When a prominent New Orleans judge is brutally murdered, former Detroit cop Quentin Archer is handed the case. His enquiries will lead him into a world of darkness and mysticism which underpins the carefree atmosphere of the Big Easy. Interrogating crooked police officers, a pickpocket, a bartender with underground contacts and a swamp dweller, Archer uncovers some troubling facts about the late judge’s past. But it’s only when he encounters a beautiful young voodoo practitioner that he starts to make headway in the investigation.
Voodoo queen Solange Cordray volunteers at the dementia centre where her mother lives. When she starts reading the mind of one of her patients, she learns that a secretive organization known as Krewe Charbonerrie may be behind the murder of the judge. And the second murder. And the third . . .
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By Don Bruns
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Don Bruns
All rights reserved.
'He's going to be killed.'
'What?' She turned and studied him.
'He's going to be killed. Murdered. You need to know that.'
'Who is going to be killed?' The statement had startled her. His mouth never moved but his statement was crystal clear.
The young black woman stared at her charge, the pale old man slumped over in a motorized wheelchair on the levee above the dirty Mississippi River rushing by. She was simply a volunteer caregiver, and had no idea how to deal with this information.
'The judge, of course. Shot in the head.' Very matter-of-fact as if everyone knew.
The wizened, white-haired octogenarian gazed at the brackish water, never saying a thing.
The girl with the soft skin spoke in a hushed tone, afraid those nearby would hear her and think she was crazy, having conversation with a silent man. In a sense, she knew she was. Crazy. Like her mother before her. Her mother, who once upon a time cast spells and prayed for interventions, and now spent her days in a wheelchair, staring vacantly at whatever was in front of her. Dementia had robbed her mother of all her abilities and now she was the one casting spells, praying for the souls of others. She was a voodoo lady who could suddenly hear a voice and read the mind of someone who could not speak for himself. This hearing of voices was something brand new. It scared her. Scared the hell out of her.
'Please, tell me. What judge? Can someone stop this killing?'
There was silence. Just as there had been silence before. It was all in her head, the words of the decrepit old man. She heard him, clear and precise, yet his voice never uttered a sound. His mind lost in the fog of dementia.
'Speak to me,' she said firmly.
'There is nothing you can do. The Krewe has made its decision.' His mouth never moved. Eerie.
The young voodoo practitioner approached him from behind, brushing a helix of black hair back from her face. She placed her hands on his shoulders and stared at the water as well. Looking down she saw the wrinkled hands, thick with gnarled veins. There on his right wrist was the faded tattoo of a green coiled snake. She squeezed his arms, venting some of her hurt and anger.
'You have caused a lot of people a lot of problems.' Whispering the words, knowing, as a volunteer at the center, that she was out of line. Her job was to care for her patients, not abuse them. Still she continued. 'You are the scum of the earth. You have caused a lot of people a lot of pain and I believe with all my heart, old man, that you will have to answer for your sins. You polluted this river with your chemicals, you raped the land and you stole the souls of people who worked for you.'
He showed no sign that he heard or understood a word she spoke.
'And now you have the audacity to communicate with me, telling me that a judge will be murdered by one of the Krewes and yet you give me no other information? Damn you.' Closing her eyes she took a deep, cleansing breath, relieving some of the tension. 'I feel if you help stop this killing, you will start to amend your evil ways. Not completely, but some. Help yourself, I implore you. Tell me who will be murdered and let me stop this assassination.'
Releasing the grip on the man's shoulders, the young lady once again closed her eyes. Silently she prayed to Damballa. 'Deliver me from this burden. I have one purpose here, my creator. To help make my Ma whole. With your help we can bring her back. I ask that you take away other obligations. She alone needs me to make her well again. Give this murder, this killing to someone else. Another mambo, a houngan. I need time to help my mother heal, and I do not want the burden of someone's death on my conscience.'
Again, there was only silence.
