The Little Death
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Pocket Books
Something wasn't right. He could tell from the baying of the dog.
It wasn't the normal barking that came when the dogs had come across a cow mired in a mud hole. It wasn't the frenzied yelps that signaled the dogs had cornered a boar in the brush.
This was like screaming.
Burke Aubry shifted in his saddle and peered into the darkness. A heavy fog had rolled in before dawn and it distorted everythingshapes, smells, but especially sound. The barking seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, rising and falling with every shift of the cold morning wind.
A rustling to his left. He turned, ears pricked.
Just a cabbage palm. Its thick trunk, hidden by the fog, seemed to float above the ground. The wind sent the heavy fronds scraping against each other. It sounded like the rasp of a dying man.
Movement in the corner of his eye. The dark mass took shape as it came toward him, the blur hardening slowly into horse and rider.
It was Dwayne. Aubry could tell from the red kerchief he always wore around his neck. A second later, a second smaller shape emerged, a large yellow dog following close behind the horse.
Dwayne drew his horse up next to Aubry's. "You hear that?" "Yeah." "You think one of the curs got into with a boar?" Aubry didn't answer. He was listening to the baying. It sounded like it was coming from the south. But none of the men or their dogs was supposed to be down there.
He jerked the radio from his saddle. "Mike?"
A cackle of static. "Yeah boss?"
"You working the east ten pasture?"
"That's where you told us to go."
"Are all of you there?"
A pause. "Yes, sir."
"What about the dogs?"
"Dogs?" "Are all your dogs with you?"
"They're all -"
"Count 'em, Mike."
Seconds later he came back. "Ted says his dog has gone missing."
A high-pitched yelping rose on the wind. It was coming from the south, Aubry was sure this time. He keyed the radio.
"Mike, get the men down to Devil's Garden."
"Devil's Garden? But"
"Just do it, Mike." Aubry stowed the radio and turned to Dwayne. "Let's go."
Even in the fog, he knew where he was going. He had been working the ranch for
nearly four decades now and he knew every foot of the four thousand acres, knew every tree, every swamp, every fence. He knew, too, that no living thing - not even a dog - had any reason to be in Devil's Garden.
They headed south. They crossed a stream and entered a thick grove of old live oaks. The gray fog-shroud wrapped the trees, softening their black twisting branches and webs of Spanish moss.
The baying was loud now. It was coming from the direction of the old cow pen. The pen was one of the largest on the ranch but had been abandoned twenty years ago. Aubry urged his horse on. Suddenly, the big yellow dog darted ahead of them through the tall wet ferns.
Dwayne whistled but the dog was lost in the fog.
The men prodded their horses to a fast trot. The dark wood of the pen's fence emerged from the mist. Two dogs now, barking and growling.
Aubry got off his horse, pulling out his rifle. He scaled the fence, the barking drawing him deeper into the maze of holding pens. He reached the large central pen and stopped, rifle poised to shoot if the dogs were confronting an animal. But the mass that the dogs were hunched over wasn't moving. Aubry heard Dwayne come in behind him and then Dwayne's sharp command to the dogs to heel.
Ears flat, fur raised, the dogs backed off. Aubry approached the mass slowly, rifle ready. The pale flesh stood out against the black dirt. At first, he thought it was a skinned
boar carcass. Then he saw the arm. A step closer and the rest of the mass took shape. A leg, and then a second one bent at a horrid angle under the hump of a bare back.
It was a man, naked. Aubry stopped. There was no head.
"Hey, boss, what we got"
Aubry heard Dwayne's sharp intake of breath as he saw the corpse.
"Jesus," Dwayne said.
Aubry pulled out his radio.
"Ah, sweet Jesus, where's his head?" Dwayne whispered.
Aubry keyed the radio. "Mike? Get back to the house and call the sheriff."
"Just do what I say, Mike. Tell them there's a dead man. Give them directions to
the old cow pen in Devil's Garden."
"Dead man? Who?"
"I don't know."
Aubry clicked off and pocketed the radio. He heard a retching sound and turned. Dwayne was leaning on a fence, wiping his face.
Aubry looked back at the body. He felt the rise of bile in his throat and swallowed hard. Shifting the rifle to his back he squatted next to the body.
