"Best suited to nail-biters in search of something to read in a single, breathless sitting."
" At What Cost is a fast-paced thriller with an imaginative plot, lots of heart and a believable hero that kept me reading to the exciting ending."
Phillip Margolin, New York Times bestselling author of Violent Crimes
"A superb, hair-raising crime novel. Powerful storytelling, James L'Etoile has done a masterful job."
Rick Mofina, internationally bestselling author of Free Fall
"James L’Etoile demonstrates his descriptive prowess in this beautifully dark crime thriller replete with crackling dialogue and deeply drawn characters. At What Cost is a raw and powerful novel that will have you reading into the wee hours of the morning and leave you craving more."
Douglas Corleone, critically-acclaimed author of Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Equation
"Intense, intriguing, intricate, and shot-through with authentic detail, At What Cost is an outstanding thriller!"
Andrew Grant, critically-acclaimed author of False Positive and the Cooper Devereaux series
About the Author
James L’Etoile has twenty-nine years of experience in prisons and jails across the country. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole with a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice, L'Etoile draws upon his background to bring his crime fiction to life. He resides in Cameron Park, CA with his wife, Ann-Marie. This is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Raindrops played off a drumhead of blue-tinged flesh at John Penley's feet. It was human, but it wasn't a body. Ragged lacerations exposed thick strands of muscle and crushed sections of pale-white bone. Remnants of a headless, limbless shell of a male torso rested at the river's edge. An open chest wound became a flesh-lined catch basin for the pelting rain. Each drop sounded with a deep plunk and swirled up a pink froth from within.
Portable halogen lights, erected on the levee road, bathed the muddy bank in a harsh glare. Red plastic flags atop thin metal rods sprouted up from the mud, marking the area around the torso. The little flags whipped and rattled in the wind that ran up the levee bank. Penley pulled up the collar of his raincoat against the driving rain, but the chill he felt didn't come from the elements.
The malformed tattoo of an Aztec warrior on the victim's chest was familiar to Detective John Penley. The unique prison tattoo identified the partial corpse as Daniel Cardozo, a high-ranking gangbanger.
Everything that made Cardozo human — and there were those who debated whether the violent drug addict was part of the species — was missing. The man's chest held only a shallow pool of bloody rainwater. The remains were little more than a husk of a man.
A sucking sound in the mud behind Penley pulled his focus away from the broken gang member. David Potter, a crime-scene technician, struggled for footing in the thick ooze. Penley shielded his eyes from the lights as Potter made his way down the bank, mud leeching to the ankles of the technician's rubber boots with every step. The burden of bulky equipment and heavy nylon satchels threatened to topple the one-hundred-thirty-pound man.
"Where do you want me to start, Detective?" Potter asked.
"Let's get some photos of the riverbank, below the body, before the rain washes everything away." Penley pointed to a section of slick mud indentations that ran from the water's edge to the torn human remains.
Potter placed the equipment cases down on a small patch of bent grass, avoiding the viscous mud closer to the riverbank. He unpacked a thick-framed digital camera and pulled a stack of numbered yellow signs from one of the nylon satchels. Potter took a wide approach to the riverbank, well away from anything in the area he was going to photograph. A yellow marker with the number one went into the ooze at the spot where the water met the slope of the levee. The mud held an impression, a deep, V-shaped indentation in the bank. The flash from Potter's camera bathed the spot in artificial daylight for a moment and revealed several deep footprints.
"Detective, someone hopped out of a boat into the mud and sank at least calf-deep. The bow left a nice indentation."
"What kind of boat?" Penley asked.
"It wasn't one of those flat-bottomed jobs or a big fiberglass deep-hull boat either. It's too sloppy to get an impression, but I'd be willing to bet it was a lightweight aluminum fishing boat — maybe ten to twelve feet."
"Why go through all the trouble of dumping a body up on the bank? Had to know we'd find it," Penley said.
"Maybe they wanted you to," Potter said in between camera flashes.
The sound of car doors echoed down the bank from the levee road. Penley shielded his eyes against the halogen spotlights once more and saw the outline of Elizabeth White, deputy medical examiner, on the levee road. The detective pointed in the direction of the flags marking the trail to the body.
"Should we set up a tarp over the body?" she asked as she approached.
"Your call," Penley said. "But he didn't leave us anything. He was careful. He's always careful. This is the third dump in the last six weeks, and we haven't pulled so much as a carpet fiber from the bodies."
Penley gestured to the remains. "Meet Daniel Cardozo. Gang member, drug dealer, and pimp."
Elizabeth knelt next to the open torso and pulled up on a flap of rib cage with her latex-gloved hand. Severed arteries, torn diaphragm muscle, and an esophagus draped against the spine. "Have you located the rest of him? A limb? Anything?"
"Nothing, and we won't. Just like the other two victims," Penley said.
She traced the lines of the tattoo on the victim's chest with her finger. "This is different. The others had no physical markers, no characteristics to identify them. Why did he leave this?"
"Might be the only thing Cardozo did that was worth a damn."
