One day he came in after scrounging for something to eat and found the woman dead on the floor of the filthy bathroom. He stayed until the stink of her got to be too much even for him, then he abandoned the place, leaving her bloated corpse to become somebody else’s problem. From that day on, he had fended for himself. His turf was an area of New Orleans where even angels feared to tread.
He was seventeen years old and wise beyond his years.
His eyes showed it as he looked at the readout on his vibrating cell phone. Private caller. Which translated to The Bookkeeper. He answered with a surly, “Yeah?”
“You sound upset, Diego.”
Pissed, more like it. “You should have used me to take care of Marset. But you didn’t. Now look at the mess you’ve got.”
“So you’ve heard about the warehouse and Lee Coburn?”
“I got a TV. Flat-screen.”
“Thanks to me.”
Diego let that pass without comment. The Bookkeeper didn’t need to know that their working relationship wasn’t exclusive. He did occasional jobs for other clients.
“Guns,” he said scornfully. “They’re noisy. Why shoot up the place? I would have taken out Marset silently, and you wouldn’t have a circus going on down there in Tambour.”
“I needed to send a message.”
Don’t fuck with me, or else. That was the message. Diego supposed that anyone who’d crossed The Bookkeeper, and had heard about the mass murder, was looking over his shoulder this morning. Despite the amateurish handling of Marset’s execution, no doubt it had been an effective wake-up call.
“They haven’t found Lee Coburn yet,” Diego said, almost as a gibe.
“No. I’m closely monitoring the search. I hope they find him dead, but if not, he’ll have to be taken out. And so will anyone he’s had contact with since leaving that warehouse.”
“That’s why you’re calling me.”
“It will be tricky to get close to someone in police custody.”
“I specialize in tricky. I can get close. I always do.”
“Which is why you’re the man for this job, should it become necessary. Your skills would have been wasted on Marset. I needed to make noise and leave a lot of blood. But now that it’s done, I want no loose ends.”
No loose ends. No mercy. The Bookkeeper’s mantra. Anybody who shied away from the wet work usually became the next victim.
A few weeks earlier, a Mexican kid had escaped the overloaded truck that was smuggling him into the States. He and a dozen others were destined for slavery of one type or another. The kid must’ve known what the future held for him. During a refueling stop, while the truck driver was paying for his gasoline, the kid got away.
Fortunately, a state trooper who was on The Bookkeeper’s payroll had found him hitchhiking on the westbound lane of the interstate. The trooper had hidden him and had been ordered to dispose of the problem. But he’d turned squeamish.
The Bookkeeper had contracted Diego to go in and do his dirty work for him. Then, a week after Diego killed the boy, The Bookkeeper hired him to take care of the driver whose carelessness had allowed the kid to escape, along with the trooper who had shown himself to be greedy but gutless.
No loose ends. No mercy. The Bookkeeper’s uncompromising policy instilled fear and inspired obedience.
But Diego wasn’t scared of anybody. So when The Bookkeeper asked him now, “Did you find the girl who got away from the massage parlor?” he replied in a flippant manner, “Last night.”
“She’s no longer a problem?”
“Only to the angels. Or the devil.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Diego, the only thing more annoying than an idiot is a smart-ass.”
Diego raised his middle finger at the phone.
“Someone else is calling in, so I must go. Be ready.”
Diego slid his hand into his pants pocket and fondled the straight razor for which he was famous. Although The Bookkeeper had already disconnected, Diego said, “I stay ready.”
Engrossed in her program, Emily gave Honor and Coburn no notice as they passed through the living room.
When they reached Honor’s bedroom, she jerked her arm free from his grip and rubbed her bruised biceps. “I don’t want to get shot, and I certainly wouldn’t risk Emily’s life or run away and leave her behind. The manhandling is unnecessary.”
“That’s for me to decide.” He nodded toward the computer on the writing desk. “Was that your husband’s computer?”
“We both used it.”
“Boot it up.”
“There’s nothing on it except my personal emails, school records of my students, and lesson plans for each month.”
He just stood there, looking dark and dangerous, until she went to the desk and sat down. It seemed to take an eternity for the computer to boot. She stared into the monitor, looking at the blurred reflection of herself, but all the while aware of him, standing close, emanating odors of the swamp, his body heat, and a distinct threat of violence.
From the corner of her eye, she looked at his hand. It was relaxed, resting against his thigh. Even so, she knew it could squeeze the life from her body if he put it around her throat. The thought of it wrapped around Emily’s sweet, soft neck made her ill.
“Thank you, Mr. Coburn,” she whispered.
Several seconds elapsed before he asked, “For what?”
“For not harming Emily.”
He didn’t say anything.
“And for keeping the pistol out of her sight. I appreciate that.”
Another few seconds ticked past. “Nothing to be gained by scaring the kid.” The computer asked for a password. Honor quickly typed hers in. It showed up as black dots in the box.
“Wait,” he said before she could hit Enter. “Backspace and type it again. Slowly this time.”
She pecked out the letters again.
“What does the r stand for?”
“H, r, Gillette. Not a very original password. Easy to guess.”
“I’ve got nothing to hide.”
He reached over her shoulder and began maneuvering the mouse. He navigated through her emails, even those that had been deleted, and all her documents, which contained nothing that would interest him unless he was in second grade.
At one point, she asked politely, “Would you like to sit down?”
He might be, but she wasn’t. He was leaning over her, occasionally making contact with her back and shoulder, his arm brushing hers as he scooted the mouse around.
Finally he was satisfied that the files he’d opened were useless to him. “Did Eddie have a password?”
“We used the same one, as well as the same email address.”
“I didn’t see any emails to or from him.”
“They’ve all been deleted.”
“They were taking up space on the computer.”
He didn’t say anything, but she felt a tug on her ponytail and realized that he was winding it around his fist. When he had a tight grip, he turned her head toward him. She closed her eyes, but she could feel the pressure of his gaze on the top of her head.
“Open your eyes.”
Given her recent thoughts on the strength of his hands, she did as he ordered because she was afraid not to. She was on eye level with his waist. The proximity of her face to his body, and the intimacy it suggested, was disconcerting, as she supposed he intended. He wanted there to be no doubt as to who was in charge.