Hard-living Hollywood location scout John Pellam found the perfect backwater Missouri town for shooting a retro gangster film. But when real bullets leave two people dead and one cop paralyzed, Pellam—an unwitting witness to the brutal hits—is suddenly the South’s most wanted man. The feds and local police want him to talk. Mob enforcers want him silenced. And a mysterious blonde just wants him. Trapped in a town full of sinister secrets and deadly deceptions, Pellam must focus on facing down a killer before his own story fades to black.
About the Author
He’s received or been shortlisted for a number of awards around the world, including Novel of the Year by the International Thriller Writers and the Steel Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association in the United Kingdom. In 2014, he was the recipient of three lifetime achievement awards. A former journalist, folksinger, and attorney, he was born outside of Chicago and has a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from Fordham University.
Date of Birth:May 6, 1950
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A., University of Missouri; Juris Doctor, cum laude, Fordham University School of Law
Read an Excerpt
All he wanted was a case of beer.
And it looked like he was going to have to get it himself.
The way Stile explained it, "I can't hardly get a case of Labatts on the back of a Yamaha."
"That's okay," Pellam said into the cellular phone.
"You want a six-pack, I can handle that. But the rack's a little loose. Which I guess I owe you. The rack, I mean. Sorry."
The motorcycle was the film company's but had been issued to Pellam, who had in turn loaned it to Stile. Stile was a stuntman. Pellam chose not to speculate on what he had been doing when the rack got broken.
"That's okay," Pellam said again. "I'll pick up a case."
He hung up the phone. He got his brown bomber jacket from the front closet of the Winnebago, trying to remember where he'd seen the discount beverage store. The Riverfront Deli was not far away but the date of his next expense check was and Pellam did not feel inclined to pay $26.50 for a case even if it had been imported all the way from Canada.
He stepped into the kitchenette of the camper, stirred the chili and put the cornbread in the small oven to heat. He had thought about cooking something else for a change. Nobody seemed to notice that whenever Pellam hosted the poker game he made chili. Maybe he would serve it on hot dogs, maybe on rice, but it was always chili. And oyster crackers. He didn't know how to cook much else.
He thought about doing without the beer, calling back Stile and saying, yeah, just bring a six-pack. But he did the calculation and decided they needed a whole case. There would be five of them playing for six hours and that meant even a case would be stretched pretty thin. He would have to break out the mezcal and Wild Turkey as it was.
Pellam stepped outside, locked the camper door and walked along the road paralleling the gray plane of the Missouri River. It was just after dark, an autumn weekday, and by rights ought to be rush hour. But the road dipped and rose away from him and it was deserted of traffic. He zipped his jacket tight. Pellam was tall and thin. Tonight he wore jeans and a work shirt that had been black and was now mottled gray. His cowboy boots sounded in loud, scraping taps on the wet asphalt. He wished he had worn his Lakers cap or his Stetson; a cold wind, salty-fishy smelling, streamed off the river. His eyes stung, his ears ached.
He walked quickly. He was worried that Danny the scriptwriter of the movie they were now shooting would show up early. Pellam had recently left a ten-pound catfish in Danny's hotel room bathtub and the writer had threatened to weld the Winnebago door shut in retaliation.
The fourth of the poker players was a grip from San Diego who looked just like the merchant marine he had once been, complete with tattoo. The fifth was a lawyer in St. Louis, a hawkish man with jowls. The film company's L.A. office had hired him to negotiate property and talent contracts with the locals. He talked nonstop about Washington politics as if he had run for office and been defeated because he was the only honest candidate in the race. His chatter was a pain but he was a hell of a good man to play poker with. He bet big and lost amiably.
Hands in pockets, Pellam turned down Adams Street, away from the river, studying the spooky, abandoned redbrick Maddox Ironworks building.
Thinking, it's damp, it may rain.
Thinking, would the filming in this damn town go much over schedule?
Would the chili burn, had he turned it down?
Thinking about a case of beer.
"All right, Gaudia is walking down Third, okay? He works most of the time till six or six-thirty but tonight he's going for drinks with some girl I don't know who she is."
Philip Lombro asked Ralph Bales, "Why is he in Maddox?"
"That's what I'm saying. He's going to the Jolly Rogue for drinks. You know it? Then he's going to Callaghan's for the steak."