The girl shivered in the warm, humid air. She was now the bearer of important information, an impending death that was known to only a few. She had the power to inform authorities and even stop the killing. But her source, this man, was incapable of communicating with anyone through traditional means. An advanced case of dementia had terminated that possibility. And he apparently was very selective in the information he was giving her.
'So you won't talk?'
A slight move of his head, almost as if he'd heard her. But his mouth never moved. There was no sound from his formerly raspy vocal chords. No sound, yet she heard him loud and clear.
'The judge, the judge who will be killed, he belongs to Krewe Charbonerrie. Someone must be told.'CHAPTER 2
Five months later
The judge had known at four a.m. that it was going to be a really bad day. Struggling, trying to breathe, he woke up sputtering, choking, deep under swirling dirty water and desperate for a breath of air. Five seconds later he caught that breath, realizing it had all been a dream. He woke up drenched in sweat. The rest of the morning hadn't gotten much better.
He was going out on a limb today, turning over evidence that could put him away for life. If he didn't, they would nail him anyway. They knew enough to destroy him, but at least he had a bargaining chip – or multiple chips, as the case may be. His meeting with Paul Trueblood was in less than half an hour. Trueblood, who said he could make a deal with the government. He just wanted it all to be over.
The judge jerked his head upright and looked over the boxes he had been positioning in the trunk of the cream-colored Jaguar XK-E.
'Yes?' Where had this punk come from?
The young man stood out in the driveway, smiling in at him in the garage. A goofy, lopsided kind of smile, as if he'd had too much to drink. Dressed in a tight white T-shirt and skin-tight jeans, he turned his head furtively to the right, then to the left, then finally looking once more over his right shoulder.
'I want to make certain that no one is watching.' He giggled.
Lerner glanced in the same directions.
'Watching what?' He was confused.
'Our conversation, of course. I want it to be private. Very private.'
Lerner studied the man for a moment, then turned back to the trunk of his car.
'You got nosy neighbors? Behind the curtains over there?' The intruder motioned to one of the houses across the street.
'Go away. I don't have time to stand around talking.'
The judge closed the steel-gray lid on a file box and straightened up.
'No one appears to be watching.' The man's high-pitched voice was sibilant, and Lerner reckoned the guy might be gay. Maybe a friend of Rodger's. Although he knew most of Rodger's friends.
'What do you want?' Now there was a hint of irritation in his voice. 'Do I know you?'
The young man shrugged his shoulders. 'I'm about to be an important part of your life.' He paused. 'Or ...' his voice trailed off.
'Oh, shit.' Disbelief in the judge's voice. A touch of fear. 'Did I sentence you? You did time? You were in my court, right? Is that it?'
A nightmare for every criminal judge. Someone you convicted comes back to seek revenge. Deliver me from that scenario, he thought.
'No. This is nothing personal.' A reassuring tone. 'Just a message I was asked to deliver.'
'Thank God.' Lerner let out a sigh of relief. Then what was the line about 'your life. Or ...?' Lerner studied him. The kid bore a trace of an effete James Dean, in Rebel Without A Cause. Or a young, camp Brando, in On The Waterfront.
'Give me the message and then I've really got to go.' The judge slammed the trunk lid shut and walked round the car. 'Be quick about it – I've got an appointment in about ten minutes.' All he needed was to be late and have this Trueblood walk out. He was about to make a deal that might save his life. The day was new and already there appeared to be a problem. He didn't need more problems.
Lerner stared at the man. The high whiney voice, the air of affected boredom. God, the guy really was going for James Dean, although in New Orleans anything went. Tight jeans, a tight white T-shirt that showed off his flat abs and biceps, and too much product in his carefully coifed hair, the judge thought.
'Did Rodger put you up to this? Is this his way of getting back at me?' Rodger had been furious. He told Lerner he wasn't about to be dumped by someone like him. It would be like Rodger to put a young punk up to this.