"Getting inked. That tattoo — it gives us a place to start. We don't have to work through missing persons reports and hope for a DNA hit in the system. We know who the victim is this time."
"You're that certain?"
"When I was on the gang task force, we tracked Cardozo and the other West Block Norteños gang members. I never had enough to nail Cardozo, but he always ran on the fringes, you know? If drugs were moving across the river, he had a hand in it. Weapons? Same deal. So I've seen that tattoo more than a few times."
Penley followed the trail of plastic flags back up to the road, leaving Elizabeth and two of her assistants to document the remains and pack what was left of the gangbanger in an opaque plastic sheet.
The killer did society a favor when he got rid of Cardozo, Penley figured. But the hairs on the back of the detective's neck prickled looking at the lump of flesh wrapped like a birthday present. The feeling wasn't from the savage brutality of the attack but rather from an unanswered question.
Why did the killer dismember Cardozo and the victims before him?
John spent the rest of the morning mulling over the Cardozo killing. Flashbacks to the ripped and dismembered body distracted the detective to the point where conversation with his wife was forced at the breakfast table. Melissa could have told him she was pregnant again, and it wouldn't have registered. He grabbed his pager, clipped it to his belt, gave Melissa a practiced kiss on the cheek, and said a mumbled "Love you," then he was out the door.
Police activity evaporated with the first light, and the only indication that a life had ended along the remote levee road was a torn length of yellow crime-scene tape on a rusty metal guardrail.
John pulled the car off the narrow levee road into a sparse, brown, grassy patch a few yards upriver from where Daniel Cardozo's remains had soiled the muddy bank a couple of hours ago. He got out, leaned on the fender, and out of habit, patted his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. The rattle of nicotine gum when he expected to find the cigarette pack darkened his mood. He tossed back one of the chalky gum pieces and worked it with his jaw while he looked for anything out of place along the water's edge. Crime scenes always looked different in the daylight.
The sunshine revealed scores of muddy footprints that traced from the asphalt down to the water's edge where Cardozo had turned up. Thick, dried chunks of mud clumped on the road's surface, evidence of the foot traffic from everyone who had worked the scene. If he hadn't known better, John thought the site looked like an amphibious landing zone. It wasn't so much the mud or mud-print patterns John had come for — it was the river.
The killer selected this open spot on the riverbank, where heavy brush, less than twenty yards in either direction, provided more seclusion for his body dump. He hadn't bothered to hide Cardozo's body under the water's surface, and it hadn't accidentally washed up on shore. Leaving the gang member's remains out in the open, in plain view, was deliberate by design.
John stood at the edge of the road, kicked a small chunk of crumbling asphalt down the embankment, and watched it tumble down the levee. The black hunk of tar and rock made it halfway to the waterline before it lost momentum and toppled over on its side. It sat alone in the trampled mud, where it stood out on display among the clumps of clay and native grasses. It was an insignificant piece of asphalt on exhibit in the open space, unlike the fleshy billboard display of the killer's latest handiwork.
Across the river, five ducks formed a quick-moving, V-shaped flock, searching for a place to land in the marshy rice fields. The wind carried the deep, muffled report of two shotgun blasts from the far side of the river. One bird tumbled down, followed by another splashing in the rice field. Another dead creature along the waterway.
John's cell phone buzzed. "Penley here," he responded.
"John, it's Tim," the caller said.
"What's up, Lieutenant?" Tim Barnes was the ranking supervisor in the detective bureau and one of the few John trusted to have his back when it mattered.
"We've got one of Cardozo's next of kin in one of the interview rooms. You heading in, or do you want Paula to run with it when she gets here?"
John watched the river current push through without an echo of last night's activity. Life goes on — for some. "I'll take the interview. I dropped by the crime scene again but should be back in the office in about twenty. By next of kin, you mean ..."
"One of his West Block Norteños gang brothers we rounded up. We're trying to run down his wife."
"Who filed the missing person's report on Cardozo?"
"The wife reported his disappearance. So did Manuel Contreras. We have Contreras on ice in the interview room," Barnes said.
"Anyone make contact with the wife?"
"Gang unit. They couldn't wait to go make that notification."
"No love lost between the gang unit and the Norteños," John said.
He hung up and headed back to his sedan, convinced the body dump was an obscure message from the killer. A warning to other gangbangers, or the act was a personal vendetta against Cardozo. Either way, he wanted attention.
Manuel Contreras posed in the spartan interview room, chest puffed up and his thick arms crossed in defiance. Gang tattoos laced up his neck from under his black shirt and painted a toxic camouflage that proudly displayed the gang member's hatred. That hate was presently focused on the uniformed officer who stood at the door.
Penley opened the door and tossed a notepad on the table.
"Mr. Contreras, I see you're wearing black. You in mourning for Daniel Cardozo?" John asked.
"What the fuck you talking about?"
"Cardozo was killed this morning," John said.
"So I hear."
"Who'd want to punch his ticket?"
Contreras shrugged and said, "Could be a long list. Danny pissed off a lotta people over the years."
"You on that list?"