As he listened, Philip Lombro dipped his head and touched his cheek with two fingers formed into a V. He had a long face, tanned. The color, though, didn't turn Lombro bronze; he was more silvery, like platinum, which matched his mane of white hair, carefully sprayed into place. He said, "What about Gaudia's bodyguard?"
"He won't be coming. Gaudia thinks Maddox is safe. Okay, then he's got a reservation at seven-thirty. It's a five-minute walk I timed it and they'll leave at quarter after."
Ralph Bales was sitting forward on the front seat of the navy-blue Lincoln as he spoke to Lombro. Ralph Bales was thirty-nine, muscular, hairy everywhere but on the head. His face was disproportionately thick, as if he were wearing a latex special-effects mask. He was not an ugly man but seen straight on his face, because of the fat, seemed moonlike. Tonight he wore a black-and-red striped rugby shirt, blue jeans and a leather jacket. "He's on Third, okay? There's an alleyway there, going west. It's real dark. Stevie'll be there, doing kind of a homeless number."
"Homeless? They don't have homeless in Maddox."
"Well, a bum. They've got bums in Maddox," Ralph Bales said.
"He's got a little Beretta, a .22. Doesn't even need a suppressor. I've got the Ruger. Stevie calls him, he stops and turns. Stevie does him, up close. I'm behind, just in case. Bang, we're in Stevie's car, over the river, then we're lost."
"I'll be in front of the alley then," Lombro said. "On Third."
Ralph Bales didn't say anything for a moment but kept his eyes on Lombro. What he saw was this: a hook nose, kind eyes, trim suit, paisley tie...It was odd but you couldn't see more than that. You thought you could peg him easily as if the silver hair, the tasseled oxblood loafers polished spit-shine, and the battered Rolex were going to explain everything about Philip Lombro. But no, those were all you could come up with. The parts and the parts alone. Like a People magazine photo.
Lombro, who was calmly looking back into Ralph Bales's eyes, said, "Yes? Do you have a problem with that?"
Ralph Bales decided he could win the staring contest if he wanted to and began to examine the swirl of hair on the back of his own hand. "Okay, I don't think it's such a good idea, you being there. But I told you that already."
"Yes, you did."
"Okay, I still don't think it's a good idea."
"I want to see him die."
"You'll see pictures. The Post-Dispatch'll have pictures. The Reporter'll have pictures. In color."
"I'll be there from seven-fifteen."
Ralph Bales was drumming his fingers on the leather seat of the Lincoln. "It's my ass, too."
ardLombro looked at his watch. The crystal was chipped and yellowed. Six-fifty. "I can find somebody else to do the job."
Ralph Bales waited a moment. "That won't be necessary. You want to be there, that's your business."
"Yes, it is my business."
Without response Ralph Bales swung the car door open.
That's when it happened.
A thud, the sound of glass on glass, a couple of muted pops. Ralph Bales saw the man a thin guy in a brown leather jacket standing there, looking down, a sour smile on his face, a smile that said, I knew something like this was going to happen. Foamy beer chugged out of the bottom of the cardboard case, which rested on its end on the sidewalk.
The man looked at Ralph Bales, then past him into the car. Ralph Bales slammed the door and walked away.
The man with the rueful grin said, "Hey, my beer..."
Ralph Bales ignored him and continued along Adams.
"Hey, my beer!"
Ralph Bales ignored him.
The man was stepping toward him. "I'm talking to you. Hey!"
Ralph Bales said, "Fuck you," and turned the corner.
The tall man stood staring after him for a moment, his mouth twisted and indignant, then bent down and looked into the window of the Lincoln. He cupped his hands. He tapped on the window. "Hey, your buddy...Hey..." He rapped again. Lombro put the car in gear. It pulled away quickly. The man jumped back. He watched the Lincoln vanish. He knelt down to his wounded carton, which was pumping beer into the gutter like a leaky fire hydrant.
Maddox Police Department Patrolman First Class Donald Buffett watched the last of the beer trickle into the street, thinking that if that had happened in the Cabrini projects on the west side of town you'd have a dozen guys lapping it out of the gutter or knifing each other over the unbroken bottles.
Buffett leaned against a brick wall and watched the guy Buffett thought he looked like a cowboy open up the case and salvage what he could, like a kid picking through his toys. The cowboy stood up and counted what looked to be maybe twelve, fifteen surviving bottles. The cardboard box was soaked and disintegrating.
