Every dead thing, p.40
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       Every Dead Thing, p.40

           John Connolly
 

  Later, I drove to Baton Rouge, Rachel accompanying me at my insistence. We were uneasy together, and no words were exchanged. Rachel contented herself with looking out of the window, her elbow resting against the door, her right hand supporting her cheek. The silence between us remained unbroken until we reached exit 166, heading for LSU and the home of Stacey Byron. Then I spoke, anxious that we should at least try to clear the air between us.

  “Rachel, I’ll do what I have to do to find whoever killed Susan and Jennifer,” I said. “I need this, else I’m dead inside.”

  She did not reply immediately. For a while, I thought she was not going to reply at all.

  “You’re already dying inside,” she said at last, still staring out the window. I could see her eyes, reflected in the glass, following the landscape. “The fact that you’re prepared to do these things is an indication of that.”

  She looked at me for the first time. “I’m not your moral arbiter, Bird, and I’m not the voice of your conscience. But I am someone who cares about you, and I’m not sure how to deal with these feelings right now. Part of me wants to walk away and never look back, but another part of me wants, needs, to stay with you. I want to stop this thing, all of it. I want it all to end, for everybody’s sake.” Then she turned away again and left me to deal with what she had said.

  Stacey Byron lived in a small white clapboard house with a red door and peeling paint, close to a small mall with a big supermarket, a photo shop, and a twenty-four-hour pizzeria. This area by the LSU campus was populated mainly by students, and some of the houses now had stores on their first floor, selling used CDs and books or long hippie dresses and overwide straw hats. As we drove by Stacey Byron’s house and pulled into a parking space in front of the photo shop, I spotted a blue Probe parked close by. The two guys sitting in the front seats looked bored beyond belief. The driver had a newspaper folded in four resting on the wheel and was sucking on a pencil as he tried to do the crossword. His partner tapped a rhythm on the dashboard as he watched the front door of Stacey Byron’s house.

  “Feds?” asked Rachel.

  “Maybe. Could be locals. This is donkey work.”

  We watched them for a while. Rachel turned on the radio and we listened to an AOR station: Rush, Styx, Richard Marx. Suddenly, the middle of the road seemed to be running straight through the car, musically speaking.

  “Are you going in?” asked Rachel.

  “May not have to,” I replied, nodding at the house.

  Stacey Byron, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail and her body encased in a short white cotton dress, emerged from the house and walked straight toward us, a straw shopping basket over her left arm. She nodded at the two guys in the car. They tossed a coin and the one in the passenger seat, a medium-sized man with a small belly protruding through his jacket, got out of the car, stretched his legs, and followed her toward the mall.

  She was a good-looking woman, although the short dress was a little too tight at the thighs and dug slightly into the fat below her buttocks. Her arms were strong and lean, her skin tanned. There was a grace to her as she walked: when an elderly man almost collided with her as she entered the supermarket, she spun lightly on her right foot to avoid him.

  I felt something soft on my cheek and turned to find Rachel blowing on it.

  “Hey,” she said, and for the first time since we left New Orleans there was a tiny smile on her lips. “It’s rude to lech when you’re with another woman.”

  “It’s not leching,” I said, as we climbed from the car, “it’s surveillance.”

  I wasn’t sure why I had come here, but Woolrich’s remarks about Stacey Byron and her interest in art made me want to see her for myself, and I wanted Rachel to see her as well. I didn’t know how we might get to talk to her but I figured that these things had a habit of working themselves out.

  Stacey took her time browsing in the aisles. There was an aimlessness about her shopping as she picked up items, glanced at the labels, and then discarded them. The cop followed about ten feet behind her, then fifteen, before his attention was distracted by some magazines. He moved to the checkout and took up a position where he could see down two aisles at once, limiting his care of Stacey Byron to the occasional glance in her direction.

  I watched a young black man in a white coat and a white hat with a green band stacking prepackaged meat. When he had emptied the tray and marked off its contents on a clipboard, he left the shop floor through a door marked Staff Only. I left Rachel to watch Byron and followed him. I almost hit him with the door as I went through, since he was squatting to pick up another plastic tray of meat. He looked at me curiously.

