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The job seems simple enough: retrieve the valuable painting — “The Double” — Grace Kinkaid’s ex-boyfriend stole from her. It’s the sort of thing Spero Lucas specializes in: finding what’s missing, and doing it quietly. But Grace wants more. She wants Lucas to find the man who humiliated her — a violent career criminal with a small gang of brutal thugs at his beck and call.
Lucas is a man who knows how to get what he wants, whether it’s a thief on the run — or a married woman. In the midst of a steamy, passionate love affair that he knows can’t last, in pursuit of a dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, Lucas is forced to decide what kind of man he is — and how far he’ll go to get what he wants.
Now some men like the fishin’ and some men like the fowlin’
And some men like to hear a cannonball a roarin’.
—“Whiskey in the Jar” (traditional)
Tom Petersen sat tall behind his desk. He wore tailored jeans, zippered boots, an aquamarine Ben Sherman shirt, and an aquamarine tie bearing large white polka dots. His blond hair was carefully disheveled. His hands were folded in his lap.
Spero Lucas, seated in a chair before the desk, was dressed in slim-cut Dickies work pants, a plain white T-shirt, and Nike boots. Lucas, Petersen’s investigator, took in the criminal attorney’s outfit with curiosity and amusement.
“What is it?” said Petersen.
“Your getup,” said Lucas. “There’s somethin about it.”
“I only wear a tie when I’m in court.”
“Think of your father. It’ll come to you.” Petersen looked down at the contents of a manila file that was open on his desk. Beside it sat other files heaped inside a reinforced hanging folder. The package was thick as a phone book. “Let’s get back to this.”
They were discussing the case of Calvin Bates, a Petersen client. Bates had been charged with first degree murder in the death of his mistress, Edwina Christian.
“Where was the body found?” said Lucas. He opened the pocket-sized Moleskine notebook he carried and readied his pen.
“I’ll give you this short file when we’re done.”
“You know I like to take notes. The details help me work it out in my head.”
“Edwina’s body was discovered in Southern Maryland. A wooded spot in Charles County, off the Indian Head Highway. Are you familiar with that area?”
“I put my kayak in down there from time to time.”
“Edwina had been missing for a week. Once the police actively began to look into her disappearance, Edwina’s mother pointed them in the direction of her lover. Bates was a multiple offender who’d been having an off-and-on extramarital relationship with Edwina for years.”
“Both of them were married?”
“Bates was married. Edwina was single.”
“How’d the police find Edwina?”
“Bates led them to her in a roundabout way. He was in the High Intensity Supervision Program, run by Pre-trial Services.”
“HISP. I’m familiar with it. Bates was already up on charges?”
“Drug charges. Nothing violent, but he’d been violated, and he was looking at return time.”
“So he was wearing a GPS bracelet.”
“On his ankle. The device records longitude and latitude coordinates every ten seconds and uploads them each minute to a database run by a private company under contract with HISP.”
“It’s called Satellite Tracking of People. Orwellian, don’t you think?”
“Touch of Evil is one of my favorite movies.”
“Spero, sometimes you work too hard at being an aw-shucks kind of guy.”
“It serves me well. So, the company was called STOP.”
“You ex-military do love your acronyms.”
“And the law went to STOP to collect the data on Bates’s whereabouts.”
“Correct. The data was plotted onto a satellite-based map, progressed in real time in a video format. The results are accurate to within fifty feet. If the bracelet wearer is in a vehicle, its movement can be tracked as well.”
“Let me guess,” said Lucas. “The autopsy on Edwina Christian determined a general time of death. The coordinates on Bates put him down in Southern Maryland, where Edwina’s body was found, at that same time. Right?”
“It gets more damning. Bates had reported his Jeep as being stolen around the time of Edwina’s disappearance.”
“Model and year of the Jeep?”
“Two thousand Cherokee. Same as yours.”
Lucas drove a 2001, but there wasn’t enough difference in the model years to mention. It was the boxy Jeep with the I-6 engine, still seen in great numbers on highways, beaches, and city streets, though the car had not been produced in eleven years.
“The Jeep was found in D.C.,” said Petersen. “It had been doused in an accelerant and lit on fire. The Mobile Crime Lab guys had little to work with. No shell casings were found. No prints, no hair follicles. They did find brush and debris lodged in the undercarriage, which suggested that the truck had been recently driven off-road.”
