New Orleans, Louisiana
The Garden District
Crashing thunder woke the child.
Casey lay still, taking deep breaths, huddling with the teddy bear as the storm's fury assaulted her ears. Running bolts of lightning slashed the black sky.
Wind blasted the rain hard against the window's panes.
The massive oak tree outside flailed its branches–like furious arms reaching out for the lace curtains.
She clenched shut her eyes.
"There's nothing to fear
," her mother had said on other stormy nights. "You're perfectly safe in your bed, Casey
Each dazzling flash made the familiar objects in her room both strange and malevolent. The stuffed animals perched on the window box instantly became monsters on the shadowy wall.
She listened for some sound to let her know if her parents were awake and perhaps moving around somewhere in the house. They will come tell me it's all right
The bedroom door was cracked open, the hallway a dark and endless tunnel.Bam!
A shutter on a nearby window, suddenly unhooked, slapped at the side of the house like an angry fist against a door. Bam! Bam! Bam!
The four-year-old pushed back the covers, slid off the mattress, and shot to the door, thinking of the safe, warm nest between her parents in their bed.
Throwing open her door Casey ran across the hallway to her parents' bedroom, clutching the bear to her chest. They won't be mad. She turned the knob and slowly crept into the bedroom, where lightning illuminated the crumpled bedding.They're not here!
The bathroom was dark.They have to be downstairs.
Casey hurried to find them. On the stairs, between the peals of thunder, she could hear loud noises below, like dogs barking, or seals at the zoo.
One hand on the banister, the other clutching the soft animal to her, the child slipped down the wide staircase one step at a time. The noises stopped before she reached the first floor, and the sudden silence scared her more than the sounds.
In the den, flashes formed into trapezoidal slivers by the windows lit the room eerily. The chair her father always sat in when he was in the room–it was vacant. Not in here.
She padded off down the hallway toward the rear of the house. Mommy? Daddy?
Casey saw a yellow band of light at the far end of the hallway under the swinging door to the kitchen and she ducked her head and ran for it. She imagined that something large was rushing at her in the darkness–something that would pounce at any second and sweep her up in its jaws like the lion on the television always did to the deer.
"Mommy!" she yelled out. "Mommy!"
Reaching the door, she pushed at it, and because it didn't swing open but a tiny bit, her chest and her forehead struck it hard, and she whimpered in pain. She fought to push the door open, but it wouldn't budge. In her panic she dropped the bear and slammed her hands against the wood, beating, beating, beating, and hollering for her mother.
Little by little, as whatever was making it stay shut moved, it opened just a bit. The kitchen lights poured out into the hallway through the growing crack.
Casey heard an odd sucking sound and a loud grunting.
Something warm and wet touched her toes and she looked down to see a pool spreading from under the door, and her bear was lying there on the floor, his black eyes staring up at her as the puddle swallowed his head and arms.
Casey pushed again, hard.
The door swung in abruptly. Casey pitched headlong into the brilliantly lit kitchen.
She was lying facedown in the warm red liquid that was everywhere.
She looked around and found herself staring into her mother's face, and it was not at all the right face. So many boo-boos. She knew her father was there, too, but she wouldn't look at him. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed and screamed.
"STOP IT!" a voice boomed. "STOP IT RIGHT THIS MINUTE!"
Casey quit screaming, turned, and saw two bare feet inches from her face, and let her eyes follow the legs to the hem of a dress. Casey sat bolt upright and looked up into the eyes of a witch wearing a wet dress. The witch's blond and crimson hair stuck out from her head like twisted garden vines. The unfamiliar face, smeared with red, smiled down at her. Two of her front teeth were missing. The witch knelt and put the cook's meat-chopping thing down on the floor.
Casey couldn't move. She stared at the gory hands that reached out for her and she squeezed her eyes shut tight as the witch embraced her, pressing Casey's cheek–wet with tears she didn't even know she was shedding–against her heaving chest.
