Like a damaged automaton, he jerkily pulled his head around. The boat house was a Dante’s inferno of roiling black smoke and blood-red flames.
Catherine Larsson and her eldest son both lay dead a short distance in front of him. She had been centerpunched by a six-foot shard of wood that had gone through her like a sabot. Her hands were curled into an almost beseeching pose, reaching out for the corpse of her son who lay not two feet away from her. Ben Jr’s head had been torn off by what looked like a breeze-block or some other large piece of masonry.
Weissner was sloughing up to him like a wounded seal. He held one arm across his chest at an awkward angle, his hand bent at an agonising rictus. But he was alive.
‘Cover,’ he rasped. ‘Up to the house. Go.’
Kepler nodded weakly and with a huge effort, managed to get from his hands and knees into a weaving, loping stumble towards the treeline that bordered the lawn. Weissner grabbed his partner with his good arm and pulled him faster.
As the dazed pair reached the first attractive elms that lined the path, the sharp report of a high-powered rifle rang out. A rasping hiss cut through the air and the trunk of the nearest tree violently spat out shards of bark.
Weissner and Kepler ran faster.
The doorway to the house was invitingly near now. Threading through the scant cover offered by the trees, the pair ducked again as another vicious 7.62mm wasp tore through past them.
Weissner stumbled awkwardly and Kepler’s heart froze for a second as his partner went down on, luckily, his good hand.
‘Jules,’ he panted. ‘You hit?’
Weissner crabbed back up onto his feet. The boat-house was almost completely enveloped by flames now and smoke from the destruction was drifting back through the treeline, creating a thick screen through which the Sound could barely be seen. He couldn’t make out the trawler or their would-be assassins.
‘I’m okay,’ he wheezed. ‘Felt the wind of that last one though… look.’
He pointed to his left shoulder. A bloody graze marked the base of a valley of torn cloth – an inch lower and the bullet would have taken half his arm off.
Kepler nodded. ‘Okay. Come on – we need to get up there. Molly’s still in that house…’
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than an awful, wavering scream floated back to them.
Kepler looked up at the open rear doors. ‘Molly!’ he roared. ‘Get down!’
The stricken teenager did not comply. She stood numbly, framed in the doorway of the sun-deck, a perfect, pink-clad target; beholding the mangled nightmare that was the remains of her mother and brother.
A dark shape to the right began to emerge through the hellish haze that obscured the lawn. Striding up towards the house was a tall figure, clad in the plaid shirt and worn corduroys of a working fisherman.
Only this was clearly no trawler man – the figure was cradling the spidery frame of a Dragunov sniper-rifle. As Kepler and Weissner watched, the man walked nervelessly past the broken bodies of Catherine and Ben Larsson before stopping about a hundred yards from the pair and, calmly settling the stock of the Dragunov to his shoulder, sighted down a bulbous-looking telescopic sight towards the house.
Later, neither one of them would remember who reacted first. The next instant was lost in a blittering of staccato noise, cordite and cartwheeling brass.
Wraiths of spent powder twisted almost seductively from the barrels of Kepler’s Scoremaster and Weissner’s Hi-Power.
And then there were three.
Kepler watched sadly as the inert form of Molly was lifted gently into the ambulance. It had taken a large whack of Librium to sedate the poor girl; she had been kicking and biting the EMT’s who’d tried to help her at first. He wondered if she’d ever come back from what she’d seen. He hoped she would.
He watched as the rear doors were firmly pulled shut. The meat-wagon’s big 6.6L V8 rumbled into life and its emergency lights stuttered their red and white carousel before pulling away sedately.
Kepler had never felt as tired as he did right then. The gauze on his back felt tight and uncomfortable and despite the blanket of codeine his wounds had been bathed in, the flesh felt crackly and prickly.
Weissner sat nearby on the rear step of a parked fire-truck. His arm had been coiled up in a sling and he was smoking a cigarette with his good hand.
He looked up at his partner and smiled wearily, but there was no humour in it: ‘Didn’t we just leave this party?’
Kepler walked stiffly up to him and plucked the cigarette from his grasp. He took a long pull on it, expecting a paroxysm of coughing to ensue – he hadn’t smoked in over four years. But there was none. Either the Tramadol had somehow loosened his cough-reflex or he had inhaled enough hot vapour over the last three hours to satisfy the most ardent of chain-smokers.
He handed the butt back to Weissner. ‘Thanks. Guess I won’t be needing the vape after all.’
Weissner snorted. ‘Keep it. If I’m gonna go down with bleeding lungs, I’d rather it was from a bona-fide man’s smoke. Not through toking on a fucking dry-ice machine.’