“As they’re engineered to do. How’d the police find Edwina’s body?”
“The GPS coordinates led them to a farm alongside acreage that was heavily forested. They observed tire tracks on a dirt road leading into the woods. The imprints matched the tread patterns on the tires of the burned Jeep.”
“How’d they find Edwina exactly?”
“Technology got them to the area. Nature led them to the body. The detectives saw buzzards circling over the treetops. They eyeballed the general location of the buzzards and walked into the woods. Edwina had been shot once behind the ear at close range, a small-caliber slug in her brainpan. She’d been picked over by the wildlife pretty thoroughly.”
In the file, Petersen found several photographs, original size and blown up, and pushed them across the desk to Lucas. The photos were of the tire tracks found in Charles County. “Notice anything?” said Petersen. When Lucas did not reply, Petersen said, “The tires are kinda fat for that model Jeep, aren’t they?”
“Doesn’t mean anything. I have eighteens on mine. But I’ve seen twenty-twos mounted on those lifted Cherokees as well.” Lucas stared at one of the photographs. There was something there, but the reveal was yet to come. “Can I walk with these?”
“I made this file for you. I’ve got the State’s discovery material as well if you want to have a look at it here in the office. Three hundred and fifty pages’ worth.”
“I was gonna grab some lunch.”
“Stay here and read some of the material. I’m going over to Carmine’s on Seventh. I’ll bring you something back.”
“Calamari with red sauce, please.”
Petersen waved his hand dismissively. “Peasant food.”
“Don’t sleep on squid,” said Lucas. “It sounds like they’ve got your boy Bates dead to rights.”
“Not yet,” said Petersen. “But I’m playing an away game. The trial’s in La Plata. I’ve never worked in that courtroom, and I don’t know any of the black robes down there. I need your help. Anything you can give me.”
“You think Bates murdered her?”
“That’s irrelevant to me.”
“What would be his motive?”
“Edwina’s mother claimed that Edwina was trying to break up with him. That she decided she was done running around with a married man. Possible scenario? Bates couldn’t deal with the breakup. If she didn’t want to be with him, she wouldn’t be with anyone else. Something like that.”
Lucas stood. His back was beginning to feel the discomfort of sitting in one of the hard chairs on the uneven planked hardwood floors of Petersen’s office. The attorney refused to modernize the rooms of the nineteenth-century row house, set on a corner of 5th and D, near the federal courts. He said he preferred to keep its “integrity” intact.
“Between the Buttons,” said Lucas, as it came to him, looking at Petersen’s shirt and tie. At Petersen’s suggestion, he’d been thinking of his late father, Van Lucas, who had owned an extensive Stones vinyl collection, from their first eponymous release through 1981’s Tattoo You, which many, Lucas’s father included, believed to be the last Rolling Stones record that mattered.
“Very good,” said Petersen. “Charlie Watts is wearing an outfit like this in the cover photo. Of course, he’s also wearing a double-breasted overcoat in the shot, but it’s a bit hot for that today.”
“But why are you dressed like him? Do you subscribe to Teen Beat, too?”
“I’m partial to Tiger Beat.”
“Why that record?”
“Just having fun. It’s a very cool cover, and an underrated album, especially the UK version. ‘Backstreet Girl’ is one of the most beautiful songs the lads ever cut. The Beatles never recorded a song so honest or so real.”
Lucas had no skin in the Beatles versus Stones game, and offered no argument. In musical matters, particularly classic rock, he deferred to Petersen, who played no instrument but was a bona fide music freak. A few months back he had taken his annual trip to Jazz Fest, where he typically took in both weekends of the event and crawled back with sunburn, a headache, and ten extra pounds.
“Well, you look real spiffy,” said Lucas. “Like a hairstylist on Carnaby Street. Or something.”
“And you? Where did you buy that T-shirt? It’s not Fruit of the Loom.”
“And I’m guessing it’s a medium, not a large. You’re wearing it a size too small.”
“For the fit. Your point?”
“Your look is just as studied as mine, in its own way.”
“Don’t include me in your club. I woke up this morning and threw this on.”
At an inch under six feet, Lucas was not particularly tall, and at 175, his summer weight, he was not imposing. Nor was he a strutting peacock. His hair was black, kept short by a Nigerian barber at Afrikutz on Georgia Avenue, and he wore no jewelry, outside of his crucifix and mati. He was not stunningly handsome, certainly not in the manner of his brother Leo, who was one year older and looked like a young Denzel. But he had something. When he walked down the street or into a bar, women noticed him. Some of them got damp. He had recently turned thirty-one, and he was as lean, cut, and fit as the day he walked out of boot.
