When a small-time criminal named Harold Lee turns up in the Ashokan reservoirsans a heartbeat, head, or handsthe local mafia capo hires Isaiah Coleridge to look into the matter. The mob likes crime, but only the crime it controls . . . and as it turns out, Lee is the second independent contractor to meet a bad end on the business side of a serrated knife. One such death can be overlooked. Two makes a man wonder.
A guy in Harold Lee's business would make his fair share of enemies, and it seems a likely case of pure revenge. But as Coledrige turns over more stones, he finds himself dragged into something deeper and more insidious than he could have imagined, in a labyrinthine case spanning decades. At the center are an heiress moonlighting as a cabaret dancer, a powerful corporation with high-placed connections, and a serial killer who may have been honing his skills since the Vietnam War. . .
A twisty, action-packed follow-up to the acclaimed Blood Standard, Black Mountain cements Laird Barron as an inventive and remarkable voice in crime fiction.
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One lonesome winter, many years ago, I went hunting in the mountains with Gene Kavanaugh, a grandmaster hitman emeritus. Sinister constellations blazed above our camp on the edge of a plateau scaled with ice. The stars are always cold and jagged as smashed glass in the winter in Alaska. Thin air seared my lungs if I inhaled too deeply. Nearby, a herd of caribou rested under the mist of its collected breath.
We weren't there for them.
Gene alternated between drinking from the neck of a bottle and playing bars on the harmonica he carried on a leather string around his neck. The tuneless tune was halting and eerie as the one Charles Bronson made famous in Once Upon a Time in the West.
God lit a candle and then made us. He was afraid of being alone in the dark. Gene tossed aside the empty whiskey bottle and lurched upright. He swayed, one boot in the embers of the fire, and spread his arms to embrace the dreadful star field. What big teeth. Oh, my terrible soul. That's my reflection, out there, blown up god-sized. And look, there's yours, Isaiah. The Death's Head Nebula and its nephew. A man doesn't apprehend heaven in his gaze; he beholds a chasm. For he gazes not upward, but downward; deep into a cold, black rift strung along its jaws with tiny, dying lights.
The old man didn't rant when he drank; he only became louder and waxed ebullient. My participation wasn't required. I preoccupied myself with cleaning and reloading my .308 Winchester. The rifle was fairly new to me, acquired from a private dealer in Anchorage. I hadn't shot anyone with it yet.
His canvas pant leg caught fire; a single licking red flame. He glanced down and his eyes trapped the flame and glowed red as twin portals into hell. He snickered, unzipped, and urinated on his pant leg and the ashes, until steam rose and clouded his silhouette.
Disquieted, I uncapped the lens cover on my rifle and peered through the scope, panning west across windblown swale. I could've read a book by the cascading illumination of the stars. Eventually, I spotted the faint glow of a gasoline lantern. The light emanated from a neighboring camp tucked into the base of the drumlin ridge. Distance blurred the details. Even so, there would be three men huddled around a portable stove. Caribou hunters a long, long way from civilization.
Earlier that week, Gene and I shared a few drinks with the party of caribou hunters at the roadhouse. I didn't memorize their names, only the essentials. Two were Chicago boys. Bluff and hearty types who held their liquor, yet were soft as city people often are-expensive outdoor gear, decent haircuts, subtle cologne. One was a lefty who wore thick glasses that would surely steam over as he exhaled in the cold. The other's nose and ears were flat. A boxer's telltale badges of pugnacious courage. He breathed through his mouth and it was evident he'd long passed his prime. Both swilled beer and puffed on stogies. They identified themselves as construction workers with vacation days to burn. No better place than Alaska.
Might have been a cover story, or maybe they were on the level-Gene hadn't divulged the contents of the contract dossier. It didn't matter what occupation the pair listed on their W-2s, because it was a fact the boys were affiliated with the Outfit. Two lost lambs who'd gotten on the wrong side of somebody powerful and didn't even know it.
The third individual dressed and acted like a last-frontier version of the Marlboro Man. He operated as a local guide for greenhorn tourists. Zero connection to the secret lives of his clients. Hard luck for him. Another sad but true fact? Every day, people disappear without a trace in the Alaska wilderness. Nature cares not a fig for innocence or fairness.
Now, darkness and cold gathered around us. Civilized lands and the warmth of the roadhouse might as well have existed on another planet. By setting foot in this primeval vale, we'd detached ourselves from human laws and customs. The meat grinder that is fate growled into motion.
Gene had a keen nose. He scented my worry.
Relax, killer, he said. We'll dust 'em in the morning. I need some shut-eye.
