The Reapers A Charlie Parker Thriller, by Connolly, John
- ISBN: 9781416569534 | 1416569537
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 4/28/2009
There are so many killings, so many victims, so many lives lost and ruined every day, that it can be hard to keep track of them all, hard to make the connections that might bring cases to a close. Some are obvious: the man who kills his girlfriend, then takes his own life, either out of remorse or because of his own inability to face the consequences of his actions; or the tit-for-tat murders of hoodlums, gangsters, drug dealers, each killing leading inexorably to another as the violence escalates. One death invites the next, extending a pale hand in greeting, grinning as the ax falls, the blade cuts. There is a chain of events that can easily be reconstructed, a clear trail for the law to follow.
But there are other killings that are harder to connect, the links between them obscured by great distances, by the passage of years, by the layering of this honeycomb world as time folds softly upon itself.
The honeycomb world does not hide secrets: it stores them. It is a repository of buried memories, of half-forgotten acts.
In the honeycomb world, everything is connected.
* * *
The St. Daniil sat on Brightwater Court, not far from the cavernous dinner clubs on Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue where couples of all ages danced to music in Russian, Spanish, and English, ate Russian food, shared vodka and wine, and watched stage shows that would not have been out of place in some of the more modest Reno hotels, or on a cruise ship, yet the St. Daniil was far enough away from them to render itself distinct in any number of ways. The building that it occupied overlooked the ocean, and the boardwalk with its principal trio of restaurants, the Volna, the Tatiana, and the Winter Garden, now screened to protect their patrons from the cool sea breeze and the stinging sands. Nearby was the Brighton playground, where, during the day, old men sat at stone tables playing cards while children cavorted nearby, the young and the not-so-young united together in the same space. New condos had sprung up to the east and west, part of the transformation that Brighton Beach had undergone in recent years.
But the St. Daniil belonged to an older dispensation, a different Brighton Beach, one occupied by the kind of businesses that made their money from those who were on nodding terms with poverty: check-cashing services that took 25 percent of every check cashed, then offered loans at a similar monthly rate to cover the shortfall; discount stores that sold cheap crockery with cracked glaze, and firetrap Christmas decorations all year round; former mom-and-pop grocery stores that were now run by the kind of men who looked like they might have the remains of mom and pop rotting in their cellars; laundromats frequented by men who smelt of the streets and who would routinely strip down to filthy shorts and sit, nearly naked, waiting for their clothes to wash before giving them a single desultory spin in the dryer (for every quarter counted) and then dress in the still-damp clothes, folding the rest into plastic garbage bags and venturing back onto the streets, their garments steaming slightly in the air; pawnshops that did a steady trade in redeemed and unredeemed items, for there was always someone willing to benefit from the misfortune of another; and storefronts with no name above the window and only a battered counter inside, the shadowy business conducted within of no interest to those who needed to be told its nature. Most of those places were gone now, relegated to side streets, to less desirable neighborhoods, pushed farther and farther back from the avenue and the sea, although those who needed their services would always know where to find them.
The St. Daniil remained, though. It endured. The St. Daniil was a club, although it was strictly private and had little in common with its glitzier counterparts on the avenue. Accessed through a steel-caged door, it occupied the basement of an old brownstone building surrounded by other brownstones of similar vintage although, while its neighbors had been cleaned up, the edifice occupied by the St. Daniil had not. It had once formed the main entrance to a larger complex, but changes to the internal structure of the buildings had isolated the St. Daniil between two significantly more attractive apartment blocks. The club's home now squatted in the middle of them like some poor relation that had muscled in on a family photo, unashamed of its ignominy.
Above the St. Daniil was a warren of small apartments, some big enough to be occupied by entire families, others small enough to accommodate only an individual, and one, at that, for whom space mattered less than privacy and anonymity. Nobody lived in those apartments now, not willingly. Some were used for storage: booze, cigarettes, electrical goods, assorted contraband. The rest acted as temporary quarters for young -- sometimes very young -- prostitutes and, when required, their clients. One or two of the rooms were marginally better furnished and maintained than others, and contained video cameras and recording equipment for the making of pornographic films.
