Read The Reapers: A Thriller-CP-7 Online
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
“A blade,” said Louis thoughtfully. “They find it in the body?”
“No. Took it with him when he left.”
“Wouldn’t want to leave a good knife behind. He was a shooter, but he always did prefer to finish them up close.”
“If it’s him.”
“If it’s him,” echoed Louis.
“Been a long time, if it is.”
Louis’s right foot beat a slow, steady cadence upon the floor.
“He suffered. It would have taken time for him to recover, to heal. He’d have changed his appearance again, like he did before. And he wouldn’t come out of hiding for a standard job. Someone must have been real pissed at Billy Boy.”
“It’s not only about the money, though, right?”
“No, not if it’s him.”
“If he’s back, Billy Boy might just be the start. There’s the small matter of you trying to burn him alive.”
“There is that. He’ll still be hurting, even now, and he won’t be what he was.”
“He was still good enough to take Billy Boy.”
“If it’s him.” It sounded like a mantra. Perhaps it was. Louis had always known that Bliss would come back some day. If he had returned, it would be almost a relief. The waiting would be over.
“It’s because he was so good to begin with. Even with a little shaved off, he’d still be better than most. Better than Billy Boy, that’s for sure.”
“Billy Boy’s no loss.”
“No, he ain’t.”
“But having Bliss back in the world isn’t so good either.”
“I’d kinda hoped that he was dead.” Much of this had been before Angel’s time, before he and Louis had met, although he and Louis had encountered Billy Boy once, out in California. It was an accidental meeting at a service station, and Louis and Billy Boy had circled each other warily, like wolves before a fight. Angel hadn’t thought much of Billy Boy as a human being then, although he accepted that he might have been prejudiced by what Louis had told him. Of Bliss, he knew only of what he had done to Louis, and what had been done to him in return. Louis had told him of it because he knew that it was not over.
“He won’t be dead until someone makes him dead, and there’s no money in that,” said Louis.
“No money, and no percentage.”
“Unless you knew he had your name on his list.”
“I don’t believe he sends out notifications.”
“No, I guess not.”
Angel tossed back half of his brandy, and began to cough.
“You sip it, man,” said Louis. “It ain’t Alka-Seltzer.”
“A beer would have been better.”
“You have no class.”
“Only by association.”
Louis considered for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “there is that…”
The apartment shared by the two men was not as those who knew the couple only casually might have imagined it to be, given their disparate dress codes, attitudes to life, and general demeanor. It occupied the top two floors of a three-story over-basement building on the farthest reaches of the Upper West Side, where the gap between rich and poor began to narrow significantly. The apartment was scrupulously tidy. Although they shared a bedroom, each had his own room in which to retire and in which to pursue his particular interests, and while Angel’s room bore the unmistakable signs of one whose skill lay in the picking of locks and the undermining of security systems—shelves of manuals, assorted tools, a workbench covered with both electrical and mechanical components—there was an order to it that would have been apparent to any craftsman. Louis’s room was starker. There was a laptop computer, a desk, and a chair. The shelves were lined with music and books, the music leaning, perhaps surprisingly, toward country, with an entire section for black artists: Dwight Quick, Vicki Vann, Carl Ray, and Cowboy Troy Coleman from the moderns, DeFord Bailey and Stoney Edwards from the earlier period, along with a little Charlie Pride, Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western, some Bobby Womack, and From Where I Stand, a boxed set detailing the black experience in country music. Louis found it hard to understand why so many others of his race failed to connect with this music: it spoke of rural poverty, of love, of despair, of faithfulness and infidelity, and these were experiences known to all men, black as well as white. Just as poor black people had more in common with poor whites than with wealthy blacks, so too this music offered a means of expression to those who had endured all of the trauma and sadness with which it dealt, regardless of color. Nevertheless, he had resigned himself to being in a minority as far as this belief was concerned, and although he had almost managed to convince his partner of the merits of some things at which he might previously have scoffed, including regular haircuts and clothing stores that did not specialize in end-of-line sales, black country music—in fact, any country music—remained one of Angel’s many enduring blind spots. The apartment consisted of a modern kitchen, rarely used, that led into a large living room cum dining room, and Angel’s workshop, all on the lower floor. On the upper floor, there was a luxurious bathroom that Louis had appropriated for himself, leaving the en-suite shower room to his partner; Louis’s office; a smaller guest bedroom, with a small shower room, neither of which had ever been used; and the main bedroom, which was lined with closet space and, apart from the odd book, remained, by mutual effort and consent, in a state of interior design catalog neatness. There was a gun safe behind the mirror in the guest shower room. Whenever they were in the apartment, the safe remained open. At night, they each kept a weapon close at hand in the main bedroom. When the apartment was empty, the gun safe was kept locked and the mirror carefully put back in its original position using a hinge-and-lock mechanism operated by a small click switch a finger’s length behind the glass. They took care of the cleaning and maintenance of the apartment themselves. No strangers were ever admitted, nor friends or acquaintances, of which there were few in any case.
