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The Devil's Choir

The Devil's Choir

A Victor Lessard Thriller
edition:Paperback
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Starr Sign

Starr Sign

The Candace Starr Series
edition:eBook
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Excerpt

Chapter 1

It is never a good plan to wake up and not know where you are. I know I’m not at home when I first hear the birds chirping outside the window. In the one-room apartment above the E-Zee Market where I’ve lived the last few years, there are only shit-disturbing pigeons to annoy you in the morning. They don’t chirp, just coo and warble until you become convinced there’s a Jersey girl on the roof faking her first orgasm.

But when you’re a woman who has made a career out of binge drinking, waking up in places you don’t expect is an occupational hazard. I open up one heavy-lidded eye and see that I am in a bedroom filled with wellplaced Ikea furniture. There’s a door open to an ensuite bathroom sporting sunny buttercup drapes across its frosted window. The cool of clean sheets caresses my skin, another hint that I am not on the mattress of my apartment floor where I pass out most nights after polishing off a magnum’s worth of fortified box wine.

When I turn my head, I see long waves of inky-black hair flowing out onto the pillow next to me. I don’t remember there being many women at the Murder Ink meeting last night, but it appears I’ve gone home with one. There was one broad with a tight, blue-tinged perm who’d asked if I ever said a prayer over the bodies of the people I assassinated — to hasten their journey into the afterlife. I think it is safe to assume the hair on the pillow is not hers.

Murder Ink is a collection of weirdos and wannabes who spend every waking hour in online chat rooms discussing real crimes they’d never have the guts to commit. The whole business turns my stomach. But they’d invited me as a celebrity guest for a five-hundred-buck fee, along with the promise of all the premium single malt Scotch from the hotel bar I could drink. I’ve killed people for less. I wonder if the woman lying sleeping beside me realizes that.

I turn away from the hair on the pillow and start searching for my silver-plated hip flask amid the rumpled sheets. Instead, I find a three-by-five laminated piece of cardboard stuck to the outside of one of my naked thighs. It has a picture of me on it, taken when I was on trial for a conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge a few years back. In it, my wild, curly brown hair hangs down over my orange jumpsuit, partially obscuring the pissed-off smirk on my face. On the back, all of my stats are printed: six-foot-three, thirty-four years old, Italian/Polish extraction, number of hits, years served. The Murder Ink folks had these pictures printed, along with a few others, depicting thugs who weren’t as hard up as me to accept their invitation. The little ghouls had been trading them like bubblgum baseball cards last night. Dropping my photo image to the carpeted floor, I search the bed again and find the reassuring cool metal of my silver-plated flask snuggled up at the bottom of the bed, next to a loaded gun. I grab both items with my toes and kick them up into my hands. Placing the Ruger American pistol on my taut belly, just below the silver five-pointed star tattoo, I take a swig from the flask while still horizontal, trying not to choke on the warm bourbon. My first drink of the day.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m not an alcoholic in the traditional sense. Alcoholism is when your drinking gets in the way of your job or personal life. I don’t have a job, and my personal life suits me just fine. Mostly because I am my own best company. My greatest source of entertainment. You learn to rely only on yourself when you spend the first half of your life growing up with a hitman for a father, and the other half following in his footsteps. I’ve been out of the game a few years now, ever since I got out of prison and my dad got whacked, but I make no excuses for the life I led before that. It paid the rent. It fed my dog when I had one. It kept me in copious bottles of Jägermeister in my twenties. But you make a number of enemies and rack up some pretty bad karma as a professional assassin. My daily drinking is just a means to an end. I’m not sure what that end is, but I intend not to be sober when I meet it. At least I don’t smoke. That’s a habit that’ll kill you just from the sheer stupidity of it.

Both eyes open now, I am contemplating the blandness of mass-produced Scandinavian carpentry, wondering where the hell I am, when my phone lights up like a Christmas tree on the BJÖRKSNÄS nightstand. The vibration almost sends it over the edge, but I catch it in one hand before it hits the floor. My reflexes are still good. I keep myself in shape despite the booze. I answer the phone, mumbling something that resembles “hello,” or possibly “fuck off.”

“Candace?” my Aunt Charlotte says. “Is that you?”

I’m not sure who else she expects it to be. Charlotte gave me this phone, pays the monthly bill, and is the only one who knows my phone number. She wanted to be able to get a hold of me. She worries. She is not my aunt but has asked of recent for me to call her that, perhaps in a bid to explain our connection. Charlotte was in a long-term relationship with my Uncle Rod, who is serving time upstate for crimes I’d rather not get into. Uncle Rod is also not truly related to me. My family situation is kind of complicated, I guess. Charlotte likes to think of herself as a mother figure. My own mother having left me at the side of the road with five dollars and a map to McDonald’s when I was three. Or was it at four at the mall with a Walmart greeter? I’m not sure. The story changes, depending on who you ask.