He got to his feet and surveyed the scene. The fire in what was left of the boat-house had more or less been brought under control now – initial reports were starting to come back to Kepler as to what had caused the destruction. The boat had been strapped with a remote shaped-charge – common enough, but how they had gotten hold of one with such militaristic destructive power was beyond even his reasoning. Further down near the middle of the lawn, a small, neat cluster of forensic tents had been set up to cover the unfortunate remains of the Larsson family and their man from Glad.
Both Kepler and Weissner had given up their side arms for analysis of their calibre and operating condition; Kepler felt strangely exposed without its comforting weight under his left arm.
‘I don’t think there’s much left with this one, Jules,’ he said, softly.
Weissner nodded in agreement. ‘Not much to take it to Supreme, is there. Larsson – dead. Lombardi – dead. Only one left…’
Kepler sighed gustily. ‘A fifteen-year-old junkie. What a lovely fucking war. Chances are, she’ll be wiped before we get anything out of her.’
He felt the soft vibration of his cell against his leg in his pants pocket. Pulling it out, he could see there was a new message. He opened it – and drew a sharp breath.
Weissner stepped forward on seeing his friend’s face. ‘What? What is it?’
Kepler shoved the cell back into his pocket and made for his Chevy which was parked at the limits of the cavalcade of emergency vehicles: ‘We gotta go. Now,’ he said, urgently.
Weissner huffed a little trying to keep up. ‘What’s happened? Is it her? Knudsen?
Kepler didn’t answer. He hauled himself into the driver’s seat, wincing a little as the injuries to his back made themselves felt and hurriedly slapped the blue emergency light onto the roof. Jules barely had time to pull himself in and close the door before the hemi mill on the ’72 Torino fastback snarled into life and threw them backwards, away from the maelstrom of misery they had so recently been a party to.
Reaching the gates to the Larsson residence, Kepler brodied the Chevy into a crisp j-turn. He slammed the transmission into first and peeled forth onto Flagler Drive in a rooster tail of crushed gravel.
‘Time’s up,’ he whispered.
Weissner shut up and held onto the grab-handle above the passenger door with his good hand, as the sodium streetlights of Flagler Drive slipped over their heads in the gathering gloom like tracer-fire.
The end of North 1st St was an uninviting horizon of scrub which petered down to the cobbles edging the East River. On the far side of its dark abyssal ribbon, Weissner could just make out the lights of East River Park Track, glimmering like distant faeries.
Kepler killed the Torino’s engine and the glass pack murmur of its twin mufflers, ratcheted off rapidly into silence.
‘You really think she’s gonna be here?’ asked Weissner. ‘I mean – one text; it could have been anyone…’
Kepler pulled out his cell and looked for what seemed to Jules like the hundredth time at the message:
Want out. Meet me at 1st and North. Will testyfy. So skared. F.
‘It’s her,’ said Kepler. ‘I just know it is. She’s got no one else left. They bailed her so they could get rid of her. We have to try and save what we can out of this – and she’s all that’s left if we’re ever gonna pin anything on the Scorpione.’
Weissner grimaced. ‘That’s swell, Ray – but if you hadn’t noticed, I’m a little fucked up here, right now. If you want backup, I can watch you get killed and that’s about it. Maybe hold up a scorecard. Besides which, have you noticed we’re a tad light on artillery? What the hell are we supposed to use if it goes off – harsh language?’
Kepler grinned acidly. ‘Come on,’ he said, and opened the car door.
His partner started to say something – then thought better of it. ‘Okay,’ he sighed. ‘I can’t let you go in there with your johnson in the breeze. I’m with you.’
Circling around to the trunk of the Torino, Kepler inserted his car-key into the barrel of the lock and hoisted open the lid.
Weissner whistled as the interior was revealed. A veritable arsenal of custom auto and semi-auto weaponry was affixed to the roof and floor of the trunk.
Kepler roved his gaze discerningly over the collection before unhinging a walnut-stocked Ithaca 37 Stakeout. ‘I’m not taking any chances, Jules. If this turns into a shitstorm – well, let’s just say I’ve weathered enough of them today.’
Reaching into the trunk once more, he selected a Ruger Speed Six and did a brisk chamber-check before wrist-snapping the cylinder shut and handing it to his partner.
‘Ready?’ he said.
Weissner nodded. ‘Let’s go.’
The black limo looked disconcertingly incongruous. Sitting in the middle of the unclaimed wasteland between the edge of the warehouses and the water’s edge it stuck out as sore as the proverbial thumb.
