After waging a personal war of vengeance against the Detroit mob for killing her father, Helen Sedlacek drove off into the sunset with a truckload of cash and her wily hit-man boyfriend, Joe Service. So when Detective Sergeant Mulheisen hears that a man fitting Joe’s description is in a hospital in Butte, Montana—shot in the face and comatose—he rushes to investigate.
While Helen is nowhere to be found, a man hired to kill Joe turns up dead in a ditch nearby. Worse still, Mulheisen learns that an even more vicious female killer is in town, looking to finish Joe off.
Now, in a strange land where the air is clean and the people are friendly, Mulheisen has to locate the missing mafia princess while trying to keep killer Joe in breathing condition for trial—not to mention keeping himself out of the cross fire between the police, the mob, and a lot of local citizens with a lot of guns . . .
Featuring a tough, witty hero who is “an unmitigated delight on every level,” this is a lightning-paced police thriller that is sure to keep you on edge till the last shot is fired (Booklist).
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Some mornings are not just wonderful but nearly miraculous. A September morning in Montana can be like that. As far as Joe Service was concerned, this was one of them, a morning to remember. Driving east on the interstate between Deer Lodge and Butte, there was still a bite in the air at ten o'clock in the morning, and the air tasted delicious, as after a thunderstorm. But there had been no storm and there were no clouds, just a deep blue sky over the mountains and the broad valley floor, a degree bluer than Joe could ever remember seeing. The blinding sun of summer had gone. September's sun had declined to the south to create a mellower golden effect. The magpies swooped and swung along through the yellowing alders lining the creek bottom, deer lifted their heads out in the range, and high overhead the rough-legged hawk flexed his long primaries in the thin air and scanned the sparse grass for rabbits and mice.
It was a wonderful morning, a miracle, and Joe felt terrific. He was almost bouncing on the seat of a brand-new four-wheel-drive pickup. He was on his way home to his cabin in the mountains above Tinstar, a dusty little forgotten crossroads south of Butte. Helen would be there. She ought to be glad to see him, he thought. He'd been away for a few days, on business, and he knew she got bored and lonely in his absence. He had made some nice arrangements for them to take a little "toot," as he called it. He had finally resigned himself to the the fact that she was a city woman. The mountains didn't seem to interest her for long. She liked the country, but it was just a place to visit, to enjoy for a while. Now, he figured, a trip to Hawaii would cheer her up. His business was doing fine, she would be glad to know, although he really had no business except to "rinse funds," as he joked, and then find places to invest them, which he did very judiciously, very conservatively. She would be happy. Especially when she saw the truck, a present for her, a toy, just like one she had admired a couple of weeks ago. And if all that didn't cheer her up, to hell with her. He wasn't going to let it bother him, not on a morning like this.
He wasn't so much thinking about Helen as thinking around her. He was doing something he would have liked to call mind juggling, except that he didn't like the word "juggling." He liked the concept, the notion of many disparate things whirling around his head, being touched and propelled, directed, released, then touched again. It was better than holding something, clutching it and pondering it. That was too static for Joe Service. He much preferred juggling ... if only the word weren't so dumb, so clumsy sounding. How did such an oafish word become attached to such an airy art? He wanted something nimbler. Helen was nimble. Like him she was small, lithe, and quick.
On his left as he traveled toward Anaconda, he noticed again a huge berm, or mass of freshly piled earth, with a number of yellow machines grooming it. He kept meaning to inquire about this project; he was interested in everything that was going on around him. But he hadn't pursued it. Some kind of Superfund cleanup site, someone had said. It had something to do with a century of mining in the Butte area, plus the residue of the Anaconda smelter. The mining had stopped in the early eighties and only recently started up again, on a reduced scale. The smelter was gone now, but both processes had apparently left plenty of heavy metals and other toxic minerals in the river system that made up the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Joe made a note, mentally, to drive back here soon and check it all out. He didn't like the thought of poison in this paradise.
The road swung to the east now, headed toward Butte. The brown hills of September were dotted with sagebrush and then many strange-looking evergreens that stood about in isolation, like little green monuments — they seemed vaguely funereal. Ground juniper? He didn't think so: They didn't spread out, but were quite vertical, like sentries. He'd have to ask someone, or look it up in his little field guide to Western trees.
The road rose up, nearly empty of traffic, until beyond the near horizon he glimpsed the first jagged tops of the Continental Divide beyond Butte. In a little notch on the ridge he could make out a white figure. That was Our Lady of the Rockies, an immense statue of the Virgin that was lit up at night. It was a little kinky, Joe thought, but ... what the heck. You could pull anything in Butte, it was a real joint.
At approximately the same moment, he saw the hitchhikers, a quarter of a mile ahead. Two men, one of them seated on a pile of duffel bags and the other standing with his arm outstretched. Joe didn't ordinarily pick up hitchhikers. In fact, he'd just left a zone around the town of Deer Lodge where stern highway signs advised motorists not to stop for hitchhikers because of the nearby Montana State Prison. But it was a beautiful day, Joe felt great, and as he approached he got the impression that these guys were dead beat — the seated one was slumped down like a man at the end of a long run, and the stander had that hand-on-cocked-hip look of someone who would prefer to be sitting.
