Storm Damage (Cliff St. James Series #1)by Ed Kovacs
In a city overwhelmed with murder and mayhem, the last homicide before a Category 5 hurricane wipes out New Orleans is quickly forgotten and remains unsolved. Until now.
Calling to mind Chinatown's Jake Gittes or Chandler's Philip Marlowe comes a new kind of private detective—a mixed-martial arts coach and bare-knuckled former cop who/p>/b>/i>… See more details below
In a city overwhelmed with murder and mayhem, the last homicide before a Category 5 hurricane wipes out New Orleans is quickly forgotten and remains unsolved. Until now.
Calling to mind Chinatown's Jake Gittes or Chandler's Philip Marlowe comes a new kind of private detective—a mixed-martial arts coach and bare-knuckled former cop who investigates a curious missing persons/murder case. The cold trail quickly heats up, propelling him into a battle of wits and brawn with the deadliest killers operating in the apocalyptic, post-hurricane ruins of New Orleans.
With no forensic evidence, a destroyed crime scene, and no corpse, Cliff St. James, who's practically homeless and on the verge of bankruptcy, tenaciously navigates the gritty aftermath of a city that's barely functioning. The more layers of deceit he peels away surrounding the case, the grander is the conspiracy that comes into focus, placing him squarely in the cross-hairs of those who specialize in remaining unknown.
"Powerful as a Category Five hurricane, Storm Damage by Ed Kovacs is a riveting journey into murder, politics, and greed. Kovacs writes like a master, bringing to exciting life colorful and cosmopolitan New Orleans. In the aftermath of Katrina, brand-new private investigator Cliff St. James is thrown into a cauldron of lies, felonies, and violence just as Mardi Gras begins. This is a spicy, thrilling story as unforgettable as an excellent gumbo." - Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Spies
"Hard-edge. Frenetic. This tale is fluid, dark, and compelling. Ed Kovacs is a vivid addition to the thriller genre."- Steve Berry, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Emperor’s Tomb
"Ed Kovacs comes out of the gate with a bang. STORM DAMAGE is ultra fast-paced, moving, and nicely devious. Highly recommended." Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of THE KING OF PLAGUES and DEAD OF NIGHT
“With a penchant for descriptive accuracy, Ed Kovacs provides page-turning excitement in this New Orleans centered murder mystery. In fact, if you allow yourself to become immersed, you’ll probably be able to hear the jazz playing in the background—it’s that intense.” John B. Alexander, Ph.D. author of Future War, and UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities
A New Orleans crime drama plays it by the book.
Ex-cop-cum–mixed-martial artist Cliff St. James is offered a job he can't refuse when his former friend Sam Siu's daughter, Twee, offers him work as a private investigator. It's not just that Cliff needs the money; it's that Sam once told Twee that Cliff was the only person she could trust. Besides, Cliff feels as though it's partially his duty, considering that Twee wants to hire him to investigate her father's death. On the day of Hurricane Katrina, the NOPD found a body that looked like Sam's, minus a face. But the evidence has mainly been washed away and the department inundated with bigger crimes since the storm. Cliff is fairly sure he can find the truth, although it quickly becomes clear that Twee is hiding more than she's telling. Even her deceptiveness makes sense, since the closer Cliff gets to the truth, the more complex Sam's life appears to have been. Soon Cliff is dealing with the CIA, the FBI, a gang of Vietnamese immigrants, a cunning drug lord and a lot more trouble than he bargained for. Thrown into the mix are Cliff's need to bed every potential leading lady and a surfeit of Big Easy folk talk. Luckily, Cliff's got a sort-of partner he can count on in straight-shooting Sgt. Honey Baybee, whose name may be the only dumb thing about her.
Mired in a laboriously authentic voice, Kovacs's return (Unseen Forces, 2004) is a slow starter that gains momentum in spite of its adherence to formula.
Read an Excerpt
Five months and nineteen days into the New Normal of New Orleans, she walked into what was left of my dojo and casually flicked back her long, dark hair as she took in the mess of reconstruction, distracting me just enough so my right block sank too low and my student’s rocketing left hook caught me square, breaking my nose yet again, spinning my head, and dropping me hard onto the fight cage mat.
I’ve always had a high tolerance for pain, but since my marriage broke up two years ago, I’d hardly been able to feel anything. Lack of feeling comes in handy when you’ve just been knocked on your ass, literally and in other ways.
As I sprawled there staring up at the disintegrating blue tarp that covered the huge gap where my roof should have been, I remembered the last time I’d seen the young Asian-American woman: at the murder scene of her father, Tiki Hut Sam, the last homicide before a Category Five hurricane wiped out my adopted city.
