Sid and Ronnie Abel are a husband-and-wife detective team, both ex-LAPD. Ed and Nicole Hoyt are assassins-for-hire living in the San Fernando Valley. Except for deadly aim with a handgun, the two couples have little in commonuntil both are hired to do damage control on the same murder case. The previous spring, a body was recovered from a storm sewer after two days of torrential rain. The corpse was identified as James Ballantine, a middle-aged African American who worked as a research scientist and was killed by two bullets to the back of the head. With the murder case turning cold, Ballantine’s former employers bring in the Abels to succeed where the police have failed, while the Hoyts’ mysterious contractors want to make sure that the facts about Ballantine’s death stay hidden. Dramatic car chases, illicit affairs, and a notorious ring of Eastern European diamond thieves all play into the plot as the book races toward its high-octane climax, and the Abels circle ever closer to the dangerous truth.
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The man floated in darkness, the water buoying him and washing him along the concrete channel, slowly at first, but then steadily increasing his speed as hours passed and the heavy spring rain splashed on the pavement a few feet above and flowed into the storm drains to augment the current. From time to time the growing torrent of water bumped him against the concrete side of the channel, or scraped him along it for a moment. But the force of the tons of water flowing downstream was too strong to let him remain anywhere for long. And then it wasn't.
It was after midnight when Bill Carmody stopped his white DPW truck two hundred feet from the corner and stared through his rain-streaked windshield at the small lake that was forming in the intersection ahead. The pavements around here were all crowned so the rainwater ran off to the curbside and flowed along the gutters to the storm drains.
It had been raining relentlessly for two days, and now the third was beginning the same way. The quantity of rainwater that was streaming down into the valleys was unusual. Southern California didn't often get this kind of storm. It had been a wet winter for once, and this storm was the biggest of the season. He tugged his cap down on his head, put the collar of his yellow slicker up, and stepped out of the truck. He sloshed to the back of the truck bed, opened the built-in tool chest, and took out a rake and a wire basket. This wasn't, strictly speaking, a supervisor's job, but if they had wanted a man who would stand around when he saw a problem he could solve, then they wouldn't have hired Carmody.
He splashed along the street into deeper and deeper water toward the intersection. There was the glare of a set of headlights, and then he saw an SUV barreling along on the cross street. Its tires threw spray fifteen feet to either side like a speedboat, and formed little rooster tails behind them. The water was up to the hubcaps, so he could tell the depth was at least ten inches in the middle of the street. He waved at the driver to make him slow down a little, but either the driver didn't see him or didn't care.
It was too late to avoid the splash, so Carmody turned his back and let the water hit the back of his slicker and run off him.
The wind was a steady fifteen miles an hour, and so as he reached the corner the raindrops angled into his face. He tugged the brim of his hat farther down and used his rake to pull the debris from the grating that was set into the side of the curb. He could feel that it wasn't working. He had expected to feel a current. He felt leaves and twigs, but the water was as still as soup. He walked to the one across the street, and then to the next and the next. He went back to the truck and got his crowbar and flashlight, then returned to the first drain and stepped up on the concrete slab set into the lawn above it. He pried up the manhole cover. The debris trap was full of water. He dragged his rake along the inner grill, and found nothing blocking it. Instead, the water was welling up out of the manhole cover and running into the street.
He carried his basket, rake, and crowbar back to the truck, got inside, took out his cell phone, and pressed the call button.
"Department of Public Works."
"This is Carmody. There's a complete storm sewer blockage at the intersection of Interlaken and Grimes in North Hollywood. The water is only about a foot deep now, but it's rising. Water is welling out of the upstream drains."
"How do you want to handle it, Bill?"
"I checked the debris traps, so all we can do is open up the street and see what's blocking the main sewer. We'll need a jackhammer and a backhoe to start with."
"We can either do it now, or we can wait until the water gets high enough to flow into somebody's house."
An hour later, the backhoe lifted its latest load of dripping mud and broken chunks of concrete from the narrow trench it had dug, turned, and dumped it on the pile it had built a few feet away. As the operator turned the machine to swing its arm back to sink its scoop again, Carmody gave a shrill whistle and waved both arms over his head.
"Hold it a minute," he called. "Let us take a look."
He and two of his men waded close to the spot where the backhoe had opened the pavement, and used their shovels to scrape away a few chunks to expose a mound of weeds, twigs, and leaves. They pried and tugged some of the foliage out of the hole, lifted armloads of it, waded to the truck, and threw it into the bed.
The growling engine of the backhoe stopped, and there was a sudden silence. Carmody turned to look. The equipment operator stood in front of his seat and stared down the cantilever arm of his backhoe into the hole. He pointed. "Jesus, a body! It's a man!"