“Which reminds me,” said Petersen. “While I’m out getting you lunch, no fraternizing with my interns.”
“Have you seen Constance lately?”
“No,” said Lucas.
“I had planned on promoting her here.”
“Guess she had other plans.”
“Whatever happened between the two of you, she didn’t want to cross paths with you anymore. That’s why she left this office. When you have an opportunity to be with a quality young lady like Constance… A woman as choice as her doesn’t fall into your hands every day, Spero.”
“We had fun,” said Lucas. “I liked Constance.”
He knew that she was special. But he had been to bed with another woman while he’d been with her. He hadn’t promised Constance, directly or implicitly, that he would be faithful. He was a young man, making up for lost time. He was sorry that it hadn’t worked out between them, but he had little remorse.
Petersen looked at Lucas, a marine veteran of Iraq who had fought in Fallujah, where the fiercest house-to-house combat of the war, perhaps any war, had occurred. A man who’d left his youth in the Middle East and come back looking for a replication of what he had experienced there every day: a sense of purpose and heightened sensation. Petersen sensed that there were night-black shadows beneath the surface of his investigator’s cool facade. He was fond of Lucas, at times close to fatherly, but in personal matters, out of respect, Petersen didn’t push him.
“On the Bates thing?” said Petersen. “Get me something.”
Lucas said, “I will.”
That evening, Lucas smoked a little weed, then grabbed his newest road bike, put it up on his shoulder, and walked it down the stairs of his crib. Summer nights were his favorite time to ride.
Lucas rented the top floor of a house on Emerson and Piney Branch Road, in Northwest, a four-square backed to a bucolic stretch of alley in 16th Street Heights. His landlord, an elderly fourth-generation Washingtonian named Miss Lee, lived on the first floor. His rent was reasonable and there was ample space for his bikes and kayak, which he hung from hooks on the back porch. When Miss Lee asked, he performed routine maintenance on the house and sometimes he did so unprompted. The setup, a country spot in the city, was perfect for him, though he suspected that his peace would soon be disrupted. A huge Mormon church had been erected across the alley in the past year and was due to open its doors. For now, though, all was quiet.
He had recently bought a used Greg LeMond bike from a friend who was about to leave the country for redeployment to Afghanistan. It was a righteous machine, but he didn’t care for its rainbow of colors, and he wasn’t into labels. Immediately he degreased, sanded, primed, and painted the tubes and forks a flat black. He kept the red wheels because he found them hot. It was a fast bike, significantly quicker than the one he had been riding for years.
Lucas swung onto his saddle, put his feet in the clips, and took 14th all the way downtown, then cut over into Northeast via K Street, and over to the 400 block of H, where he locked his bike to a post and entered Boundary Road, a restaurant on the edge of the thriving Atlas District. Unlike the riot corridors of U and 7th Streets, which had benefited more quickly from the construction of the Metro and its subway stations, H Street had taken forty years to be reborn after the ’68 fires. Lit-up business establishments and the sounds of conversation and laughter on the street said that it was flourishing now.
Boundary Road was an airy two-story space: brick walls, a distinctive chandelier, low-key atmosphere. Lucas had a seat at the bar. The night manager, Dan, frequently played reggae and dub through the house system, an added attraction for Lucas. Plus, he could come as he was—tonight, black mountain-bike shorts and a plain white T-shirt—and not feel out of place. He ordered a Stella from the bartender, a friend named Amanda Brand, who had called and asked to see him. He had silent-bounced for Amanda in other establishments, so they had a history. She also knew of his side work and what he could do.
“You eating tonight, Spero?” said Amanda as she served him his beer.
“I’ll have that flank steak, medium rare.”
“We’ll talk in a little bit, okay? I’m half in the weeds.”
“I’m in no hurry,” he said.