He pulled over onto the shoulder and backed up to save them the effort of lugging their bags. There really wasn't room for both guys in the cab of the pickup, but he figured one of them could ride on the bags in the back.
The thumber was a lean fellow with long black hair flowing out from under a new cowboy hat with a tall crown. All of his Western garb looked brand new — the hat, a leather vest, a fancy fringed leather jacket, jeans, and tooled cowboy boots. He stepped up on the passenger side and peered in the lowered window. "How far you going?" he asked, smiling.
"The other side of Butte," Joe said, "over the pass. Where you going?"
"That'd be great," the man said. His face was narrow and dark, he needed a shave, but he looked okay, just a long-haired cowboy wannabe — not an unfamiliar sight in these parts. Joe himself was rigged out in a variation of this wardrobe, only more working class. This guy didn't look crazy or criminal, just temporarily afoot. Joe hadn't noticed any vehicle broken down, but the east- and westbound lanes were widely separated out here; possibly the man's car was westbound and hidden behind one of the rises of land that sometimes shielded the lanes from one another.
Joe started to ask the fellow if he'd had car trouble, when the man said, "I need a little help with my buddy. He's not feeling too good."
Joe suppressed a sigh of annoyance. It was always like this, he told himself. You go to do someone a simple favor and it turns out to be more complicated. Chances were he'd end up taking these guys into Butte, maybe even to the hospital. But it was too nice a day to complain. He turned off the ignition and set the parking brake before getting out and coming around the pickup to where the other man sat, still slumped on the duffel bags.
"What's the trouble?" Joe asked. A quiet breeze whisked roadside dust. Joe put his hand on the crown of his own Western hat. He looked at the seated man. He was bigger, heavier than the thumber and not so well dressed. He had a sweat-stained cowboy hat pulled down over his brow and he was bearded. He wore an old military overcoat that could have used a cleaning, a year ago.
"I don't know," the thumber said, "he won't tell me. Won't talk at all."
Joe squatted down and peered up into the seated man's face. The mouth hung open. Joe reached up and lifted the man's hat brim slightly. The man's eyes were closed. Joe glanced down at the man's hands, folded in his lap. Joe looked up. The thumber was smiling slightly.
"The problem is," Joe said, "this man is dead."
"No shit," the man said. He held a .32-caliber automatic in his right hand, and he motioned with the barrel toward the corpse. "Better give me a hand with this dude."
Joe glanced around him briefly. There wasn't a single vehicle in sight, except for a distant semi, at least three, possibly four miles back, glittering silver in the sun, laboring up the grade. Joe estimated it would take at least four minutes to reach them.
The sun was shining brightly, the magpies were yakking in the fields, but the delicious Montana air had a metallic taste to it now. Joe sighed and stood up. He tried to hoist the dead man by his armpits, but he was very heavy. The other man lowered the tailgate of the new truck. There was a black vinyl cover over the box, fastened with snaps. The man wrenched it back, still covering Joe with the .32, then came to help him. He glanced down the highway. The truck was no longer in sight. It had apparently dipped down into an intervening depression.
"Move it," the man ordered, taking one of the dead man's arms. Between the two of them they managed to flop the heavy man onto the extended tailgate, and Joe shoved him into the bed of the truck, under the unsnapped portion of the vinyl cover.
"Throw that stuff in there," the man ordered. Joe piled the bags in behind and around the corpse and the other man flipped the vinyl cover back as the truck rumbled by them in a little flurry of dust. The gunman smiled, standing on the far side of the pickup as the semi passed, the .32 held down along his leg. Joe grasped the tailgate with both hands and slammed it upward to close it. He looked over at the gunman while he snapped the vinyl cover down securely.
"Let's go," the man said. "You drive." He moved along the ditch side of the pickup, watching carefully as Joe moved along the road side. When the gunman reached the passenger door he opened it with his left hand, which meant he had to turn awkwardly to his right. Joe opened the driver's door and brought up his own snubnosed .38 with his right hand.
"No!" the man shouted, and his automatic erupted with a flat bark, firing across the bucket seats of the pickup cab.
The velocity of a bullet varies greatly, depending on the weight of the bullet and the load of the propellant, but in this case it was less than a thousand feet per second. As Joe was standing little more than six feet from the muzzle of the gun, he had about two hundredths of a second before impact. This is a very small period of time, but it is measurable, and time, as everybody knows now, is relative. Subjectively, it seemed a near eternity. Joe squeezed the trigger of his own pistol once. He did not see if his bullet had hit his assailant, for his head was suddenly smashed as if he'd taken a direct blow in the face from a sledgehammer. And that was it for Joe Service.