Officer Stearns stepped closer to the human form lying on the wet pavement. He was always affected. It was hardly ever a hundred-year-old guy who had been happy and prosperous and had his spirit depart gently, and not unexpectedly. Instead, there was always a story of loss and tragedy waiting to have the actual details filled in later, but clear enough from the start. He looked more closely. This one was an African American male who appeared to be in his early forties, wearing a sport coat and a nice pair of pants. His shoes weren't with him, but that didn't mean anything because they often came off dead men who were violently set into motion.
The motion was the odd part. The Department of Public Works had just pulled the man out of a blocked storm sewer in the center of a pile of leaves, branches, and weeds about the size of a bale of hay. According to them there was no telling how he had gotten in there, or how far he might have traveled in the stream of storm runoff before he'd come to this snag.
Stearns stayed just inside the yellow police tape and watched the medical examiner's people and the crime scene people as dawn approached. The curious pedestrians would not show up until the rain stopped. Stearns thought about the victim. The man's skin was a medium brown, and smooth. He was a healthy weight and had a good haircut. If there were marks onhim, they weren't visible to Stearns right now, but that meant nothing either. The medical examiner would be all over him in a few hours, looking at every centimeter of him, including his internal organs. Stearns watched as the coroner's crew bagged the body and then lifted it onto the gurney and loaded it into the coroner's ambulance.
It was not easy to tell what had happened to this man, but Stearns was willing to make a couple of guesses. He was not a suicide. Somebody might overdose or take poison, but he wouldn't then put himself into a storm sewer to float downstream under the street until he became a blockage. But that was all Stearns could guess with any confidence. Unless this turned out to be one of those cases where the guy's enemy had sworn in front of the crowd at Dodger Stadium that he was going to kill this man, or his wife had taken out a five-million-dollar insurance policy on him last week, the homicide detectives would have to do some work and get lucky to find out how he had ended up here.
When the coroner's people closed the rear door of their van Stearns was relieved. He didn't like standing around in the presence of a body. He supposed that what he really hated were the waste and the sadness — the obvious disparity between a living, thinking man and the forlorn remnant in the pile of brush the workmen had dragged out of the drain.
The forensics people worked to untangle the mound of plants and trash that had been trapped with the man. As each piece was freed, they examined it and then set it on a tarp under an awning they'd set up a few feet off. Now and then a technician would produce a plastic bag and put something inside. Stearns saw no moments of excitement, certainly no elation, no signal that anybody thought anything was worth showing to a colleague. Maybe they were picking up vegetation because they wanted typical examples of the plants along this man's route. Maybe they were just as lost as he was and it was the only thing they could do.
A year and one day later, Professor Daniel Millikan glanced out the tall window of the lecture hall to verify that the rain still had not stopped, and then looked out over his class of serious-faced first-year graduate students. He was coming to the end of his lecture, and he decided that he was in no hurry to go out there into the wet world.
He had been visiting professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA for three years now — a long visit. The other members of the criminal justice group — there were only five of them in a large department — were academics. Dan Millikan was an old cop. In appearance he wasn't very different from the other male professors. He was not large, a trim, erect five foot nine and in his fifties with short, graying hair. He habitually wore gray or dark blue sport coats and light blue shirts with a subdued necktie.
He had done his share of research and written enough papers to get him invited to speak at conferences regularly, but his university work was a footnote. His real career had been the twenty-five years he had spent with mean drunks, small-time thieves, drug dealers, and gang shooters. He had learned how quickly a man's mind could focus when he was forced to wrestle a violent suspect to the ground. He had learned to see a lie coming before his suspect had phrased it — sometimes before the suspect had even seen the need to make something up to fill that part of his story. Millikan had learned about forensics as each step of the science was invented, perfected, and became police practice. He had spent his final ten years in homicide, where he became expert in the terrible things people did to each other. After twenty-five years he applied for his pension and began his application to graduate school on the same day.
Millikan was at the front of the room, standing straight, no longer behind the podium, because the final few minutes of his class didn't require notes or references. He had already covered the lecture on the origins and evolution of the search and seizure laws. Now was the moment when he let his students ask questions about anything they wished. He nodded at a male student in the second row. The name came back to him. "Mr. Terrano?"
"When you're searching a home of a homicide victim who is lying on the floor, what is the first thing you're looking for?"
"A place to step."
There was a small wave of laughter, but Millikan rolled over it.
"There's often blood and other organic matter, of course. Your first concern is to be sure you don't contaminate the scene. You have a single chance to protect it and be sure nothing there is lost or damaged, and nothing new is introduced. We live on a planet where it's not possible to move through a space without bringing with us a trail of particles and compounds. The killer has left something of himself here, and taken with him particles that he got here. But you have to be aware that you'll do the same."