Kepler and Weissner split up as they approached it. Weissner melted into the shadows to their left, making for a shadowed fire-escape that would give some concealed over watch to this unpleasant-looking meeting.
Kepler had no doubt that this was a setup. Unless Fina Knudsen had been rescued by an incredibly lugubrious oil-baron in the past few days, there was only one explanation for the hulking, tinted-window carriage which lay before him like some evil basking metal crocodile.
He paced slowly towards it. The ground was still damp from the recent heavy rain and the watery report of his footsteps sounded unnervingly loud in the still dockland air.
At around fifteen feet distance from the vehicle, all its doors suddenly smoothly opened and disgorged a cadre of capos. All were heavily armed with heat that made Kepler’s stubby shotgun look like a pea-shooter in comparison.
From the back-seat, a thin figure was violently vomited out from the plush grey leather interior. Fina Knudsen stumbled, and then pitched forward uncaringly into Kepler, who held her up with one arm.
‘Hey, narco,’ she slurred. ‘My white knight. ‘Goo’ ‘see ya’. Her breath reeked of vomit and her eyes described unpleasant orbits in her head. She was smacked out of her skull.
Kepler lowered her gently to the ground as the limo’s other occupant unfolded himself out into the real world. At six feet of mohair and Savile Row-clad elegance, Leo de Sante looked every inch the capo di tutte capo that he notoriously was. Immaculately-coiffed silver hair topped a strangely open and gentle-looking face.
The mob boss regarded Kepler for a second before calmly lighting a thin, expensive-looking cigar. The flame of his gold Dunhill lighter threw his strong features into flickering relief for a moment before they dissolved in a mist of smoke.
‘Good evening, Detective Kepler,’ he said. His voice was low and musical, pitched to a sonorous hum by the nicotine in his cigar.
He motioned superfluously to Kepler’s shotgun ‘Surely we can talk without the need for violence?’
Kepler grinned wolfishly. ‘Says the man who turns up with half a fucking private army.’
de Sante’s face dropped like a door slammed in a cold wind. ‘Oh!’ he exclaimed. ‘Now that was rude. There are ladies present. Ain’t that right, sweetheart?’
Fina didn’t answer. She stayed slumped in the same awkward kneeling position, head bowed. A thin runnel of drool cascaded from her mouth and a somnolent, tired humming noise was all she could manage.
Kepler looked from de Sante to the wasted girl at his feet then the assembled corp of capos surrounding the don. He looked de Sante square in the eye – and dropped his Ithaca. It impacted the ground with a dull, wet clatter.
de Sante smiled briskly. ‘That’s better. We can talk business without the metal dick extensions, right?’
Right, thought Kepler. I notice you haven’t called off your fucking pit-bull’s, signor.
de Sante stepped clear of the car and strolled up to the homicide ‘tec. He took a long pull on his mini-Havana and politely angled the exhaled smoke away from Kepler’s face. ‘I’ll keep it brief, pal. We both got jobs to do and my time is as precious as yours. You need to reign in your sniffing.’
Kepler was comically nonplussed. ‘That’s it, is it? Just like that and we all walk off into the sunset.’
‘Right. Now, both you and I know the odds at stake here. Me, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this lil’ cooze here dribbling all over my Gucci’s, no more than I could her babo of a boyfriend. She got out of line, and she needed to get spanked.’
He paced out towards the distant lights on the far shore of the East River. ‘I have morals, Detective,’ he said. ‘I got two families and I love them both. My granddaughter ain’t much older than Fina and I’d come down on her like the host of Hell if I caught her messing with junk.’
He turned back towards Kepler and his eyes were hard as diamonds. ‘But business is business. I got a lot of heavy contacts with the Camorra – and I hate nearly every fucking last one of them. They’re a blot; a cancer on this thing of ours. Fucking degenerates to a man. But the porn distribution shit they got going turns some serious profit.
He sighed and shook his head. ‘Personally, I hate what they do. I really do. Fucking little kids – it’s a travesty and each and every one of them deserves to have their sick, twisted little balls on a skillet with a hot knife. But the distribution is turning numbers like you wouldn’t believe. And I can’t allow that to discontinue.’
He stamped out his cigar and walked back towards Kepler. ‘You won’t stop us,’ he said, softly. ‘You know you can’t. We might have lost the score on the City bank-job but there’ll be others. We move in a thousand circles that you don’t even know about, and we’re flipping youse off each and every time when we do.’
He rolled his shoulders inside his mohair coat. ‘So here’s the deal. We know where you live. We know where she lives. You saw what happened to that jag off Larsson and his fucking family. That shit is of the purest ray serene to me, and I’ll sign it off again with a song in my heart.’
