Authors: John Connolly
Tags: #Mystery & Detective - General, #Irish Novel And Short Story, #Assassins, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #General, #Suspense, #Murderers, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Fiction, #thriller
There was a fire inside Errol Rich, and something of that fire transferred itself to the boy at the moment of Errol’s death. It burns within him now, but where Errol Rich found a way to deny it, to temper its flames until at last, perhaps inevitably, it rose up and destroyed him, Louis has embraced it. He fuels it, and it, in turn, fuels him, but it is a delicate balance that he maintains. The fire needs to be fed if it is not to feed upon him instead, and the men he kills are the sacrifices that he offers to it. Errol Rich’s fire was a deep, scorching red, but the flames inside Louis burn white and cold.
At night, Louis dreams of the Burning Man.
And, somewhere, the Burning Man dreams of him.
He will now be felled with my arrow, as I am enraged at him, and gone are his lives now, and indeed the earth shall drink his blood.
—SRIMAD VALMIKI RAMAYANA (C. 500–100 B.C.)
THERE ARE SO MANY killings, so many victims, so many lives lost and ruined every day, that it can be hard to keep track of them all, hard to make the connections that might bring cases to a close. Some are obvious: the man who kills his girlfriend, then takes his own life, either out of remorse or because of his own inability to face the consequences of his actions; or the tit-for-tat murders of hoodlums, gangsters, drug dealers, each killing leading inexorably to another as the violence escalates. One death invites the next, extending a pale hand in greeting, grinning as the ax falls, the blade cuts. There is a chain of events that can easily be reconstructed, a clear trail for the law to follow.
But there are other killings that are harder to connect, the links between them obscured by great distances, by the passage of years, by the layering of this honeycomb world as time folds softly upon itself.
The honeycomb world does not hide secrets: it stores them. It is a repository of buried memories, of half-forgotten acts.
In the honeycomb world, everything is connected.
The St. Daniil sat on Brightwater Court, not far from the cavernous dinner clubs on Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue where couples of all ages danced to music in Russian, Spanish, and English, ate Russian food, shared vodka and wine, and watched stage shows that would not have been out of place in some of the more modest Reno hotels, or on a cruise ship, yet the St. Daniil was far enough away from them to render itself distinct in any number of ways. The building that it occupied overlooked the ocean, and the boardwalk with its principal trio of restaurants, the Volna, the Tatiana, and the Winter Garden, now screened to protect their patrons from the cool sea breeze and the stinging sands. Nearby was the Brighton playground, where, during the day, old men sat at stone tables playing cards while children cavorted nearby, the young and the not-so-young united together in the same space. New condos had sprung up to the east and west, part of the transformation that Brighton Beach had undergone in recent years. But the St. Daniil belonged to an older dispensation, a different Brighton Beach, one occupied by the kind of businesses that made their money from those who were on nodding terms with poverty: check-cashing services that took 25 percent of every check cashed, then offered loans at a similar monthly rate to cover the shortfall; discount stores that sold cheap crockery with cracked glaze, and firetrap Christmas decorations all year round; former mom-and-pop grocery stores that were now run by the kind of men who looked like they might have the remains of mom and pop rotting in their cellars; laundromats frequented by men who smelt of the streets and who would routinely strip down to filthy shorts and sit, nearly naked, waiting for their clothes to wash before giving them a single desultory spin in the dryer (for every quarter counted) and then dress in the still-damp clothes, folding the rest into plastic garbage bags and venturing back onto the streets, their garments steaming slightly in the air; pawnshops that did a steady trade in redeemed and unredeemed items, for there was always someone willing to benefit from the misfortune of another; and storefronts with no name above the window and only a battered counter inside, the shadowy business conducted within of no interest to those who needed to be told its nature. Most of those places were gone now, relegated to side streets, to less desirable neighborhoods, pushed farther and farther back from the avenue and the sea, although those who needed their services would always know where to find them. The St. Daniil remained, though. It endured. The St. Daniil was a club, although it was strictly private and had little in common with its glitzier counterparts on the avenue. Accessed through a steel-caged door, it occupied the basement of an old brownstone building surrounded by other brownstones of similar vintage although, while its neighbors had been cleaned up, the edifice occupied by the St. Daniil had not. It had once formed the main entrance to a larger complex, but changes to the internal structure of the buildings had isolated the St. Daniil between two significantly more attractive apartment blocks. The club’s home now squatted in the middle of them like some poor relation that had muscled in on a family photo, unashamed of its ignominy. Above the St. Daniil was a warren of small apartments, some big enough to be occupied by entire families, others small enough to accommodate only an individual, and one, at that, for whom space mattered less than privacy and anonymity. Nobody lived in those apartments now, not willingly. Some were used for storage: booze, cigarettes, electrical goods, assorted contraband. The rest acted as temporary quarters for young—sometimes very young—prostitutes and, when required, their clients. One or two of the rooms were marginally better furnished and maintained than others, and contained video cameras and recording equipment for the making of pornographic films.
