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1 Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Friday / 4:01 a.m.
From ground level, the automobile graveyard looked boundless. The moon was like an open eye that, when it peered through holes in the clouds, was reflected in thousands of bits of chrome and glass. After the four figures passed under a buzzing quartz-halogen lamp set on a pole, long shadows ran out from them, reaching across the oil-stained earth like the fingers of a glove.
The quartet entered a valley where rusting wrecks, stagger-stacked like bricks, formed walls twenty feet tall. One of the three men carried a lantern that squeaked as it swung back and forth.
The woman's tight leather pants showed the precise curve of her buttocks, the rock-hard thighs, and the sharply cut calf muscles. A dark woolen V-neck under her windbreaker kept the chill at a comfortable distance. The visor on her leather ball cap put her face in deeper shadow.
They stopped. When the man fired up his lantern, hard-edged white light illuminated the four as mercilessly as a flashbulb.
Marta Ruiz's hair fell down the center of her back like a horse's tail. In an evening gown she could become an exotic, breathtaking creature that made otherwise staid men stammer like idiots. "How far now?" she asked. Her accent had a slight Latin ring to it.
"Not too far," Cecil Mahoney said, looking down at the much shorter woman. An extremely large and powerfully built man, Mahoney looked like a crazed Viking. His thick bloodred facial hair so completely covered his mouth that his words might have been supplied by a ventriloquist. He wore a black leather vest over a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, filthy jeans with pregnant knees, and engineer boots. His thick arms carried so many tattoos that it looked like he was wearing a brilliantly colored long-sleeved shirt. Silver rings adorned his fingers, the nails of which were dead ringers for walnut hulls.
The other two men were dull-eyed muscle without conscience or independent thought. Cecil Mahoney was the biggest crystal methamphetamine wholesaler in the South and the leader of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club. Stone-cold killers pissed their pants when a thought of Cecil Mahoney invaded their minds. Few people could muster the kind of rage required to use their bare hands like claws and literally rip people into pieces like Cecil could.
The three men didn't see Marta as a physical threat. How could such a small woman harm themkick them in the shins, bite and scratch? They had seen that she was unarmed when she stepped out of the car and put on a nylon jacket so lightweight that any one of them could have wadded up the garment, stuffed it into his mouth, and swallowed it like a tissue.
They turned a corner, moved deeper into the yard.
"Over there," Cecil said.
They stopped at the sharply angled rear of a Cadillac Seville with its front end smashed into a mushroom of rusted steel. Marta's sensitive nose picked up the sickly sweet odor, folded somewhere in the oily stench of petroleum and mildewed fabric, of something else in decay. One of the henchmen lifted the trunk lid while the other held up the lantern so Marta could see inside.
"Careful you don't puke all over yourself, little girl," Cecil warned.
Marta leaned in, took the corpse's head in her bare hands, and twisted the face up into the light. The way the skin moved under her fingers told her a great deal. There were two bands of duct tape surrounding the head; one covering the mouth and nose and another over the eyes and both ears. It made the features impossible to read, which was now irrelevant. Other than hair color, this corpse was not even close to the woman she had come to identify and to kill.
"Where's the reward?" Cecil grunted.
"The money is in my car's trunk, but whether or not it belongs to you is a question I can't yet answer," Marta told him.
"That's her, and I'm getting that reward."
"Perhaps, perhaps not."
"Okay, gal, you've seen her enough."
The low position of the lantern made Cecil look even more menacinghis small water-blue eyes glittering. He used a lot of what he sold. From the start he had made it abundantly clear to Marta that dealing with a woman was beneath him. His first words to her had been that he didn't know why anybody would send a "split tail" to do important business. He had referred to her as a "juicy little thang." If she played this wrong, she would be raped and murdered in some unspeakable manner. She knew the piece of trunk cheese was no more Amber Lee than Cecil Mahoney was the Son of God. The needle marks on the dead woman's arm alone were enough to tell her this girl was some overdosed waif. It followed that the envelope Amber had in her possession would not be there. Marta hoped Arturo was having luck tracking the woman in New Orleans.
"You failed to mention that she was dead. Why is that?"
Cecil's patience was thinning. "Bitch choked on her own vomit. Look, honeypot, a hundred thousand clams was the deal. So stop with the questions. Let's go get my money."
