Read an Excerpt
Sometimes its countenance is death
I've smelled decay upon its breath.
Just as night defeats the day
In shadows fierce the demons play
While aloft for those who cannot see
The dragon hums a memory.
--"Thunderstorm" by Cooder Reese
From Dead Reckonings
Pierce Morin lived in a world of touch and taste, and strange, wonderful odors that wafted through the darkness of his days and nights. Deaf and blind, and smaller than most thirteen-year-olds, most of his exercise consisted of exploring either the house or the yard, or joining his mother on her weekend errands to Arcos.
Still, he was wirier and stronger than people expected. His fingers were calloused from hours of reading braille and working with the maze of electronic parts and tools he kept neatly organized in plastic bins over the wide folding table that took up one wall of his bedroom. His mother had grown as weary as he had of trying to explain to people how he could repair radios and televisions that he could neither see nor hear.
So the boy spent his days in quiet anonymity, fiddling with transistors and transducers, with solid-state circuits that no one could fix. No one but him. Even Pastor Ernie was curious just how he repaired them. But the best explanation Pierce could give--spelling it out into Ernie's palm since it was too complicated for American Sign Language, and Ernie wasn't that good with the signs, anyway--was that he could see what was broken inside and how the parts were supposed to fit together.
But that morning he wasn't in his seat at the worktable. Instead he sat on a straight-backed chair beside the open window, resting his fingers on the sill, feeling the warmth of the sun on them, smelling the new-mown grass in the backyard, the rich loamy aroma of the creek down below, phasing out the leftover house odors of cereal, and coffee, and his mother's shampoo and perfume. Feeling the hairs on his arms tingling as the faintest of breezes stirred the air, he wondered what strange sense of gloom kept him so still. He felt like a rabbit huddling beneath a bush, but he had no idea what danger approached, only that it was coming and he needed to be ready.
Suddenly it seemed as though a cloud had passed the sun, chilling his cheeks, and yet the warmth of the light still lingered on his hands. Twisting his head to one side, as if searching for some errant sound with his deaf ears, he tried to understand what was happening.
Something was terribly wrong.
But not wrong in the way an open door in the night was wrong. It was more like the world he knew had somehow broken. Some part of the universe had turned dangerous and deadly. Shivering, he clutched his shoulders.
He stood slowly, sliding his fingers up to find the top of the window sash and slamming it shut, tripping the latch and wishing that the thin curtains he jerked across it were more than just for show. If sunlight could get through them to warm him in bed, then whatever was coming might be able to look right through them, too. What good were curtains like that, anyway?
Suddenly he knew that the indefinable something was right on the other side of the glass. He could sense it peering inside, studying him through the gauzy curtains as though he were some kind of specimen. He knew scientists did that to small animals, like bugs, and Pierce had always wondered if the bugs minded. Now he knew. If the bugs were anything at all like him, they experienced the unreasoning terror of knowing they were in the grip of something so powerful they had absolutely no defense against it.
Against his will he was drawn nearer to the window, parting the curtain again with shaking hands, bending until he was so close that he could feel the coolness of the glass radiating toward his nose even as the refracted sunlight still heated his skin. There really was something on the other side of the pane, inches away from his face. He knew it in the same way he knew when an electronic circuit was broken. He sensed thoughts as though he were reading someone else's mind, only it was wasn't a mind that made any kind of sense to him. He was filled to bursting with a maelstrom of emotions, and without thinking he lashed out with his fist, shattering the window, the vibration shooting through his arm.
He stood frozen, the jagged edge of the glass pressed against the soft underside of his wrist, as the presence on the other side of the window slowly eked away. It was as though his abrupt release of anger had driven it out of the yard, but he sensed that it had left for some other, unknown, reason.
He felt lightly around the broken pane with the fingers of his other hand, slowly and carefully drawing his fist back out of the shards. Testing with his fingers he discovered that, miraculously, he had not cut himself.
Not even a nick.