Buffett had expected him to take a swing at the man who stepped out of the Lincoln. There was a time, before the service, before the academy, when going for skin was what Buffett himself would have done. He watched the cowboy lining up all the good bottles in the shadow of a Neuman furniture warehouse, hiding them. He must have been planning to go back to the store. He dumped the box in the trash and wiped his hands on his pants.
Buffett pushed off from the wall and walked across the street.
"Evening, sir," he said.
The cowboy looked up, shaking his head. He said, "You see that? You believe it?"
Buffett said, "I'll keep an eye on them, you want to get a bag or something."
"Thanks." He disappeared down the empty street.
Ten minutes later, the cowboy returned, carrying a plastic shopping bag, which held two six-packs. He also carried a small paper bag, which he handed to Buffett.
"I'd offer you a Labatts but they probably got rules about you being on duty. So it's a coffee and doughnut. A couple sugars in the bag."
"Thank you, sir," Buffett said formally, feeling embarrassed and wondering why he did. "Didn't have to."
The cowboy started to pick up the beers and loaded them in the shopping bag. Buffet did not offer to help. Finally the cowboy stood up and said, "John Pellam."
They nodded and didn't shake hands.
Buffett lifted the coffee into the air, like a toast, and walked off, listening to beer bottles clink as the man headed toward the river.
At seven-twenty that evening, Vincent Gaudia looked down the low-cut white dress of his blond companion and told her, "It's time to eat."
"What did you have in mind?" she asked breathily, smiling tiny crow's-feet into the makeup that was laid on a few microns too deep.
Gaudia was addicted to women like this. Although he viewed them as a commodity he tried not to be condescending. Some of his dates were very intelligent, some were spiritual, some spent many hours volunteering for good causes. And though he did not pursue them for their minds or souls or consciences he listened avidly as they spoke about their interests and he did so with genuine curiosity.
On the other hand, what he wanted most from this girl was to take her to his co-op, where he would tell her to shut the hell up about spirit guides and climb onto her hands and knees, then lift her garter belt with his hands and tug on it like reins. He now eased a strategically placed elbow against her breasts and said, "For the moment, I'm talking about dinner."
They left the Jolly Rogue then crossed River Road and walked up Third Street, toward downtown Maddox, past foreboding warehouses, storefronts filled with blotched and decaying used furniture, ground-floor offices, dingy coffee shops. The woman squeezed closer to him against the cold. The chill air reminded Gaudia of his boyhood in Cape Girardeau, when he would walk home from school shuffling leaves in front of his saddle shoes, working on a toffee apple or Halloween candy. He had pulled some crazy stunts at Halloween, and he could not smell cold fall air without being stirred by good memories. Gaudia asked, "What'd you do on Halloween? When you were a kid?"
She blinked then concentrated on her answer. "Well, we had a lot of fun, you know. I used to dress up mostly like princesses and things like that. I was a witch one year."
"A witch? No way. You couldn't be one if you tried."
"Sweetheart...And then we'd go for tons of candy. I mean, like tons. I liked Babe Ruths, no, ha ha, Baby Ruths best, and what I'd do sometimes is find a house that was giving them out and keep going back there. One Halloween I got twelve Baby Ruths. I had to be careful. I had a lot of zits when I was a kid."
"Kids don't go much anymore. It's dangerous. Did you hear about that guy who put needles in apples?"
"I never liked apples. I only liked candy bars."
"Baby Ruths," Gaudia remembered.
"Where're we going? This is a creepy neighborhood."
"This is a creepy town. But it's got the best steak house in the state outside of Kansas City. Callaghan's. You like steak?"
"Yeah, I like steak. I like surf and turf." She added demurely, "But it's expensive."
"I think they've got surf and turf there. You want surf and turf, order it. What you want, you can have."
· · ·
Ralph Bales stood on the street corner, in the alcove of Missouri National Bank, watching the couple stroll under a dim streetlight, three of the four bulbs burnt out. The girl was glued on to his arm, which probably was more a plus than anything, because if Gaudia was carrying a weapon she'd tie up his shooting hand.
Philip Lombro's dark Lincoln Town Car, boxy as an aircraft carrier, exhaust purring, sat across the street. Ralph Bales studied the perfect bodywork, the immaculate chrome. Then he looked at the silhouette of Lombro behind the wheel. That man was crazy. Ralph Bales could not understand his wanting to watch it watching the act of the shooting itself. He knew some guys who got off on doing people, got off on it in some scary sex way. He sensed, though, that this was something Lombro felt he had to do, not something he wanted to do.