  “Hey, man,” he said, “you can’t come in here.”

  “How much do you earn an hour?” I asked.

  “Five twenty-five. What’s it to you?”

  “I’ll give you fifty bucks if you lend me your coat and that clipboard for ten minutes.”

  He thought it over for a few seconds, then said: “Sixty, and anyone asks I’ll say you stole it.”

  “Done,” I said, and counted out three twenties as he took off the coat. It fitted a bit tightly across the shoulders, but no one would notice as long as I left it unbuttoned. I was stepping back onto the shop floor when the young guy called me.

  “Hey, man, ’nother twenty, you can have the hat.”

  “For twenty bucks, I could go into the hat business myself,” I replied. “Go hide in the men’s room.”

  I found Stacey Byron by the toiletries, Rachel close by.

  “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, as I approached, “can I ask you some questions?”

  Up close, she looked older. There was a network of broken veins beneath her cheekbones and a fine tracery of lines surrounded her eyes. There were tight lines, too, around her mouth, and her cheeks were sunken and stretched. She looked tired and something else: she looked threatened, maybe even scared.

  “I don’t think so,” she said, with a false smile, and started to step around me.

  “It’s about your ex-husband.”

  She stopped then and turned back, her eyes searching for her police escort. “Who are you?”

  “An investigator. What do you know about Renaissance art, Mrs. Byron?”

  “What? What do you mean?”

  “You studied it in college, didn’t you? Does the name Valverde mean anything to you? Did your husband ever use it? Did you?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please, leave me alone.” She backed away, knocking some cans of deodorant to the floor.

  “Mrs. Byron, have you ever heard of the Traveling Man?”

  Something flashed in her eyes and behind me I heard a low whistle. I turned to see the fat cop moving down the aisle in my direction. He passed Rachel without noticing her and she began moving toward the door and the safety of the car, but by then I was already heading back to the staff area. I dumped the coat and walked straight through and on to the back lot, which was crowded with trucks making deliveries, before slipping around the side of the mall where Rachel already had the car started. I stayed low as we drove off, turning right instead of passing Stacey Byron’s house again. In the side mirror I could see the fat cop looking around and talking into his radio, Byron beside him.

  “And what did we achieve there?” asked Rachel.

  “Did you see her eyes when I mentioned the Traveling Man? She knew the name.”

  “She knows something,” agreed Rachel. “But she could have heard it from the cops. She looked scared, Bird.”

  “Maybe,” I said. “But scared of what?”

  That evening, Angel removed the door panels of the Taurus and we strapped the Calicos and the magazines into the space behind them, then replaced the panels. I cleaned and loaded my Smith & Wesson in the hotel room while Rachel watched.

  I put the gun in my shoulder holster and wore a black Alpha Industries bomber jacket over my black T-shirt and black jeans. With my black Timberlands, I looked like the door
man at a nightclub.

  “Joe Bones is living on borrowed time. I couldn’t save him if I wanted to,” I told her. “He was dead from the moment the Metairie hit went wrong.”

  Rachel spoke. “I’ve decided. I’m leaving in a day or two. I don’t think I can be part of this any longer, the things you’re doing, the things I’ve done.” She wouldn’t look at me and there was nothing that I could say. She was right, but she wasn’t simply preaching. I could see her own pain in her eyes. I could feel it every time we made love.

  Louis was waiting by the car, dressed in a black sweat top and black denim jacket over dark jeans and Ecco boots. Angel checked the door panels one last time to make sure they slipped off without any trouble, then stood beside Louis.

  “You don’t hear anything from us by three A.M., you take Rachel and clear out of the hotel. Book into the Pontchartrain and get the first plane out in the morning,” I said. “I don’t want Joe Bones trying to even up scores if this turns bad. Handle the cops whatever way you think is best.”

  He nodded, exchanged a look with Louis, and went back into the Flaisance. Louis put an Isaac Hayes tape into the stereo and we rolled out of New Orleans to the strains of “Walk On By.”