He could see now that there were deep slashes across the back, like the man had been cut badly. And it looked like the head had been cut off cleanly, almost like it had been sawed off. He scanned the pen as far as the fog would allow but didn't see the head.
He looked down. He realized suddenly what he thought was black dirt was actually sand saturated with blood. The black pool spread out a good four feet from the body. He stood up and took two long strides back. The toes of his boots were black.
His radio crackled but he didn't hear it. His brain was far away, and suddenly the memories he had tried so hard to bury were right there with him again. Another spread of blood, a different body. Once again, the outsiders would come here, men with guns, badges and questions. Once again, he would have to stand silent and watch as the waves ate away yet more of his island.
The pain hit him, a knife to the heart, and he closed his eyes. The wind died suddenly and the quiet moved in. He looked up, to where the fog had burned off leaving a hole in the sky. He blinked rapidly to keep the tears away, watching the patch of sky until it turned from blue velvet to gray flannel.
An owl hooted. A hawk screamed. Then came the soft mewing cries of the catbirds. The day was coming alive in this place of death.
The top was down on the Mustang and the road ahead was empty. Louis Kincaid was not sure exactly where he was going.
He had never driven this road before. On all his trips over to the east coast, he had taken Alligator Alley, which cut a straight expedient slash across the Everglades from Naples to Fort Lauderdale. Always in the past, he had arrived quickly, done his job and headed straight back home.
But this time, an impulse he did not understand had led him to the back roads.
The map told him he had to stay on US-80, but the highway had changed names several times already, narrowing to meander through cattle pastures and tomato farms, offering up a red-planked barbecue joint, a sun-burnt nursery or a psychic's bungalow. Three times the speed limit dropped and US-80 became Main Street, passing Alva's white steepled church, La Belle's old courthouse, and Clewiston's strip malls. From there, the towns fell away leaving only the vast flat expanse of the sugar cane fields, broken by a row of high power lines, marching like giant alien soldiers to the horizon.
The road was empty now as the Mustang passed through the cane fields. The wind was hot on Louis's face and the scenery a blur of colorthe high green curtain of the cane and the denim of the December sky. The sun was behind him and he had a strong urge to turn the car around and head back home. But he had made a promise and had to see this thing through.
Soon he reached the sprawling suburbs of West Palm Beach. The fast food joints and gas stations grew denser the farther east the car went, ending in the pastel warren of old downtown West Palm Beach.
At the Intracoastal, Louis steered the Mustang onto a low-slung bridge that connected the mainland to the barrier island. He had the thought that the bridge looked nothing like the one that led from Fort Myers over to his island home on the Gulf. The Sanibel-Captiva causeway was a plain concrete expanse that leapfrogged across patches of scrub and rocky beaches dotted with kids and wading fishermen.
But this one...it looked like the drawbridge to a Mediterranean castle, complete with two ornamental guard towers.
The bridge emptied onto a broad boulevard lined with majestic royal palms and fortress-like buildings that he supposed were banks. There was no welcome sign, no signs anywhere. He guessed he was in Palm Beach now.
"Mel, wake up," he said. No sound or movement from the passenger seat. Louis reached over and jabbed the lump. "Mel! Wake up!"
"We're here. Where do I go?"
Mel Landeta sat up with a grunt, adjusted his sunglasses and looked around. "Take a right on South County Road," he said.
"Where? There's no street signs."
"I don't know. I haven't been here in a long time. The island's only fourteen miles
long and a mile wide. If you hit the ocean, you've gone too far."
Louis spotted the street name painted on the curb and hung a right. The financial citadels of the boulevard gave way to boutiques and restaurants.
"Where we meeting this guy?" Louis asked.
"Some place called Ta-boo. Two more blocks and hang a right onto Worth Avenue. You can't miss it, believe me."
In the three years Louis had been in Floridadespite the fact his PI cases had taken him from Tallahassee to Miamihe had never made it over to Palm Beach. But he knew what Worth Avenue was: the Rodeo Drive of the South, minus the movie stars.
He slowed the Mustang to a crawl, looking for a parking spot. Some of the store names he recognized - Armani, Gucci, Dior, Cartier - but most didn't register. What did register was the almost creepy cleanliness of the street. From the blinding white of the pavement to the gleaming metal of the Jaguars and Bentleys at curbside, Worth Avenue had the antiseptic look of an operating room. He pulled the Mustang in behind a black and gold Corniche.