He listened to the Linton Kwesi Johnson coming through the system and drank from the neck of his cold beer. At the end of the full bar he noticed a nice-looking woman sitting alone. Their eyes met and hers did not cut away. It was he who blinked and lowered his gaze. He was typically a man of confidence, but her bold nature disturbed him. The next time he looked back at her she was getting up off her stool. He watched her walk toward him, heading for the restroom. She wore black jeans, a black tank top, and brown motorcycle boots with a T-strap and buckle. Her chestnut hair was shoulder length with cognac highlights. She had a strong, prominent nose and as she passed he saw her bright blue eyes, brilliant even in the low light of the room. She was tall, curvy, and full-breasted, built like a sixties movie star imported from Sweden or Italy. As she passed he studied her shoulders, her arms, and her back, and Lucas’s mouth went dry. He had a long pull off his beer.
Amanda returned with his meal. The bar crowd had thinned out somewhat.
“Eat,” she said, nodding at his steak.
Lucas dug in and had his first taste. He swallowed and said, “What’s up?”
“I have a friend, a woman named Grace. She’s had a little trouble lately. I think you might be able to help her.”
“What kind of trouble, exactly?”
“Man trouble. Not unusual for her, actually. Grace seems to attract a certain kind of guy. She’s divorced, with a long line of cumsack boyfriends. They don’t stick around long.”
“Maybe it’s her.”
“If I didn’t know her, I’d say the same thing. Thing is, she’s a good person. She works for one of those feed-the-children nonprofits, even though she has a law degree and could be doing a lot better.”
“So her flaw is her choice in men.”
“This last guy she got tangled up with? If he’s not a sociopath, he’s in the next zip code.”
“I’m no leg breaker.”
“This is in your wheelhouse. He stole something from her, and she’d like to have it back. She suspects it wasn’t the first time he took her off. But she can’t prove it. The police won’t do her any good. She needs some private help.”
“What’d this gentleman take?”
“A painting. That’s all I know. But I think he stole a lot more from her than that.”
“Emotionally, you mean.”
“You’ll get it when you meet her.”
“Is she aware of my cut?”
“I told her that you take forty percent.”
“And if this turns into something, you’ll get a piece of my recovery fee yourself, for the referral.”
“Not on this one, Spero. Like I say, she’s a friend.”
“Give me her contact information,” said Lucas. “And the contact information of that woman sitting down there on the end of the bar.”
Amanda turned her head and saw the woman, still seated alone, a drink before her. “Does your periscope ever go down?”
“I like to live a full life. Do you know her name?”
“Grey Goose martini, rocks, three olives.”
“Maybe I should buy her one.”
“I never said I was clever. Just determined.”
“Sure you wanna spring for the high shelf?”
“Please ask her if she’d like a drink, on me.”
Amanda drifted. Lucas watched her make the pitch to the woman, and shortly thereafter the woman gathered her phone and shoulder bag. She left money and something else on the bar before she got up. Her eyes briefly found his as she passed by, and her lovely mouth turned up in a hint of a smile. And then she was gone.
Amanda returned. “She politely declined your offer.”
Lucas spread his hands. “See? I don’t always win.”
“But the thing is, you pretty much do.” Amanda placed a beverage napkin on the bar in front of Lucas. “She left her digits for you, handsome.”
He looked at the name and phone number, folded the napkin, and stuffed it into a pocket of his shorts. “Sometimes a fella just gets lucky.”
“What is it with you?”
“I don’t know.” And this was true. He was always somewhat surprised when a woman was interested in him. It wasn’t like he was trying.
Lucas stood and reached for his wallet. He left twenty on thirty. If Amanda wasn’t going to take a bite of his fee, at least he could treat her right.
“Do me a favor. I’m going to give you Grace’s contact information. Call her.”
“I’ll hit her up.”
On the bike ride uptown, Lucas thought of the woman at the end of the bar, the challenge of a new job, the comfort of a payday, the night of sleep that was to come. Sex, work, money, and a comfortable bed. Everything he dreamed of when he was overseas. A guy didn’t need anything else. He shifted into a lower gear and found his groove. It had been a good night, filled with promise.
He couldn’t know of the trouble yet to come.
The next morning, Lucas read the Post while sitting on the back porch of his apartment as a robin tended to her nest in the eaves and a pair of mockingbirds tormented a cat crossing the alley. In Metro an article detailed the noted drop in homicides and higher closure rate under the stewardship of Chief Cathy Lanier. A cultural shift, a civil servant–based economy mostly immune to the recession, and gentrification had played a role in the city’s resurgence as well. Still, for many, tragedy was not a stranger, and several high-profile murders, both long ago and in the not-too-distant past, were on the mind of Washington’s residents.
