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The Devil's Choir

The Devil's Choir

A Victor Lessard Thriller
edition:Paperback
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Five Ways to Disappear
Excerpt

ONE
Whirlwind

March 15

Beau Garrett lay damning the devils that were trying to kill him. They had been at it again through the night, sitting on his lungs, binding his bowels into knots. Jabbing and twisting spikes into knuckles and knee joints. Hard to catch a breath. He rolled over on his mattress. He worked his oversized hands into fists and thought, What if I die here in bed? What about the kid?

With the shifting of his body he was able to fill his lungs. He looked around his room. The white ceiling had a dark-blue hue, not even a streak of dawn light yet. He turned his head and could just pick out the forgetme-nots in the forget-me-not wallpaper and the clutter of pill bottles on the window sill casting shadows. If he could only fall asleep again, that would be a good thing. But his mind was working now. Wondering.

What had he dreamed?

About ghosts from his past, that’s what. Evvy, his wife, Sharla, his daughter. Only natural he’d be dreaming about the two of them pretty steady since they’d each shown up at his doorstep just lately. Two separate visits, each stirring up the mud of his past, disturbing him with dreams that made no sense.

In all the dreams he’d ever had of Evvy, she was young, like when they were first married. There were no fights in his dreams. No violence. No fun, either. They’d be in strange places talking about things he couldn’t remember on waking.

Sometimes Sharla would be there in the background, a little girl instead of the dumpy fifty-something woman she’d become. Sometimes Sharla wasn’t even a girl, but a dog, cat, bird. One time she’d been an eel. He didn’t like dreams. Didn’t trust them. On waking he’d have to remind himself that the years had rolled on, and Evvy was no longer twenty-five like in his dreams, or thirty-five like when they’d split up. No, she’d be a seventy-nine-year-old bag of bones now, much like himself. Old and tired and full of pains of her own.

Or so he’d been telling himself till she’d shocked the living hell out of him early yesterday morning by appearing on his doorstep, banging on the front door, in spite of the sign telling visitors to go to the back, the back door being easier for him to deal with. And when the knocking had become insistent he’d made his way through the living room, out through the little porch with its clutter of old furniture, and opened the door to find a nice-looking older woman standing there, who he’d realized after just a flash of confusion was Evvy. Not a tired bag of bones at all. At seventy-nine she was looking as fit as a fiddle and not a whole lot different from the day she’d thrown him out and they’d told each other good riddance so loud the neighbours had called the cops.

Her attitude hadn’t changed a whole lot, either. Still antsy like he was about to deal her a blow, but still ready to give as good as she got. And down roadside sat a car, idling in the mid-March chill. The balding guy in glasses sitting behind the wheel was looking through the driver’s side window, staring up at Beau. Probably her new boyfriend, here as backup in case the abusive ex got ugly.

The meeting on the doorstep had been brief. Evvy said she was looking for Sharla, who’d up and left her Chilliwack home without warning, taking her grandson Justin with her. Had Beau seen her at all? To that question Beau had flat out lied, and he still wasn’t sure why. Probably spite. But lie he did, telling Evvy he didn’t know what the hell she was talking about and shutting the door in her face. Watched the car spit dust and drive away.

Truth was Sharla had come by just three days before that. Like Evvy, she’d ignored the sign and knocked on the front door till he opened up. Unlike Evvy, he didn’t recognize her, his own daughter. Nor did he know the little boy she’d had with her. Both of them were loaded with backpacks and suitcases and shopping bags and what looked like a fish tank half full of water. The woman had addressed Beau as Dad straight off, then more or less pushed her way in as he worked out that this was the daughter he hadn’t seen since she was nine, and had only spoken to once since then.

That phone call had been about twenty years ago, first day of the new century, as a matter of fact, her in her thirties wanting to reconnect, him not having much to say. And now she was back, standing in his living room, snapping words at him, saying how hard it was to track him down, wow, isn’t family great. Beau had never been able to keep up with fast talkers, and most of what she said went in one ear and out the other. The boy was Justin, she said. Her grandson, who she’d been taking care of for a couple of years. Since Justin’s mother, Kim, had died.

“Kim,” Beau had said, getting a word in edgewise.

