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Deese was a thin man. He was fast, with ropy muscles, and mean, like an aggressive orangutan. His face was a skull, tight, sly, except where a half dozen wrinkles crossed his sunburnt forehead. He had black eyes and a nose that had been broken into angles like a lump of shattered pottery. He had a red-and-blue tattoo, on one shoulder, of a wolf with a biker's head in its jaws, and, on the other, a witchy Medusa in black ink, with spitting cobras for hair.
Smart? Smart enough for the job anyway.
People who got close to him usually stepped back: Deese smelled bad. He didn't know it, and people didn't tell him because . . . well, because he was Deese. His boss told one of his associates that Deese smelled like ferret shit; and the boss would know, because he kept a pair of ferrets as pets.
Like a lot of Southerners, Deese was big on barbecue and wanted it done right. He brushed the meat lightly on both sides with extra virgin olive oil, seasoned with kosher salt, from the Louisiana salt mines, and coarse black pepper. He added a sprinkling of filé, a powder made of ground sassafras leaves and mostly used with gumbo; but it worked on barbecue, too. He cooked the steaks over peach charcoal, brought by a Georgia peckerwood to the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge.
He'd take the tenderloins out of the refrigerator, slice them vertically to get two long, thin steaks. He'd cover the steaks with a pie tin and leave them on the kitchen counter, protected from the flies, while the grill got right. He wanted high heat, and then he'd lay the meat down close to the charcoal and let it go for about four minutes, which would get it done medium rare.
His old man probably would have slapped him on the face if he'd seen him putting Heinz 57 Sauce on his dinner plate, and while it was true that too much sauce could flat ruin a steak, all Deese wanted was a tiny dab per bite. Every once in a while, he'd get a fresh liver, slice it and cook it with onions in his oven, crispy, then pile on the ketchup.
Cooking was a form of meditation for Deese, though he'd never think of it that way; meditation was for hippies and nerds and people you pushed off the sidewalk. On this night, as he went through his routine, he thought about the man he'd been hired to hurt. Not kill, but hurt. Hurting was harder than killing.
When he was hired to kill somebody, he'd walk up and do it with a street gun, which he threw in the nearest sewer. Most of the time, he left the body where it landed. In some cases, where the target had to disappear, there was more planning involved, but usually not a struggle. He'd hit the guy, boost his ass into the back of his pickup, and bury the body in the swampland behind his house.
When you were hired to hurt someone, as opposed to killing him, or her, there was always one big problem: a surviving witness. The solution to that was to make it known that being a loudmouthed witness would lead directly to something worse than pain.
In this case, the conversation with the boss had gone like this:
"No, not legs. That'd just lay him up," the boss said, tapping his clean-shaven chin with an index finger. A ferret scuttled under the couch, between the boss's ankles. "I need something that people can see. I'm thinking hands. I'm thinking he's walking around for a year with hands that look like they went through a woodchipper."
"Hands are hard to get at," Deese had said. "I'd have to put him down first. You put somebody down, hard, and sometimes they don't get back up."
"Be careful, then. I want my money back. Even more than that, I want my money back from everyone, and an object lesson is always helpful. I'm still thinking hands."
"All right," Deese said. "You want hands? Hands is what you'll get."
Hands were hard. In a fight, they were flying fast and unpredictably, and he might not have a lot of time to get the job done. So, no fight. Surprise him, hit him in the face, knock him down, stand on one arm and bust up the hand, and maybe the arm, too. Then do the other side and get out.
Deese had already done the scouting. The guy lived alone in an apartment with outdoor hallways, so he answered his own door. If Deese did it just right, that'd be the spot . . . Watch him go in, and if there was nobody else around do the old shave-and-a-haircut door knock: BOP-BODDA-BOP-BOP! BOP-BOP!
When people heard that knock, it tended to disarm them. If you did it lightly enough, they usually thought it was a woman. And the target, Howell Paine, did like his women.
Deese carried the meat to the grill, arranged it perfectly over the oval mound of glowing hickory charcoal. When that was done, he went back into the house, dug his walking stick out of a hall closet.
He'd bought it at a cane store in London, England, where he'd once taken a vacation because a man named Lugnuts was looking for him. Lugnuts got his name because a karate guy once kicked him in the balls and he hadn't flinched. He only did one thing, which was kill people, and he was good at it.
Luckily for Deese, Lugnuts fell to his death in a hotel atrium in downtown New Orleans before he could get to Deese, although luck hadn't had much to do with it. The man who'd hired Lugnuts to kill Deese had subsequently been kicked to death by his underpaid bodyguards, who'd also been witnesses to Lugnut's crash landing. An object lessons for all assholes who needed bodyguards: pay them well or somebody else will pay them better.
Deese swished the stick back and forth, renewing his feel for it. Walking sticks had been adopted by the European aristocracy as replacements for swords. While the best of them were undeniably elegant, they were also effective weapons, especially in the administration of a beating.
In 1856, a Southern congressman named Preston Brooks had administered a vicious beating to an abolitionist U.S. senator named Charles Sumner after Sumner had made a speech attacking another Southern senator for his pro-slavery views: "The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight-I mean the harlot, Slavery."
Sumner hadn't recovered for years. Deese didn't know that, not being a historian, or even a reader of comic books, but he knew about the uses of walking sticks.
Deese's stick was made of coffee-brown blackthorn, with a rounded knob head, weighted with lead, and a steel rod inserted down the length of the shaft. Getting hit with the knob was like getting hit with a hammer, but a hammer with a thirty-seven-inch handle.
He closed his eyes, visualizing the approach, the attack, the departure. He stood like that for a minute or more, thinking about Howell Paine, until the smell of the sizzling steaks called out to him from the grill.