Although it was known as the St. Daniil, the club did not have an official name. A plate beside the door read “Private Members Social Club” in English and Cyrillic, but it was not the kind of place where anyone went to be sociable. There was a bar there, but few lingered at it, and those who did stuck mostly to coffee and killed time while waiting for errands to run, vig to collect, bones to break. A TV above the bar showed pirated DVDs, old hockey games, sometimes porn or, late at night, when all business had been conducted, film of Russian troops in Chechnya engaging in reprisals against their enemies, real or perceived. Worn hemispherical vinyl booths lined the walls, with scuffed tables at their center, relics of a time when this really was a social club, a place where men could talk of the old country and share the newspapers that had arrived in the mail or in the suitcases of visitors and immigrants. The decor consisted mainly of framed copies of Soviet posters from the 1940s, bought for five bucks at RBC Video on Brighton Beach Avenue.
For a time, the police had kept watch on the club, but they had been unable to access it in order to plant a bug, and a wiretap on the phones had expired without anything useful being learned. Any business of consequence was, they suspected, now conducted on throwaway cellphones, the phones replaced religiously at the end of every week. Two raids by vice on the building through the doorway above the club had scored only a couple of johns and a handful of weary whores, few of whom had English and fewer of whom had papers. No pimps were ever apprehended, and the women, the cops knew, were easily replaced.
On those nights, the door to the St. Daniil had remained firmly closed, and when the cops finally gained entry to it they had found only a bored bartender and a pair of ancient, toothless Russians playing poker for matchsticks.
It was a mid-October evening. The light outside had long faded and only a single booth in the club was occupied. The man seated there was a Ukrainian known as the Priest. He had studied in an Orthodox seminary for three years before discovering his true vocation, which lay primarily in providing the kinds of services for which priests were usually required to offer forgiveness. The club’s unofficial name was a testament to the Priest’s brief flirtation with the religious life. The St. Daniil monastery was Moscow’s oldest cloister, a stronghold of the Orthodox faith even during the worst excesses of the Communist era, when many of its priests had become martyrs and the remains of St. Daniil himself had been smuggled to America in order to save them from harm.
Unlike many of those who worked for him, the Priest spoke English with hardly a trace of an accent. He had been part of the first influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union, working hard to learn the ways of this new world, and he could still recall a time when Brighton Beach had been nothing but old people living in rent-controlled apartments surrounded by little vacant houses falling into decay, a far cry from the days when this area was a beacon for immigrants and New Yorkers alike anxious to leave the crowded neighborhoods of Brownsville, East New York, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side for space in which to live and the feel of sea air in their lungs. He prided himself on his sophistication. He read the Times, not the Post. He went to the theater. When he was in his realm, there was no porn on the TV, no poorly copied DVDs. Instead, it was tuned to BBC World, or sometimes CNN. He did not like Fox News. It looked inward, and he was a man who was always looking at the greater world outside. He drank tea during the day, and only compote, a fruit punch that tasted of plums, at night. He was an ambitious man, a prince who wished to become a king. He paid obeisance to the old men, the ones who had been imprisoned under Stalin, the ones whose fathers had created the criminal enterprise that had now reached its zenith in a land far from their own. But even as he bowed before them, the Priest looked for ways in which they might be undermined. He calculated the strength of potential rivals among his own generation and prepared his people for the inevitable bloodshed, sanctioned or unsanctioned, that would come. Recently, there had been some reversals. The mistakes might have been avoided, but he was not entirely to blame for them. Unfortunately, there were others who did not see it that way. Perhaps, he thought, the bloodshed would have to begin sooner than expected.
