got another job.”
Dougie padded happily into the reeking darkness of the metal coffin. He knew Blackie’s look, the freaky frozen look. The other job would be better. It was way more fun when they weren’t already dead.
Old Man River. What a crock, Anna thought as she sat on a bench on the levee, the April sun already powerful enough to warm the faux wood slats beneath her back and thighs. The Mississippi was so unquestionably female, the great mother, a blowsy, fecund, fertile juggernaut that nurtured and destroyed with the same sublime indifference.
Rivers were paltry things where Anna had grown up, fierce only when they flash-flooded. Compared to the Mississippi their occasional rampages seemed merely the peevish snits of adolescence.
Half blind from the hypnotic sparkle of sun on ruffled water, she squinted at her watch. Geneva was about to go to work. Grunting mildly because there was no one close enough to hear, Anna shoved herself up from the bench and started back toward the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park on North Peters, a block from Café Du Monde and Jackson Square.
Young persons of the sort she seldom ran across in the parks had laid claim to a swath of the river walk. Six males, three females, four dogs, one puppy, and nine bicycles created a barrier that could either be detoured around or run as a gauntlet. Hostile glares from thirteen pairs of eyes—the puppy looked friendly enough—suggested Anna choose the detour.
Sheer orneriness suggested she take the puppy up on his tail-wagging invitation and plow through the pack. The alpha male, tall with hair pulled into a tail of natural dreadlocks, the kind created by aggressively bad hygiene and not kinky hair or salon manipulations, and a beard Charlie Manson might have sported before prison barbers took over his personal grooming, could have been close to thirty. The youngest was the girl holding the puppy. Anna put her at no more than thirteen or fourteen.
Age was hard to guess. Male and female alike wore only blacks and browns. Not a speck of color alleviated the drab of their thrift store clothing. Decorations were a study in sartorial nihilism: slashes, iron pins, rag-over-rag T-shirts with swastikas inked on. Piercing and cutting and tattooing moved seamlessly from fabric to flesh. Nothing was symmetrical, soft, or suggestive of kindness. Dirt, soot, sweat, and various effluvia dulled cloth, hair, and skin. Something more immutable dulled the eyes.
If life were to be found in T. S. Eliot’s waste land, Anna believed it would be in the discovery of roving bands like this one; parentless, homeless, hopeless children, more like the child-soldiers of Rwanda—or little girls pressed into sexual slavery in World War II Japanese prison camps—than children from middle-and upper-class American families who chose to reject the plenty for the ride.
Geneva—Anna was staying in the apartment behind her house on Ursulines in the Quarter—called them “gutter punks.” They were purported to call themselves “travelers” because they jumped trains, living the nomadic life once followed by hobos.
Just how dangerous they were, Anna hadn’t a clue, but it was clear they wanted to inspire fear in civilians. Even without the stink and the rags and the self-mutilation, that alone would have earned them a wide berth as far as she was concerned. These kids were not her brand of criminal. She wasn’t well versed in their migration patterns, did not know their natural habitat, what they preyed upon or what preyed upon them—but people who valued fear and enjoyed pain were scary. Healthy animals, bunnies and foxes and cougars and grizzlies, ran from what frightened them and avoided pain at all costs. When they stopped behaving this way it was because they were sick, rabid.
Anna felt it was the same for people, except one wasn’t allowed to put them out of their misery.
Avoiding eye contact, she cut across the grass in the direction of the flood wall and the Jazz Historical Park. As she reached the tracks between the levee and the city where the Julia Street trolley ran, she heard a piercing whistle, the kind that can only be produced by sticking one’s fingers in one’s mouth, the kind that leaves grooves in the gray matter of anyone in a hundred-foot radius.
Stopping, she shaded her eyes and looked up the grassy slope she’d just descended. A gutter punk, a man in his late twenties with a double-pierced eyebrow and a crown of thorns tattooed across his forehead, was yelling and waving his arms at a small black dog racing down the levee after a flashily dressed white man who looked more Bronx chic than New Orleans cool.
Anna recognized the black terrier as one of the pack milling around on the river walk. The punk whistled again, and the mutt, as shaggy as his owner, hesitated and looked back. His feathery tail waved once; then he sat down no more than a yard from Anna, made a perfect O of his lips, pointed his chin at the sky, and howled a tiny wolf-puppy howl so perfect and unscary that Anna laughed.
Communication completed—at least as far as the dog was concerned—the little guy upended and ran off after the man he’d been following.
The punk on the levee howled then, and the hairs on the back of Anna’s neck stirred in the heat. The punk’s howl was all wolf, old and crying-sad as if the fuzzy-rumped pooch disappearing through the gate in the flood wall was absconding with all the love and light in the world.
Punk or not, Anna couldn’t stand the anguish. She ran to catch an undoubtedly filthy and probably flea-ridden mutt. The flood wall opened into a wide alley paved in brick and peopled by three-quarter life-sized bronze sculptures: a butcher, a woman sitting on a park bench—citizens from a previous century sentenced to eternity in the town that had passed them by.
Anna skirted a fountain squirting three pathetically weak streams of water into the air and stopped in front of the Dutch Alley art gallery. The doors were open and could have swallowed a man and dog before she’d arrived. Shops in New Orleans seldom closed their doors, leaving them wide summer and winter in hopes the increase in tourist traffic would off set the energy bills. Man and dog could have stepped into any one of these invitations. New Orleans was dog friendly; animals in stores and bars were commonplace.
“Hah!” Anna said as she caught the last few inches of a tail disappearing into an archway farther down the alley. “Gotcha.” She trotted after the dog.
