Grievous Bodily Harm - Excerpt

Prologue

The light was an hour gone. The giant guided the rental car through the steamy, malevolent darkness of Magazine Street, made a sharp left at a Gulf Station, two quick rights on quiet, all but deserted streets and pulled to a stop under a huge live oak. He killed the ignition and turned to the sandy haired man who nodded his satisfaction. A moment later they were out of the car, into the fetid, Big Easy night. They had parked two blocks past their destination and before they had retraced one they were both soaked with sweat. They moved across the cracked pavement of a small lane and onto an uneven sidewalk, its concrete pavers heaved by the root growth of the aged trees.

The Garden District was a quiet neighborhood, a mixture of modest and elegant antebellum homes distinguished by their Victorian style and lush plantings.

They arrived at their destination, pausing just outside the waist high wrought-iron fence that protected it from the sidewalk. Homes on either side showed interior glows that told of activity but the house before which they stood was dark as death. The man checked the block for signs of life, his massive companion, long ago nicknamed The Dragon, six foot eight inches and over three hundred pounds was easily spotted and not easily forgotten. They were alone in the humid night.

The man nodded to The Dragon and motioned to a path that led around the house to the back. The Dragon disappeared through the overgrown shrubs as the man approached the front door and pressed the worn button. Chimes rang inside the house but there was no response so he raised his hand and gave the paint peeled door three sharp raps.

At the back door The Dragon extracted a pry bar from his belt, shoved it between door and jam and flexed his massive arm. The door popped open and he stepped into the house's kitchen.

Waiting on the front steps the man turned again to inspect the street. Behind him The Dragon opened the front door. The man turned from the street and both disappeared into the darkened house. Inside the house the cheap, overstuffed furniture gave off a musky odor of rot and decay. The men split up, The Dragon searching the main floor as the man ascended the stairs to the upper bedrooms.

They had come to New Orleans in search of Silvia Picini. Two months before, the moody, romantic high school junior had disappeared from her Ridgefield, Connecticut home. Her father had heard of the man from a business associate, one of the man's former clients and after all the normal police channels had dried up he had contacted him for help.

It hadn't taken long to find that the girl was a somber, misfit, an unconventionally attractive child, totally devoid of social skills who was considered an outsider by her classmates and an underachiever by her teachers.

The walls of her room were a paean to the black arts, Anne Rice and death. It didn't take a genius, just a man who wasn't tied to procedure, to trail her to New Orleans, the home of her heroine.

Of course she never found Anne Rice. She did find someone else, someone with a penchant for the nubile bodies of runaway girls. They had tracked her to this house and now they were hoping to find her before her pathetic attempt at finding life led to a terrible death.

The Dragon found a door in a back pantry that seemed to lead to a cellar. It was locked but he quickly pried it open and they made their way into the dank, murky cellar. The man flicked on his flashlight and played it around the cluttered space. Something flashed in the moving beam and he brought it back to reveal the naked body dangling from a joist. The Dragon rushed past him and swept the girl into his arms, lifting her, taking the weight from the purple wrists. The man reached for her but one touch of her already cooling flesh told him they were too late. The man slid a blade from his belt, slashed the rope that held her to the joist and The Dragon lowered her to the floor.

A door slammed above them and they froze. Someone had entered the house. The Dragon straightened from the girl's body and the man cut the beam of his light. They listened as footsteps progressed through the house and approached the cellar door, the door on which The Dragon had broken the lock.

The man pointed up the steps and The Dragon nodded and moved to the side of the stairs just beneath where their visitor would appear in the door. The doorknob rattled and then stopped its movement. The steps retreated away from the door. A drawer opened and closed and the steps were back. Without warning the door flew open and a large man stood silhouetted against the back-lit room above.

"Who's down there?" he demanded with rasping outrage. "I have a gun. I'll shoot."

Without waiting he flicked on the lights and stepped into the doorway. The man was standing in the middle of the floor where he presented a target and acted as a decoy. The pervert in the doorway raised the gun and aimed, too late. The Dragon grabbed his ankle and yanked, sending him crashing down the wooden steps to the cellar floor. He still held the gun and tried to bring it into play but the Dragon seized his wrist and snapped it like a whip. The gun dropped to the concrete. The man scooped it up and the Dragon pulled the pervert to his feet and stuffed him into a chair.

He stared up at them, his face twisted in a feral snarl. He didn't know who they were but he knew why they were there.

"Are there any others?" The man demanded.

The pervert's eyes darted between the Dragon and the man but he said nothing.