I crawl out of the bed and onto the floor, making my way to the ensuite bathroom on my hands and knees with the phone tucked into one bra cup and my gun into the other. Apparently, I’d passed out last night without most of my clothes but kept my lace push up and panties in place. I close the bathroom door softly, so as not to wake the hair on the pillow. I hate the morning after, particularly with women, who so often want to talk. I’m not a talking kind of girl. I prefer men in the aftermath of a good lay, if only for the simplicity of their lack of communication skills.

“It’s me,” I say quietly into the phone as I perch on the toilet. I look down between my legs and see preternaturally blue water in the bowl. The colour makes me uneasy. This place is way too domestic for me.

“I’ve been trying to get through to you since last night,” she says. “You weren’t answering your phone.”

“I was on the job,” I say. This used to be a family euphemism, code for stalking a guy who starts off his day without a care in the world and ends it with a carefully broken neck.

“I thought you were done with all that,” Charlotte says after a pause.

“I am,” I tell her. “Don’t worry.” But I know she does, so I elaborate. I tell her about the gig with Murder Ink. How they paid me to appear in a beige boardroom at a Delta on the outskirts of the city. A real live hitwoman to gawk at over finger food.

“You really need to get your profile taken off the dark web,” she says. “Half the things they say about you on there aren’t even true.” She’s right about that. Some asshole had posted an entry on the dark web’s version of Wikipedia, outlining my supposed life story. That’s where the Murder Ink people had found me.

“Since when have you been on the dark web, Charlotte?” I cannot picture my five-foot-nothing, middle-age-spread pseudo-aunt trawling through pictures of beheadings and amputee porn.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Charlotte says. And I guess that’s true. She moved away to Newfoundland in northeast Canada last year after a whirlwind romance with a salmon fishery owner she’d met there. This was after she dumped my Uncle Rod here in the States, and shortly before he went to prison for life. Those events being somewhat connected.

“Did you get my package?” she asks, changing the subject.

“What package?”

“My Christmas package. I sent it a week ago so you’d get it in time for the holidays.” It is early December, but Charlotte is a keener. So is most of the world when it comes to the celebration of all things baby Jesus. Although, as they say, there doesn’t seem to be much Christ in Christmas these days. The man with the bag has more commercial value than the baby in the manger ever did. Anyway, I’m not much for holidays. I once went searching for Easter eggs in the basement as a kid, only to find a guy tied to a chair next to the washing machine.

“I’ll watch for it,” I say.

There is stirring from outside the bathroom, a loud sigh bordering on a groan, a shuffling of sheets. I press my ear against the door to listen. A fluffy, blue-and-white striped towel, smelling faintly of Irish Spring, rubs against my cheek. When I open the door a crack, I see a figure standing at the side of the bed with arms stretched up to the ceiling in a yawn. The amount of fur in the armpits and considerable junk swinging between the legs as he changes out of his boxer shorts tells me I’d been wrong about my bedmate’s sex. A man; not a woman. I won’t have to talk much after all.

“Listen, Charlotte, I’ve got to go,” I tell her, shutting the door against possible conversation with the hairy stretcher.

“But Candace, there’s a reason I was calling,” Charlotte says. “It’s that detective. She’s been looking for you. The Asian girl.”

Detective Chien-Shiung Malone. Cantonese mother. Irish father. But people always seem to focus on the visible part of minority.

“What did she want?” I ask. I’ve been keeping my distance from Malone lately, mostly because I’ve fallen off the wagon since I helped her out with a murder case last year. I anticipate rather than sense Malone’s disappointment in me. Before you get the wrong impression, I don’t make it a habit of making grass with the cops. Malone had offered up the identify of my old man’s killer in exchange for my half-hearted assistance with her case. At first, I did it for that reason only, but somewhere along the way she became a friend. I never really had one of those, and with what I feel is good reason. Friendship, much like family, seems to come with too many attachments — like a vacuum cleaner too complicated to use. I never was good at keeping things clean.

“I’m not sure what she wants, Candace. But she said it’s important. She says you need to call her. I hope you’re not in any trouble, dear. I’d hate to think —”

There’s a knock on the bathroom door. I drop the phone on the edge of the sink, pull the Ruger out of my bra, and train it on the heart of the blue-and-white striped hanging towel. You can never be too careful.

“Hey, I’m going to make breakfast,” the man behind the towel says. He’s got an accent. British, but not posh. I know the difference. I’ve been hooked on limey TV shows ever since I shared a cell one summer with a chick who’d embezzled from PBS. This guy sounds more EastEnders than The Crown. “You like bacon?” he asks, through the bathroom door.

I consider the offer for a moment, along with the sizable offering I saw swinging between his legs only a few moments ago. I click the safety back on and lower the gun, then pick up the phone.

“I’ll call you later, Charlotte,” I say.

I do, in fact, like bacon. I like bacon a whole damn lot.

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The Captive

The Captive

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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