He kicked the inert form of Knudsen, who folded around Kepler’s feet. She was no longer making any noise and that disturbed the cop more than anything – if she wasn’t going into cardiac now, it was a matter of time.
‘So,’ continued de Sante. ‘You take this piece of shit off my hands and out of my hair. You take her to a hospital. And you make sure, when she comes round, she knows to keep her mouth shut, or it’ll be the last thi –‘
Half of de Sante’s face suddenly exploded. Kepler’s world was obscured in a vile crimson shower as Fina discharged the Ithaca from her prone position.
He stumbled back into the mud as de Sante’s rapidly cooling corpse spiralled to the ground in the opposite direction, falling away as if in some moribund ballet.
The remaining hoods yelled in surprise. ‘Boss! Don de Sante!’
Kepler looked down the horizon of his body at where Fina was making no attempt to chamber another round – either she couldn’t, or she just didn’t care enough about the lead rain she was about to bask in forever.
She raised her hand and stiffly gave the nearest capo the grace of her middle digit as he swung the barrel of his AR-18 down to bear on her, a murderous expression on his face.
Four gunshots rang out.
The gangster jerked spasmodically back, his designer shirt jumping in an obscene ripple as the bullets from a Ruger Speed Six slammed into his chest.
His fellow was halfway around to reacting to this new threat, his own weapon heeling over and already desperately firing. The noise at that range was agonising, and Kepler screamed through gritted teeth at the impact on his already tenderised eardrums.
Weissner was down on one knee, about fifteen yards away, neatly dropped to one knee in a firm, poised combat stance. He didn’t even flinch as the second guy’s rounds ripped the air apart in a hideous hum above his head but calmly squeezed off the last two slugs in the Ruger.
The first hit the hood in the mouth with an ugly, wet cracking sound. Something flared with brief violence in his cheek before erupting in an awful starburst from the rear of his head. The second drilled into his neck in a subsonic tracheotomy. He was dead long before his lifeless husk realised what had happened.
The silence which followed was so total it was almost surreal. It was broken by the almost farcical paaarp of a passing ship’s horn from somewhere out on the river.
Kepler hauled himself to his feet as Weissner approached and helped him up, the Ruger still trailing a faint spectre of discharged powder in the still air.
‘Buddy…’ he began and broke off in a fusillade of coughing.
Weissner gently clapped his shoulder. ‘Forget it, dude. Just glad I was able to get in range in time. Why couldn’t you have had a Barrett .50, or a MILAN in that stash of yours? At least then I could have had a smoke before saving your life.’
Kepler grinned shakily, and motioned to the prone girl. ‘Come on – let’s get her up. She saved my life first.’
The younger man grunted as he slid his arms under Fina’s armpits. ‘Pipped by a teenage girl. On junk, no less. My top would never have heard the end of it.’
Fina Knudsen was lost. She was in a limbo – neither living nor dead.
The first week of withdrawal was always the worst. She didn’t know what was up or down. One minute she was lying in a bed of cold, frost-bitten earth that bit into her back; the next it felt like she was being swallowed in a pit of needling, red-hot quicksand.
People came and went. Strange people; people compiled of a crazed hotchpotch of times and seasons in her life. Once she was visited by her father, who came stumbling into her room, naked and leering. His privy parts had been replaced by a Mariner shotgun which dangled, gleaming and lethal.
‘Put it in your mouth, Fifi,’ he’d rasped. ‘Putitinyourmoooooooth’.
Then he was gone. She’d slept again – or had she just closed her eyes and he was never there?
Another time she’d swum painfully into semi-conciousness as a howling wind battered the windows of her hospital room. The door had been ajar, emitting a crack of light that burned her eyeballs as if she were looking into the depths of a minor sun. A marching band, invisible except for their instruments, was pacing with all the solemnity of a New Orleans wake down the hallway, playing a funereal version of the theme to Game of Thrones.
Sleep. Wake, Sllllleeeeep.
Time and again she rode this painful astral roundabout. Once there were nurses and doctors standing over her, prodding her, sliding tubes into her mouth and other orifices. The pain had cut through with such clarity that she’d bitten down on the tube(finger?) being slid between her lips. Someone had screamed and cursed…. then laughed hysterically.