"What a good baby girl you are to find me," the husky voice told her. "I was just getting ready to come get you."Chapter Two
Saturday, August 27, 2005
Using her SureFire flashlight in the dark to prevent tripping over tree limbs, FBI Special Agent Alexa Keen followed the string of Day-Glo plastic that had been run tree to tree by responding officers to lead the way to, then to form a bordered trapezoid around, the crime scene. Carefully, she entered the crime scene, illuminated by portable quartz floodlights. The corpse appeared to be wrapped tightly in a rust-colored blanket–a covering Alexa realized was comprised of tens of thousands of fire ants. As she squatted for a better look, the dead man's lids suddenly opened and he stared at her through eyes of wet obsidian. His mouth formed a silent, screaming circle.
Alexa jerked awake and lay in the darkness, piecing the shards of reality together. Hotel room. New Orleans. Law-enforcement seminar
. A real siren outside had clawed its way through the gossamer walls of her dream about a dead man she had seen only in photographs until his naked corpse had been discovered in the Tennessee woods two days after his family had paid a quarter-million-dollar ransom. Charles Tarlton had been her first case–involving the murder of an abducted individual–and it played in the theater of her dreams with some frequency. As Alexa's nightmares went, this one was hardly a two–a ten was being awakened by labored wheezing and lying frozen in terror as a pair of clammy hands explored her prepubescent body. Alexa shuddered.
The bedside clock had the time at five past twelve. Alexa slid her hand beneath the pillow beside her to feel the knife. It was always there in case she was ever again surprised by anyone climbing into her bed. The knife's edge was razor sharp, and Alexa Keen knew how to use it.
Except for her shoes placed beside the bed, Alexa was still dressed in the clothes she'd worn to dinner with two other agents, who she'd never met before. They'd all checked into the Marriott–each presenting the "new and more user-friendly" FBI to the law enforcement seminar. Alexa always slept in her clothes when she was away from her own bed. She lay awake for several more minutes with her eyes closed–her mind speeding through a dark forest of troubling thoughts. The most disturbing were of her sister, who was sitting in a military safe house, waiting to testify at a string of court-martial proceedings, which involved several high-ranking members of U.S. Army intelligence, all facing disgrace and terms in military prison, and in one case possible execution. Some of them also faced federal and state charges when the Army was done with them.
Beyond that stack of mind manure, Alexa's brain started going through the cases she'd worked that had ended badly, wondering what she'd missed, how she should have done things differently. Everybody made mistakes, but when Alexa Keen made one, the consequences could be devastating for a family and deadly for the victim.
Alexa's professional life was one long-running stress test. She thrived on edge living–consuming gallons of coffee and running headlong through nights and days without meaningful sleep. She loved the atmospheric highs that success brought, and she somehow slogged her way out from the pit that failures dug. The job was her life. She read inside politics expertly, for doing so was a necessary evil: it often meant the difference between being relevant and sitting behind a desk in some dismal Bureau FO–or field office–in the windswept boonies. Alexa walked the walk–navigating the spiderweb red-tape bureaucracy–and talked the requisite Bureau-jabber. This was the life she had freely chosen, and the other agents were almost the only family she had left. Alexa's was a family headed by inflexible, often paranoid, and generally disapproving parent figures who were slow to reward and eager to punish–and the Bureau was a family where sibling rivalry was unrelenting and pitiless.
With the agility of a panther, Alexa rose from the bed and crossed to the window. Opening the heavy curtains, she peered down through the dark glass at a wide-awake city. Twenty floors below, an ambulance attendant slammed the door of the vehicle whose siren had awakened her and she listened to its scream as it made its way toward Charity Hospital, which had the best trauma care unit in the city. And New Orleans did its dead-level best to make sure the ER remained the busiest venue in town.
Alexa Keen sometimes wondered if there was a place she could call home. All through her adult life she had moved from city to city, settled in superficially, learned the relevant streets in those cities, developed preferences in stores and restaurants, but invariably they all felt cold to her.
Alexa's apartments were interchangeable. She hung the same art on the walls, shifted the same modern furniture in her space. There was no extraneous clutter, plants to be watered, pets to anchor her, and Alexa's telephone seldom rang since the advent of the do-not-call list. Her residence mailboxes collected only spiderwebs and generic adver-junk. Due to the amount of time she was away on-site, all of her bills were automatically subtracted from her checking account or paid electronically. Her television set was only a means to monitor the flowing river of news and the local weather.