Jake Crowley squinted through the rain rattling against his parked sedan. Storm-tossed Galveston Bay was little more than a roiling, brown illusion through the sheeting windshield, and the late-afternoon sky barely contained enough light to allow him to read the letter in his hands.
Uncle Albert was murdered, Jake, and we need to talk. I don't know if you're ever going to answer my calls, but won't you come home to at least pay your respects? I love you, Jake. I miss you.
He folded the crumpled letter, slipped it carefully back into the envelope, and returned it to the glove box.
Jake sighed. He'd driven all the way from Houston through the downpour to meet a man who refused to show his face anywhere near the city, and Jake could understand why. If Reever gave up the information Jake needed, two of the biggest crime lords in Houston might be making license plates for years to come. If, that was, they could be prosecuted successfully through the corrupt and politicized legal system that had taken hold in recent years.
Distant tympanies of thunder rattled the air, and now Jake could barely make out the rolling gray surf through the curtain of glassy droplets. His cell phone buzzed, and he snapped it open, expecting to hear Cramer, his partner, who was home sick with the flu. He'd bust Jake's chops for being stupid enough to hold a meeting like this alone.
"Yeah," said Jake.
"'Yeah'? You don't speak to me three times in fourteen years, and 'yeah' is what I get?"
"Pam?" His cousin's voice filled him with dread and pain. In his mind's eye, she still stood waving at him from the airport window, but incongruously it was his mother's voice--from an even more distant past--that echoed through his thoughts.
Run away, Jake. Run away.
"Glad you remembered," said Pam.
"Look, I don't have time right now. How did you get this number?"
"A desk sergeant gave it to me. I guess I was pretty persuasive. How come it doesn't work on you?"
Jake shook his head. "Honestly, Pam, this is a really bad time."
The wind picked up, the storm roaring in straight off the water. Marble-size raindrops threatened to burst through the windshield. Why the hell had Reever insisted on meeting here in this seawall parking lot? Jake didn't like it that the place he'd supposed would be very public ended up being all too secluded because of the storm. But even Reever couldn't have known the weather was going to be this bad.
"Jake, Uncle Albert was beaten to death. It was bad. Real bad."
A muscle spasmed in Jake's belly, and his fingers tightened on the phone. Albert was another old, long-buried memory.
"Jake? You there?"
"Yeah." His voice sounded shaky. Hell, it felt shaky.
The only thing visible now was the veneer of water cascading across the glass, and Jake found himself wondering how so much fluid could be diverted down into that little cavity concealing the windshield wipers without making its way into the engine compartment.
"Jake, you're not saying anything."
"What do you want me to say, Pam?"
"Nothing, I guess. I'm sorry I called."
"I'll call you back. I'm meeting someone, and it's kind of important."
He glanced around and noticed that the windows were just as useless as the windshield. It occurred to him that if this was more than just a rainstorm--if a tornado or water spout were heading in his direction--he would have no way of knowing it was coming, and nowhere to run.
"Sure, Jake. I'll be waiting for your call." The click of the receiver on the other end was like a slap in the face.
Jake slipped the phone into the pocket of his sports coat. He and Pam had been raised like brother and sister. Hearing her voice after so long . . . a swirling cauldron of emotions gurgled within him. The bile of shame, and fear, churned in his throat, and he knew that if he couldn't stifle it, it would remind him of Mandi. He could hear Cramer's husky voice chiding him, his partner's deep drawl heavy with Cajun weirdness.
Watch yo ass, not de bitch on de street. Man, you better keep you ducks in a row or you gonna end up on a slab.
The giant black man could just as easily slip into slick white jive with an inflection tighter than a frog's behind. He formed his persona to fit the situation. But the Cajun was real enough. Cramer's grandmother, his memere, had been raised in the deep bayous of Louisiana, and she didn't speak anything but patois-twisted English.