Although it was known as the St. Daniil, the club did not have an official name. A plate beside the door read "Private Members Social Club" in English and Cyrillic, but it was not the kind of place where anyone went to be sociable. There was a bar there, but few lingered at it, and those who did stuck mostly to coff ee and killed time while waiting for errands to run, vig to collect, bones to break. A TV above the bar showed pirated DVDs, old hockey games, sometimes porn or, late at night, when all business had been conducted, film of Russian troops in Chechnya engaging in reprisals against their enemies, real or perceived. Worn hemispherical vinyl booths lined the walls, with scuff ed tables at their center, relics of a time when this really was a social club, a place where men could talk of the old country and share the newspapers that had arrived in the mail or in the suitcases of visitors and immigrants. The decor consisted mainly of framed copies of Soviet posters from the 1940s, bought for five bucks at RBC Video on Brighton Beach Avenue.
For a time, the police had kept watch on the club, but they had been unable to access it in order to plant a bug, and a wiretap on the phones had expired without anything useful being learned. Any business of consequence was, they suspected, now conducted on throwaway cellphones, the phones replaced religiously at the end of every week. Two raids by vice on the building through the doorway above the club had scored only a couple of johns and a handful of weary whores, few of whom had English and fewer of whom had papers. No pimps were ever apprehended, and the women, the cops knew, were easily replaced.
On those nights, the door to the St. Daniil had remained firmly closed, and when the cops finally gained entry to it they had found only a bored bartender and a pair of ancient, toothless Russians playing poker for matchsticks.
It was a mid-October evening. The light outside had long faded and only a single booth in the club was occupied. The man seated there was a Ukrainian known as the Priest. He had studied in an Orthodox seminary for three years before discovering his true vocation, which lay primarily in providing the kinds of services for which priests were usually required to off er forgiveness. The club's unofficial name was a testament to the Priest's brief flirtation with the religious life. The St. Daniil monastery was Moscow's oldest cloister, a stronghold of the Orthodox faith even during the worst excesses of the Communist era, when many of its priests had become martyrs and the remains of St. Daniil himself had been smuggled to America in order to save them from harm.
Unlike many of those who worked for him, the Priest spoke English with hardly a trace of an accent. He had been part of the first influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union, working hard to learn the ways of this new world, and he could still recall a time when Brighton Beach had been nothing but old people living in rent-controlled apartments surrounded by little vacant houses falling into decay, a far cry from the days when this area was a beacon for immigrants and New Yorkers alike anxious to leave the crowded neighborhoods of Brownsville, East New York, and Manhattan's Lower East Side for space in which to live and the feel of sea air in their lungs. He prided himself on his sophistication. He read theTimes, not the Post. He went to the theater. When he was in his realm, there was no porn on the TV, no poorly copied DVDs. Instead, it was tuned to BBC World, or sometimes CNN. He did not like Fox News. It looked inward, and he was a man who was always looking at the greater world outside. He drank tea during the day, and only compote, a fruit punch that tasted of plums, at night. He was an ambitious man, a prince who wished to become a king. He paid obeisance to the old men, the ones who had been imprisoned under Stalin, the ones whose fathers had created the criminal enterprise that had now reached its zenith in a land far from their own. But even as he bowed before them, the Priest looked for ways in which they might be undermined. He calculated the strength of potential rivals among his own generation and prepared his people for the inevitable bloodshed, sanctioned or unsanctioned, that would come. Recently, there had been some reversals. The mistakes might have been avoided, but he was not entirely to blame for them. Unfortunately, there were others who did not see it that way. Perhaps, he thought, the bloodshed would have to begin sooner than expected.
Today had been a bad day, another in a succession of bad days. There had been a problem with the restrooms that morning and the place still stank, even though the diffi culty had apparently been solved once the drain people, from a fi rm trusted by the organization, got on the case. On another day, the Priest might well have left the club and gone elsewhere, but there was business to be conducted and loose ends to be tied, so he was prepared to put up with the lingering bad odor for as long as was necessary.