Mel adjusted his sunglasses and sniffed the air like a dog. "Ah, the sweet smell of money."
The only thing Louis could smell was perfume. It took him a moment to realize it was wafting out on an arctic stream of air conditioning from the open door of the Chanel boutique. A security guard, dressed in blue suit and tie, was stationed just inside the door.
Mel got out and stretched. He pulled his black sports coat from the back seat and slipped it on, then looked at Louis. "Did you bring a jacket?" he asked.
Louis stared at him.
"A sports coat," Mel said. "I told you to pack one."
"It's eighty degrees," Louis said.
"Get it," Mel said.
Stifling a sigh, Louis popped the trunk and shook out his blue blazer. The Chanel guard had come out to stand just outside the door and was watching him.
"Hey buddy," Mel called out. "Which way is Ta-boo?"
The guard's eyes swung to Mel, giving him the once-over before he spoke. "Two blocks back," he said.
They headed east down the wide sidewalk, pausing at a corner for a Mercedes to turn. Louis's gaze traveled up the imposing coral stone facade of the Tiffany & Co. building to the statue of Atlas balancing a clock. It was one-forty. They were late.
"You still haven't told me how you know this guy," Louis said, as they started across the street.
"I knew him when I was with Miami PD," Mel said. "I helped him out once when he got in a jam."
This was certainly more than a jam, Louis thought. Reggie Kent was the prime suspect in a murder. A murder gruesome enough to have made the papers over in Fort Myers. A decapitated body had been found in the fields on the western-most fringe of Palm Beach County. The head had not been found but the mutilated corpse was identified as a Palm Beach man named Mark Durand.
The sheriff's department had connected the dots and they had lead fifty miles east and across the bridge, right to Reggie Kent's island doorstep.
That was all he knew, Mel had said. Other than Reggie Kent was scared shitless. And, that he was innocent, of course.
"This must be the place," Mel said.
The restaurant was pink stucco, its large open window framing two blonde women sitting at a table sipping drinks. Inside it was as cool and dark as a tomb, the long narrow room dominated by a sleek dark bar. Beyond, through a latticed entrance, Louis could see a main dining room. Louis knew that Mel probably couldn't see well. His retinitis pigmentosa allowed him to see blurred images if the light was bright, but at night or in the dimness of a bar, he needed help. Not that Mel would ask.
"What's this Reggie guy look like?" Louis asked.
"I haven't seen him in ten years. Blond, stocky. Nice looking guy, I guess."
The bar was packed, mainly with more blondes, who had given them a quick dismissive once-over. There was a man sitting at the far end, waving a hand. Louis led Mel through a sea of silk and tanned legs.
The guy who had signaled them slid off his zebra-print barstool. "Mel," he said, "My God, you haven't changed a bit."
"Neither have you, Reggie," Mel said, sticking out his hand.
Louis knew Mel couldn't see the guy well, but the lie brought a smile to Reggie Kent's face as he shook Mel's hand. In the blue reflected light of the saltwater aquarium behind the bar, Louis could see Reggie's face clearly. He was probably about fifty, but his round pale face had an oddly juvenile look. His skin was pink and shiny, almost like the slick skin of a burn victim. Wisps of blond hair hung over wide blue eyes. He wore a pink oxford shirt beneath a light blue linen blazer and white slacks.
As Reggie Kent hefted himself back onto the barstool and crossed an ankle over his knee, he revealed a glimpse of bare pink ankle above soft navy loafers. The whole effect made Louis think of a giant Kewpie doll.
"You've saved my life," Reggie Kent said.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Mel said.
"Yes, yes, of course." Reggie ran a hand over his brow.
The bar was frigid but Louis could see a sheen of sweat on the man's face.
"This is Louis Kincaid, the guy I told you about," Mel said, nodding.
Reggie focused on Louis. "You're the private investigator."
His voice had dropped to a whisper and the blue eyes honed in on Louis with intense curiosity before darting away.
"You need a drink. How rude of me. Yuba!"
The bartender appeared, a tall woman with long sleek black hair and almond- colored skin, wearing a white shirt and a black vest.
"You need a refill?" she said in a softly accented voice.