'No. I don't know a Rodger.' He shook his head.
'No? Then what's the message?'
The young man wore the same crooked smile.
Lerner motioned him back with a sweep of his hand, as he started toward the driver's side.
'Please, get out of my way. Now. Either tell me what you want or get off of my property.'
A black Escalade pulled off the side street, and backed onto his concrete driveway. It happened a lot at the dead end. Drivers didn't realize there was no exit. They pulled into his drive to turn around.
The judge raised his left hand to the driver, barely outlined behind the dark tinted glass. At the same time he reached into his pocket for his iPhone and surreptitiously activated the recording app with his right hand. He wanted a copy of this conversation.
'Driver, please, be a witness.' He shouted it out, hoping the motorist could hear him.
'This guy is threatening me.' It couldn't be about what was in that gray file box, the one in his trunk. He'd only told one other person that it existed, and even they didn't know exactly what the box contained. He was supposed to meet that person at the Cochon in just about ten minutes. Paul Trueblood. The contents of that box contained evidence to bring down some very high figures in New Orleans, and he was ready to make a case for his own immunity. This couldn't be about that. Could it? Dear God. Of course it could.
'Are you here because of the Krewe? Is that it? Tell me. We can work this out. Seriously.'
The young man smiled, still standing in the middle of the concrete driveway, now shielded from the neighbors' view by the vehicle. Reaching behind his back with his right hand, he pulled out a pistol and pointed it directly at Lerner's face. The end of the barrel was huge, like an open drainpipe.
'Do you pray often?' The gun never wavered.
'No.' He was shaking now, trembling. 'Not often enough apparently,' he muttered, and closed his eyes. 'Are you going to shoot me? Right now? In front of this witness? Please, tell me before you pull the trigger.' Shuddering, he felt the blood drain from his face.
'Get in.' The man spoke in a singsong voice.
'Get in ...?' It was then he realized the Escalade was for him. This was no lost driver who wanted a quick turnaround.
'Look,' perspiration covered his body and he felt a slight chill on his skin, 'if it's Rodger, tell him I'm sorry. It wasn't going to work from the beginning. Seriously. I offered him cash, a lot of cash. Enough to go away and start over. Please don't do something you'll regret. Something he'll regret.'
'Get in.' The voice a little deeper now, more demanding. None of the feminine tones from earlier on.
'What are you going to do?'
'Get the fuck in.' The man stepped forward and with a hard thrust he rammed the barrel of the gun into Lerner's soft stomach. The judge doubled over in crippling pain, tears welling in his pale blue eyes. It felt like the metal rod might come out the other side. Lerner fought for a breath, gasping, sucking in air. This guy wasn't fooling around.
The man in the cotton tee opened the rear door and motioned to the judge.
Still hunched over, Lerner staggered to the door. Where were his neighbors? The loud, brassy soccer mom next door, or the retired couple with the yapping Labrador retriever across the street? Where the hell was the dog? He was out every night Lerner got home, barking in a frenzy. So the canine takes a break on the one afternoon the judge needs him?
'In.' The kid grabbed Lerner's arm and pushed the shirt cuff from his right wrist. Peeling back the sleeve he unveiled the green coiled snake tattooed just above the judge's gold chain bracelet. He smiled, nodding to the driver. 'It's him. No doubt.'
The sting of the pistol barrel smashing into the bone over Lerner's right ear took him by surprise. He found himself thinking, as his brain processed the pain, that the blow had been strong enough to cause a large bruise. Maybe even concussion. His entire skull throbbed. The judge shook his head, trying valiantly to keep his consciousness.
He felt hands pushing him as he tried his best to climb into the rear seat of the black Cadillac.
'It's the right guy, James. Let's go.'
The voice faded in and out as he tried to suppress the nausea. Concentrating on his immediate condition he feared only that he would vomit on the soft leather seats. He did not want to embarrass himself.