"It wasn't a dead-or-alive offer, Mr. Mahoney. There were questions that we needed to ask her, and can't now. My boss expects accuracy in the information he receives from me. You said that she was alive. When did she die?"
"It's damn unfortunate. Boomer found her dead yesterday evening choked on puke. Ain't that right, Boomer?"
The man holding the lantern nodded. "I found her dead yesterday. Choked on her puke."
"I wonder how she gained so much weight in so few days."
"Well, she's just bloating up 'cause it's hot in a car trunk."
"Hot in there," Boomer agreed.
The temperature had not risen above fifty-five degrees in the past two days. "Take it out," Marta told the men.
"What the hell for?"
"It will be abundantly clear to you, Mr. Mahoney, when they take it out."
"Get old Amber out, then," Cecil ordered. Boomer put the lantern on the ground and both he and the third man reached in, wrestled the body from the trunk, and dropped it to the oil-crusted black dirt like a bag of trash. In the lantern light the men looked like depraved giants. As Marta squatted beside the corpse, she pinched her cap's brim as if pulling it down and withdrew from it a wide matte-black double-edged ceramic blade that fit inside the bill. She palmed it, holding the blade flat against her forearm. She knew what was going to happen in the coming few seconds just as surely as if they had all been rehearsing it for days. "You are right, Cecil, it doesn't smell so good. Like it's been dead longer than one day."
"Bodies," Cecil said. "Who can account for spoil rates?"
She shrugged. "You have a knife?" She held out her right hand, palm up.
"Knife for what?" he asked.
"A knife, yes or no?"
She didn't know how much longer Cecil would allow this charade to run. Still entertained, he reached into his vest pocket and placed a stag-handled folding knife in her hand. She opened it using her teeth and tested the edge for sharpness with the side of her thumb. Much better than she would have hoped. A man and his tools.
"You could shave your little pussy with it," Cecil muttered.
Nervous snickerssix fiery, obscene pig eyes.
She reached out suddenly and sliced through the duct tape, laying the corpse's cheek open from the jaw to the teeth twice to form parentheses that crossed at the top and bottom. She jabbed the blade into the flesh and lifted out the plug in the same way one might remove a piece of pumpkin to make a jack-o'-lantern's eye. The dark purple tissue was crawling with what looked like animated kernels of rice.
"Aw, man!" Boomer exclaimed.
"You're trying to pull one over on me," she chastised.
"Hell, honey," Cecil said, "I never was too good with times and days and all. I'm better with arithmetic like adding up you and this corpse and getting a hundred thousand in cash money." Cecil and the other two men had her boxed in, the open trunk at her back. That was fine, she wasn't going anywhere.
Marta remained on her haunches, tightened her leg muscles, and bounced up and down gently so maybe they believed that she was nervous. She would have preferred to be barefoot, because she had gone without shoes for most of her life and felt more secure that way. The sharp clutter in the junkyard made that impractical. "You think you are getting a dime for this fraud, you're even a bigger moron than people say you are."
"How about I dump you and the maggoty little whore in the trunk and take the cash?"
"What will you tell my boss's men when they come to find me?"
Cecil slipped a revolver from behind his back and held it by his side, barrel down. He cocked the hammer, probably imagining the sound intimidated her. "That you never showed up. Must a run off with his cash. Or I'll say, 'Just kiss my ass.' Boys, I think it's gonna be plan two."
"What is plan two?" she asked. She was aware that the man on her left had pulled a pistol from his coat pocket. The man called Boomer had something in his right hand. She didn't care what it was, because unless they all had grenades with the pins already pulled, they might as well be holding tulips. She turned Cecil's Puma knife in her hand so the blade was aimed up.
"Plan two is the old 'snuff-the-Beaner-cunt' plan."
"You aren't man enough to snuff this Beaner, Cecilia Baloney." Her next words were hard as Arkansas stone, certain as taxes. "And as a woman I resent the C-word coming from the rotten-tooth stink-hole mouth of a stupid, syphilitic, dog-fucking redneck puke." Keeping her left fist in shadow, she twisted the flat blade she had taken from her cap into position.
The other two men sniggered at her insult, which infuriated Cecil. "Watch it happen . . . you stinking wetback blow job." As he raised the gun up, she launched her light body into the air, slicing, the Puma up through Cecil's right bicep like an oar's edge through still water. Before his handgun hit the ground, Cecil had spun and fled for the front gate, howling and holding his useless arm.