A storm roared out of the far north and settled over the valley. Dawn brought screaming winds and drifted snow. We were buried in our tent for forty-eight hours. Visibility reduced to mere yards. When the weather broke, the other party had vanished. Gene and I strapped on snowshoes and backtracked to the roadhouse. Bastard of a slog. I slumped at the bar, rubbing my numb hands together, while he phoned Anchorage with the bad news.
I recall sipping bitter black coffee and how sweet it tasted. A monstrous black wolf's head snarled at me from its mount over the bar. The wolf disdained my temporary escape from the clutches of the wild.
It whispered, Next time. Next time, two-legged bitch. Next time will be different.
Almost spoiled my wonderful coffee. My mother believed in the Mori death god, Whiro, a god of darkness not dissimilar to the horned and fanged iterations of Satan. I have long held that if Whiro, or something like Whiro, exists, he's the Lord of the Wilderness-a genius loci, vast and immovable as a mountain. His malignance imbues the feral beasts, the trees, and the creeping ice. His evil voice is the wind crying among branches that begs men to step off the path and wander to their destruction. I felt Whiro's gaze through the dead eyes of the wolf's head.
Gene returned and ordered a shot of bourbon.
Good thing we lost those guys in the whiteout. He gulped his booze. Get a load of this: the bosses changed their fucking minds. It's off. Believe that? Off. Don't worry none-we still get paid our commission. You get the commission if they call it. We always get paid-plug that into your memory banks.
The Chicago duo and their guide straggled in near sunset, windburned and shaken, but very much alive. Those guys were overjoyed to have survived their ordeal. They bought rounds for the bar and paid our dinner tab. We parted ways with mutual backslapping and jocular fare-thee-wells.
Damn, life is a kick, ain't it? Gene said as he drove home along the slippery highway. I'm sure those humps recognized me. Guy in the glasses is sharper than he lets on. When we parted at the door, we had us a moment. I saw the fear in his eyes. The truck shifted queasily as the highway descended in a series of switchbacks. Nothing except a gulf of treetops and mist on the passenger side. Yeah, he knew. He knew he'd shaken hands with the Reaper.
I asked if that presented a problem.
Problem? No problem. What do I care? He'll have a story to tell his buddies in Chi-Town. He gave Mr. Death the slip. None a them will believe him. Gene's smirk softened and became inscrutable. Besides, this road is a terminal accident waiting to happen if your brakes aren't one hundred percent. He shimmied the wheel to emphasize his point and the truck fishtailed lazily before he got it under control by tapping first the accelerator, then the brakes. Man, I hope that wasn't a puddle of brake fluid I saw under their car. That would be terrible.
The truck swayed and I white-knuckled my armrest.
You were over getting drinks and they told me a story about their last hunt, Gene said. His expression had flattened into a naked skull. I had never seen him like that before. A bummer, according to our Chicago pals. They hiked into the woods for nothing. Couldn't find a sign of moose or any other big game. They got bored, you see, and shot a mama grouse out of her nest with a bear gun. Mama grouse exploded. Nothin' but feathers, the guy said and giggled. Real knee-slapper, ain't it? Tell you what, I didn't like that story very much.
Gene masked a smoldering anger that always threatened to roar into an inferno. He contained his rage by putting a lid over it, like snuffing a pan fire. This tactic didn't actually kill the flames; it only disguised his emotion. He clicked his tongue when he was dangerously pissed.
He'd smile, click his tongue, and wag his finger. You shouldn't be rude with me, friend. Easy there, chum. Cool it, amigo. You should take care, pal. He said that while imagining the offender's face crunching under his boot. He'd told me the same in exactly those terms.
Reflecting upon our adventures, I recalled that Gene had indeed performed the tongue-clicking, finger-wagging routine during supper.
I never heard about the Chicago boys again.
go forward twenty years. Forward through fog and blood. The youthful me lay dead and buried, at least in the metaphysical sense.
Gene K's influence marked my past. I wouldn't think of him for months and then he'd be everywhere I turned. His merry fatalism preyed upon my mind a lot lately. Because it's the smallest details that eventually catch you. It's the minutiae that destroys you.
I was admiring a velvet tapestry that depicted a Botticelli-lush nude pursued by satyrs through jungles of the night when the trailer door flew off its hinges and two men burst in.
Goon the First-broad-shouldered and bearded-choked up on an aluminum bat, likely dented from the last skull it had crushed. He wore a plaid coat. Let's call him Beardo.
Goon the Second was a family-sized version of the first, except shaven of face and head and buffed to a high gloss. Wifebeater T-shirt, jeans, and combat boots. My man had worn the right foot apparel, at least. He dragged a three-clawed boat anchor by a chain. Not a heavy-duty boat anchor; more the type you might find on a skiff. Wouldn't have cared to get smacked with it, in any event. Let's call him Mr. Skinhead.