He flicked through some photographs on the table before him: undercover policemen, some of them probably Russian speakers. They were determined, if nothing else. He would have them identifi ed to see if there was some way of putting pressure on them through their families. The police were drawing ever closer to him. After years of ineffectual moves against him, they had been given a break. Two of his men had died in Maine the previous winter, along with two intermediaries. Their deaths had exposed a small but lucrative part of the Priest's Boston operation: pornography and prostitution involving minors. He had been forced to cease providing both services, and the result had affected, in turn, the smuggling of women and children into the country, which meant that the inevitable attrition of his stable of whores, and the stables of others, could not be arrested. He was hemorrhaging money, and he did not like it. Others were suff ering, too, and he knew that they blamed him. Now his club stank of excrement and it would only be a matter of time before the dead men were finally connected to him.
But word had reached him that there might be a solution to at least one of his problems. All of this had started because a private detective in Maine could not mind his own business. Killing him would not get rid of the police -- it might even increase the pressure upon him for a time -- but it would at least serve as a warning to his persecutors and to those who might be tempted to testify against him, as well as giving the Priest a little personal satisfaction along the way.
There was a shout from the doorway in Russian: "Boss, they are here."
One week earlier, a man had arrived at the offices of Big Earl's Cleaning & Drain Services, Inc., on Nostrand Avenue. He had not entered through the brightly carpeted, fragrant-smelling lobby. Instead, he had walked around the side of the building to the maintenance yard and waste-treatment area.
This area did not smell at all fragrant.
He entered the garage and climbed a flight of steps to a glass booth. Inside was a desk, a range of mismatched filing cabinets, and two cork boards covered with invoices, letters, and a pair of out-of-date calendars featuring women in a state of undress. Seated behind the desk was a tall, thin man in a white shirt off set by a green and yellow polyester tie. His hair was Grecian-formula brown, and he was fiddling compulsively with his pen, the sure sign of a smoker deprived, however temporarily, of his drug. He looked up as the door opened and the visitor entered. The new arrival was of below-average height, and dressed in a navy peacoat buttoned to the neck, a pair of torn, faded jeans, and bright red sneakers. He had a three-day growth of beard, but wore it in a manner that suggested he always had a three-day growth of beard. It looked almost cultivated, in an untidy way. "Shabby" was the word that came to mind.
"You trying to quit?" asked the visitor.
"You trying to give up cigarettes?"
The man looked at the pen in his right hand as if almost surprised that there wasn't a cigarette there.
"Yeah, that's right. Wife's been at me to do it for years. The doc, too. Thought I'd give it a try."
"You should use those nicotine patches."
"Can't get them to light. What can I do for you?"
The visitor looked shocked. "No way. When did he die?"
"Two months ago. Cancer of the lung." He coughed embarrasedly. "Kind of why I decided to give up. My name's Jerry Marley, Earl's brother. I came on board to help out when Earl got sick, and I'm still here. Earl a friend of yours?"
"Well, guess he's gone to a better place now."
The visitor looked around the little office. Beyond the glass, two men in masks and coveralls were cleaning pipes and tools. He wrinkled his nose as the stink reached him.
"Hard to believe," said the visitor.
"Ain't it though. So, what can I do for you?"
"You unclog drains?"
"So if you know how to unclog them, then you must know how to clog them as well."
Jerry Marley looked momentarily puzzled, and then anger replaced puzzlement. He stood up. "You get the hell out of here before I call the cops. This is a business, dammit. I got no time for people trying to cause other people trouble."
"I hear your brother wasn't so particular about who he worked with."
"Hey, you keep your mouth shut about my brother."
"I don't mean that in a bad way. It was one of the things I liked about him. It made him useful."
"I don't give a shit. Get out of here, you -- "
"Maybe I should introduce myself," said the visitor. "My name is Angel."
"I don't give a good goddamn what -- " Marley stopped talking as he realized that he did, in fact, give a good goddamn. He sat down again.
"I guess Earl might have mentioned me."