Marta spun a full revolution, a whirling dervish with her arms extended so that one blade was much higher than the other. After the spin, she squatted between the confused men. Balanced on her haunches, she looked like a jockey on the home stretchher elbows out like wings, her hands in front of her face level with her chin like she was pulling back hard on reins. Instead of leather leads, the wetly lacquered blades radiated out from her fists. Knowing the men were no longer a threat, she focused straight ahead, her eyes following Cecil as he ran through the valley of wrecks.
The nameless third man pulled his hands up to his neck, perhaps to see what the sudden blast of cold against his throat meant. His scream gargled out from a new mouth below his jawline. He stamped his boots a couple of times like he was marching in place to music and collapsed. His feet quivered as though he was being electrocuted.
Boomer dropped to his knees and stared at the bloody pile growing on the ground below him. When he turned his eyes to her in disbelief, she smiled at him.
She said, "That was the Beaner cunt's plan number one." She stood and, laughing melodiously, loped out into the dark after Cecil.
By the eerie lantern light, the kneeling man worked to gather up the steaming mess that had slid out of him and put it all back.
2 New Orleans, Louisiana
Faith Ann Porter yawned and looked over at the venetian blinds for any sign that the sun was rising. Her watch's display read 6:13.
The small reception area always smelled like a place where somebody really old lived. The space was strictly a prop, because there was no receptionist. Usually Faith Ann's mother could hardly afford to pay the office rent, much less hire someone to sit there at the desk to greet the few people who ever came there. Not a single one of her clients had ever been to visit her, and the fact was that the vast majority of her mother's calls were outgoing. Even so, it was absolutely necessary to maintain a professional office.
The upper part of the front door to the five-room suite, which was at the end of the hallway, had a frosted glass panel in it where each tenant's name had been hand-painted backward on the inside since 1927, the year the building had been constructed. At that moment, Faith Ann was lying prone, peering through the brass mail slot, watching the fifty feet of hallway between herself and the elevator lobby. Not that she believed the mysterious woman was going to show up this time either. Most likely she'd been awakened and dragged all the way down here before dawn for nothing.
"Watching won't make her get here one second sooner. If she sees your eyes looking out at her from down there, she'll think we have rats. You shouldn't snoop," Kimberly Porter said from the door.
"You just told Mrs. Washington that you liked my inquisitive nature. You said my curiosity shows intelligence."
"You were listening in on the extension while I was talking to your teacher!"
Time to change the subject. "I bet you got me up early for nothing. I'll be sleep-deprived when I get to school . . . for nothing. I'll bet you a dollar she won't even show up. I'll bet you another dollar if she does she's just some lunatic trying to get money for some old letters she probably scribbled up herself, knowing you'd do anything to save Harry Pond."
"Horace," Kimberly corrected automatically. "If she's right, he's really not guilty."
"You think everybody you represent is innocent."
"I don't think any such thing. There are lots of other lawyers with investigators who try to prove innocence. When that fails, they call me."
"To do legal mumbo jumbo. Hocus-pocus high jinks. Pick a card, Your Honor." Faith Ann plopped onto her back and clapped her hand to her chest. "No sir, that isn't really an ace of hearts, I say it's a two of clubs, your honor. So, since it isn't the ace at all, like you thought, my client is not guilty."
"You little monkey!" Kimberly said. She leaned down and tickled her daughter's ribs.
"Child abuse!" Faith Ann said, laughing, squirming, and trying to push her mother's hands away.
Kimberly straightened. "What I do is not trickery. Horace Pond might be one in a hundred. This is exactly why there shouldn't be a death penalty. It is preferable to"
" 'Free a hundred guilty people than punish one innocent one,' " Faith Ann interrupted. "Like freeing a hundred criminals to go out running around doing crimes is going to happen. You know most people don't agree with whatever old jerk it was said that. Uncle Hank, for one."
"For your information, Miss Know-It-Allthat 'whatever old jerk' was Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren of Brown v. the Board of Education. And I know Hank Trammel does too agree."
"Then why does Uncle Hank have a sign on his office wall that says let no guilty man escape? You know who said that?"
"I somehow doubt it was Earl Warren."
"Old Hanging Judge Parker. He hanged men as quick as his marshals could round them up."
"I believe that sort of behavior is precisely why Earl Warren said what he did." Kimberly walked from the reception area.