A voice fluttered over the cool air Stevie Flom, Ralph Bales's partner, was doing his schizoid homeless routine. "There's what it is, I mean, there's it! I read the papers...I read the papers I read them forget what you read forget what you read..."
Then Ralph Bales thought he heard Stevie pull the slide on the Beretta though that might have been his imagination; at moments like this you heard noises, you saw things that were otherwise silent or invisible. His nerves shook like a dragster waiting for the green light. He wished he didn't get so nervous.
Tapping, leather soles on concrete. The sound seemed very loud. Tapping and scuffing along the wet, deserted sidewalk.
Light glinted off Gaudia's feet. Ralph Bales knew Gaudia's reputation for fashion and figured he would be wearing five-hundred-dollar shoes. Ralph Bales's shoes were stamped "Man-made uppers" and the men who had made those uppers had been Taiwanese.
The footsteps, twenty feet away.
The murmur of the Lincoln's exhaust.
The beating of Ralph Bales's heart.
Stevie talking like a crazy drunk. Arguing with himself.
The blonde giggling.
Then Stevie said, "A quarter, mister. Please?"
And son of a bitch, if Gaudia wasn't stopping and stepping forward with a bill.
Ralph Bales started across the street, holding the Ruger, a huge gun, barrel-heavy in his hand. Then: the woman's shrill scream and a swing of motion, a blur, as Gaudia swung her around as a shield putting her between him and Stevie's. One pop, then two. The blonde slumped.
Gaudia was running. Fast. Getting away.
Ralph Bales lifted the heavy gun and fired twice. He hit Gaudia at least once. He thought it was in the lower neck. The man stumbled onto the sidewalk, lifted a hand briefly, then lay still.
Lombro's Lincoln started away, accelerating with a sharp, gassy roar.
Silence for a moment.
Ralph Bales took a step toward Gaudia.
The scream came from only five feet away. Bales almost vomited in shock and the way his heart surged he wondered if he was having a heart attack.
"I mean you, mister!"
Ralph Bales's hand lowered, the gun pointed down. His breath flowed in and out in staccato bursts. He swallowed.
"Drop the weapon!" The voice crackled with a barely controlled hysteria.
"I'm dropping it." Ralph Bales did. He squinted as the gun fell. It didn't go off.
"Lie down on the ground!" The cop was crouching, holding his gun aimed straight at Ralph Bales's head.
"Okay!" Ralph Bales said. "Don't do anything. I'm lying down."
"I'm doing it now! I'm lying down now!" Ralph Bales got on his knees then lay forward on his stomach. He smelled grease and dog piss.
The cop circled around him, kicking the Ruger away and talking into his walkie-talkie. "This's Buffett. I'm in downtown Maddox, I've got a 10-13. Shots fired and two down. Need an ambulance and backup at "
The Maddox police and fire central radio dispatcher did not find out exactly where Donnie Buffett needed the backup and ambulance at least not at that moment. The cop's message ended abruptly when Stevie Flom stepped out of the alleyway and emptied the clip of the Beretta into his back.
Buffett grunted, dropped to his knees, and tried to reach behind him. He fell forward.
Ralph Bales climbed to his feet, picked up the Ruger. He walked over to the unconscious cop and pointed the big gun at his head. He cocked it.
Slowly the heavy blue muzzle nestled itself in the cop's damp hair. Ralph Bales covered his eyes with his left hand. His heart beat eight times. His hand tensed. It relaxed. He stepped back and turned away from the cop, settling on one head shot for Gaudia and one for the blonde.
Then, as if they were a couple of basketball fans eager for some beers after the game, Ralph Bales and Stevie Flom walked briskly to a stolen black Trans Am with a sporty red racing stripe on the side. Stevie fired up the engine. Ralph Bales sat down in the comfortable bucket seat. He lifted his blunt index finger to his upper lip and smelled sour gunpowder and primer smoke. As they drove slowly to the river Ralph Bales watched the aura of lights rising up from St. Louis, to the south, thinking that all he would have to do now was take care of the witness the guy with the beer and that would be that.
Copyright © 1993 by Jeffery Wilds Deaver