They hid in plain sight, these men. They used prepaid cell-phones, switching them regularly, but they never paid for the devices themselves: instead, homeless men and women were given money to make the purchases in stores scattered over four states, and a middleman was used to collect and pass on the phones. Even then, the cells were used only when absolutely necessary. Most of their calls were made from pay phones.
There was no internet connection in their apartment. A computer was kept in an office rented by one of Louis’s many shell companies, which they used on occasion for more delicate searches, but often a cyber café was sufficient for their needs. They avoided email, although when required they employed Hushmail to send encrypted messages, or embedded codes in seemingly innocuous communications.
Wherever possible, they used cash, not credit cards. They were part of no loyalty programs, and they bought Metrocards for the subway as they needed them, disposing of them when they were exhausted and replacing them with new ones instead of recharging the originals. Utilities were paid for through a lawyer’s office. They had learned the best routes to take on foot and by car to avoid security cameras, and the lights that illuminated the license plates on the vehicles they used all contained infrared bulbs designed to flood video cameras operating at near infrared frequency.
There were also other, more unusual, protections in place. The basement and first floor of their building were rented by an elderly lady named Mrs. Evelyn Bondarchuk, who kept Pomeranians and appeared to have cornered the market in chintz and bone china. There had once been a Mr. Bondarchuk, but he was taken from his young bride at a tragically early age, a consequence of a misunderstanding between Mr. Bondarchuk and a passing train, Mr. Bondarchuk being drunk at the time and having mistaken the track for a public urinal. Mrs. Bondarchuk had never married again, in part because no one could ever have taken the place of her much-loved, if dissolute, husband, but also because anyone who did would, by definition, have been equally or significantly more dissolute than his predecessor, and Mrs. Bondarchuk did not need such aggravation in her life. Thus a corner of her living room remained a slightly dusty shrine to the memory of her departed husband, and Mrs. Bondarchuk lavished her affection instead on generations of Pomeranians, who are not generally considered to be dissolute animals. Mrs. Bondarchuk’s apartment was rent controlled. She paid a laughably small monthly sum to a company called Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., that appeared to be little more than a box number in Lower Manhattan. Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., had bought the building in the early eighties, and Mrs. Bondarchuk had feared for a time that her tenancy might be affected by the sale, but instead she was assured, by letter, that all would remain as it had been and she was welcome to see out her days, surrounded by Pomeranians, in the apartment in which she had dwelt for the best part of thirty years. In fact, she was even permitted to expand her fiefdom into the basement below as well, which had been unoccupied since its previous tenant died some years earlier. Such things were unheard of in the city, Mrs. Bondarchuk knew, and she did her best to ensure that, as far as she was concerned, they remained so. She did not tell anyone of her good fortune, apart from her good friend Mrs. Naughtie, and then only after swearing her to silence. Mrs. Bondarchuk was a clever woman. She understood that something unusual was happening in her building, but as it did not appear to be hampering her existence and was instead improving it significantly, she behaved sensibly and allowed matters to take their course. The only significant change occurred when the couple upstairs, who were both accountants, eventually retired and moved to a house in Vermont, and their place was taken by a quiet, beautifully dressed black man and a smaller, noticeably less well-dressed individual who looked like he might have come to steal her jewelry, which, had fate not introduced him to his current partner, might well have been the case. Still, they were very polite gentlemen. Mrs. Bondarchuk suspected that they were gay. It gave her quite a frisson for, by the standards of the city, she led a very sheltered life.