Marley nodded. He looked a little paler than before. "You, and another fella."
"Oh, he's around somewhere. He's -- " Angel searched for the right word. " -- cleaner than I am. No off ense meant, but his clothes cost more than mine. The smell, y'know, it gets in the fabric."
"I know," said Marley. He began to babble, but couldn't stop himself. "I don't notice it so much no more. My wife, she makes me take my clothes off in the garage before I come in the house. Have to shower straightaway. Even then, she says she can still smell it on me."
"Women," said Angel. "They're sensitive like that."
There was a brief silence. It was almost companionable, except that Jerry Marley's desire for a cigarette had suddenly increased beyond the capacity of any mortal man to resist.
"So," said Angel. "About those drains..."
Marley raised a hand to stop him. "Mind if I smoke?" he asked.
"I thought you were giving up," said Angel.
"So did I."
Angel shrugged. "I guess it must be a stressful job."
"Sometimes," said Marley.
"Well, I don't want to add to it."
"But I do need a favor, and I'll do you a favor in return."
"Right. And what would that be?"
"Well, if you do me my favor, I won't come back again."
Jerry Marley thought about it for less than half a second.
"That seems fair," he said.
For a moment, Angel looked a little sad. He was hurt that everyone seemed to leap at that deal when it was offered.
Marley seemed to guess what he was thinking. "Nothing personal," he added, apologetically.
"No," said Angel, and Marley got the sense that the visitor was thinking of something else entirely. "It never is."
The two men who entered the Priest's den a week later were not what he had expected, but then the Priest had learned that nothing was ever quite as he might have expected it to be. The first was a black man dressed in a gray suit that looked as if it was being worn for the first time. His black patent leather shoes shone brightly, and a black silk tie was knotted perfectly at the collar of his spotlessly white shirt. He was clean shaven and exuded a faint scent of cloves and incense that was particularly appealing to the Priest under his current, excrementally tainted, circumstances.
Behind him was a smaller man, possibly of Hispanic origin, wearing an amiable smile that briefly distracted from the fact that his clothes had seen better days: no-name denims, last year's sneakers, and a padded jacket that was obviously of good quality but was more suited to someone two decades younger and two sizes larger.
"They're clean," said Vassily, once the two men had submitted, with apparent good grace, to a frisking. Vassily was deceptively compact and his features were gentle and delicate. He moved with speed and grace, and was one of the Priest's most trusted acolytes, another Ukrainian with brains and ambition, although not so much ambition that it might pose a threat to his employer.
The Priest gestured at a pair of chairs facing him across the table. The two men sat.
"Would you like a drink?" he asked them.
"Nothing for me," said the black man.
"I'll have a soda," said the other. "Coke. Make sure the glass isn't dirty."
The smile never left his face. He looked over his shoulder at the bartender and winked. The bartender merely scowled.
"Now, what can I do for you?" asked the Priest.
"It's more a matter of what we can do for you," said the small man.
The Priest shrugged. "Cleaning, maybe? Selling door-todoor?"
There was an appreciative laugh from his soldiers. There were three of them in all, plus the bartender. Two were seated at the bar, the ubiquitous coff ee cups before them. Vassily was behind the men and to their right. The Priest thought that he looked uneasy. But then, Vassily always looked uneasy. He was a pessimist, or perhaps a realist; the Priest was never entirely sure which. He supposed that it was all a matter of perspective.
The small man's grin faded slightly.
"We're here about the paper."
"Paper? Are you looking for a route?"
There was more laughter.
"The paper on the detective, Parker. We hear you want him taken out. We'd prefer it if that wasn't the case."
The laughter stopped. The Priest had been informed that two men wanted to discuss the detective with him, so this opening gambit was not unexpected. Usually, the Priest would have left such discussions to Vassily, but this was not the usual situation, and these, he knew, were not usual men. He had been told that they merited a degree of respect, but this was the Priest's place, and he enjoyed goading them. He respected those who respected him, and the mere fact of the men's presence in his club irritated him. They were not pleading for the detective's life; they were trying to tell him how to run his business.