"Yes, another Rodnik gimlet. And whatever my friends are having. Just put it on my tab."
The woman hesitated.
"What?" Reggie asked.
"Don says I can't run a tab for you anymore," she said quietly. "I'm sorry, Reggie."
Even in the dim light, Louis could see the red creep into Reggie's face. Louis
pulled out his wallet and tossed a twenty on the bar. "Bring us two Heinekens and the gimlet," he said.
The bartender nodded and left.
Reggie was staring at something beyond Louis's shoulder. Louis turned and saw two women looking at Reggie and whispering.
The bartender brought the drinks and eyed the twenty. "That's fifty-six dollars, sir."
"What?" Louis said.
Mel laughed. Louis dug out two more twenties. "Keep the change."
The woman took the bills and left. "Nice tip," Mel said.
"It's all I had," Louis said.
Mel took a drink of beer. "All right, Reggie, why don't you tell us exactly what is going on?"
Reggie was still staring at the two women and when his eyes came back to Mel,
they were moist. "Let's move to a table," he said.
They picked up their drinks and followed Reggie from the bar. He paused at the
latticed entrance to the back dining room then veered right into an alcove. When they were seated, Reggie took a thin blue pack of Gauloises from his jacket and lit a cigarette. He nodded toward the other room.
"That used to be my table, that one by the fireplace," he said. "They're trying to slowly kill me. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"
Mel looked at Louis. "Who's 'they'?"
"Everyone," Reggie said. "This whole town."
"Why don't we start at the beginning," Mel said.
Reggie took a big drink of the gimlet. "Well, it's like I told you on the phone.
Fours days ago, they found Mark's body out in the fields, and then they just showed up at my door and told me I had to come into the police station to answer some questions." He paused, shutting his eyes. "I had to go to that place and identify him. He ... had no head. But he had this birthmark on his chest and"
Mel interrupted him. "This Mark guy was a friend of yours?"
Reggie managed a nod.
"A good friend?" Mel asked.
Reggie picked up his glass and drained it. "Not really. I only knew him for a year, I guess."
"So why were the police so interested in talking to you?" Louis asked.
Reggie took a moment to meet Louis's eyes. "We were kind of in business together."
"What kind of business?"
Reggie looked to Mel.
"You have to tell to us, Reggie," Mel said.
Reggie blew out a long stream of cigarette smoke. "I'm a walker." "
What, like a dog walker?" Louis asked.
"Dog? Oh good Lord, no," Reggie said. "A walker is...well, an escort of sorts."
He saw the look on Louis's face and held up a hand. "Not what you are thinking, I assure you. It's rather hard to explain."
Louis and Mel exchanged looks.
"Suppose you try," Mel said. "You know, like we're in fifth grade?"
Reggie looked to the dining room. "See that woman sitting by the fireplace? That blonde in the chartreuse Chanel suit?"
Louis and Mel swiveled to look. Louis focused on a woman in green with cotton-candy hair. Her face had the same taut look as Reggie's and had the lighting been kinder, she might have been mistaken for in her fifties. But her neck and hands betrayed her as somewhere past seventy.
"That's Rusty Newsome," Reggie said. "I was supposed to escort her to the Heart Ball Saturday. Her husband Chick never goes to anything, so I always take her." He met Louis's eyes. "That's what I do. I take women to dinner or charity balls or the club. I pay attention to them if their husbands are too bored...or too dead."
"You make a living at this?" Louis asked.
Reggie gave him a small smile. "There's a lot of clubs in this town and a lot of widows in each club."
"They pay you?" Louis asked.
Reggie tilted his chin up. "Sometimes they give me a little cash. Sometimes they give me little gifts. It's not just about the money, you see. It's about having a door into a life I could not really afford on my own."
Mel took a long drink from his beer. "I always thought you were a hustler, Reggie."
Reggie looked wounded. "Some might see it that way. But there are good hustlers and there are bad hustlers. A bad hustler is always trying to get something out of someone. I am always trying to give these women something. I am the first to admit I have no real talents or ambition. But I am a wonderful listener, I know about wine and food, and I am very good at bridge. I know how to make a lonely woman feel happy."
"Is sex part of this walker deal?" Louis asked.
Reggie's eyes shot to him. "Never. The women I know are not interested in sex."