  “Dramatic,” I said.

  He nodded. “We the men.”

  Leon lounged by a gnarled oak, its trunk knotted and worn, as we reached the Starhill intersection. Louis’s left hand was hanging loosely by his side, the butt of the SIG jutting from beneath the passenger seat. I had slipped the Smith & Wesson into the map compartment on the driver’s door as we approached the meeting place. Seeing Leon alone against the tree didn’t make me feel any better.

  We slowed and turned onto a small side road that ran past the oak tree. Leon didn’t seem to register our presence. I killed the engine and we sat in the car, waiting for him to make a move. Louis had his hand on the SIG now and drew it up so that it lay along his thigh.

  We looked at each other. I shrugged and got out of the car, leaning against the open door with the Smith & Wesson within reach. Louis climbed from the passenger side, stretched slightly to show Leon that his hands were empty, and then rested against the side of the car, the SIG now on the seat beside him.

  Leon hauled himself from the tree and walked toward us. Other figures emerged from the trees around us. Five men, H&Ks hanging from their shoulders, long-bladed hunting knives at their belts, surrounded the car.

  “Up against the car,” said Leon. I didn’t move. From around us came the sound of safeties clicking.

  “Don’t move, you die now,” he said. I held his gaze, then turned and put my hands on the roof of the car. Louis did the same. As he stood behind me, Leon must have seen the SIG on the passenger seat but he didn’t seem concerned. He patted my chest, beneath my arms, and checked my ankles and thighs. When he was satisfied that I wasn’t wearing a wire, he did a similar check on Louis, then stepped back.

  “Leave the car,” he instructed. Headlights shone as engines started up around us. A brown Dodge sedan and a green Nissan Patrol burst through from behind the treeline, followed by a flatbed Ford pickup with three pirogues lashed down on the bed. If the Fontenot compound was under surveillance, then whoever was responsible needed his eyesight tested.

  “We got some stuff in the car,” I said to Leon. “We’re gonna take it out.” He nodded and watched as I removed the minisubs from behind the door panels. Louis took two magazines and handed one to me. The long cylinder stretched over the rear end of the receiver as I checked the safety at the front edge of the trigger guard. Louis placed a second magazine inside his jacket and tossed me a spare.

  As we climbed into the back of the Dodge, two men drove our car out of sight and then jumped into the Nissan. Leon sat in the passenger seat of the Dodge beside the driver, a man in his fifties with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail, and indicated to him to move off. The other vehicles followed at a distance, so that we wouldn’t look like a convoy to any passing cops.

  We drove along the border of East and West Feliciana, Thompson Creek to our right, until we came to a turnoff that led down to the riverbank. Two more cars, an ancient Plymouth and what looked like an even older Volkswagen Beetle, were pulled up at the bank, and two more pirogues lay beside them. Lionel Fontenot, dressed in blue jeans and a blue work shirt, stood by the Edsel. He cast an eye over the Calicos but didn’t say anything.

  There were fourteen of us in all, most armed with H&Ks, two carrying M16 rifles, and we split three to a pirogue, with Lionel and the driver of the Dodge taking the lead in a smaller boat. Louis and I were separated and each handed a paddle, then we moved off upriver.

  We rowed for twenty minutes, staying close to the western bank, before a darker shape appeared against the night sky. I could see lights flickering in windows and then, through a stand of trees, a small jetty against which a motorboat lay moored. The grounds of Joe Bones’s house were dark.

  There was a low whistle from in front of us and hands were raised in the pirogues to indicate that we should stop rowing. Sheltered by the trees, which hung out over the water, we waited in silence. A light flashed on the jetty, and briefly, the face of a guard was illuminated as he lit a cigarette. I heard a low splash somewhere in front of me, and high on the bank, an owl hooted. I could see the guard moving against the moon-haunted water, could hear the sound of his boots scuffing against the wooden jetty. Then a dark shape rose up beside him and the pattern of the moonlight on the water was disturbed. A knife flashed and the red ember of the cigarette tumbled through the night air like a signal of distress as the guard crumpled to the ground. He made hardly a sound as he was lowered into the water.