The vicious murder of Catherine Fuller, a ninety-nine-pound housewife and mother, in a Northeast alley in 1984 was perhaps the most brutal and senseless crime in D.C. history, emblematic of a decade gone wrong. Fuller had been beaten to death and sodomized with a metal pipe for fifty dollars and the cheap rings she wore on her fingers. Her ribs had been broken, her liver torn. Several young men went to prison for the crime, and those who were still alive were now being retried. Allegedly, confessions had been coerced, false testimony given, evidence suppressed. The retrial, for some, had reopened wounds.
The loved ones of Nori Amaya, found murdered in October 2009 in her apartment at the Woodner, her fingernails removed to erase DNA evidence, had yet to find justice or peace. Nori’s killer was in the wind, and questions of investigative neglect persisted. Similarly, closure had not come to the friends and family of Lucki Pannell, eighteen, shot and killed in a drive-by. Racist reader comments in the Washington Post notwithstanding, Lucki was not a thug or corner girl, but a straight, vivacious high school student whose murder remained unsolved. District Councilman Jim Graham, when asked to comment, said that the victim was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Lucas could only shake his head when he’d read the quote. Wrong place? Lucki had been on the porch of her own house when she was shot.
For Lucas, the most haunting murder of late had been that of Cherise Roberts, found in a Dumpster, strangled, with traces of semen on her face and in her rectum, blocks north of Cardozo High School, where Lucki Pannell had also been enrolled, in March. Cherise had been a student of Leo Lucas, an English teacher at the school. After her death, Leo had counseled many of the students who had been her friends and classmates. Spero, who had seen much death, had done the same for Leo over beers on many late nights, and he knew Leo remained deeply troubled by her murder. Cherise’s killer still walked free.
Lucas ate some breakfast and packed a lunch. He lashed his kayak to foam blocks fitted on the crossbars of his Cherokee, stowed his bike and paddling gear, and drove down to Charles County, Maryland, via Route 210, which most still called the Indian Head Highway. The trip was only thirty-some miles south of the Capital Beltway, but culturally much further. He saw fundamentalist churches, Harley-riders with Confederate flag decals on their helmets, barbecue joints whose smoke made his mouth water, and many liquor stores. Lucas turned on Mattingly, the last possible left before hitting the entrance to the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
Lucas unloaded his boat near Slavin’s Launch, on Mattawoman Creek, and pulled the green Wilderness Systems fourteen-foot touring kayak down to the waterline. Fishermen, county locals, cast from the shore, while others used boats of various size and horsepower from the launch. Mattawoman was one of the richest fishing areas of all the Potomac River branches, home to largemouth bass, perch, river herring, and shad. It was a pristine area for paddlers as well.
Lucas approached a man who had just now pulled an aluminum V-hull out on his trailer. The man had a great belly and pants held up by camouflage suspenders showing geese in flight and shotgun barrels pointing out of tall grass.
“How was it out there?” said Lucas.
“This creek is a fickle bitch,” said the man. “I caught twelve healthy bass in one day, just a week ago, but today, nary a one. I did get these bad boys, though. Come see.”
Lucas went with the man to the side of the boat and watched as he reached over the gunwales and removed the cover on a Styrofoam cooler. In it were a half dozen long, fat fish whose bodies were scaled and marked in the manner of pythons. Lucas had not seen anything quite like them.
“Snakeheads,” said the man, grabbing one firmly with one hand and opening its mouth with a set of pliers he had removed from a hip sheath. Lucas saw rows of sharp teeth.
“What the hell?” said Lucas.
“Don’t know how they got introduced to these waters, but they’re here to stay. They’re predators, but nothin preys on them. And the females carry hundreds of eggs in their sacs, so it ain’t like they’re going away. Know what else? They got legs.” The man smiled at Lucas’s wide-eyed expression. “That’s right. They can walk on land.”
“What are you gonna do with them?”
“Oh, I’ll grill ’em up. I don’t take nothin from out the water that I don’t eat.” The man looked at Lucas’s kayak and grinned. “Don’t fall in. These suckers bite.”
- "It's astonishing all the good stuff Pelecanos can pack into one unpretentious book: meaty substance, multiple story lines, vital characters, choice dialogue and all those descriptive details ... that make the story so rich."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "Pelecanos' work has antecedents in the books and films of Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Don Siegel but also a spooky magic all his own -- thanks to the utter believability he maintains."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 23, 2014
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Back Bay Books