One of Quentin Archer’s fellow officers has been shot dead in broad daylight, in his own squad car. A random cop killing . . . or something more sinister? With no leads to go on, Archer turns to voodoo queen Solange Cordray for help. But is he prepared to take her advice?
As Archer uncovers some surprising facts about the dead man’s past, there is another murder. With the simmering racial tensions in the city threatening to escalate into outright violence, Archer begins to suspect there’s far more to Officer Leroy’s killing than he’d first supposed. Could it be part of a carefully-orchestrated plan of revenge . . .?
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On the last day of his life, Nick Martin drove his Peterbilt 379 down Highway 90, the dark night made a little brighter with talk radio keeping him company. He liked driving at night, but he was constantly aware of the danger of making his living on the road. There were crazy people out there. Drunks and drug dealers. Drivers on the run from cops. And he'd seen high-speed chases with drivers who had little regard for anyone on the road. The talk radio host was bringing it all home, talking about a horrific accident on September 20th. A Chevy truck ran a red light in Santa Ana, hitting a church van with eighteen people inside, sending them flying into the street. Seven passengers died, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, her unborn child a victim, too. You never knew when your time was up.
The driver was still on the run. The announcer made the case that this guy was now a wanted killer who wouldn't hesitate to kill again. Damn. One minute you're coming back from a church camp, the next minute you're gone. All in the blink of an eye.
Martin's load, eight hundred cases of cigarettes, rode light in the trailer. Six thousand pounds of tobacco. Four hundred eighty thousand packs. Nine million six hundred thousand cancer sticks. Martin didn't smoke. He had no problem with those who did, but in his twenty-nine years he'd never even lit a match. For anything. Not even to light a candle. He certainly wasn't going to die of lung cancer. No way. Still, he had a solution for those who did smoke. Quit. How hard could that be?
But just like the American Cancer Society, the irony was, if everyone quit, Martin would be out of a job. The Cancer Society always said they wanted to be shut down, put out of business due to the eradication of cancer, but the thousands of full-time employees secretly hoped the society would last well into their retirement years. He smiled again. The world was full of ironies.
As he flipped the dial on the radio he caught the middle of a Wynonna Judd song, 'She Is His Only Need.' He thought about Sandy and silently decided it was time to ask her the important question. In two weeks, he'd be thirty. His birthday gift would be her saying yes. She really was his only need. His mind drifted to the last time they'd been together, all wrapped up in nakedness, her firm breasts and hard nipples pushing into his chest.
The lights of the Peterbilt picked up a reflective sign just before an exit. Detour Ahead. He'd almost missed it. He braked and downshifted, slowing down and grabbing the handset on his CB radio.
'Breaker, breaker, this is Paw Paw Patch. Anyone know about a detour on I90?'
In a moment a voice answered.
'Paw Paw, this is Razor Back,' the drawl was thick. 'Drove the entire stretch today and never saw one.'
'Thanks, Razor Back. Must have just come up.'
'Ten-four, Paw Paw. They spring 'em on ya all the time.'
'I'll report back. Over and out.'
Spinning his wheel, he turned at the exit and drove half a mile to where the second sign was located. The arrow on this detour pointed onto a side road and he could vaguely see tall pine trees lining the two-lane road. He hoped he'd come out onto the highway in a matter of minutes, because he didn't like surprises. The long-haul driver had never been on this stretch of road before and the lofty trees blotted out the sky, blocking whatever light there was.
His birthday, the day he'd turn thirty, he already knew, would be a working day. He'd be on the road hauling tobacco, but the next week he'd ask Sandy to dinner to give her the ring. It was time. Thirty years old, September 30, 1992. Thirty was time to settle down. Make a commitment.
It was at that moment he saw the headlights, a vehicle coming right at him. Not in the other lane, but barreling directly toward him in his lane. It took him totally by surprise. It was big, huge, another semi. For a second his brain locked, the situation being so surreal. He stared at the oncoming truck, before finally realizing there was almost no room to escape. Two lanes, a sugar pine forest on either side. He could swerve into the left lane so he eased that way, praying no one was coming on that path. The oncoming truck swerved as well, still directly in front of him.
Taking a deep breath, Martin flashed his brights. At the same time, the truck in front flashed his, almost blinding him. Jesus. Somebody needed to give and the other driver didn't seem to move an inch.
His heart was racing as the vehicle bore down on him, never veering, never braking. So, Martin braked. He shoved his foot down hard, double clutching and downshifting, trying to slow the weight of his truck and load. It wasn't going to be enough.
A head-on collision was imminent. A standoff. There was a squealing and grating sound as his tires fought the pavement and at the last moment Martin spun the steering wheel. The oncoming trucker did the same, heading directly for him.
He felt the cab start to tilt.
'Dear God, don't let me flip.' His hands in a death grip on the wheel as he felt the right tires sink into the soft dirt on the berm.
God didn't get the prayer or else he chose to ignore it. The cab flipped, and the trailer went as well, as the truck plowed into the pine forest and down a slight incline. Forty thousand pounds slammed on its side, sliding into the trees. Forty thousand pounds of steel, rubber, tobacco and human flesh.