"Where are the others?" The man tried again.

"I didn't want to kill her," he whispered. "I couldn't help myself. Don't hurt me."

The man stared down at him, this monster who had tortured a young girl to death.

"Please," he begged. "I won't do it again. I swear."

No, the man thought; you won't do it again. You won't get the chance. He nodded to The Dragon who placed his massive hands on the pervert's head and twisted. There was a loud snap and he slumped in the chair, his head dangling at an unnatural angle.

Upstairs the man stripped a bed and The Dragon wrapped Sylvia Picini's body in the soft quilt. There was a car in the garage in back of the house. The man hotwired it and The Dragon took Silvia Picini's body to it, laid it on the back seat and drove car and child to St James Parish Hospital. He parked across the street from the emergency ward, got out and joined the man in the rental car they had driven from the airport. The man stopped at a corner phone booth six blocks from the hospital; called their front desk and alerted them to the fact of Silvia Picini and her presence outside their facility. An hour later The Dragon was on a plane for Denver and the man was sitting at a bar in the Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Chapter 1

Sunlight's always a surprise in The City, even when it's predicted. That's how it struck me as the cab went from the gloom of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel into the harsh glare of a Manhattan morning.

We turned uptown toward my apartment. I was anticipating a cleansing shower and refreshing shave but my stomach had decided it wanted breakfast. The ominous growl couldn't be ignored. It was calling in a marker on a half dozen vodka tonics at the New Orleans airport bar and the long, salted almonds flight back to the city.

I needed sustenance and I knew where it lived so I leaned into the partition and growled a change of destination to the driver. He reacted with a surly scowl and veered onto Canal Street as I rolled down the window and relished the cool rush of early morning air.

New Orleans had been a steam bath and there wasn't a piece of clothing on my body or in my bag that didn't carry the musty odor of dampness or the pungent acidity of sweat.

I leaned back in the seat, trying to cobble together a plan that would ease the painful duty ahead. The cab made an illegal left onto Sixth Avenue and pulled to a stop in front of the Moondance Diner.

I would normally have headed home for my breakfast but the contents of my refrigerator had been a significant source of penicillin even before my trip to the Big Easy and my stomach was demanding instant gratification.

As pit stops go, Moondance was high fair and heavy into tradition with a stainless steel, railroad car exterior and plastic upholstered booths. There was a small center aisle along which ran a white Formica serving counter punctuated at tiny intervals by spin top stools in matching plastic.

I slid into a booth, opened my bag and fished out a large manila envelope as Mary Theresa McNulty checked out my suitcase and dropped a menu in front of me.

"Hi Digger. You goin' someplace?"

I ignored the question and the menu.

"Two eggs, once over, bacon, home fries, toast and coffee," I instructed. She smiled, wrote and wiggled away.

I watched as she leaned over the pass-through and flashed the short order cook just enough cleavage to grab his attention. Mary Theresa was a definite Mitzi, probably the most perfect example still extant in any diner on the Island of Manhattan.

A Mitzi, for the great uninitiated, is a tough talking urban waitress or chorus girl, most usually found with short blonde hair and a well filled blouse who was defined in the films of the thirties and forties by Iris Adrian and those of the fifties and sixties by Barbara Nichols. Today, Mitzi's are practically extinct although some credence can be given to Debi Mazur as a brunette sustainer of the tradition.

I had almost finished my contemplation of Mary Theresa's Mitziness when three hundred fifty pounds of sweating, fur bearing vulgarity decided to join me for breakfast.

It answered to the name of Ben Lassic.

"Hey Dig," he grunted. "What the fuck's with all the travel gear?"

I ignored him and signaled a caffeine plea to Mary Theresa.

He slid into his side of the booth, a movement that nearly breached the straining buttons on his stained shirt. He yanked at the tent sized, grimy sport jacket, clawed at his genitals and finally settled into the tight quarters.

"Ain't seen you for a coon's age." He smiled, figuring, undoubtedly that a different tack would get him an answer to his first question. I ignored that too.

Mary Theresa appeared with my coffee. She slipped it in front of me and brought her pad and pencil to attention over Lassic's head.

"What'll it be?" She demanded brusquely.

"The usual," he grinned lasciviously.

She turned away and headed for the counter.

"What an ass," he grunted in admiration. There was the beginning of a serious drool at the left corner of his mouth. "Smell that heat?"

I gave him my best, disgusted look.