The bartender placed a Coke in front of the small man. He sipped it and scowled.
"It's warm," he said.
"Give him some ice," said the Priest.
The bartender nodded. One of the men seated at the bar leaned over and filled an empty glass with ice by scooping it through the ice bucket. He handed it to the bartender. The bartender dipped his fingers into the glass, retrieved two cubes, and dropped them into the Coke. The liquid splashed onto the small man's jeans.
"Hey," he said. "That's rude, man. And seriously fucking unhygienic, even in a place that smells as bad as this one."
"We know who you are," said the Priest.
"I said, 'We know who you are.' "
"What does that mean?"
The priest pointed at the small untidy man. "You are Angel." The finger moved slightly to the left. "And you are named Louis. Your reputation precedes you, as I believe people say under these circumstances."
"Should we be fl attered?"
"I think so."
Angel looked pleased. Now Louis spoke for the fi rst time.
"You need to burn the paper," he said.
"Why would that be?" asked the Priest.
"The detective is off-limits."
"By whose authority?"
"Mine. Ours. Other people's."
"What other people?"
"If I said I didn't know, and you didn't want to know, would you believe me?"
"Possibly," said the Priest. "But he's caused me a lot of trouble. A message has to be sent."
"We were up there, too. You going to put a paper out on us?"
The Priest wagged his finger. "Now you are off-limits. We're all professionals. We know how these things work."
"Do we? I don't think we're in the same business."
"You flatter yourself."
"I'm flattering somebody."
If the Priest was off ended, he didn't show it. He was, though, surprised at the men's willingness to antagonize him in turn when they were unarmed. He considered it both arrogant and unmannerly.
"There's nothing to discuss. There is no paper on the detective."
"What does that mean?"
"I cut my own lawn. I shine my own shoes. I don't send out for strangers to do what I can take care of for myself."
"That puts us at odds."
"Only if you let it." The Priest leaned forward. "Is that what you want?"
"We just want a quiet life."
The Priest laughed. "I think it would bore you. I know it would bore me." His fingers moved the photographs on the table, rearranging them.
"Friends of yours?" said Louis.
"You go after the detective, and you're going to create more problems for yourself with them as well as us. They can be persistent. You don't need to give them any more reasons to breathe down your neck."
"So you want me to let the detective slide?" said the Priest.
"You're concerned for me, concerned for my business, concerned about the police."
"That's right," said Louis. "We're concerned citizens."
"And what is the percentage for me?"
"We go away."
The Priest's shoulders sagged theatrically. "Okay, then. Sure. For you, I let him slide."
Louis didn't move. Beside him, Angel grew tense.
"Just like that," said Louis.
"Just like that. I don't want trouble from men of your, uh, caliber. Maybe somewhere down the road, you might do me a favor in return."
"I don't think so, but it's a nice thought."
"So, you want a drink now?"
"No," said Louis. "I don't want a drink."
"Well, if that's the case, our discussions are over." The Priest leaned back in his seat and folded his hands over his small belly. As he did so, he raised the little finger of his left hand slightly. Behind Angel and Louis, Vassily's hand reached behind his back for the gun tucked into his belt. The two men at the bar stood, also reaching for their weapons.
"I told you he wouldn't agree," said Angel to Louis. "Even if he said so, he wouldn't agree."
Louis shot him a look of disdain. He picked up Angel's glass of soda, seemed about to take a sip from it, then reconsidered.
"You know what you are?" he said. "You a Monday morning quarterback."
And as he spoke, he moved. It was done with such fluidity, such grace, that Vassily, had he lived long enough, might almost have admired it. Louis's hand slid beneath the table as he rose, removing the gun that had been concealed beneath it earlier by the man who had accompanied the cleaning crew. In the same movement, his other hand buried the glass in Vassily's face. By then, Vassily had his own gun drawn, but it was too late for him. The first two bullets took him in the chest, but Louis caught him before he fell, shielding himself with the body as he fired upon the men at the bar. One managed to get off a shot, but it impacted harmlessly upon the woodwork above Louis's head. Barely seconds later, only four men remained alive in the room: the Priest, the bartender, and the two men who would soon kill them both.