It had to be Rodger. The guy just couldn't let it go. As a public figure of some repute, Lerner had decided that he needed a more appropriate lifestyle. He had decided that he didn't like Rodger Claim so much anymore. You fell in and out of love with people for a variety of reasons, didn't you? There were lots of reasons to fall out of love with Claim.
'The warehouse next to the Napoleon Avenue Wharf, James. You know where that is?'
'I know, Skeeter.'
They didn't care if he knew where they were taking him. They didn't care if he knew their names. So obviously he was expendable. Expendable. They were going to kill him.
'I've got money. God knows, lots of money. Hidden money.'
A wave of dizziness came over him.
'Please, whatever he's paying, I can pay more.'
'Oh, God, please.'
The man named Skeeter turned to him and this time he wore a tight, thin-lipped smile.
'You seem to pray a lot, Judge Lerner. But I don't think that God or Jesus is going to do much to save your soul.'
Lerner thrust his hand into his pocket. The punk hadn't bothered to check to see if Lerner had a phone. He could still call 911. A wave of nausea overcame him and he collapsed on the seat, his last attempt at freedom lost forever.CHAPTER 3
The pale bloated body bobbed in the muddy Mississippi, bumping the seawall just down from the Creole Queen steamboat and across from the Crazy Lobster riverfront restaurant. Detective Quentin Archer peered down as the two divers maneuvered the floating corpse to a submerged rubber sling, which hung from the small crane anchored on the brick walkway.
Detective Adam Strand joined him, nodding at the unfolding scene.
'You swallow any of that water, you're poisoned. That's some nasty shit, Q.'
Brushing back his thick brown hair with his fingers, Archer nodded. 'You should see the Detroit River. Can't be any worse than that.'
The grinding of the winch's gears echoed off the concrete as the limp body slowly rose from its watery grave. A curious seagull swooped low as two officers in wetsuits grabbed the sling when it reached the plaza, gently lowered the body and pulled the rubber contraption from around the corpse.
'Detectives?' A uniformed officer motioned to Archer and Strand, inviting them to view the body.
A crowd had gathered on the steamboat, tourists straining to see the grizzly scene just yards from where they stood. Yellow crime scene tape wrapped the area and uniformed officers faced the growing throng, waiting for a reporter to attempt an end run.
Archer bent down, rubber gloves on, and gently rolled the body, running his hands over the man's rear pockets. He pulled out a wallet. Opening it, he glanced at the driver's license. Then he pulled open the soaked wallet pocket where the deceased kept his money.
'Wasn't a robbery.'
Separating the wet bills, Archer said, 'Must be a couple hundred bucks.'
Strand glanced at the bills.
'Not that anyone would miss the money much now. You know what I'm saying?' Strand studied Quentin Archer for a moment.
Archer frowned. He still didn't know Strand that well.
'Hey, it's a joke, OK? Money stays where it is. Well, someone must have gotten something out of it. Look at this. Shot right through his eye.'
They studied the wound, a round hole bored through the right socket.
'Wasn't the water after all.'
Archer shook his head. 'Do you know a David Lerner?'
'Judge David Lerner?' Strand rose from his kneeling position and brushed at his trousers.
'I'm new in town. You tell me.'
'Yeah, I know of him. Works in the juvie section. Tough guy. Kids don't want to go before him. They usually get a long sentence.'
'Kids won't have to worry anymore.'
He palmed the driver's license, handing it to Strand.
'Jesus. Somebody's kid didn't like his sentence.'
'It would appear.'
Archer reached into the man's inside jacket pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Studying it for a moment, he handed it to Davis, another detective, who was standing nearby.
Excerpted from Casting Bones by Don Bruns. Copyright © 2016 Don Bruns. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Bruns is a crafty old pro, and every ounce of his skill and style is packed into CASTING BONES - charismatic characters, superb locations, and a great hard-edged story. If you love the crime genre, this is not just highly recommended but mandatory"