"Anything happening I should know about?" I asked. Ben Lassic's primary agenda was undoubtedly that of a practicing degenerate but he also possessed an uncanny knowledge of every unsavory deal that was contemplated or actually perking anywhere south of Fifty-Ninth Street.

"Pretty quiet," he complained. "I was hopin' you could throw something my way."

Mary Theresa was back with my order and Lassic's coffee, sliding it across the table and twisting just enough for the extra open button to give everyone an early morning wakeup call.

"Lookit them tits." He slavered as she wiggled away. "My left nut for that pair and six hours in a hotel room."

I had a fleeting image of a naked, balding, fur-covered Lassic chasing a pair of disembodied breasts around a room in the Dixie Hotel. It almost made me grin. It definitely made me queasy. It was too early in the morning for Ben Lassic. I heaved out of the booth and grabbed a paper off the counter.

" Been away," I mumbled. "Gotta catch up."

"Away? " He grasped at the opening. "Where abouts?'

Information was Lassic's business and he displayed a badger-

like persistence in acquiring it.

I ignored him and buried my face in the paper. There were times I needed Ben Lassic. This was not one of them.

Of course he wasn't that easy to get rid of. If he were, he wouldn't have been as good as he was at what he did. He leaned back, savored his coffee and waited...for me and for breakfast. I was determined it would be a long wait but he was better than that.

He waited until Mary Theresa broke the silence by sliding his breakfast onto the table and punctuated her move with his question.

"So, where you been?"

"Stuff'll kill ya man," I muttered, glancing at the heap of eggs, extra fatty pastrami, greasy home fries and scrapple.

"Yeah," he grunted happily, "but at least I'll go with a smile on my face."

"I can hear my veins shut just lookin' at that shit." I shook my head in mock despair. "Here, lemme save your life."

I reached over and snatched a couple of particularly greasy home fries.

"Git away," he brayed, stabbing at my hand with his fork. It was a routine we'd enjoyed for years.

"Anything going on around here?" I cut off his new thrust before he could get it out.

"Nah. Bloomy's got a bug up his ass," he snorted, a reference to our mayor, Mike Blooomberg, "the shit goin' down in the meat market. They closed a couple a clubs but they'll be open again by the weekend."

He stuffed a huge forkful of oozing scrapple into his mouth and continued in muffled tones.

"One of them scandal rag broads...Lindsay Brandt, took a header off the Joyce Theater over in Chelsea. She came through the marquee and splattered all over the sidewalk. Real mess. You shoulda seen it."

"I've seen it," I assured him, "more times than I need to." He sipped his coffee.

"Anything else?"

"Not much," he shook his head. "How was your trip?"

It went on that way until we finished breakfast and both realized that, this day, neither of us was going to be the source of any great information for the other. That settled, I grabbed my suitcase and headed for the office.

Chapter 2

I was just about to enter the loft building on the corner of Grand and Greene that housed D. Charleston, Expediter, when I ran into Levi Lewis.

D. Charleston. That's me. The D stands for Digby which is not something I am terribly proud of, but most people called me Digger, which doesn't bother me half as much. It was something Mr. Sherman hung on me when I was seventeen. He wasn't in the cemetery business of course, just a huge fan of Digger O'Dell the friendly undertaker on The Life of Riley radio show.

Levi was a tall, brutally powerful, black man with a shinny pate and ready smile who occupied the second floor of the building that housed my office. A sculptor who worked in found metal. He was forever accumulating huge piles of twisted steel bars, old gears, bent rods and folded angle irons which he referred to as the lifeblood of his art

Every week or so he 'd drag a new supply into the basement where he'd store it until it became food for his hammer and torch.

That's what he was doing when I arrived. He wore dirty sneakers and blue bib overalls that showed off his bulging, sweat coated muscles to their best advantage. I had a brief image of John Henry about to wield his hammers. I smiled, nodded and started to enter the building when he stopped me.

"It's time Digger. I just finished the perfect piece for your office. "

He'd been trying to sell me one of his iron monstrosities for about six years. So far I'd managed to avoid collectordom.

"I told you, man," I shrugged. "Talk to Vivian. She decides on all office decor."

"I talked to her." He hefted a piece of I-beam that must have weighed three hundred pounds. "She picked out three pieces. Said the final choice is yours."

"She did?"

He nodded.

I was screwed.

"Okay," I conceded, hiding the sense of betrayal I felt at Vivian's sell-out. "I'll come down as soon as I get a chance."

Vivian was Vivian Chan, my executive assistant. She knew that much as I loved Levi, that's how much I hated his work. I made a mental note to get even by telling her I'd rented desk space to Ben Lassic.