What was her name again? She had found the body, a body that we’d been forced to leave in place as we retreated from a fury we’d greatly underestimated.
And now she had just strolled into my place, unannounced. Not that there was anyone to announce her. I was lucky to have a front door.
She looked even better than I recalled; late twenties, slender, with creamy-fresh skin, but her name didn’t come. It should have, even though we’d never really met, at least not under normal circumstances. I’d known her dad pretty well and he had bragged her up more than once and shown me photos of her. Her father, Sam Siu, had been the chief building inspector of the City of New Orleans during the scandal-plagued administration of Mayor Marlin Duplessis. Sam also had owned the Tiki Hut, kind of a low-rent Trader Vic’s, a tacky South China Sea–themed bar where the power elite of City Hall could drink and scheme in privacy or, if they chose, rub elbows with visiting pro athletes, Hollywood actors in town on a production, or the retro-arty crowd, which seemed to revel in the cheesy palm thatch, year-round Christmas lights, electric blue drinks in oversized glasses, and a jukebox that still spun Elvis singing “Blue Hawaii” on 45 vinyl.
The night the Storm hit was the last time I’d seen the Tiki Hut. I’d answered my last radio call ever that night, my final night as a cop. I’d had four hours left until 10-7—end of shift—and the end of my eight-year law enforcement career with the New Orleans Police Department. I’d resigned for good reasons, but Fate made my last day on the thin blue line a true day of reckoning for many other people than me, none more so than Tiki Hut Sam.
When the radio call crackled, “Signal 29U, unclassified death, possible 30, at 4800 Toulouse,” I recognized the address right away, since I’d spent plenty of time in the Hut. So I ignored the mad-dog wind screaming through the trees, the terrified city already devolving into chaos as the stubborn hunkered down and the opportunists sought opportunity, and drove straight for the scene of the crime.
Not doing what I was supposed to do had been something of a theme during my tenure at the department. In fact, I’d just completed a last-minute unauthorized banzai run to give a friend’s grandfather a .357 revolver out in Lakeview. The old guy would need the piece if looters showed up.
Having done that, and continuing my cowboy leitmotif, I responded to a homicide call far outside of my district. Citywide curfew had kicked in at 1800, two hours previous, phones and radios still worked, and we had a break in the rain bands. Brute blasts of heavy, moist air bounced the traffic lights on North Carrollton up and down like piñatas trying to avoid the stick as I made a wild left turn onto Orleans Avenue. Since the winds blew steady at over sixty miles per hour, we were in a mandatory citywide lockdown; all officers were supposed to be hunkered down at their District HQs or other designated staging areas for storm duty. So I wasn’t surprised to be the only uniform to show as I rolled up to the Tiki Hut. A single detective’s unit sat parked askew, and I knew instantly who it belonged to by the dent in the driver’s door, a dent I had personally installed after learning that Detective Sergeant Dice McCarty was screwing my ex-wife.
As I got out of my unit, I powered up my concealed digital video recorder—something I did with almost any encounter, at least since the chief had made it his mission to get me fired. The pinhole cam was hidden in a lapel pin. A separate voice-activated digital audio recorder was connected to an ink-pen mike in my front shirt pocket.
The electricity was still on inside the bar, and the first thing I saw was Sam’s daughter alone at a table, trying to get a cell signal for her smartphone and sobbing as she spoke Vietnamese to no one in particular. I knew the bar’s layout well and crossed the gray concrete floor toward the open door leading to Sam’s office and living quarters.
Sgt. McCarty sat at Sam’s desk checking out Sam’s laptop as I entered. Dice looked tall, even sitting down. He had been a decent cornerback for the LSU football team back in his day, before the gambling and drinking problems and the straight Fs got him kicked out with a one-way ticket to UNO, the University of New Orleans. He had big rough hands, the reddish enlarged nose of someone who drank and fought too much, bloodshot blue eyes under tossed sandy hair, and couldn’t whisper if he wanted to. He glanced at me with a look like I had caused him a gas bubble, then barked, like he was calling out a defensive formation in a loud and unfriendly stadium, “Don’t touch nothing, we’ll be outta here in a second.”
It was then I saw the body of a man on the floor. Naked except for a green bath towel around the waist. Blood pooled around the head, which angled awkwardly to the side.
“Jesus.” I stepped closer, careful to avoid any blood spatter, bone, and gray matter, then bent down. A metallic whiff of blood invaded my nose. “Gunshot wound to the back of the head. Face blown away. Had to be a large-caliber slug, don’t you think?”
“Just put Sam’s kid in my unit,” said Dice. “I’m taking her downtown.”