The Priest had not moved. The second gun that had been concealed beneath the table was now in Angel's hand, and it was pointing directly at the Priest. Angel had remained motionless while the killing went on behind him. He trusted his partner. He trusted him as he loved him, which was completely.
"All of this for a private detective," said the Priest.
"He's a friend," said Angel. "And it's not just about him."
"Then what?" The Priest spoke calmly. "Whatever it is, we can reach an accommodation. You have made your point. Your friend is safe."
"You expect us to believe that? Frankly, you don't seem like the forgiving type."
"You know what type I am? The type that wants to live." Angel considered this. "It's good to have an ambition," he said.
"That one seems kind of narrow, though."
"It encompasses a great deal."
"I guess so."
"And as for what happened here, well, if you show me mercy, then mercy will be shown to you."
"I don't think so," said Angel. "I saw what was done to those children you farmed out. I know what was done to them. I don't think you're due mercy."
"It was business," said the Priest. "It was nothing personal."
"It's funny," said Angel, "I hear that a lot." He raised the gun, drawing a bead slowly upward from the Priest's belly, passing his heart, his throat, before stopping at his face. "Well, this isn't business. This is personal."
He shot the Priest once in the head, then stood. Louis was staring down the barrel of his gun at the bartender, who was flat on the floor, his hands spread wide.
"Get up," said Louis.
The bartender started to rise and Louis shot him, watching impassively as he folded in upon himself and lay still on the filthy carpet. Angel stared at his partner.
"Why?" he asked.
"No witnesses, not today."
Louis moved swiftly to the door. Angel followed. He opened the door, glanced quickly outside, then nodded at Louis. Together, they ran for the Oldsmobile parked across the street.
"And?" asked Angel, as he got into the passenger seat and Louis climbed behind the wheel.
"You think he knew what went on there, how his boss made his money?"
"Then he should have found a job someplace else."
The car pulled away from the curb. The doors above the club opened and two men emerged with guns in their hands. They were about to fi re when the Oldsmobile made a hard left and disappeared from view.
"Will it come back on us?"
"He got above himself. He attracted attention. His days were numbered. We just accelerated the inevitable."
"You sure of that?"
"We walk on this one. We did some people a favor back there, and not just Parker. A problem was solved, and they got to keep their hands clean."
"And they'll go back to running kids into the country."
"That's a problem for another time."
"Tell me that we'll deal with it, that we won't walk away."
"I promise," said Louis. "We'll do what we can down the line."
They ditched the Olds four blocks away in favor of their own Lexus. The car boasted a Sirius satellite radio and, by mutual agreement, each was allowed to choose a station on alternate evenings and the other was not allowed to complain about the selection. Tonight was Angel's choice, so they listened to First Wave all the way back to Manhattan.
And thus the journey home passed in an almost companionable silence.
Farther south, the second link in the chain of killings was about to be forged.
There were only a handful of people in the bar when the predator entered, and he spotted his kill almost immediately: a sad, overweight little man with beaten-down shoulders, balding and sweaty, wearing a pair of brown trousers that had seen neither an iron nor a laundry in at least a week, and brown brogues that had probably cost him a lot some years before but that he could now no longer aff ord to replace. He was nursing a bourbon, the faintest trace of amber liquid coloring the melted ice at the bottom of the glass. At last, resignedly, he drained it. The bartender asked him if he wanted another. The fat man checked his wallet, then nodded. A generous shot was poured for him, but then the bartender could aff ord to be generous. It came from the cheapest bottle on the shelf.
The predator took in every detail of the fat man: his stubby fingers, the wedding band embedded in the flesh of one; the twin handles of fat at his sides; the belly that flopped over the cheap leather belt; the sweat marks beneath the arms of his shirt; the sheen of perspiration on his face, his forehead, his pate.