His seatbelt unfastened, Martin was tossed to the passenger side, thrown violently against the door. His neck snapped. Forever twenty-nine years old.
Three men scrambled from the trees, one with a rope and all three with red handkerchiefs covering the lower half of their faces.
'Tie him up, Joe. We'll start unloading the cargo.'
Joe scrambled down the incline, slipping in the pine needle straw, and opened the cab door to the semi that now lay on its side. The driver's head was at an odd angle, twisted, and blood poured from a gash on his face.
'Oh, shit.' Joe sounded shaken.
'I think we just stepped in it, guys.'
'Tie him up and let's get on with this.'
'Motherfucker is dead, Jack.'
'Yeah.' Joe spoke quietly. 'He's dead.' He wanted to quote Al Pacino in the famous drunken line from Scarface. 'I always tell the truth, even when I lie.' But it wasn't a lie. It was the truth. The man was dead. No question.
'Well, that's a first.'
The three men were silent, staring into the cab. Exhaust, steam from the engine and the smell of gasoline mixed with the musty odor of pine needles that carpeted the forest. They pulled their masks down, exposing two black faces and one white. The white man was even more pale than he had been.
'Guys, we're in new territory here.' Joe's voice was quivering. 'I mean, in the past, we've made out pretty well with the loads, and the drivers have all been pretty shook up, but we've never killed anyone before.' He shook his head. 'We stand to make eighty thou a piece on this heist, but was it worth killing some innocent kid?'
One of the men jogged up the road. The other two watched the body, hoping for some sign of life. A breath, an eye opening. There was none.
'What's done is done. We're not going to bring him back, Joe. Time's not going to stand still so let's start loading.' The man known as Jack pointed to their semi parked a little way up the two lane road. 'I ran up and pulled the detour sign so we should be alone for a while. The one out on the highway has already been picked up.'
The third man drove back in a front loader taken off their truck. 'Guys, there's nothing we can do. I'm not comfortable with it at all. I mean, it's a damned shame, but we've still got a job to do. Get these cases loaded. We've maybe got half an hour if we're lucky.'
'We killed someone,' Joe said. 'Andy, this is serious. We've just committed a murder.'
Andy was silent, thinking things through. He considered the loss of life, his family life, the money they were about to make, and the current situation. If he had it over again, he'd probably say no. No to the man who set this heist up. He didn't want to have a killing hanging over his head. How do you explain that to your wife? Your child? Then again, was this really his fault? Was this their fault?
'No, he had the accident. The driver made the decision to plow the truck into the woods.' Andy stepped off the loader. 'We're not going to let this interfere with our life. It's not like we shot him, strangled him, or beat him to death. We didn't. We weren't near him when this happened. And we didn't exactly set this up ourselves, so, let it go.'
'But, we caused the —'
'Shut up, Joe. Don't get so dramatic. You don't want to give up on this haul any more than we do. So, give it a rest,' Andy said.
'And, boys, never say anything to anyone about this,' Jack said. 'Ever. Do you understand? Don't go on a spending spree, use your heads. We've been here before. Never with a dead driver, but ...'
Joe shut his mouth, wondering how he could live with himself for the rest of his life, knowing he'd been responsible for taking the life of another human being. Robbery, not a problem. Battery, some people needed to be taken down. But murder had never been a part of the plan. He had vowed to never even carry a gun in this line of work. If there was life on the line, Joe wanted nothing to do with it.
Now, there was a human life that had been taken. No, he hadn't pulled a trigger ... never would. But he had helped set in motion someone's demise. He wasn't sure things were ever going to be the same again. He was shaking, his hands barely able to help with the loading and he tasted salty tears, which ran down his cheeks.
With crowbars and hammers they pried open the rear doors and started putting the cases on the front loader.
Forty minutes later the three hijackers stepped into their truck with the semi- trailer and drove back to the highway, leaving the wreck and Nick Martin's body for someone else to find and take care of. Two days later the lot of cigarettes was gone. The sale was always easy. They could save the retailer his taxes, half the wholesale cost and even more. Still, their profits were huge. The cigarettes hadn't cost them a penny. Not one cent. But this time there was another price that had been paid.
Joe thought about it. Was there any situation worth the cost of another man's life? Hell yes, the money was good, but he'd end up spending it on strippers, hookers, gambling and booze. He knew it. So a young man's life was expended so Joe could enjoy the pleasures of his life.
The killer bought a case of Four Roses Kentucky bourbon and spent the night of his payday getting blind drunk.
On the last day of Officer Johnny Leroy's life, he was on his computer, parked in front of Fontaine's drug store in a neighborhood known as Bayou St John. He'd answered a call about a disturbance, a fight that had broken out among three women; one with a knife, the caller had said. A big knife, maybe a butcher knife. It was strange because Bayou St John was usually a calm, peaceful neighborhood. There was a small-town feel to the district, with mom-and-pop businesses, quiet streets and even kayakers out on the bayou. He couldn't remember the last time he'd officially visited the area. But if there had been a fight, it was over by the time he arrived. There was no sign of any trouble in front of the Toulouse Street business and a quick interview with the store's employees simply proved no one had seen anything.
