By Lisa Black
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Black
All rights reserved.
Monday, 8:10 p.m.
The room wasn't much, just a steel table and chairs, old paint on the walls with the occasional rust stain, two windows frosted by contact paper and a battered desk in the corner, well out of splattering range. A siren sounded in the distance but traffic on the street outside stayed minimal at this past-dinnertime hour. A typical county services budget leftover, a hand-me-down formerly used as a storage room, standard government issue all the way. Jack Renner's clients would have seen many such rooms in their time and it would fit their expectations. Opulence would make them nervous, and he didn't want them nervous.
Jack now sat across the table from his current target, the man's file open before him, a twelve-year history of wrack and ruin. Impressive — considering the compilation began at age ten — and inevitable. Father unknown, mother's drug problem kept her drifting through jails and invariably on the outs with children's services, time spent in foster homes, then a bad series of abuses in one. By the next the abused had turned into the abuser and had to be removed. After fifteen he had abandoned the system completely and all entries after that time were arrests and field interviews. He had already been incarcerated twice, once for murder during the commission of armed robbery, but the penalty for one drug dealer killing another drug dealer had not been too stiff.
Jack thumbed through three pages of arrests, possible involvements, and "potential suspect" type reports, though he knew them all practically by heart. He had learned to do his homework — that lesson, like all the important ones, garnered the hard way.
"So," he said. "Brian."
Brian. Not De'Andre'je or Ziggy Z or Killer. Just Brian. Jack found that almost remarkably admirable and stopped himself immediately. He wasn't supposed to admire them. That could cause serious problems.
But though Brian Johnson's name might not fit the part, his wardrobe did. He wore designer jeans three sizes too big, two equally oversize basketball jerseys, enough gold jewelry to stock a kiosk at the mall even if one left out the metal glinting from his mouth. He wore his cap backward and had tattoos everywhere that Jack could see skin, his hands, his forearms, his neck, his earlobe. Jack couldn't see what he was wearing on his feet, but they smelled. Modern-day criminals did not seem to understand how impossible they made it to take them seriously when they dressed like a twelve-year-old who had dressed like a gangster for Halloween.
But Brian Johnson didn't appear too concerned about Jack's impressions. He lounged back in the chair, as well as one could lounge in a cushionless steel chair that had been bolted to the floor. The table had been bolted as well. It kept things from being hurled in Jack's direction during fits of rage, and made cleanup easier. The young man, after a quick assessment of the room — exits, potential threats, items to exploit, returned his cold gaze to Jack. "Who're you, then?"
"I'm Dr. Renner. This is a pilot program to see if we can't get at some of the root causes of your difficulties."
"The only difficulty I have is bein' here when I should be out." He meant out of custody. Technically he had been released an hour ago, but Jack had let him believe that this "exit interview" was not optional.
"Anything you say or, within reason, do in this room will not be used against you in court or entered in any official record. This is purely research. Anonymous research."
The man raised one eyebrow. Everything he had ever said or done had been used against him, beginning when he soiled his first diaper and his mother punched him hard enough to break a rib. Why would this be any different? "What if I jumped out of this chair and ripped your throat open, watched you bleed out all over this table? Would that be held against me?"
"I said within reason," Jack told him, not too concerned. They all had to establish the ground rules at first, mark their territory, stare down the other dog. But while Brian Johnson could be extraordinarily dangerous out on the street, here Jack felt fairly certain he would behave. A frequent flier like Brian Johnson always behaved while in custody; he had no reason not to. He knew brute force would get him nowhere, not while surrounded by armed guards, and lack of cooperation would only delay his release. Everyone in his world knew who and what he was and he needed to prove exactly nothing, in jail or out of jail; plus given the competitive nature of his line of work he felt generally safer in custody than he did on the street. Now, even though Jack had removed him from the armed guards and the barred windows, the same mindset continued.
And, Jack had made a number of modifications to the room.
And, he wore the standard-issue bulletproof vest, the better to absorb any blows or shivs that might erupt during the conversation.
And he had done this fourteen times before without a major difficulty. Minor hitches, yes, but those had been adjusted until his system had become as foolproof as humanly possible. So he didn't worry.
Not too much.
"So let's get started," he said, closing the file and folding his hands on top of it. "Last week, you raped and beat Ms. Brenda Guerin with a pistol and a crowbar. She is in a medically induced coma — at the taxpayers' expense — and her right ear is permanently disfigured. Oh, and deaf."
Brian Johnson sat up and scowled, a formidable sight. "I ain't sayin' nothin'. If you think I'm believing that won't be used against me shit, you are even crazier than you look."