He was tired, Deese was. He'd murdered a young woman that day and had buried her body an hour ago. Now he had Howell Paine. Busy, busy, busy.
Howell Paine had bumped into a forties-something MILF at a downtown dance-and-cocaine club. She had a nice post-divorce seventy-footer parked at the Orleans Marina, which is why Deese wouldn't be able to find him the first four times he went by Paine's apartment.
As it happened, the MILF could dish out more than Paine could take, though he struggled manfully to stay with her. In the end, though, he left her snoring in the fo'c'sle double bunk and snuck out barefoot, until he was on the dock, only pausing to steal two bottles of eighteen-year-old Macallan scotch and the ex-husband's 18-karat solid gold bracelet as he passed through the saloon.
Dressed in a rumpled blue seersucker suit, a white shirt, and dark blue Tom's sneaks, he hurried along the dock to his Volkwagen, climbed in, and sped away.
He stopped at Hyman's Rougarou for a ham-and-cheddar quiche with waffles and a quick read of the Times-Picayune, before continuing on to his apartment. Paine's apartment was one of those places that might be considered a middle-income structure on its way to the slums. That is, green-painted concrete block, two floors, outside walkways to the multicolored doors. The place looked fine, at a glance, but the apartments would smother you if the window air conditioners stopped working, and there were rust stains coming through the paint on the stairways.
Paine found a free on-street parking place under a sweet gum tree and was walking down the street toward the apartment, admiring the new gold bracelet on his wrist, when Deese, who was just leaving, spotted him. Deese pulled over and watched as Paine climbed the outer stairs to the second floor and walked along to his apartment, carrying a brown paper bag and whistling.
Deese hated whistlers.
No time like the present, he thought, as Paine opened the door to his apartment. Night would be better, but Paine had been hard to find and by nightfall could be gone again. Besides, if everything went as planned, most of the beating would be administered inside the apartment, out of sight of the street.
Deese found a parking place, got his walking stick, crossed the street to the apartment building, climbed the stairs, and ambled casually down to Paine's apartment.
Instead of knocking when he got to the door, he turned and leaned on the railing, looking out over the street. He looked for a full minute, watching for eyes. He saw nothing alive except a red tiger-striped cat that padded across the street and disappeared into a hedge. There was somebody close by in the apartment building because he could smell frying bacon, but somebody who was frying bacon wouldn't be running outside anytime soon.
He slipped the tan ski mask out of his pocket, pulled it over his head, turned toward the door and knocked, raising the cane, ready to kick it open. Like many perfect plans, his didn't go quite right.
He did the knock, shave-and-a-haircut: BOP-BODDA-BOP-BOP! BOP-BOP! Inside, Paine had taken the two bottles of Macallan out of the paper bag and still had one of the bottles in his hand when he heard the knock. He assumed it was the woman from next door, with whom he sometimes shared a bed when nobody richer was available. He knew she did the same, but, still, a civilized relationship.
He was farther away from the door than he normally would have been as he reached out and twisted the doorknob as Deese kicked it and the door exploded inward and Deese was swinging his walking stick at Paine's face.
Paine blocked the blow with the whisky bottle, which shattered, spraying glass across his face and into the room. Paine screamed in pain and rage, and found, in his hand, the jagged remnants of the broken bottle. Deese was off balance, having swung at a man farther away than expected, and it took him a split second to recover. In that split second, Paine jabbed at Deese's eyes with the broken bottle.
Deese ducked, and the bottle slashed through his mask and into his scalp, and blood spattered on the wall, the door, and began running down into his eyes. The sight of the blood made Paine hesitate for a fraction of a second, which was time enough for the stick to come around again, and Deese used it to break Paine's arm, the one with the bottle.
Paine screamed as the bottle flew off somewhere and smashed into even more pieces. Paine grabbed Deese by the shirt, with his working arm, and swung him toward the couch. Deese involuntarily sat down as the couch hit him behind the knees, but he had the stick free again and this time hit Paine on the side of the head and Paine went down. Deese clambered to his feet and whipped the other man hard across the top of his back-once, twice, three times-and then pinned the broken arm, and Paine screamed again. And Deese screamed back, "Motherfucker!"
He smashed the knob of the cane into the hand of the broken arm-once, then again, and again and again-then kicked Paine over. Paine raised the other, unbroken arm just in time to catch the next blow on the forearm, which broke, and Deese pinned that arm with his foot and began beating the hand, shattering the bones. Deese was hurting and bleeding, which he hadn't expected, and was screaming "Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Motherfucker!" in time to the beating. Paine rolled up on his side, not screaming but choking and in pain, and with Deese's pant leg now pulled up, Paine, with no other weapon, bit him on the calf, like a feral tomcat, wrenching his head from side to side as his teeth sank in.
Deese screeched again and dealt Paine a glancing blow on the head as Paine came away from Deese's leg with a half-dollar-sized chunk of meat in his mouth. He tried to roll away, but now Deese, still howling "Motherfucker!" over and over, began beating Paine on the upper arm and back with the walking stick and was so angry, with blood in his eyes and mouth now-his own blood-that it took him a few seconds to realize a young woman was standing in the doorway, gawking at them.
He straightened and looked at her. When she ran off, he staggered toward the door but tripped over one of the couch cushions and went down, cracking his head on the arm of the couch. Dazed, he floundered for a moment, then crawled to the door, his stick in his hand, and looked down the walkway . . . but nobody was there.
Wherever she'd gone, he thought, she was calling the cops. This was not one of those live-and-let-live places; she'd definitely be on the phone. He looked back at Paine, who was lying motionless on the carpet. Blood everywhere. Maybe he'd hit him too hard? He'd sort of let it out there.