Louis shook his head slowly. "Mr. Kent, I do a lot of work for wives whose
husbands are cheating on them. Every time I find a guy's been charging escorts to his Visa, he claims he just did it for the pleasure of the lady's company."
"This is different," Reggie said, reddening. "What a walker offers is friendship. And sometimes a friendship is more intimate than a marriage. But it never, ever involves sex. We are not gigolos."
He picked up his glass and downed the last of the gimlet. Louis was hoping he wouldn't order another one.
"Your friendwhat's his name again?" Louis asked.
"Mark," Reggie said softly. "Mark Durand."
"You said he was a walker, too?" Louis asked.
Reggie nodded slowly. "He was just starting out as one, and I was sort of introducing him around, helping him get connected. He would have been a great walker."
"But he turned up headless in the tomato fields," Mel said.
Reggie nodded and looked at his empty glass with longing. Louis wondered if
Mel had a credit card.
"How many times have the cops questioned you?" Louis asked.
"Three times," Reggie said with a sigh. "It was in the Shiny Sheet. They even used my picture. Awful, just awful."
"Why?" Louis asked.
"Cops don't question someone three times without good reason. Why do you think they're after you?"
Reggie was silent.
"Talk to us, Reggie," Mel said.
"I was with Mark the night before his body was found," Reggie said softly. "We
had dinner at Testa's and..." Another big sigh. "We had a fight. Everyone saw it."
"About what?" Mel asked.
"What does it matter now?"
"It matters," Mel said.
"Mark had been staying at my place, and he told me he wanted to get his own apartment," Reggie said. "I told him he should stay with me for a while longer."
"You two weren't - ?"
Reggie stared at Mel. "Together? Oh no, no. Mark was quite a bit younger than me. No, there was nothing between us. We were just friends."
Mel drained his beer, set the glass down, and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. "Don't lie to us, Reggie."
"I'm not. Like I said, it was just a business arrangement. I was trying to help him.
But Mark insisted he was ready to go out on his own and I knew he wasn't ready. This town will eat you alive, and I didn't want that to happen to him."
Mel was silent. Louis waited, watching the two men, wondering what the history was between them. Mel hadn't told him much about Reggie Kent, just that he had known him back in Miami. He wondered how the hell Mel had ever hooked up with a piss- elegant guy like this.
Reggie leaned forward. "You've got to help me, Mel. Please. I don't have anyone else to turn to."
Louis was afraid the guy was going to cry. "They've hung me out to dry," Reggie said. Even the police are against me."
They're cops, Reggie, they're supposed to be," Mel said.
Reggie shook his head vigorously. "No, you don't understand. The police are here to protect us. When that horrible detective from West Palm Beach came here to question me, Lieutenant Swann came with him. They are my friends."
He picked up the pack of Gauloises, but when he pulled out a cigarette, his hand was shaking so badly he dropped it. Mel caught it before it rolled off the table. Mel looked at Louis, then back at Reggie. "So what do you want us to do?"
"Find out who killed Mark," Reggie said.
"Just like that?" Mel said.
"I told you, Mel, I have money. I can pay you. And your friend, of course."
Louis was quiet. There was something about this guy he didn't like. His desperation was genuine enough, but something was slightly off. He was sure the guy was lying about something. Or at the very least, leaving something out of the story.
"Please, Mel," Reggie said.
Mel held out the cigarette to Reggie. "Look, let us go have a little chat with your Lieutenant Swann and we'll get back to you."
Reggie looked to Louis, who nodded. Reggie took the cigarette and grasped Mel's hand. "Thank you, thank you."
"Easy," Mel said.
Reggie nodded and sat back in the chair, running a hand across his sweaty face. His wide eyes were darting over the crowded room now. He waved at someone and tried a smile but it faded quickly and he dropped his hand.
"I think I better go home," he said softly. "There's a nicely chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot in my fridge. I think I shall go home and get shit-faced drunk."
He picked up his cigarettes, rose and held out his hand. Mel shook it. Reggie turned to Louis. "Forgive my manners. I've forgotten your name."
Reggie smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Kincaid."
Louis gave him a nod.
Reggie took one last long look around the dining room and walked unsteadily back through the bar and was gone.
Louis turned to Mel, who smiled. "Welcome to Bizarro World," he said.
© P.J. Parrish