"No, no, it won't be. I'm not here to prosecute or even investigate Ms. Guerin's injuries. You can see I'm not writing down or recording anything you say. All I really want to know is, what caused this altercation? Why did you do it?"
The scowl deepened. "I ain't —"
"Okay, sorry — that was an abrupt beginning. Let's do this. Someone did this to Ms. Guerin. Why do you think someone would have done that?"
Johnson slumped back. "Like we're speaking hypothetically?"
The man shrugged. "Maybe 'cause the bitch just wouldn't shut up."
Jack let that hang in the air for a moment before continuing. "Shut up about what?"
Johnson paused a long time before answering, and Jack let the quiet surroundings work on him. No inmates shouting, no homeboys breathing down his neck, watching from the tenement towers. No lawyers, no detectives. No jury. Just one obviously naïve as hell do-gooding sociologist.
Plus, like all people, Brian Johnson loved to talk about himself, and never got sufficient opportunities to do so.
"Some baby she thought she was having. And money, she wanted more money. Throwin' other guys in your face. You know, typical bitch stuff."
Jack nodded, face calm, neutral. "And Tina Mullen? Last month? She needed forty-two stitches in her face and arms."
Another shrug. "Same thing. They all alike."
"Why do you think meth has overtaken heroin in street value?" Johnson blinked and straightened, happier to discuss business. "Coupla things. Price is better 'cause it's produced locally. Less transportation costs. And you got more control over supply."
"So if your supplier is late, you can go see him."
"'Stead of relaying messages all the way to damn Guatemala, yeah, getting some spic runaround, blaming it on the border cops."
"Last week one of your suppliers was found with third-degree burns over three-quarters of his body. He barely has any skin left; they're still not sure he's going to make it."
"That" — Johnson sat back again — "could have been an accident. Meth is wicked shit to make, man."
"Wicked." Johnson shook his head. "Better to just put a bullet in the guy's brain, than keep him sufferin' with all those tubes 'n' shit."
"True," Jack repeated. "I agree. But what about the cat?"
A pause. "You know about that, even?"
Jack Renner knew about the cat. He knew about Brian beating his foster mother with a golf club in the sixth grade. He knew about the man's recruiting methods, his ways of increasing territory, how his guys branched out into armed robbery and home invasions when the local economy tightened up. He knew because he had read every form, every note, and every report written on Brian Johnson. They were not difficult to find once you knew where to look.
So Brian Johnson had some catching up to do in this contest, and everything in Brian Johnson's life was a contest. He had been studying Jack as intently as Jack had been studying him, but didn't seem to have stumbled over any red flags yet.
Jack had dark hair and a bit of a baby face, appearing younger than his real age of fifty-one. His looks were rugged — not as in ruggedly handsome, only as in rugged — so that he could be equally convincing as a street thug or a Special Forces soldier, yet when he combed his hair back and put on a pair of glasses he looked a bit dorky, professorial. He also kept his movements low and nonthreatening, hands on the table, expressions accepting, because the Brian Johnsons of the world were not stupid. They wouldn't have survived in their violent world long enough to pass twenty if they were stupid.
However, it was remarkably easy to convince people you were what you were not, if you simply paid a little attention to detail.
Jack was good at detail. "Hey, are you hungry? It's past dinnertime. We could order in."
A half smile. He had nice skin, this demon of the streets, high cheekbones and good structure. In proper clothes he would be a handsome young man, ready to take on Wall Street or med school. It was a pity, it truly was, and the weight of it settled on Jack's shoulders. Brian Johnson was a wild, dangerous animal ... and he had never had the slightest option of being anything else. It was not his fault that the world had tossed him into a pack of jackals from day one. If anything, he should be commended for rising to the top of that pack.
So fine, Jack thought, duly commended. But still dangerous.
Brian Johnson examined this latest offer for land mines. "You goin' to feed me too?"
"Like I said — pilot project. What's your favorite? Anything you want, lobster, barbecue, filet mignon. On the taxpayers' dime," he added, his fourth lie since they entered the room.
It took a while, but he finally got Brian to admit a preference for scallops and sweet potato fries and Jack ordered from Lola. While they waited for the food to arrive Jack went back to the incident with the cat.
Brian sighed. "I didn't really mean for that to happen."
Was this a sign of regret? Remorse? Could there still be a human being in there somewhere?
"I was just goin' to do the tip of the tail, watch it run around, that's all. But it wiggled and twisted round, and the gas got everywhere."
"But you still lit the match," Jack pointed out.
Small shrug. "Already poured the gas. No sense it going to waste."