Because you're always sweating, aren't you? Even in winter, you sweat, the effort of hauling around your soft, gelatinous bulk almost too much for your heart to bear. You sweat when you wear a T-shirt and shorts in summer, and when the snow comes you sweat beneath layers of clothing. What is your wife like, I wonder? Is she fat and repugnant like you or has she tried to keep her figure in the hope that she might attract someone better while you're out on the road, even if that someone merely uses her for a night? (For she will surely be using him in return.) Do you think about those possibilities as you hustle from town to town, barely eking out a living, always laughing harder than you should, paying for drinks that you can't aff ord in order to curry favor, picking up the tab at restaurants that others choose in the hope that an order might follow? You have spent your life running, little man, always praying that the big break will come, but it never does. Well, your problems are about to come to an end. I am your salvation.
The predator ordered a beer, but it was just for show and he barely touched it. He didn't like his faculties to be dulled when he worked, not even fractionally. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror against the wall: tall, hair graying, body lean beneath his leather jacket and dark trousers. His complexion was sallow. He liked to follow the sun, but the demands of his chosen vocation meant that such a luxury was not always possible.
After all, people sometimes had to be killed in places where the sun was not shining, and his bills had to be paid.
Yet pickings had been thin these last few months. In truth, he was mildly concerned. It had not always been thus. Once, he had enjoyed a considerable reputation. He had been a Reaper, and that name had carried a certain weight. Now he still had a reputation, but it was not entirely a good one. He was known as a man with certain appetites who had simply learned to channel them into his work, but who was sometimes overcome by them. He understood that he had overstepped the mark at least once during the past twelve months. The kill was supposed to have been simple and fast, not protracted and painful. It had caused confusion, and had angered those who had hired him. Since then, work had become less plentiful, and without work his appetites needed to find another outlet.
He had been following the kill for two days. It was practice as much as pleasure. He always thought of them as "kills." They were never targets, and he never used the word "potential." As far as he was concerned, once he focused upon them they were already dead. He could have chosen a more challenging individual, a more interesting kill, but there was something about the fat man that repelled him, a lingering stench of sadness and failure that suggested the world would be no poorer without him. By his actions, the fat man had drawn the predator to him, like the slowest animal in the herd attracting the attention of a cheetah.
And so they stayed that way, predator and prey sharing the same space, listening to the same music, for almost an hour, until the fat man rose to go to the men's room, and the time came to end the dance that had begun forty-eight hours earlier, a dance in which the fat man did not even know he was a participant. The predator followed him, keeping ten paces back. He allowed the men's room door to settle in its frame before entering. Only the fat man was inside, standing at a urinal, his face creased with effort and pain.
Bladder trouble. Kidney stones, perhaps. I will end it all.
The doors to both stalls were open as the predator approached. There was nobody inside. The knife was already in his hand, and he heard a satisfying click, the sound of a blade locking into position.
And then, a second later, the sound came again, and he realized that the first click had not come from his own blade, but the blade of another. The speed of his every motion increased, even as his throat suddenly grew dry and he heard the pounding of his heart. The fat man was also moving now, his right hand a blur of pink and silver, and then the predator felt a pressure at his chest, followed by a sharp pain that quickly spread through his body, paralyzing him as it grew, so that when he tried to walk his legs would not answer the signals from his brain and instead he collapsed on the cold, damp tiles, his knife falling from the fi ngers of his right hand as his left clasped the horned handle of the throwing blade now lodged in his heart. Blood pumped from the wound and began to spread upon the floor. A pair of brown brogues carefully stepped aside to avoid the growing stain.
With all of his failing strength, the predator raised his head and stared into the face of the fat man, but the fat man was not as he had once seemed. Fat was now muscle, slumped shoulders were straight, and even the perspiration had disappeared, evaporating into the cool evening air. There was only death and purpose, and for an instant the two had become one.
The predator saw scarring at the man's neck, and knew that he had been burned at some time in the past. Even as the predator lay dying, he began to make associations, to fill in the blanks.
"You should have been more careful, William," said the fat man. "One should never confuse business with pleasure."
The predator made a sound in his throat, and his mouth moved. He might have been trying to form words, but no words would come. Still, the fat man knew what he was trying to say.