Today had been a bad day, another in a succession of bad days. There had been a problem with the restrooms that morning and the place still stank, even though the difficulty had apparently been solved once the drain people, from a firm trusted by the organization, got on the case. On another day, the Priest might well have left the club and gone elsewhere, but there was business to be conducted and loose ends to be tied, so he was prepared to put up with the lingering bad odor for as long as was necessary.
He flicked through some photographs on the table before him: undercover policemen, some of them probably Russian speakers. They were determined, if nothing else. He would have them identified to see if there was some way of putting pressure on them through their families. The police were drawing ever closer to him. After years of ineffectual moves against him, they had been given a break. Two of his men had died in Maine the previous winter, along with two intermediaries. Their deaths had exposed a small but lucrative part of the Priest’s Boston operation: pornography and prostitution involving minors. He had been forced to cease providing both services, and the result had affected, in turn, the smuggling of women and children into the country, which meant that the inevitable attrition of his stable of whores, and the stables of others, could not be arrested. He was hemorrhaging money, and he did not like it. Others were suffering, too, and he knew that they blamed him. Now his club stank of excrement and it would only be a matter of time before the dead men were finally connected to him. But word had reached him that there might be a solution to at least one of his problems. All of this had started because a private detective in Maine could not mind his own business. Killing him would not get rid of the police—it might even increase the pressure upon him for a time—
but it would at least serve as a warning to his persecutors and to those who might be tempted to testify against him, as well as giving the Priest a little personal satisfaction along the way. There was a shout from the doorway in Russian: “Boss, they are here.”
One week earlier, a man had arrived at the offices of Big Earl’s Cleaning & Drain Services, Inc., on Nostrand Avenue. He had not entered through the brightly carpeted, fragrant-smelling lobby. Instead, he had walked around the side of the building to the maintenance yard and wastetreatment area. This area did not smell at all fragrant.
He entered the garage and climbed a flight of steps to a glass booth. Inside was a desk, a range of mismatched filing cabinets, and two cork boards covered with invoices, letters, and a pair of outof-date calendars featuring women in a state of undress. Seated behind the desk was a tall, thin man in a white shirt offset by a green and yellow polyester tie. His hair was Grecian-formula brown, and he was fiddling compulsively with his pen, the sure sign of a smoker deprived, however temporarily, of his drug. He looked up as the door opened and the visitor entered. The new arrival was of below-average height, and dressed in a navy peacoat buttoned to the neck, a pair of torn, faded jeans, and bright red sneakers. He had a three-day growth of beard, but wore it in a manner that suggested he always had a three-day growth of beard. It looked almost cultivated, in an untidy way. “Shabby” was the word that came to mind.
“You trying to quit?” asked the visitor.
“You trying to give up cigarettes?”
The man looked at the pen in his right hand as if almost surprised that there wasn’t a cigarette there.
“Yeah, that’s right. Wife’s been at me to do it for years. The doc, too. Thought I’d give it a try.”
“You should use those nicotine patches.”
“Can’t get them to light. What can I do for you?”
The visitor looked shocked. “No way. When did he die?”
“Two months ago. Cancer of the lung.” He coughed embarrasedly. “Kind of why I decided to give up. My name’s Jerry Marley, Earl’s brother. I came on board to help out when Earl got sick, and I’m still here. Earl a friend of yours?”