He didn't even bother with hypotheticals. With everything else the police wanted him for they would never waste time with animal cruelty.
The food arrived, delivered by a young man in a ball cap and Jack tipped him well. The man saw part of the room, but one delivery would not linger for long in the mind of the average gofer. Brian lit into his seafood and seemed to enjoy it. Jack picked at his, apologized for the plastic utensils — "rules," he explained. Just because he might not be overly worried about his own safety didn't make him reckless enough to hand a steak knife to a violent criminal.
He asked a question here or there about Brian's early years, his troubles with the authorities, but paid minimum attention to the answers he already knew. He offered Brian Johnson a drink, a real drink, asking him to name his poison, then gently leading him around to the Crown Royal, Johnson's favorite. Jack knew that, too. He had a number of bottles installed on the sidebar, its new granite countertop the only sign of renovation in the room, all top-shelf. His clients deserved a little top shelf in their lives.
He set down the tumbler with its amber liquid, pushing aside the wariness in Johnson's eyes with another explanation of the pilot program. It amazed him how easily they always accepted this story, but then guys like Johnson had seen countless doctors, counselors, and social workers of every type, the true believers, the burnt-out cynics, the slackers, the rich kids trying to feel good about themselves and the ones who just didn't give a shit. Guys like Johnson had been through so many programs, schools, incarcerations, examinations, and therapies to know there was always a new bleeding heart with a new idea to save them from themselves. Why not try good food and quiet conversation? It might work. Nothing else had.
"So you never had much of a chance," Jack stated. He didn't have to explain what he meant.
"Never. Everybody, everybody, been fightin' me since I took me my first breath. So I fight back. What else is there?"
"Don' min' if I do."
Jack carried the glass to the sideboard between the windows, behind where Brian Johnson sat. He picked up the whiskey, tapping it against a liter of Grey Goose. "I believe that when you meet your maker, He will take that into consideration."
"I met my maker. That bitch is the reason I ain't Donald Trump. Or the president."
Brian Johnson didn't turn to watch what Jack was doing. Brian Johnson wasn't concerned about what Jack was doing.
The clink had nicely covered the extra movement required for Jack to open the low box behind the bottles and extract his grandfather's Beretta .22, with an added suppressor. He'd already taken the safety off, but he checked anyway. Details. If you didn't master the details, they would master you.
Then he turned and placed the glass on the table near Johnson's left hand. "There you go."
The guy's fingers closed around the crystal tumbler, just as Jack lifted the gun and pulled the trigger.
Monday, 4:15 p.m.
Maggie Gardiner's neck had started to ache about an hour before, and now protested with quick tremors that shot past her shoulder blades and raced along her spine. She didn't move. Two more of the blasted things and she'd be done. Not done for the day, of course, just for that case.
"Unidentified female," Denny announced as he walked into the lab. She could hear his footsteps wading through the two counters filled with sinks and gas nozzles and microscopes in order to reach her desk. "Down at the morgue. She was found this afternoon. I know it's late, but can you run over there and get her prints?"
Maggie didn't look up, but kept her eyes hovering above the two round magnifying glasses on their squat legs, side by side above two different inked fingerprints. Below the lenses she used two evil-looking metal spikes, slightly thicker than syringe needles, to keep her place as she moved along the tiny ridges of the skin patterns. "Twenty-three pawn slips. This guy pawned his ill-gotten gains in twenty-three different places, like he thought that would help. It only means they can charge him with twenty-three counts. If they charge him at all, of course."
"The purpose of the justice system is to pursue all wrongdoing," he agreed piously. "Problem is, there's too little justice system and too much wrongdoing."
"And he's got some of the worst prints I've ever seen. I think he washes his hands in battery acid," Maggie continued to whine as she finished up the comparison and put down her pointers.
"Or he's a roofer, or a bricklayer," her boss answered absently, citing two of the professions that are hardest on the skin's surface. "If you can't go, I'll stop there on a roundabout route home."
She took the sheet of paper he handed her, straining her already pained neck to look up at him. Denny stood well over six feet, his black skin glistening, a worried wrinkle appearing between his eyebrows that had nothing to do with either the unidentified body or Maggie. His wife was about to produce their third child ... but truthfully Denny always looked like that. He was a worrier.
And the coroner's office really hated to have their hallways crowded with gurneys while they waited on a fingerprint officer to collect prints.
Maggie shoved aside the twenty-three pawn slips without reluctance. "I'll take care of Jane Doe. You go home and get some sleep. Save some up for after the baby comes."
"I wish it could work like that," her boss muttered. (Continues...)
Excerpted from That Darkness by Lisa Black. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Black. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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