If any problems arose with her apartment, Mrs. Bondarchuk left a message with a delightful young woman named Amy, who answered the phone for Leroy Frank Properties, Inc. Actually, Amy answered the phone for a great many businesses, none of which needed or wanted an actual physical presence in the city. Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., owned a number of premises in New York, of which the one on the Upper West Side was the sole residential property. Amy was under explicit instructions to deal with Mrs. Bondarchuk’s problems promptly, at the very latest by close of business on the day the call was received. A premium was to be paid to the relevant plumber, electrician, carpenter, or other professional to ensure that this was the case. A list of approved individuals was kept in a file in Amy’s desk, all of whom were aware of the particular needs of Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., in relation to this building. Mrs. Bondarchuk knew the first names of the two men who lived above her, and referred to them, respectively, as “Mr. Louis” and “Mr. Angel,” but she had never connected the black man, Louis, to Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., even though “Leroy Frank” was not a million miles removed from “Le Roi Français” and, while there had been a great many French kings, the name most commonly found among them was, of course, Louis. No, Mrs. Bondarchuk made no such connection, for it was none of Mrs. Bondarchuk’s business to think about such matters, and her life was, for her, quite idyllic, so she had no desire to go poking her nose into dark corners. She had enough money on which to live quite comfortably; she had quiet neighbors; and the soundtrack to her life was the yapping of happy Pomeranians and the soothing strings of the Mantovani Orchestra, which, she had discovered, could provide an album for every occasion. And because she valued her situation so highly, Mrs. Bondarchuk guarded every facet of it very closely indeed. When the tradesmen came to fix a leak or change a light bulb, they did so under the unflinching stare of Mrs. Bondarchuk and assorted small dogs. The mailman never got beyond the doorstep. Likewise delivery men, salesmen, small children at Halloween, large children at any time, and any adult who was not her old friend and fellow widow, Mrs. Naughtie, with whom she played an often bad-tempered series of backgammon games, fueled by cheap sherry, every Thursday night.
Leroy Frank Properties, Inc., had installed an expensive and complicated alarm system when it had taken over the ownership of the building, and Mrs. Bondarchuk understood the workings of that system intimately. Mrs. Bondarchuk did not know it but, in her way, she was as essential to the security and peace of mind of the two men who lived above her as the guns that they occasionally carried in the course of their work. She was the Cerberus at the gates of their underworld.
Now, as she lay in her bed and listened to “Swedish Rhapsody” on the little CD player that Mr. Angel and Mr. Louis had given her for Christmas that year (Mrs. Bondarchuk preferred to go to bed late and wake up late: she had never been a morning person); she heard them enter, heard the soft weeping of the alarm before they silenced it with the code, and then a final single beep as the door closed and they reset the system.
“Night, night, Mrs. Bondarchuk,” called Mr. Angel from the hallway. She did not reply, but merely smiled as she stopped the music and turned off her light. They were home, and she always slept better when they were around.
For some reason that she could not quite fathom, they made her feel very safe indeed.
That night, Louis lay awake while Angel slept. He thought about his past, and the hidden nature of the world. He thought about lives taken and lives lost, about his momma and the women who had raised him. He thought about Bliss. He followed the threads in the patterns of his life, pausing where they overlapped, where one connected with another. And then he closed his eyes, and waited for the Burning Man to come. It was a small town, a sundown town. That term meant something for the boy and those like him. True, there was no longer a sign advertising that fact at the town limits, which counted as progress in some small way, although there might just as well have been, since most everyone beyond the age of seven could recall where it had stood, just below the gate to Virgil Jellicote’s farm. Old Virgil had made sure that the sign wasn’t obscured by dirt or, as had once occurred during the period of unrest that followed the killing of Errol Rich, by the judicious application of some black paint, so that the sign was transformed from “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In This Town” to “White Folks, Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In This Town.” Old Virgil had been mightily troubled by that act of vandalism; other people, too, and not all of them white. What was done to Errol Rich was wrong, but riling the cops and the town council by screwing with their beloved sign was just plain dumb, although when the police came asking who might have been responsible for the damage, they were greeted only with silence. Being dumb wasn’t a crime, not yet, and the law had plenty of other ways in which it could punish people of color without another being added to the list.