Her bones had been glass. Then lead. Then nothing at all. Three figures at the end of the sweat-drowned boat she had lain in for a millennia. A man, a woman and a boy with eyes shut and blood leaking from beneath their lids in hideous stigmata. They had been assembled on their knees, with pale hands clasped together in prayer. Fina had opened the black holed that was once her mouth to say she was sorry, so sorry, so veryverysorry and they had slid around the side of the bed on knees that whispered like dead leaves, closing around her and groaning in a choral aaaaaaaaaah.
She’d screamed. Or tried to. Nothing came out. Or maybe it had, because a flood of doctors had boiled into her room on clattering footsteps that clanged on her eardrums like close-range cannon-fire. Or didn’t. The hospital was deserted. The world had gone 28 Days Later.
When she awoke once more, the sun was shining through her window. She could hear the faint murmur of downtown traffic drifting up from the avenue below, riding on that strange, subarual hum that carries all distant noise.
A man was sitting by her bed as she rolled her stiff neck over to one side – and that was when she knew she’d come out the other side. It was the narco she’d spoken to the previous week. It was Kepler.
Kepler marked the place in the book he’d been reading and smiled at her. ‘Hey, kid. How you feeling?’
Fina worked her mouth gummily and then answered: ‘Like handmade shit,’ she croaked. ‘Can you get me some water, please?’
Kepler obliged, pouring some into a plastic beaker on her bedside table. She shakily pulled herself up and accepted the cup he offered her. The water was ice-cold but it soothed her flaming throat blissfully.
She handed it back to him and nodded her thanks. ‘How long was I out for?’
‘About three days, off and on,’ the ‘tec confirmed. ‘You finally slept properly last night according to the meds here. You were in a hell of a state; they said you had damn near lethal levels of Mexican black tar in your bloodstream when they wheeled you in.’
Fina slumped back on the pillow. ‘It’s all a fuckin’ blur,’ she sighed. ‘Last thing I remember was taking a ride with Leo; he came and picked me up. He was all smiles – saying how he felt sorry for me and there was nuttin’ to worry ‘bout. He knew about Jee-Jee… I ain’t stupid, though; when he said he was just worried about me and that he was gonna take me someplace safe, I knew my time was up.’
Kepler nodded. ‘I heard they bailed you after I left to go speak with the Larsson’s. I’ll be honest – the next time I thought I was gonna see you was just before they made the Y-cut downstairs.’
The girl nodded and coughed, dryly. ‘Yeah – like I said, Leo don’t do severance packages. Or he does – just with a bullet.’
‘So, what happened? How’d you get like I found you?
‘I don’t remember. That’s God’s honest – one minute I was sittin’ in the back o’the limo with Leo and it’s all fuckin’ brandy balls; he’s juiciin’ me with Moet and telling about how he’s gonna look after me; that all the family are behind me. I shoulda known at that point some shit was going south but I was starting to get pretty loaded and even starting to believe him. Next thing, I feel this prick in my forearm and, holy shit – I never went under as fast as I did then. Whatever that shit was, it was primo uncut – I had… I had a last feeling of all that Moet in my guts come risin’ back up and sliding off the seat. The next thing I know I’m on the deck, round your feet and I’ve got a .12 gauge in my hands.’
Kepler nodded. ‘de Sante’s dead. You killed him. You know that, don’t you?’
She shook her head – not in denial, he thought but more outright confusion. ‘I guess. I was miles out at that point – I just didn’t care. I really didn’t. I wanted those assholes to kill me. Then…. I remember gunshots and thinking, ‘hey – it’s okay; this really don’t hurt. But it wasn’t…’
‘No, said Kepler. ‘That was my partner – he saved you.’
Fina snorted weakly through her nose and rolled over to stare at the mellow autumn sunlight lancing through the window. ‘Some rescue. I just capped a fuckin’ don. I’m as good as dead, aren’t I?’
Kepler shook his head. ‘Nope. Not now. You’re a prime material witness. If you agree, we can protect you. Set you up in the program. They’ll never find you.’
He leaned forward. ‘But you gotta play ball. We need an out to all of this. Three people are now dead because of the shit your boyfriend was into. We need you to tell us everything you know, so we can bring closure.’
Fina’s eyes shone with glittering tears. The bravado bitchiness that Kepler had fielded from her what seemed a lifetime ago had well and truly gone.
‘I’m scared,’ she whispered.
Kepler’s face softened from its hard lines. ‘I know. But we need you to be that feisty bitch we pulled off Hunts avenue. Just for a little while.’
She looked at him for a moment and then tried on a smile. It worked. Kepler smiled back. A father and someone’s daughter in that quiet room - just for a little while.
Below the window, outside and a million miles away, the world moved on.
Author Notes: Hope you enjoy Part 2 - constructive criticism welcome as always :O)