The assistant manager, Trace Benet, had been outside taking a cigarette break about the time the call had come in.
'There was no fight, no women,' he said. 'I'd be watchin' that battle, Officer. Believe me.'
Now, hunched over his computer and monitoring his radio, Leroy keyed in the information regarding the call. Time of arrival, interviews, survey of the area, enough to say, 'I showed up and nobody was home.'
The tapping on the car's window caused him to glance up. A sullen-looking young black man motioned to him to lower the window and he hesitated, resting his hand on the butt of his Glock. The kid may have seen the fight, it was just that Leroy really didn't want to pursue it, plus he was enjoying the air conditioning. He just wanted to drive away without an incident. He was looking forward to retirement and was cautiously avoiding any confrontation. But, he pushed the button and the window lowered, a blast of heat and humidity hitting him in the face.
'What can I do for you?'
'Got a question.' The young man wore a T-shirt and baggy shorts, a baseball cap turned backwards. He sported a tattoo that seemed to surround his neck. Thorns linked together. He'd buried his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.
The young man backed off, studying the officer. 'Funny you'd say that, "fire away".'
'Your question?' Leroy said.
'Do you recognize me?'
The officer studied him for a moment. 'No. Should I?'
'I'm André Brion's kid. You remember him, don't you? I'm Joseph Brion. Just thought you should know.'
Leroy blinked and that's when the kid shot him, right between the eyes, spraying blood, brain and bone inside of the cruiser.
'I knew the guy, Q. Stand-up cop. On the force maybe twenty-five years? Joined around 1992. Damn, this is so sad.'
'Not the case I wanted to draw, Levy.' Quentin Archer wiped the sweat from his forehead.
'Oh? In our line of work what case do you want to draw?'
The two homicide detectives watched in the sweltering heat as a photographer circled the blue-and-white cruiser, taking pictures from every conceivable angle. Archer stared at the blue crescent-and-star emblem on the car and thought about how someone could dedicate his service and eventually his life to protect others only to be unable to protect himself. He'd seen the TV stories about cops who were ambushed, but to be confronted with one of his fellow officers blown away in a squad car ... It was a lot to handle.
'And no one saw anything?' Archer surveyed the area. Three employees from the drugstore stood on the sidewalk, a handful of tourists snapped photos with their cell phones and a couple of motorists slowed down to see what the commotion was all about. Other than that, it was an average afternoon. Except a cop was dead.
Officer Leroy remained slumped over the steering wheel, his chin resting on the plastic and his computer screen still glowing. The radio blared as a dispatcher called for an officer in the French Quarter to respond to a drunken brawl. It wouldn't be Leroy.
'This time it's personal, Levy.'
'When she's done shooting pictures, Q, the ambulance is here.' He motioned over his shoulder. 'Personal or not, they're here.'
Archer turned and saw the white-uniformed attendants, a stretcher and body bag by their side. They had shown up, just like that, when his wife was killed in Detroit. Two attendants, a stretcher and a body bag. It was personal then, too. Death was serious enough. Death by murder was beyond serious. Someone wanted you dead. Someone felt that the world was a better place if you were gone. Or someone felt that murdering you righted a wrong. Maybe the act of murder avenged a crime. And of course, there was always revenge killing. All those thoughts played into the investigation. And then, this may have been just a random killing. Then again ...
'No sunglasses, Q.'
'No body cam on the uniform. Probably wore it on his glasses.'
'The killer took them?'
'That would be my guess. Unless they're in the dash or on the floor.'
Levy nodded. 'Body cams aren't much good if they disappear. It's pretty clear the officer looked right at the killer when you look at the point of entry of the bullet. Leroy powered down the window. There would have been a clear picture on the cam.'
'When they go over the vehicle, I'll make it a priority. If it's in the car, we'll find the camera.'
'It won't be there. The killer took it, Quentin. Leroy was too good a cop not to have it with him. Especially on a call.'
Archer glanced at a uniformed officer standing watch over the scene, the bullet camera attached to the right temple of his sunglasses, following every move his head made. Leroy didn't have the glasses or the bullet cam on him.
'The department spent about 300,000 bucks on those cameras. I think we bought like 400 something. These little units are so sophisticated, when you witness something, you click on the camera and the camera, get this, Q, the camera records the fifteen seconds before you activate it. So it's always shooting but saves fifteen seconds before you turn it on. Amazing.'
'And when the criminal takes the camera away, all the technology in the world isn't worth squat.'
'That's what I said. They're only effective if we can view the content. So where do we start?' Levy asked.
Archer surveyed the growing number of onlookers, then glanced up.
'Apartments up there.' He pointed. 'Offices and shops across the street. Somebody saw something. Somebody always sees something. As always, let's start there.'
'Maybe something they didn't know they saw.'
Excerpted from "No Second Chances"
Copyright © 2017 Don Bruns.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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