From behind she could hear the clatter of heavy boots on brick. The punk was rounding the fountain. He wasn’t as tall as he’d looked standing atop the levee and was thin to the point of starvation. Though the distance from where his clan usurped the public walkway to where Anna stood was less than a hundred yards, he was breathing heavily and had one hand pressed hard into his side.
“This way,” Anna called and ran into the shade of the arch. To one side was another art gallery, to the other the public toilets.
The flashy dresser might have ducked into the john, but Anna had no intention of checking the men’s room. Seeing men urinating against trees, though a perfectly natural transaction, was bad enough. She had no desire to witness the phenomenon as an indoor sport. She ran through to North Peters Street.
A flash of greasy lemon caught her eye. The dog whisperer’s sport coat and, faithful as a shadow, the little feather-tailed dog had crossed North Peters and were halfway down Dumaine. The punk gasped up beside her in a gust reeking of old cigarettes and older urine as yellow jacket and pup turned into a slit between two brick buildings. The light had turned and traffic was flowing, but Anna figured she could make it across the four lanes without getting squashed. Stepping off the curb, she heard the punk yell, “Wait!” but she was already committed.
A horse-drawn carriage slowed cars coming from the French Market. Anna darted between two frustrated SUVs and jumped onto the sidewalk, where, if they did hit her, they’d be poaching. None of the drivers even bothered to flip her off. The Big Easy might have the highest per capita murder rate in the country, but the citizens were nice folks for all of that.
Sprinting through lackadaisical tourists like Drew Brees through linebackers, Anna zigged down Dumaine and into the narrow alley where the punk’s dog had gone.
Alleys in New Orleans were unlike alleys in other American cities. Rather than being skinny runs given over to garbage cans and used condoms, many were transformed into impossibly slender gardens, with plant hangers drilled into the brick walks, ivy and creeping fig cloaking age and decay, and bright scraps of found art alleviating the gloom.
“Stop!” somebody yelled, but she paid no attention. She had spotted the dog. Partway down the verdant little urban canyon, tail up, it trotted on the heels of the stranger.
“Excuse me!” she called.
The man turned back and stared at her for a second longer than seemed necessary. “You talkin’ to me?”
Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver. The guy was dead on, and Anna laughed. He squinted and looked suddenly dangerous. He hadn’t been mimicking De Niro intentionally, Anna guessed. That or he believed he was De Niro.
“That your dog?” Anna asked.
The man looked down at the black terrier, noticing it for the first time. “He following me?”
“Since the levee,” Anna told him.
“Get the fuck away from me,” the guy shouted and kicked the little animal so viciously Anna screamed in pain along with it. Fury swept over her till the fern-feathered walls, the brick path, and even the whimpering dog disappeared. All that remained at the end of her tunnel vision was the oily man in the yellow sport coat and the need to rip him into teensy weensy pieces.
Without thought, she started for him. What she would have done had she reached him, she never found out. Into her truncated view flashed silver, a knife, an edged weapon. The glint of hard steel kindly brought Anna back to her right mind. Stopping abruptly, she knelt and picked up the dog, pretending that had been her goal all along.
“Your filthy cur follows me again, I kill it. You got that?”
“I got it,” Anna said and, the dog cradled in her arms, took a step back, then another.
The knife wielder didn’t take his eyes off her, but she had the oddest sensation she was vanishing. The moment she ceased to be a threat, she ceased to exist for him. The old “Dog’s Philosophy of Life” seemed to apply to this creature: If he couldn’t screw it, eat it, or piss on it, the hell with it.
Whistling under his breath—“Some Enchanted Evening,” it sounded like—he folded the knife closed and continued down the alley. Hugging the dog, Anna watched until he turned a corner and was gone from sight.
Labored breathing dragged her attention back toward the Dumaine Street entrance. The punk, still clutching his side and moving with a slight dragging of the left foot as if he’d been born clubfooted and it had never been corrected, half fell in from the street and leaned heavily against the wall.
Anna turned on her heroine’s smile and waited for the accolades. She deserved at least that for facing down an armed man to save a gutter punk’s dog.
“Where is he?” the punk screamed as he lurched toward her between the mossy walls. “You bitch, you goddamn bitch.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he turned on Anna and cursed her. The crown of thorns was tight across his brow, and his eyes were wild, whites showing around the irises, pupils dilated and bottomless. Above his lip a pencil-thin mustache contorted into Etch A Sketch angles, and the thumb-sized tuft of beard beneath his lower lip jutted out like the spine of a horned lizard.
“Stop, goddammit! Wait, goddammit,” he screamed, but the yellow jacket was long gone. Arms outstretched like a B-movie zombie’s, he lunged. Anna flattened herself and the dog against the brick and aimed a swift kick at his knee. He went down like a puppet whose strings had been cut and began to cry, wailing like a child.
Various courses of action skittered through Anna’s mind. She could kneel and try to comfort this tortured soul. She could pull out her cell phone and call 911. Yell for help. Try to find the knife man. In the end all she did was set the dog down by its master and walk away. Since she was on administrative leave for mental instability—or something very like—the dog would have as good a shot at doing the right thing as she would. Probably better.
Leaving the alley, she hazarded a backward glance. The punk had managed to pull himself into a sitting position. He was hugging the dog. The dog was licking his face. For a moment Anna watched them. There was something about the dog that was off, niggling at the edges of her mind.
Breathing in the cooking smells on the street, the whiff of exhaust, the hints of horse manure, it came to her. The little terrier was a mess—it looked as if its hair had been chewed off in a dogfight rather than clipped by a sane groomer—but it was silky soft, shampooed, brushed, and smelled faintly of lilacs.
Excerpted from Burn by Nevada Barr.
Copyright 2010 by Nevada Barr.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.