He fell backward, sprawling on his back on the paved road, his pistol still clutched in his right hand, his mouth open, his Western hat rolling away under the pickup. The bullet wound in Joe's forehead was small, almost unnoticeable, except that blood was welling out of it. His assailant raced around the front of the pickup and kicked the door shut, his pistol at the ready. He stared at Joe in disbelief, then stepped closer. He looked around wildly. The semi was gone down the highway, tires singing now as it picked up speed. No other vehicles had passed or were approaching. The blood was now trickling down the side of Joe's head, soaking into his thick black hair.
Hurriedly, the man jammed the .32 into his waistband and knelt to pry the .38 from Joe's hand. He tossed that into the front seat of the truck, through the open driver's window, then stooped to grasp the limp body under the arms. He dragged it to the other side of the pickup truck, off the road, and then rolled it down the embankment into the ditch. The body lay there, face down. The gunman looked around. Still no traffic, but the chrome of a car glinted to the west, approaching rapidly. The man drew out the .32 and emptied the magazine at the body. He stuffed the gun in his waistband again, then slammed the door on the passenger side. He got into the driver's seat and was reaching for the key in the ignition when he realized he was sitting on Joe's pistol. He extracted it and stuck it into the glove compartment as the car whistled by him. Then he paused. He reached under the dash and pulled the hood release. He got out and lifted the hood, then looked around. A westbound car crested the hill and whisked by, some hundred yards or so away. A couple more cars could be seen back to the west, miles away, but approaching.
Quickly, the gunman scuttled down to Joe's body and turned it. There was an awful lot of blood. He riffled through the pockets, taking everything that was on the body. He could hear the cars approaching. He stood and with his back to the road, shoulders hunched, held his right hand to his crotch, as if he were urinating. The cars sped by and one of them honked. He laughed. He looked down at the body and was tempted to piss on the body for real, but the urge wasn't there. He found a piece of paper in his shirt pocket and searched for a pencil. He knelt to the body again and quickly stood up.
By the side of the pickup he glanced around. There was a splatter of blood on the pavement. He saw the brim of Joe's hat jutting out from under the pickup. He bent and drew out the hat, then sailed it down into the ditch. It landed nowhere near Joe. The body lay at the bottom of the ditch, hardly visible to a passing car, or even a truck driver. A magpie sailed down the side of the hill and landed on a post of the interstate fence, its long tail swaying in the breeze. The magpie waited for the man to go.
"Joe Service, himself," the man said. "Who'da thought?" He shook his head with disbelief, then grinned broadly and got into the pickup.
It was two hours before the body was discovered. A passenger on the eastbound Rimrock Stage bus happened to glance up from the novel she was reading, and her eye was attracted by a party of magpies and a couple of ravens in the ditch alongside the interstate highway. The bus was already past the scene when she realized that the object of their attentions was not a roadkill deer, but a man. She cried out and stood up. The driver glanced into the overhead mirror and caught her eye. She signaled at him, waving her hand, then quickly made her way to the front and told him what she'd seen.
The driver instantly slowed and then braked to a halt. He tried not to swear in her presence — she was a nice-looking young woman, on her way to college in Bozeman — but a bus driver never likes an unscheduled stop. But out here you didn't not stop, even if you were confident that the passenger must have just seen a dead deer. He pulled over as quickly as possible and radioed ahead to the Butte–Silver Bow sheriff's department, informing them that a passenger thought she had seen a man down, in a ditch. He was going back to check, he said. He gave them a rough estimate of his location, about two or three miles west of the junction of 1-15. He hadn't noticed the last mile marker. The dispatcher said a vehicle would respond.
The driver started to inform the passengers over the P.A. system, but then he stood up and assured the folks in the coach that nothing was amiss, just that he had to check out the report of a passenger — he'd be right back. He jogged back down the road in the cool midday sun. He didn't see anything, and by the time he had walked over the crest of the hill, out of sight of the bus, he slowed down and lit up a cigarette. It was very pleasant out here, he decided. He saw the ravens first. And then he spotted the body. As the jacket was brown, he thought at first that it might be a deer, but he hadn't approached much closer before he saw the blue jeans.
The magpies flew up reluctantly as the driver neared, and they didn't go far, but landed optimistically on the interstate fence, a few yards away. The two ravens had mounted well up into the sky, croaking. The driver knelt beside the man. There was a lot of dried blood, and there was birdshit all over the back of the man's canvas "tin coat." He turned the man and winced at the bloody face. He'd been shot at close range. The thick black hair was stiff with blood and the face was a bloody mask. But it didn't make any difference, for clearly the man was dead. He could detect no pulse, and the gravel was soaked with what looked like enough blood for two or three men.
He stood up and took a deep breath, then moved away and lit another cigarette. To his relief, he could see a police car, a Butte–Silver Bow County sheriff's Blazer, approaching in the westbound lane. He waved and the blue flickering lights on the roofbar went on. The vehicle slowed, then cruised a few hundred feet until the cop found a more conveniently negotiable section of the median. The Blazer swayed and bounced through the swale then turned onto the eastbound lanes and came rapidly forward.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Deadman"
Copyright © 1994 Jon A. Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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