“What about the coroner, the crime scene techs?” I eyed the lividity, trying to roughly calculate a time of death. Rigor mortis hadn’t set in yet; I figured the corpse was four or five hours’ fresh.
“Nobody’s coming out in this. We’re about to get hammered by a Cat Five hurricane, case you hadn’t noticed.”
“You know the regs. Coroner’s office has to respond to a death, especially a homicide.”
“State of Emergency’s been declared, St. James. The rules are out the window.”
I stood up and faced him. “This isn’t some stiff on the levee. That might be Sam Siu down there on the floor, but I can’t positively ID this body, and I knew Sam well. If it is Sam, then this is big.”
Dice started to argue, but I cut him off.
“Sam was chief building inspector for the city under Mayor Duplessis. They were cronies. Duplessis is under investigation by the FBI.”
“That FBI shit’s a rumor.”
“Like hell. This is a murder scene. We can’t just walk away.”
“Look, ace, power’s out at the coroner’s office, and the backup generators ain’t working over there. I’m hearing two-thirds of the coroner’s staff evacuated with their families and ain’t reporting for duty. The coroner’s assistants that are there, they can’t get the damn electric gate open, so they couldn’t roll a vehicle if they wanted to. EMS ain’t rolling, FD ain’t rolling, nobody’s rolling. You and me ain’t even supposed to be here.”
“Have you gathered any evidence, taken photos? Is Sam’s wallet here, his keys?” I scanned the room.
“Car keys are here, but I didn’t see no wallet.”
“Look, the safe is open.” Sam had a heavy safe bolted to the concrete floor. The door hung wide open, the inside empty.
As I moved toward the safe, Dice closed whatever window he’d been viewing on Sam’s laptop and stood up to his full six-foot-four height.
“Look, man, I know you want to play Mr. Detective. And hey, I knew Sam, too, all right? I liked him. But nobody else is coming and we need to book, ASAP.”
“If we need to book ASAP, what the hell are you doing on Sam’s laptop? Checking in with your sports bookie to see if he’ll extend you some credit?”
Dice flushed red. I knew he wanted to hit me, and I knew he knew better than to try.
“CSI’ll deal with this after the storm’s passed. It ain’t going to matter much to old Sam here.”
“Yeah? Well, in case you forgot, this is a bar. Who will stop the looters from coming in here and trashing this place after they steal everything?”
Dice didn’t have an answer, and when you can’t destroy the message, go after the messenger. “You seem pretty stressed out for a guy who resigned from the department and is working his last shift,” he said, with a somewhat mocking tone. “Or maybe you’re just bugged because I’m sleeping with your ex-wife.”
I gave him a look I usually reserve for subhumans. “You want to have that conversation, save it for when we’re off duty, and not at a murder scene.” I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of showing just how much I hated him or how much I still loved my ex-wife. The divorce ate at my soul; I’d simply been unable to let go of Sharon. I glanced down at the body. “Sam—if that’s really Sam down there—deserves for us to do it the right way, not the Southeast Louisiana way. We could at least put him in a body bag and take him to the morgue ourselves.”
“We ain’t moving the corpse.” A crashing sound from out on the street was accompanied by the building shuddering and creaking from a massive explosion of whining wind. Dice looked to the ceiling.
“Did you bother to check the security cams?” His look told me he hadn’t. I crossed past him and entered a small room about the size of a walk-in closet.
A half-dozen black-and-white CCTV monitors showed views of the exterior of the front and back doors, and four different views from inside the bar. One monitor revealed Sam’s daughter still sitting in the next room.
Sam had been old-school and recorded onto VHS tape. Racks of VHS cassettes, all neatly labeled and cataloged, cramped the cluttered room.
“The cameras are running, but the recorder’s not recording.”
Dice squeezed in behind me. “Maybe the tape’s still there.” He slipped on a purple latex glove and gingerly pressed the edge of the eject button, so as not to smear a possible print. No tape came out.
“Look,” I said, pointing to some empty racks. “Someone took all the security videos going back about a year or so.”
Dice sighed. There would be no easy ID of the killer or killers. “Yeah. And that would be a lot of tapes.”
“Boxes full,” I said, calculating in my mind. “The killer knew he’d been recorded and went to a lot of trouble to remove the evidence. This was premeditated.”
My police radio crackled; Dispatch instructed us in no uncertain terms to 10-19, return to station, “Right damn now,” as the female dispatcher put it. The rain had kicked in again, and the winds were hitting seventy-five miles per hour.
