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“A finely crafted ensemble and a balanced grace makes this debut novel as hard to resist as blue ribbon gumbo.” —Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of the Walt Longmire Mysteries, the basis for the Netflix hit drama Longmire
Dark River Rising is a tense and expertly-plotted mystery set against the bayous of Louisiana, from debut author Roger Johns.
Baton Rouge Police Detective Wallace Hartman has had better days. With her long-time partner and mentor on medical leave and a personal life in shambles, she’s called to the scene of a particularly gruesome murder: the body of a known criminal has been found in a deserted warehouse, a snake sewn into his belly. Obvious signs of torture point to a cunning and cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing to find what he’s looking for.
When Federal Agent Mason Cunningham arrives on the scene, Wallace expects a hostile takeover of the case. But when a scientist with ties to the victim goes missing from a government lab, she needs Mason’s federal connections as much as he needs her local insight, and the two form an uneasy partnership to solve a case that grows more complicated—and dangerous—by the minute.
Meanwhile, the killer lurks in the shadows with an agenda no one saw coming, and when Wallace and Mason threaten to get in the way they risk losing everything they hold dear. Including their lives.
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About the Author
ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate lawyer and college professor with law degrees from Louisiana State University and Boston University. He was born and raised in Louisiana, though he and his wife now live in Georgia. Dark River Rising is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
SUNDAY 3:45 P.M.
Wallace Hartman had never seen a dead man move, but the guy in front of her was definitely dead, and definitely moving. He just wasn't going anywhere. There was a crudely sutured incision just below his rib cage and his abdomen heaved with a sinuous reptilian rhythm. Wallace's mind recoiled from what her eyes insisted was true — that a snake was slithering among his innards searching for a way out. The corpse looked like it was belly dancing its way into the hereafter.
All of the shootings and stabbings and beatings Wallace had worked on over the years had eventually run together into a slurry of lifeless recollections. As a Baton Rouge homicide detective and a nearly twelve-year veteran of the war on crime, she had grown almost numb to the endless parade of inventive atrocities the soldiers on both sides routinely inflicted on the enemy, but this snake business was in a class all by itself. It had been nearly a decade since she had thrown up at a crime scene, but now her streak was in jeopardy. She forced herself to focus on the details.
Strapping tape secured the body to a large wooden pallet. The hands were swollen and livid from the bindings. The end with the ankles was elevated with cinder blocks, so gravity would have kept blood flowing to his brain. He would have remained conscious even when shock dropped his blood pressure toward the lethal range.
"Take a look at this."
She turned toward the voice. It was David Bosso, a plainclothes narcotics officer who had arrived just before her. He was at the other end of the room — the office in a long unused warehouse. He was down on one knee looking at something under a broken ladder-back chair. One of the evidence techs had raised the blinds, improving a bit on the jaundiced light filtering in through the dirty skylights. The air was still and the stink in the room was so strong she could taste it.
"What is it?" She backed away from the body and walked over to Bosso, her boots rasping against the floor. The smell was taking a toll on Bosso too. His pained grin made him look like he'd been hit in the face with a skunk. "And how come you showed up here?" she asked, wondering why a narcotics officer would be an early responder on a homicide.
"I been trying to nail this guy for years," Bosso said. "In the last few weeks, his routine started changing. Made me think something was about to happen. We upped the surveillance, but he slipped through anyway. When I heard Dispatch sending cars to a homicide in this area, I had a bad feeling he might be involved."
Wallace leaned in, her hands on her knees. Several bags of white powder were nested in a knapsack. Maybe they would get lucky and find some usable prints on the bags. "Who is he?"
"Ronnie Overman. A big player. The main coke distributor for a Mexican cartel for the whole southern half of Louisiana."
"Is this a turf war?"
"Could be. Could be revenge. Could be a lot of things." He stood and hugged his arms around his chest. "Whatever it is, leaving the merchandise behind tells me it wasn't just a deal gone bad." He stared at the floor.
Wallace looked back toward the body. "Other than that incision, which doesn't look like it bled much, I can't see an obvious cause of death. I'm curious what actually killed him and what broke up the party."
"Whatever happened, you can bet this is just the beginning. There's bound to be a power struggle for Overman's organization — chaos for a while and probably more killing before it's over."
She closed her eyes to gather her thoughts. Instead, she found herself trying to imagine which specific day had condemned a laughing, wide-eyed little boy to the life that ended in this crummy warehouse in north Baton Rouge. Would anyone in this world see Overman's death as anything more than a coldly calculated opportunity? What were his last rational thoughts before the horror consumed him?
Her emotional armor was slipping. This was happening a lot, lately.
"Any idea who could've done this?"
"Not off the top of my head," David said. "Overman was way too big to do the grunt work hisself. He had people who handled all the lower echelon stuff. It would take something pretty important to bump him out of his regular orbit and get him in a position where they could take him down."