"And the second thing to look for?"
A dozen hands thrust up, but he ignored them for the moment. "You don't look for anything. For a few minutes, you just stand still and look. You don't start sorting through your theories about the scene, or the case, or anything else. You make your eyes move to the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the windows, and everything else you can see. You pay attention to what you can hear and smell. Now, I'm assuming this isn't a case in which there are twenty witnesses around who have already said, 'We saw her husband shoot her.'"
"No, sir. I was thinking of the other kind of case."
"Right. Well, once you've given yourself time to look at every inch of the place, you move, cautiously and sparingly, focusing on details. Your attention will be drawn to the body of the victim and the area around it, and you'll find that your mind notices things that start to tell a story."
A woman to his left said, "Cause of death?"
"That sort of thing, of course. But here's a tip. Most murders are first murders. Amateurs never seem to have any trouble getting to the point where the victim is lying dead on the floor. The crime is called 'premeditated' because he came to the house to kill the victim. But the crime doesn't fit the commonsense meaning of the word. Not much meditation went into it ahead of time. Most murderers seem to be able to think ahead only to the point when they've killed their enemy, but they often seem to have been incapable of thinking past that."
Another young man near the front said, "Why not?"
"They killed out of hatred, jealousy, greed, fear, envy. Then, suddenly, they're standing in a room with a body. Half the time they haven't decided what they were going to do with it. So here they stand, and they have to act quickly. Some try to stage the scene to look like a suicide or a robbery. Others try to wrap the body up in a tarp, a blanket, or a bag, and move it to a car, and then come back and clean up. Anything they do will show, and it will expose them to additional chances of being seen, to contaminate their own clothes, cars, and so on."
"What's different about a professional?"
"He's killed people before. He knows a body contains about five quarts of blood, and that it doesn't clean up well, so he doesn't try. He knows in advance that he'll need an alibi, a way of getting out unseen, a place to get rid of the weapon, a way to get far away before the body is found. And he's left nothing at the scene that can lead to him — objects, fingerprints, or DNA."
"How do you catch a person like that?"
"Follow the leads you have, and hope your luck is better than his. If he never gets unlucky, then you don't catch him."
Far off, the bells of Powell Library chimed. "Remember to read chapters seventeen through twenty in Rosenberg and work on your paper topics. See you on Friday." He stepped past the podium, picked up the file folder that held notes for his lecture, and kept going out the door.
Millikan walked down the crowded hallway, turning his shoulders to the side now and then to step between streams of young people coming out of their last classrooms or heading toward the next. When he got into his office, he inserted his file into the cabinet drawer in front of the last lecture and pushed it closed just as he heard the knock.
His office hours didn't start for an hour and a half, and the times were on his printed syllabus, on its online version, and posted beside the office door. Whoever this was probably didn't have much of a future as a detective. He stepped to the door and opened it.
The man standing in the hallway was about six foot three and slim. He wore a dark gray suit that fit him perfectly, and a tie with a dark blue pattern with small round designs that Millikan couldn't identify without his reading glasses. The man smiled and held out his hand. "Professor Millikan, I'm David Hemphill."
Millikan shook the hand. There was nothing about Hemphill's grip that revealed flaws. It was firm and friendly, a single shake and release.
Hemphill said, "I'm sorry to show up unannounced. I just wondered if you could spare a moment for a question."
"Come in." Millikan pointed to one of the three leather chairs facing his desk.
"Thank you," Hemphill said, and sat. "I saw that you have office hours in a while. You're probably hoping to get to lunch, so I'll be quick. I need a referral from an expert, and I've been told by three sources that you're the one to ask."
"This is about a murder. It's been just over a year since it happened. The police investigated immediately and for a long time afterward. But now they've frankly admitted that their progress has stalled. They haven't found a new lead in several months. They have no open avenues left to pursue."
"I'm sorry," said Millikan. "I'm not the one to help you. I've been retired from the police force for years. I teach now, and my academic responsibilities keep me very busy."
"I understand," said Hemphill. "I've been warned that you wouldn't consider getting involved in a case. But I wonder if you could do me the favor of giving me the name of someone else."
Millikan didn't permit his face to reveal anything, but he felt the urge to know more. "Was the victim a friend of yours?"
"No," Hemphill said. "I never met him. We both worked for the same company, Intercelleron, but in different capacities. His name was James Ballantine. This is not personal. I'm acting on the orders of the board of directors. Because he was one of our own, they've taken an interest from the beginning. Now they'd like to continue the investigation."
"Ballantine. The name is familiar, but I can't quite place —"
"He was the man who was found in a storm drain during the big rainstorm last spring."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fort Thieves"
Copyright © 2016 Thomas Perry.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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