"Nah. Since the dude got out of the pen last year, he ain't been into nothing but his wife and daughter. Damn shame. His little girl got real sick. Some kind of cancer, they say."
"So you and the other Norteños picked up his slack?"
The gangbanger shook his head. "All I'm sayin' is that his head wasn't in the game no more. He was still one of us. He did his part over the years. Nobody affiliated with the West Block Norteños had nothin' to do with his death."
"Who'd stand to gain by his death?"
"Like I said, he ain't been in the game. He went back to prison for a bullshit weapons beef, and while he was behind walls, his little girl got bad. Nothing he could do but watch her get worse from the prison visiting room. I'm sayin' when the dude hit the streets, all he did was take the kid to doctors' appointments and shit."
"Anyone think Cardozo wasn't pulling his weight?" Penley asked.
"Nah, it wasn't like that. Danny was a hardcore dude from way back. Nobody — and I mean nobody — questions that." Contreras leaned back in the chair, his thick arms tensed.
Penley changed course. "You mentioned his daughter. Cancer treatment's not cheap."
"You talk about gangs — damn doctors are a gang, extorting people for money they don't have. They promise one more treatment or some new surgery — if you can pay for it. How is that right? A dude like Danny, he got no insurance, and it's like no pay, no play."
"How did he pay the medical bills?"
"We take care of our own. We took up collections, held fundraisers in town, that kind of shit."
"By fundraisers, you don't mean taking down a liquor store?" Penley asked.
"No man. Danny got respect from everyone, and people willingly gave for his kid's cancer treatment. We collected twenty-two thousand for the girl. No one complained. Danny even did some jobs on the side to pay his kid's bills."
"What kind of jobs?" Penley asked.
Contreras shrugged. "I dunno, that's just what I heard." "What about people he came up against before he went to prison?" Penley questioned.
Contreras thought for a moment. "There may have been a couple who didn't like what Danny had to say."
"Got any names for me?"
"Nah, ain't my style. But I can tell you who had it out for Danny — the city attorney and the West Sacramento chief of police. They made up all kinds of shit to scare people into getting that gang injunction passed. Anyone who got beat down, they said it was us; anyone who got robbed, they blamed us; and anyone who got themselves killed, we got the heat. We'd have to be a thousand deep to pull off all the shit they tried to lay on us."
"With Danny out of the picture, you have complete control now, right?" John asked.
"You sound like one of them organized crime cops from the feds. If there was anything to control, Danny wasn't at the wheel no more. It ain't up to me who fills his shoes."
"Who would want him dead?"
Contreras locked eyes with Penley. "I honestly don't know.
You'd better find out before I do."
"Where were you between midnight and six this morning?"
"Don't try and lay this one on me."
"Answer the question."
"Man, from ten o'clock last night until you guys dragged me out of bed this morning, I was home. You know the gang injunction curfew says I can't be in no public place after ten."
"Where was Cardozo?"
"How should I know?"
"When did you see him last?"
Contreras shifted in his seat. "Danny left my place about eight last night."
"What did you guys talk about? Did he say where he was going after he left your place?"
"Mostly, we talked about his kid. It was ripping him up. She wasn't getting no better, and the doctor bills kept coming. Dude said he might have a way to take care of her and had a big score lined up. He was on his way to the job when he left my place. I guess his little girl ain't gonna get no help now."
"You don't have any idea what kind of job he was talking about?" Penley pressed.
"Nah. He was quiet about that kind of stuff. He didn't tell me nothin' about what he was doing, but I got the feeling that he was on to something — something big, you know. It was like he found gold."
A sharp rap on the door announced the arrival of Joseph Morrison, the on-call attorney representing the West Block Norteños when their various criminal endeavors fell apart. Morrison's grey-flecked beard reminded Penley of a barnyard goat, especially when the lawyer chomped away on a wad of gum as he did now.
John patted his phantom cigarette pack and felt the letdown of the nicotine gum container. Not that he could sneak a smoke in a public building; the cigarette pack was a touchstone, a security blanket.
"Mr. Contreras has nothing to say to you, Detective." The attorney put his pricey briefcase on the table between Penley and his client, a leather-bound barrier of legal protection.
"We were having a friendly discussion about the life and times of Daniel Cardozo," Penley responded.
"And dude was just getting to the part where Danny was up to no good," Contreras said to his attorney.
"That's enough, Manuel," Morrison said to his client. He turned to Penley. "What are you charging him with? I'll remind you that the terms of the gang injunction apply in Yolo County, not over on this side of the river."
"We found the body of one of your clients on the Sacramento side."
"Mr. Contreras has no knowledge of that."
"We were about to find out," Penley said.
"Are you charging him with murder? With anything?"
"No." Penley shook his head.
"Then we're done here. Mr. Contreras, let's go."
The gang member stood and started out the door behind his attorney. He paused and said, "You'd better find him. Danny was a respected man. This could get out of hand if you don't get whoever done this."
Morrison turned and grabbed his client by the sleeve. "That's it.
Don't say another word until we get in the car."
Excerpted from "At What Cost"
Copyright © 2016 James L'Etoile.
Excerpted by permission of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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