The trouble was that Reever was no street tough. He was a trigger man for the Houston mob who had become disenchanted after his brother had taken a fall for one of the higher-ups and gotten stiffed. Usually the organization was smarter than that. Either you took care of your own when they did you a favor or you got rid of them. Apparently they'd made a mistake this time, and Jake planned to capitalize on it.
But where was Reever? The beachfront parking lot had been empty when Jake arrived. He'd driven slowly around the area, circling a couple of blocks of old Victorian homes. But no one was sitting in any of the cars parked on the street. No one stared at him from the dripping front porches. Reever was probably pulled over on the highway now, waiting out a storm this strong. Jake could have gone ahead and carried on the conversation with Pam if he'd had the nerve.
A memory of Albert flashed through his mind, heavy flannel shirt across thin shoulders, the old man's gray beard flecked with sawdust. Albert was equipment- and land-poor like most small loggers, and he had already been getting too old for the business when Jake had left Maine fourteen years earlier. He was a lifelong bachelor who always smelled of pipe tobacco, axle grease, and pine pitch. And Jake loved him like a father.
The dampness was seeping into Jake's pores. Even though it was still in the seventies outside, he started the car and turned on the heater. Over the thrum of the engine and the pounding of the rain, he heard another car behind him. He flipped on his lights and stomped the brake pedal several times, and a set of headlights answered, the car itself just a ghost through the downpour.
Reever parked the sedan so close to Jake's driver's side door that Jake wondered for an instant if he was being corralled. He instinctively rested his hand on the gearshift, then slipped it to the Glock in his shoulder holster. The familiar feel of the weapon stirred up mixed emotions, and Jake let his hand slide slowly away. There was no sign of anyone else in the car, and as he watched, Reever jumped out and ran around to drop into the front seat with Jake, already soaked in the seconds it took him to get there.
"Fuckin' like the fuckin' flood out there!" said Reever, shaking his greasy black hair.
"How come you didn't park on the other side?" said Jake, eyeing him closely.
Reever shrugged, water dripping off his wide forehead. "Couldn't see! I told you it's like a fucking Noah flood out there, you jerk."
"Nice to see you, too."
"Yeah. Fuckin' right. How's the ball and chain and the kids?"
Reever's grin reminded Jake of one he'd seen on a burn victim in the morgue, skin peeling away from widely spaced yellow teeth, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that something grotesque was growing inside Reever's mouth.
Reever knew perfectly well that Jake was unattached. Jake wondered if he used similar banter on people he was about to off. He didn't believe the guy would be stupid enough to try to murder a cop in such a public place. But that was the trouble with Reever. He was unpredictable.
"What have you got for me?" asked Jake, keeping his eyes on Reever's hands.
"I took a big chance coming here."
"Me, too. So cut the crap. Do we have a deal or not?"
"How you gonna protect me?"
"Come on, you know the skit. If what you have is solid enough for convictions, then I'll go to bat for you with the Houston DA, and you'll probably go into witness protection. New name, whole new identity."
Jake had no way of knowing if the DA would go for anything of the sort, and he was sure Reever was street-savvy enough to know that. They were both kidding themselves and each other, Jake because he wanted the bust so badly, Reever because he wanted the cash.
"And a lot of money," said Reever, grinning.
"I don't know what you mean by a lot. I'm not Bill Gates."
Reever's laugh sounded like the screech of a head-on collision. "Shit! You're not even my cleaning lady! If I thought you were going to pay me I'd still be in my hotel room in San Antone getting blown by that blond whore. If your bosses want to put the Torrios away, then they'll come up with the money."
Reever laughed again. "We'll talk once I go into protection."
"That'll be a little late for negotiation on your end. And maybe way too late for me to get the info I need."
Reever shook his head, and Jake noticed something in his eyes, like an errant thought tightening the laugh lines at the corners, but then it was gone.
"That'll be plenty of time," said Reever. "I got a lot to tell. You can buy it word by fuckin' word. Ain't that the way they pay magazine writers?"