We locked the door to Sam’s office. Sam’s daughter, still weepy and stunned, didn’t want to ride with Dice but agreed to follow him in her car to give a statement at headquarters. There, we assured her, she could take shelter until the hurricane passed. She locked up the bar—I didn’t see any signs of forced entry to the front door—and we ran to our vehicles through needles of horizontal rain. Branches, roof shingles, and trash tore at us, flechettes of detritus, advance scouts of a massive army of debris that was about to rise up over thousands of square miles.
Dice peeled out, with Sam’s daughter directly behind, me following. I veered to narrowly avoid a falling tree limb, and figured that the night was going to get interesting fast. It did, much sooner than I anticipated, because at the next corner, Sam’s daughter hung a sharp left and screeched off into the darkness as Dice drove on imperviously.
I recall seriously considering following her, then changing my mind. A few more hours and I would no longer be a cop, and already my wipers couldn’t keep up with the rain as the devil wind buffeted my patrol unit and the assault on my city began in earnest.
“Good luck,” I’d said aloud to Sam Siu’s daughter as she fled into some unfolding chasm of her own making.
Now, she stood in my dojo at the edge of the octagonal fight cage, the wire mesh screened-in ring that the looters had been too lazy to dismantle and steal, looking at me as I lay inert on the mat. Another, far less attractive face entered my field of vision, that of my MMA—mixed martial arts—student, Kendall “The Killer Creole” Bullard. Kendall used cheap peroxide to color his nappy hair something resembling blond. His fat nose looked worse than mine—not an easy feat—thanks to years of taking beatings, and his caramel skin tone bespoke his Creole lineage.
Sam’s daughter glanced through the wire mesh to Kendall. He looked back at her, then back at me.
“Coach, ya’ll right?”
“Good to go.” Although it seemed like an eternity, I’d only been down for a few seconds as the memories of the Tiki Hut murder scene flashed through my mind. Maybe Sam’s daughter wanted to sign up for classes. A paying student would be nice, since I no longer had any, so it occurred to me I should demonstrate who the master was here and who the student was.
I rolled clear, jumped up, and tapped my red leather Hayabusa gloves together.
I expected Sam’s daughter to step back from the edge of the cage, but she didn’t; she laced her fingers through the mesh and leaned in even closer to see what was going to happen.
As soon as Kendall resumed his fighting stance, I advanced, expecting him to throw a kick, which he did. I easily intercepted and quickly executed a textbook-clean foot sweep known as o uchi gari, taking out his supporting leg and dropping him like a sack of rocks.
Now it was I who stood over Kendall.
“You could be a UFC champion,” I told him, “but you’re screwing up.”
Kendall squinted guiltily.
“That’s right,” I said. “I hear who you’re running with, taking X every weekend. Vodka and Red Bull all night long. Sound familiar? If I just knocked your ass down in two seconds, what’s gonna happen when you go up against a serious fighter? You want to win this fight coming up in Miami? You want to be a champ, Mr. Ten-Thousand-Friends-Who-Want-to-Be-Your-Ho-on-MySpace? If you do, get serious. No more raves with your Bourbon Street stripper girlfriends or you lose me as a coach and you can kiss K-1 and any chance for the UFC good-bye.”
I held out my hand and helped him to his feet. He hung his head hangdog style, thinking about what I had said.
“Yeah, you right. I know dat. Can I take a shower, Coach?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Kendall opened the small steel mesh door and we stepped down from the raised cage. I feigned nonchalance as I crossed toward the large mirror on the wall, letting Sam’s daughter follow. I thought my speech to Kendall had sounded pretty good: firm, succinct, final. Not too preachy, didn’t beat a dead horse, and left the ball in his court.
“Officer St. James, do you remember me?”
I checked out my broken nose in the mirror, then turned to her. “You’re Sam Siu’s daughter.”
“Twee Siu.” She held out her hand and gave me a surprisingly firm handshake.
“Call me Cliff.”
“Looks like your nose might be broken. Do you need me to take you to a doctor?”
I firmly grabbed my schnoz and forced it back into the general location it should inhabit. The crunching sound caused her to wince. “Not too many doctors in New Orleans these days, and that just saved me about a hundred bucks.”
Twee Siu looked a helluva lot better than she had five months ago when she was an emotional wreck. Her cheekbones, framed by an expensive haircut, reminded me how photogenic she was. The pewter Chanel business suit helped project the confidence and intelligence that emanated from within. A single strand of pearls graced her delicate neck. Eye shadow and a pastel lipstick comprised her makeup suite, and I’m not sure she needed that. She sported a Prada bag that I doubted was fake.
Her smooth and dainty hands, though primly manicured, incongruously bore old scars; I was curious from what. For someone so petite, she projected a good deal of authority and confidence. Not too many people ran around in the ruins dressed like this, looking this beautiful, so if it was for my benefit, I felt complimented. But I figured she must be a banker, or maybe a greedy real estate agent getting fat on others’ misfortune after all the devastation.