"Who am I?" he said. "Oh, you knew me once. The years have changed me: age, the actions of others, the surgeon's knife. My name is Bliss."
The predator's eyes rolled in desperation as he began to understand, and his fingers clawed at the tiled floor in a vain effort to reach his knife. Bliss watched for a moment, then leaned down and twisted the blade in the predator's heart before pulling it free. He wiped the blade upon the dead man's shirt before taking a small glass bottle from the inside pocket of his jacket and holding it to the wound in the predator's chest, using a little pressure to increase the flow. When the bottle was full, he screwed a cap on it and left the men's room, his body changing as he walked, becoming once again the torpid, sweaty carrier of a failure's soul. Nobody, not even the bartender, looked at him as he left, and by the time the predator's body was found and the police summoned, Bliss was long gone.
The final killing took place on a patch of bare ground about twenty miles south of the St. Lawrence River in the northern Adirondacks. This was land shaped by fire and drought, by farming and railroads, by blowdowns and mining. For a time, iron brought in more revenue than lumber, and the railroads cut a swath through the forests, the sparks from their smokestacks sometimes starting fires that could take as many as five thousand men to bring under control.
One of those old railroads, now abandoned, curved through a forest of hemlock, maple, birch, and small beech before emerging into a patch of clear ground, a relic of the Big Blowdown of 1950 that had never been repaired. Only a single hemlock had survived the storm, and now a man knelt in its shadow upon the damp earth. Beside him was a gravestone. The kneeling man had read the name carved upon it when he was brought to this place. It had been displayed for him in a flashlight's beam, before the beating had begun. There was a house in the distance, lights burning in one of the upper windows. He thought that he had seen a figure seated at the glass, watching as they tore him apart methodically with their fists.
They had taken him in his cabin near Lake Placid. There was a girl with him. He had asked them not to hurt her. They had bound and gagged her and left her weeping in the bathroom. It was a small mercy that they had not killed her, but no such mercy would be shown to him.
He could no longer see properly. One eye had closed itself entirely, never to reopen, not in this world. His lips had split, and he had lost teeth. There were ribs broken: he had no idea how many. The punishment had been methodical, but not sadistic. They had wanted information and, after a time, he had provided it. Then the beating had stopped. Since then, he had remained kneeling on the soft earth, his knees slowly sinking into the ground, presaging the final burial that was to come.
A van appeared from the direction of the house. It followed a well-worn track to the grave, then stopped. The back doors opened, and he heard the sound of machinery as a ramp was lowered.
The kneeling man turned his head. An elderly, hunched figure was being pushed slowly down the ramp in a wheelchair. He was swaddled in blankets like a withered infant, and his head was protected from the evening chill by a red wool hat. His face was almost totally obscured by the oxygen mask over his mouth and nose, fed by a tank mounted on the back of the chair. Only the eyes, brown and milky, were visible. The chair was being pushed by a man in his early forties, who halted when the chair was feet from where the kneeling man waited.
The old man removed his mask with trembling fi ngers.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
The kneeling man nodded, but the other continued as though he had not given an answer. He pointed a finger at the gravestone.
"My firstborn, my son," he said. "You had him killed. Why?"
"What does it matter?" He struggled to enunciate.
"It matters to me."
"Go to hell." The effort made him lips begin to bleed again. "I've told them all that I know."
The old man held the mask to his face and drew a rasping breath before he spoke again.
"It took me a long time to fi nd you," he said. "You hid yourself well, you and the others responsible. Cowards, all of you. You thought I'd lose myself in grief, but I did not. I never forgot, never stopped searching. I swore that their blood would be spilt upon his grave."
The kneeling man looked away and spat on the ground beneath the stone. "Finish it," he said. "I don't care about your grief."
The old man raised an emaciated hand. A shadow passed over the kneeling man and two shots were fired into his back. He fell forward onto the grave, and his blood began to seep into the ground.
The old man nodded contentedly to himself.
"It has begun."
Copyright © 2008 by John Connolly
Excerpted from The Reapers by John Connolly
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.