“Kim, my daughter, who I told you about when I phoned,” Sharla had said. She gave him a little glare, too, and looked something like Evvy. Then she said meanly, “Kimmie was three then. Day one of the new century and I gathered up the nerve to get in touch. Thinking you might want to see us. You said you did but I could tell you didn’t. So why bother. Well, you’ll never see Kimmie now, as she’s dead. Leaving this little guy, who’s your great-grandson, which is why you should be happy to get to know him a little. Bloodline, right?”

Beau had stood looking down what seemed like a mile at the shrimpy white-haired child, who had only stared right back at him.

Sharla then said something about going south with a guy she’d met who was into hedge funds or something, and she was leaving Justin for just a couple days as she didn’t trust Evvy to use it against her in some kind of custody thing they were having over the boy. Just a couple days, here’s his stuff, Sharla had more or less said, and then she’d left without so much as a please or thank you for taking care of Justin, in spite of Beau saying he could do no such goddamn thing.

That’s what the dreams were all about. After years of living alone, these people were back, littering up his thoughts. Evvy most of all. Showing off that her life had carried on without him just fine, thank you. New boyfriend and all. Nice car, too. Older model, but good set of wheels. A Buick.

His thoughts cycled back to the questions he’d been asking himself. The old question that didn’t bother him much: What if I die here in bed? And the new one, which did: What about the kid?

He knew he’d die one of these days. The pain told him so, coming on pretty much the day he’d moved here to the North Shore. He wondered if the house was cursed. Except he didn’t believe in curses. He’d gone to the doctor, but didn’t believe in doctors any more than he believed in curses, and sure enough the pills had helped a little but bothered his stomach, so he’d quit them. And quit doctors, too.

Serve them all right, he thought. I die here in bed and they come back to find the kid has starved to death. He pictured them all in tears. Then he pictured the kid waking up and looking for breakfast, and when breakfast didn’t come, finding his great-grandpa laid out here stiff as beef jerky, mouth an open suck-hole for moths and flies.

No. Mustn’t do that. Get dressed, put the teeth in at the very least, give the kid instructions about going to the nosy neighbour, Louise, when the time came, he could damn well die in style. He pushed himself up. Puckered his eyes, had a bit of a coughing fit. Then he set his feet on the floor and cranked himself upright. The bridge no longer fit so good, but damned if he’d go back to that maniac who called himself a denturist.

Maybe because he was dying, Beau felt like he was watching himself from above as he went about his daily routine. He watched himself select his best clothes and pull them on. Watched his big knobbly hands fight with buttons and zippers. Watched himself shuffle down the hall to the bathroom, duck the doorway, wash his face and comb his silver-black hair. Wanted to be cleanish as they packed him up and shipped him off to hell. He saw himself peering at the mirror and knew what he was: a train wreck of a once-strapping old man who’d never been anything to look at, not in the best of times, now going through the motions of living a life he had never been good at.

Why was he feeling so grim? So angry? The fantasy was blown, that was it. Fancying that Evvy missed him. Imagining her attending his funeral and remembering the good times, realizing what she’d missed out on, all full of regret and mourning.

Now he knew. She wouldn’t mourn him one bit. She’d celebrate. She’d get the house, sell it, go off on some world cruise with the new boyfriend. Fit as a fiddle. Laughing in the sunshine. Like a girl again.

He’d get his revenge. He’d put off dying for a while. Live, get fit himself. No chance he’d find a new woman to show off back at her, but — it struck him now, a genius plan — he’d do one better. Connect with the child who she was fighting over with Sharla. That’s what he’d do.

Justin would call him Grampa — Great-Grampa being too much of a mouthful. And once this visit was over, the boy would beg to go visit Grampa. Prefer seeing Grampa Beau over Gramma Evvy. She’d always been a jealous bitch. The kid preferring him over her would drive her apeshit.

With hair combed flat with water, Beau lifted his chin to glare at the mirror. Not so bad. What had attracted Evvy to him in their teens was his size. He saw his young self through her young eyes, such a big, broad-chested powerhouse. The flesh had withered now, but the frame was still intact. Just needed to get out more, build up the muscles and work out the kinks. That’s what the doctor had said. Exercise is a must.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t been outside in over a month. Least not out walking. Just the cab ride for groceries a couple times, and taking out the garbage.

He’d do it. Go for a goddamn walk.

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Starr Sign

Starr Sign

The Candace Starr Series
edition:eBook
More Info
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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