  The ponytailed man stood waiting at the jetty as we paddled by, moving as close as we could to the grass bank beyond before we climbed from the pirogues and dragged them onto dry land. The bank rose up to join an expanse of green lawn, undisturbed by flowers or trees. It rolled uphill to the back of the house, where steps led up to a patio overlooked by two French windows at ground level and a gallery on the second floor, which mirrored the one on the front of the house. I caught a movement on the gallery and heard voices from the patio. Three guards at least, probably more at the front.

  Lionel raised two fingers and singled out two men to my left. They moved forward cautiously, keeping low against the ground as they moved toward the house. They were about twenty yards in front of us when the house and grounds were suddenly illuminated with bright white light. The two men were caught like rabbits in headlights as shouts came from the house and automatic fire burst from the gallery. One of them spun like an ice skater who has missed his jump, blood bursting forth from his shirt like red flowers opening. He fell to the ground, his legs twisting, as his partner dived for the cover of a metal table, part of a lawn set that stood, semiobscured, by the riverbank.

  The French windows opened and dark figures spilled out onto the patio. On the gallery, the guard was joined by two or three others, who raked the grass in front of us with heavy fire. From the sides of the house, muzzles flashed as more of Joe Bones’s men inched their way around.

  Close to where I lay, Lionel Fontenot swore. We were partly protected by the slope of the lawn as it curved down to meet the river, but the guards on the gallery were angling for clear shots at us. Some of Fontenot’s men returned fire, but each time they did so, they exposed themselves to the guards at the house. One, a sharp-faced man in his forties with a mouth like a paper cut, grunted as a bullet hit him in the shoulder. He kept firing, even as the blood turned his shirt red.

  “It’s fifty yards from here to the house,” I said. “There are guards moving in from the sides to cut us off. We don’t move now, we’re dead.” A spray of earth kicked up by Fontenot’s left hand. One of Joe Bones’s men had progressed almost to the bank by approaching from the front of the house. Two bursts of M16 fire came from behind the metal lawn table and he tumbled sideways, rolling along the grass into the river.

  “Tell your men to get ready,”
I hissed. “We’ll cover you.” The message was passed down the line.

  “Louis!” I shouted. “You ready to try these things out?” A figure two men down from me responded with a wave and then the Calicos burst into life. One of the guards on the gallery bucked and danced as the 9 millimeter bullets from Louis’s gun tore into him. I pushed the selector on the trigger guard fully forward and sent a burst of automatic fire across the patio. The French windows exploded in a shower of glass and a guard tumbled down the steps and lay unmoving on the lawn. Lionel Fontenot’s men sprang from their cover and raced across the lawn, firing as they did so. I switched to single shot firing and concentrated on the eastern end of the house, sending wood splinters shooting into the air as I forced the men there to take cover.

  Fontenot’s men were almost at the patio when two fell, hit by fire from behind the ruined French windows. Louis sent a burst into the room beyond and Fontenot’s men moved to the patio and entered the house. Exchanges of fire were coming from within as Louis and I rose and ran across the lawn.

  To my left, the guy behind the lawn table abandoned his cover to join us. As he did so, something huge and dark appeared out of the shadows and launched itself from the grass with a deep, ferocious growl. The boerbul struck him on the chest, knocking him to the ground with its enormous weight. He shouted once, his hands pounding at the creature’s head, and then the huge jaws closed on his neck and the boerbul’s head shook as he tore the man’s throat apart.

  The animal lifted its head and its eyes gleamed in the darkness as it found Louis. He was turning the Calico in its direction when it bounded from the dead body and sprang into the air. Its speed was astonishing. As it moved toward us, its dark form blotted out the stars in the sky above. It was at the apex of its jump when Louis’s Calico sang and bullets ripped into it, causing it to spasm in midair and land with a crunch on the grass not two feet from us. Its paws scrambled for purchase and its mouth worked in biting motions, even as blood and froth spilled from between its teeth. Louis pumped more rounds into it until it lay still.

 

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