“Listen, I’m real sorry about your father. I knew Sam. He helped my ex-wife and me quite a bit. He was a decent guy.”
“You called me ‘officer,’ so maybe you haven’t heard. I’m not a cop anymore.”
“That’s why I think you can help me. I’d like to hire you to find out what happened to Dad.”
It suddenly dawned on me. Sam’s killing had been completely overshadowed by an epic onslaught of chaos, misery, and upheaval as an American historic metropolis was essentially destroyed. Sam’s murder was ancient history from another epoch that didn’t hold much concern for those of us coping with the New Normal.
Unless you were Twee Siu.
“Well, I’m not a private investigator.”
“I heard the state is waiving the steps and preconditions for most business licenses, due to the State of Emergency. I bet you could get certified in a day, being ex-police and all.”
I had heard the same thing. Two Bourbon Street strip-club managers who’d been getting FEMA execs laid after the Storm had launched a security company in a matter of days and were now on their way to becoming millionaires, thanks to those grateful FEMA boys steering lucrative contracts their way. Hell, Louisiana was so desperate for expertise and workers in dozens of fields, it had been handing out temporary licenses to roofers, plumbers, electricians—anyone who needed a license to do something—like Tootsie Rolls at Halloween.
I’d developed a good poker face while working as a police officer, to the point where it ranked as one of my most effective tools. I used it now to conceal my interest in her proposition, giving her just a shrug. “I suppose that might be true.”
“I’ll pay you five hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. If you find out what happened to my father, you get a bonus of thirty thousand.”
Now she had my attention. I was broke and going deep into debt. The first thing I had done after I stopped volunteering in the initial post-hurricane search-and-rescue effort was to sublet my undamaged condo in the French Quarter to a Shaw Group executive for $2,500 a month. I soon realized I could have gotten much more due to the acute lack of housing in a city flooded with out-of-town relief workers. That $2,500 covered my monthly nut, but it had left me homeless.
Mother Nature and the looters had destroyed my place of business; my students fled to points unknown around the country. I had no job, no income. Me and a couple hundred thousand other people.
With business insurance and FEMA money not forthcoming, I had quickly maxed out my credit cards to start repairs to the dojo, where I had moved some personal belongings and slept on an extra mattress. Six NOPD buddies who had lost everything had crashed with me for the first few months, helping me rip out the drywall and wiring and to gut the place. Now it was just me on a dirty mattress, with a badly damaged roof, and a partially collapsed wall you could drive a forklift through, which is exactly what the looters had done to gain access. Demand far outstripped supply, sending prices for Sheetrock, lumber, and other building materials—if you could find any—skyrocketing. All of this made the money Twee dangled look like manna from Heaven.
“You’ll need to deposit the thirty thousand into an escrow account, with stipulations we agree upon given to the bank, so there’s no question I’ll get paid if I find out who killed your dad.”
She clearly hadn’t anticipated this condition. She thought about it for a second. “Okay, sounds reasonable. If you drive to Baton Rouge today and get your license, we can meet at my beauty salon first thing tomorrow, then go to the bank. I want you to start right away.”
She handed me a business card. Now I remembered Sam had told me that his daughter owned hair salons and a beauty school out in Metairie. It was one of those facts that you just don’t hold on to, but it explained why she looked so great: a walking advertisement for her business.
“No problem,” I told her. “Can I ask you something? Why’d you come to me?”
“Because my father trusted you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me about you a long time ago, said that if something ever happened to me, I should ask you for help. He said I could count on you, that you were an honest cop. The night I found the body, I didn’t realize you were the officer Dad had told me about.”
It took me by surprise that Sam thought that way about me, and more so that he would have said all that to his daughter. I hadn’t even seen Sam all that much in the year or so before the Storm.
“I heard what you said to the detective that night,” she said, looking down. “You said you couldn’t be sure that the body was my father. Neither could I, although I assumed it was Dad at the time.”
“What do you mean? Haven’t they ID’d the body by now?”
“Oh.” She looked genuinely surprised. “You didn’t hear? The body in my father’s office was never recovered. It disappeared. And the Tiki Hut got looted and flooded out. See, maybe you’re looking for my father’s killer. Or maybe you’re looking for my father.”
Copyright © 2011 by Ed Kovacs
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If you know anything of New Orleans, and have empathy for what the residents went through after Katrina, this book is compelling. The visual picture painted by Ed is colorful and engaging. Thoroughly enjoyed the visual painting he created in my mind. Truly "Nawlins".