Her sound system played Billie Holiday, Wes Montgomery, the Gipsy Kings, R.E.M., The Beatles, the Stones, or Elmore James, depending on her mood. Alexa kept a library card, and she read fiction for entertainment, nonfiction for information.
She was five feet seven inches tall and maintained her weight between 125 and 130. She worked out at the FBI gym before daybreak, and in the evenings she ran several miles. For days when the weather was bad, she had a treadmill in her apartment. When she was on the road she did push-ups, sit-ups, and squats. And over the years she had taken both karate and kickboxing lessons to keep up her self-defense skills. She was strong, agile, had good stamina, was fast on her feet, had remarkable balance, and knew how to defend herself. She went to the firing range monthly to stay sharp, but she would never be more than adequate with a handgun.
Alexa looked down at the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Most were tourists–which was a polite way of saying they were marks whose wallets held the blood that powered the city's real heart–the French Quarter, the casinos, the restaurants and bars.
Alexa had only visited the Crescent City on FBI business. It wasn't her nature to spend her vacation time in tourist magnets like New Orleans, San Francisco, Las Vegas, or Miami. When she took her required vacations, she hiked obscure trails, floated down rivers, camped where few other people wanted to be. She liked the salt air and the solitude of beaches in the winter.
Alexa had mixed feelings where New Orleans was concerned. She loved the jazz, but didn't drink. She enjoyed the restaurants, but she only ate rich foods on remarkable occasions. She appreciated antiques, but wouldn't spend the money on them because she had no desire to own things she might worry about. She enjoyed the architecture and the art. She appreciated the way most of the locals accepted eccentrics and misfits and how they took everyday life with a grain of salt.
New Orleans was a cautionary illustration of what could happen to the entire country as it descended from its golden age. Alexa knew that the things residents and most nonresidents loved about the city were hardly more than smoke and mirrors that hid the real New Orleans, which was a collapsing sump, crippled by rampant ignorance, grinding poverty, shameless nepotism, an inadequate tax base, a crumbling infrastructure, a long-ignored levee system, a generational welfare system, wholesale crime, underpaid and overworked city employees, decaying structures, morally bankrupt leaders who propagated a third-world-style corruption–and it was all gathering speed in a downhill direction.
Some years earlier, she'd been hunting down a sexual predator who had abducted a girl and, in the process, killed two Chicago policemen. She had tracked him to New Orleans. The man had been staying in a motel, using the abducted sixteen-year-old girl to satisfy his sadistic sexual desires. Alexa had found him, and, when he'd run, he ended up abandoning the girl in his car, and Alexa had found herself chasing him through the French Quarter. Alexa wasn't religious, but she had decided that if there was a hell, it must look and feel like Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. After catching him he'd wanted to fight with his much smaller adversary, so she'd used her fists and feet on him while the crowd had cheered wildly. As he'd begged for mercy, she handcuffed and arrested him.
Despite the fact that she was wide-awake, the ringing telephone startled her. The red numerals on the clock said 12:22.
"Yes," she said.
"Special Agent Keen?" a male voice asked.
"This is Michael Manseur. I'm a detective with NOPD Homicide."
"Winter Massey's friend," she said, smiling. Six months earlier, she and ex-Deputy U.S. Marshal Winter Massey, a close friend of hers since childhood, had worked together on a kidnapping case in North Carolina. Massey had spoken very highly of Michael Manseur, the man who had helped him locate and save a young girl's life. The child, whose mother had been murdered by a professional killer, had become a member of Winter Massey's family.
"Well," Manseur responded, "I expect friend
might be a stretch. Acquaintance
is closer to it. I have nothing but respect for Winter, that's for sure. He is one memorable individual."
"I spoke to him last week, and he told me I should call you. I really did mean to."
"He called me a few days ago to tell me I should call you while you were in town. I intended to ask you to join my family for dinner while you're here, but I've been up to my belt loops in alligators. And this hurricane track is looking bad."
Excerpted from Too Far Gone by John Ramsey Miller. Copyright © 2006 by John Ramsey Miller. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.