My office is a former industrial loft, converted in the '90's from a grungy machine shop to it's current, high tech chic. That's what I tell people who are not in a position to view it.

All the huge beams still exist in their exposed and sandblasted glory. There are also clever little designer retained remnants of its former use like threaded steel rods that seem to attach stuff to other stuff but really don't; large, cast iron thing-a-ma-gigs that scream of functionality but are now reduced in status to mere decoration; huge, floor to ceiling windows and a polished, end grain, wood floor.

I didn't commission the work. Vivian found it already hewn from it's former grimy self, the inspiration of a computer design team that spent too much time envisioning their work space and too little drumming up business.

They were broke and desperate when Vivian fished their "for sale" ad from the Village Voice. She hondled them down to about ten cents on the dollar and figured she'd done them a favor when our check actually cleared.

She's a great kid, my Vivian, and the best executive assistant a man ever had.

The legs were long, slender and propped on her desk. The skirt was microscopically short. The rest of her was completely obscured by a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I dropped my bag and whistled.

"Spectacular!"

The legs hit the floor and the paper flipped down and I was staring into a pair of incredibly dark eyes that for the moment promised nothing but a hard road.

"Shit!" she exclaimed, "You're early. I wanted to surprise you."

'You did," I smiled. "You're here before noon."

"Screw you ," she pouted. "You said you were going to The Dump to catch some zzz's. I had Gomez coming in to clean up the office."

"The Dump" was Vivian's pet name for my apartment, which was, more often than not, organizationally challenged.

"I hit the Moondance on the way in," I explained. "Figured it wasn't worth the trip uptown. " I started to empty my bag onto her desk and kissed the top of her head. "I'll sleep tonight."

"Did you call the Picini's?" She asked.

I nodded, sorting through the papers I'd unloaded.

"What did they say?"

The concern in her voice was palpable.

"They want to see everything." I turned a manila envelope upside down so a package of pictures slid out onto her desk. A quick glance was all she could manage.

"You can't," she said her voice edged with dread.

The pictures depicted the bound and mutilated body of seventeen year old Silvia Picini.

The Picini's thought they wanted to see those pictures. I knew they'd never recover from the sight of them. I had brought back a couple of alternatives hoping to sidetrack their ill-conceived curiosity.

In a small plastic bag were the remains of their daughter's possessions: underwear, makeup, a couple of small pieces of jewelry; not much but something.

Along with the possessions I carried a picture of Ivan Anastas the man who had ended their daughter's life. He was middle aged, on the tall side, with long dark hair. In the picture he was propped in a chair and his head flopped on his right shoulder. It was a most unnatural angle. The Dragon had accompanied me to New Orleans and as a consequence Ivan Anastas had paid for his crimes.

"You came back alone?' Vivian was asking about The Dragon.

"He had some business in Denver. Something personal."

The Dragon had family scattered all over the country. It was, I guessed, an immigrant thing. Not having a family myself gave me no frame of reference.

"Why don't you let me take care of this," she suggested, picking up the pathetic remains of Silvia Picini's life and putting them in a folder.

I shook my head.

"It's why I get the big bucks," I told her.

"I know," she snapped, the edge in her voice grating on my nerves, "but I'll do it better."

I suspected this was true and maybe I even resented it... just a bit. It didn't bother me that Vivian was as smart as I was, or that with her masters in Social Science, much better educated. I hadn't even finished high school although I often thought I would have earned my equivalency in the slammer if the Old Man hadn't entered my life. I like to think I have the ability to get into peoples psyche and to some extent I do, but even at that Vivian is a couple of beats ahead of me.

"Go home," she ordered. "Get some sleep. You have an athletic day tomorrow."

That didn't sound at all enticing. I eyed her with cautious reserve.

"Emory Taggert called. He's having a weekend of golf and tennis. He needs you to be there."

"Needs?"

'His exact word." She shrugged.

I'd known Emory Taggert for a long time and I'd never known him to "need" anything. People who measured their worth in multiples of ten figures were rarely in a position to use the word need.

"You told him that I hate golf and barely tolerate tennis?"

She nodded. "He already knew."

"And he wants me there anyway?"

She nodded again.

'He didn't say why?"

"Sorry."

"And you just said okay?" I wanted to get mad at Vivian but it wasn't always easy. For one thing, no matter what she did, she always had my best interests at heart. For another she was drop dead beautiful and it seems that very few things in life are important enough to get me mad at a beautiful woman.