When Wallace looked again, Overman was no longer moving. She noted the time at 3:47. "What are these?" She knelt next to the knapsack and used a pen to point out a pair of clear plastic tubules embedded in the edge of one of the bags of powder.
"I don't know. I never seen anything like that," he said, looking closely. "But who knows what these shitheads do anymore? I mean, look at this poor bastard. Can you believe this?" he asked, nodding in Overman's direction.
Wallace shook her head. "We should get together on this later, but right now I need to talk to the guy who called this in." She stood and brushed off the knees of her cargo pants. She took a long slow look around, then left the office.
With practiced efficiency, she one-fingered her disposable gloves off and snapped them into an orange trash bag sitting just outside the exit door. She huffed in a few breaths of fresh air, then approached the officer stringing a perimeter of plastic tape in front of the building. "After the evidence techs are done, you and those two officers right over there start canvassing the area for anyone who saw or heard anything. Start around the building, then move into the surrounding neighborhoods."
"Will do, Detective." He backed away, snatching a quick glance at her as he continued to reel out the tape.
Wallace surveyed the parking lot, looking for Arthur Staples, the man who had found Overman. "Mr. Staples?" Wallace called out as she approached him. He had the rangy, rawboned look of a committed hiker. Flecks of gray showed in his mustache and at his temples. He was leaning back against the front fender of his motor pool sedan, idly drumming his fists on the metal. The logo for the City of Baton Rouge was painted on the door. He turned at the sound of his name.
"Thank you for waiting. How is it that you came to be in such a dismal place?" She stabbed her right thumb back over her shoulder. "Especially on a Sunday."
"I'm an engineer for the city. We recently acquired this property and we intend to demolish the present structure and then repurpose the land. I came to make an estimate of demolition expenses, site rehabilitation requirements, and potential environmental impacts. My plate is rather full these days so I end up working some weekends."
The engineer spoke in an almost perfect monotone, she noticed, but he punctuated his delivery with pauses and gestures, like an actor. She studied him for a moment. "The scene in there is making even the professionals a bit green around the gills, but you look pretty composed."
"I served in the Middle East and North Africa. I've seen these creative interrogations before."
"You think that's what this was? An interrogation?" Wallace asked.
"In my experience, torture is rarely just for sport. This was too well hidden to be a message to others, like dumping headless bodies in the public square might be. I saw the bags of white powder left behind, ruling out robbery. That suggests interrogation."
Wallace wondered how much snooping Staples had done, and whether he had touched — or taken — anything. "You seem well-versed in the lore of excruciating methods. What exactly did you do in the military?"
"I never said I served in the military." He gave her a slab-faced stare.
She matched his stare, noting the faint arrogance in his response, his disinclination to elaborate. It was a ballsy demeanor for someone surely sensible enough to know he'd be among the first to fall under suspicion for the carnage in the warehouse.
"When did you find this?" she asked. "As precisely as you can remember."
He pulled his phone from his pants pocket and consulted the call log. "I dialed nine-one-one during the minute of three thirty-two — as soon as I heard moaning. My cell service provider can get the time for you, down to the second, if you need it."
"Moaning?" Wallace arched one eyebrow, feeling a tiny spark of hope. "He was alive when you got here?"
"Did he say anything? Or was he just moaning?"
"Ingrate. Just the one word. Just one time. Then, his eyes glazed over."
"Like he was accusing someone of being ungrateful?" Wallace asked.
"I am certain of the sound I heard. Assigning a meaning would be purely conjecture. His volume was too low and his enunciation was too indistinct."
Had she been in the right frame of mind, she might have found the relentless precision of the engineer's speech funny. Seeing his wedding band, she wondered about his playtime palaver with his spouse. Was it afflicted with similar exactitude? Did they calibrate their bedroom performance on a simple one-to-ten scale, or was it something more scientific? Maybe they used one-to-ten for every day, but some secret Richter scale for special occasions — with extra points for high volume and distinct enunciation.
A cacophony of slamming vehicle doors drew their attention toward the street. TV reporters.
"You wouldn't mind showing me your ID, would you, Mr. Staples?" Wallace returned her attention to the engineer. She read his momentary hesitation as a sign that he did mind, but he slowly withdrew his wallet from his jacket pocket, nevertheless.
"Your papers, please," he muttered like a Cold War border guard as he handed over his driver's license.
Wallace narrowed her eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
"Do you really think I had anything to do with this, Detective?"
"No. But my daughter died of a drug overdose. If you are any kind of an investigator, you will soon find that out. Then you will have to consider the possibility this was a revenge killing."
"Do you believe the man in there was responsible for your daughter's death?" Wallace asked.
"I know he was." Staples repeatedly flexed and splayed the fingers of both hands. "He may not have personally sold Cynthia her last bag of dope, but he was obviously part of the machine that kills so many people like her."
"I'm inclined to think that if you had done this, you would not have called the police."
"Unless my intent was to make you think that if I had done this I would not have called the police."