He co-owned a welding shop and acted as a captain of the local Aryan gang, Sons of the Iron Knife-animals who represented the weakest link in the scumbag food chain. Still, they were organized, mean, and numerous as flies on a pile of horseshit. Being half Mori, I wasn't popular with the Iron Knife for obvious reasons. There were less obvious reasons too; I'll save that story for another time. Suffice to say, normally I tried to steer clear. Today was different. Today was unavoidable.
I recognized Mr. Skinhead since I made a point to keep tabs on Hudson Valley scum the way a kid collects cards of ballplayers. He was also the guy I'd waited for all morning on behalf of my rightfully nervous client. Let's call my client Mr. Realtor. The trailer was his semi-secret bachelor pad situated on an otherwise vacant lot near the Kingston city limits. He'd tricked it out with mood lights, shag carpet, glass coffee tables and shelving, a selection of crass paintings and tapestries, and a plush, heart-shaped bed in the back. Tacky didn't cover it. Smelled kind of nice, though.
Why were we gathered in this love nest? Ah, for among the oldest reasons in existence-caveman jealousy. Mr. Realtor had perpetrated a sleazy affair with Mr. Skinhead's wife. Alas, somebody let the cat out of the bag, as gossipy gangbangers are inclined to do. Mr. Skinhead craved vengeance for his slighted manhood.
I'd hoped to greet one opponent. In close quarters, such as the living room of the double-wide, I could handle three amateurs without resorting to a gun. Probably. There were only two, though. Reasonable odds. Unless five more apes waited in the wings. In that scenario, someone, or several someones, would get shot, stabbed, and/or set afire.
"Hi, guys." I'd stuffed weapons into every pocket and up my sleeves. My empty hands set them slightly at ease.
"You ain't the ratfuck I'm here to beat." Mr. Skinhead ran the chain through his fingers.
"Correct," I said. "The rat couldn't be with us . . . today. I'm an entirely different animal."
Mr. Skinhead gave me a slow once-over. My worst scars don't show when I'm wearing a suit. Can't hide them all, though; the visible nicks gave him pause.
His eyes narrowed instead of widening.
"Wait a sec-I know you. You're that guy. The lunatic. Coleridge."
"What?" Beardo said. "Who?"
"Charmed." I cracked my knuckles.
so, a quick aside about mr. realtor, the man who'd hired me to run interference. He operated a thriving real estate company and owned a spread near Port Ewen. Drove last year's model Jag, often accessorized by a hottie in the passenger seat. His well-tanned likeness winked from a billboard on Route 9W, and he flashed an irritatingly glamorous smile in frequent television spots.
Mr. Realtor fancied himself the Second Coming of Lothario. Clean-cut and pretty as a Ken doll, so why not? Problem is, Lotharios risk getting run over by karma. Can't say everybody who knew Mr. Realtor loved him, but they knew him. Business is a contact sport. Some of these folks, the ones lacking warm and fuzzy feelings, expressed violent desires, and that's where I came in.
The story so far: Mr. Skinhead (counseled by his cheating wife) had approached Mr. Realtor about the possibility of laundering money via a real estate scheme. My client didn't use those exact words, but I got the drift. A few days ago, Mrs. Skinhead alerted Mr. Realtor to the unsettling news that her husband was on to their affair and plotting to even the score when their paths crossed again. Mr. Skinhead didn't know that Mr. Realtor had been tipped off to this fact.
The realtor's plan was straightforward-feigning blissful ignorance, he'd call a meeting to go over particulars regarding the scam. I'd be on the scene in his stead. After I beat some sense into the angry husband, Mr. Realtor would enter from the wings and break the news that he'd recorded their "business" conversations. Essentially, forgive the affair and nobody would go to jail on a Federal money-laundering beef.
Aside from abetting infidelity and extortion, I calculated it would be a cut-and-dried job. Maybe a 3 or 4 on the risk scale if cuckolded hubby packed a gun. Silly me.
were this a nice, simple hit, I wouldÕve jumped out of a broom closet with a shotgun blazing. Boom, boom, account closed. Sadly, I'd sworn off hitting. For the most part. The straight and narrow is a rocky row to hoe.
Assessing a foe, I imagine a triangle over his knees and groin. I visualize a line that divides his face from the bridge of the nose to the chin. Strike under the jaw with sufficient force, you'll shatter the mandible and possibly dislocate vertebrae in the neck. Perhaps he'll sever his tongue and strangle on blood. Strike the nose hard, temporary blindness results. Clap an ear, he'll go deaf. Clap both ears simultaneously and the subsequent rupture might cause death. Punch the throat or sternum, you take away his air. Possibly more. One can never tell. The human body is a paradox-nearly indestructible, yet infinitely fragile.