"Don't toy with me, Mr. Staples. I can be unpleasant." Even though she hadn't returned his license, he was reaching for his car door — a little too eager to leave, she thought.
"Step away from the vehicle, Mr. Staples. Do it now," she ordered, when she saw him dither. Confusion flickered across his face.
"Officer," Wallace called to a uniformed policewoman standing nearby.
"You're calling in backup?" Staples sneered.
"I'm searching your car."
"Not without a search warrant," he objected.
"I don't need a warrant. This car is city property. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in it." She turned to the approaching officer. "Watch Mr. Staples, while I search his car."
"This is unbelievable." He plunged his hand into his front left pants pocket.
"No you don't," Wallace said, reacting to the sudden movement. She immobilized his hand and pinned him against the car.
"My phone," Staples ground out. "I was getting —"
"You're getting on my nerves," Wallace said. A quick pat down yielded nothing. "Now watch him," she said.
Other than a small briefcase, which contained only legal pads and writing implements, she found nothing in the vehicle that looked as if it even belonged to the engineer, much less anything that might connect him to the body in the warehouse.
Wallace stalked off toward her unmarked cruiser. She ran Staples's license through her onboard computer, but he came up clean.
"Are you done with me, yet?" he asked, when Wallace returned, giving her the same slab-faced look he had offered earlier.
"No. Not yet." She moved forward until she was well within the two feet of personal space she was sure he held dear — an intimidation tactic she had learned early on that had served her well. "As I'm sure you know, the success of an investigation can often turn on what information is made public and what's held back. Right now, you're the only civilian who's observed the crime scene. My people know how to keep quiet, so if details from this show up in the news, I'll assume it came from you and that could put a strain on our happy-go-lucky relationship." Wallace waited a few seconds. "Now I'm done." She turned toward her fellow officer. "See that he's escorted from the premises."
As she made her way back to her car, she tried to put everything into some kind of perspective. She was no expert on the managerial niceties of the cocaine business, but a major player getting his hands dirty on a routine wholesale transaction didn't strike her as commonplace.
If it was a declaration of war, as David Bosso thought it could be, then reprisals would be swift and bloody. When street sellers and foot soldiers got killed, it rarely provoked more than a tit-for-tat backlash because getting gunned down was part of their job description. The dramatic elimination of an alpha dog like Overman, though, might incite a more systematic retaliation. Other players might take advantage of the ensuing turbulence to advance their unwholesome agendas.
On the other hand, if it was just an intelligence gathering operation, as Arthur Staples suggested, then who was doing the gathering and what were they after? And had they gotten it?
The abandoned knapsack full of kilos undercut both of those theories or it at least made them seem incomplete. However, it did suggest another explanation. Maybe this really was nothing more than Arthur Staples avenging himself on the forces that killed his daughter, and trying to cover his tracks by making it look like more than it was. And maybe the man's irritating, confrontational attitude was intended to make her suspicious — to provoke her into searching him and his car. That way, when she found nothing incriminating, she would decide he was just an irksome but uninvolved citizen who had done his duty by calling in a crime. Crazier things had happened.
Just as Wallace's mind began to buzz, a profound wave of fatigue settled over her body. Normally, the surge of questions and possibilities that sprang up at the beginning of an investigation left her feeling energized. But sometime during the past several months it had begun to make her weary instead.
She had gotten into law enforcement to get career criminals off the street. She wanted to make sure the habitually harmful, the kind of repeat offenders who had destroyed her family, got locked up for as long as possible. The horror show in the warehouse made her question whether anything she did would make a difference.
After what felt like an eternity, the last of the police and crime-scene techs packed up and left. For nearly three hours he had been standing dead still, roasting inside the air shaft just outside the office while the police and the techs did their endless bag and tag. Once he heard the last of them leave the building, he waited several more minutes. When he was sure he was alone, he quietly lifted away the grill covering the air shaft and left the warehouse.
Earlier today, he had watched from a discreet location as Ronnie Overman stepped out of the back of an SUV, then turned to help a smoking-hot young lady out after him. She had working girl written all over her, and Overman seemed to be enjoying her company.
Two Saturdays ago, he had watched them go through almost the same routine but he had lost the trail. He followed them into the lobby of a down-at-the-heels office building, and watched as Overman said something to the girl, pointed toward a sign for the restrooms, and then pointed at the elevator, as if to say I gotta take a leak, I'll be right back, then we'll go up. But Overman never came back. The girl made a quick call, and after a few minutes another girl showed up and the two of them left the lobby and disappeared into the sidewalk traffic. By then, it was obvious the drug peddler had probably slipped out the back of the building.
Today, though, he ignored the girl. Assuming things would go as they had two Saturdays before, he drove into the alley behind the building in time to see Overman walk out and slide into the driver's seat of a car. In an attempt at cleverness, Overman had altered his appearance a bit, but the walk was the same and that gave him away.
Excerpted from "Dark River Rising"
Copyright © 2017 Roger Johns.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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