Excerpt from A Garden of Vipers




Eastern Mobile County, Alabama, early 2000s

“Are you sure he ran this way? I don’t see anything.”

“Keep your damned voice down. Don’t touch the blood. And just use light when you need it.”

Lucas heard the voices in the distance and his eyes snapped open. The world was spinning slowly, like he was caught in a syrupy vortex. Lucas threw his arms out to his sides to hold on and felt his fingers touch grass. It was night, but he saw the dark shadows of nearby trees. Comets were spinning between their trunks, blinking on and off: comet, no comet. It smelled fresh here in cometland, like dew and wet leaves. A very peculiar effect, he thought. Also peculiar: a single star straight up in the sky, flashing, like the comets and the star were conversing.

“I see a car! Hidden behind the trees, branches over it. He’s around here.”

“We’ll have to get rid of the car. Fast. Call for a trailer.”

Lucas closed his eyes, took a deep breath of the cool air. The solitary star blinked. Another comet flashed across the sky. No, not comets, his clearing mind registered, it was flashlights pressing through fog. He was in a field beside a woods, damp weeds bristling against the sides of his face. Why was he in farmland? Had he gotten drunk? Why the flashlights? Looking for something.

Looking for him.

What had he done?

Lucas took a deep breath. The footsteps started up again, with the sound of bodies pushing aside branches, stepping on twigs. The flashlight beams swept side to side across the weeds and trees. Lucas’s world turned white as a beam crossed him. He made himself lay absolutely still. The light passed by.

But in the moment of illumination he had seen something odd: His hand was red. The dark color smeared across his fingers. He stared at his hand, perversely entranced. Then he realized it wasn’t just his hand: he was covered with blood.

The voices started again. Louder and closer.

“I saw something at the base of the microwave tower. It should be to your left; can you see the tower light blinking above the trees?”

“Be careful. He’s . . . resourceful.”

A montage of pictures formed in Lucas’s head, recent memories playing like a jittery movie. He started to remember and his gut went cold. He should have figured they’d be coming. He knew too much.

“Shouldn’t the doctor be here? Why didn’t you bring him?”

“Shut up. I’ll circle to the far side of the tower. Keep the walkie talkie low, light off. I’ll tell you when to move in.”

It was black and quiet for several minutes. Lucas wiped the blood from his hands to his pants, flexed fingers, arms, legs. He could move now, escape. He drew himself into an unsteady crouch as the comets started flashing again. His world turned white. Black. He stumbled to his feet, his knees like gimbals, seeming to wobble every direction. Run! his mind screamed.

“I see him, he’s up.”

“I’m coming in from my side. Get the stunner out.”

Lucas took a deep breath, calculated the angles his pursuers had chosen, figured his way past them. He gathered his energy into his core.

Just as he ran, the world turned white.

“Damn, he just ran into a tower support. He’s down and rolling around.”


He heard running feet. Felt bodies fall over him, wrestle him over, his face pressing deep into the wet grass. He felt metal wrap his wrists, pain. He smelled sweat. After shave. And a piercing reek of fear, not his own.

“Zap him!”

“He’s not fighting.”

“I told you to--”

There was a shivering blue explosion and the comets returned, each bringing a hundred stars to the party. They whooshed and tumbled and danced. It was beautiful.

In the distance, the voices started up again.

“There’s something all over him. Jesus, Crandell, it’s blood.”

“Get him up and moving. We’ve got to get out of here.”

And then a mouth at his ear, hot and wet. A happy mouth, it seemed, like it had just consumed a delicious meal.

“What did you do, Lucas?” the happy mouth whispered. “What terrible thing have you done this time?”

Chapter 1

Present time

A stalled weather front bred thunderstorm cells from New Orleans to Pensacola. Rain dropped in sheets and lightning shredded the sky. Then, as if on a switch, the deluge halted and the air turned sweet and balmy. Ten minutes later, earth and sky were at war again. Mobile, Alabama, was dead center in the conflict.

“What do you think, Carson?” My detective partner, Harry Nautilus, peered through the windshield wipers. “Time to start loading up animals two by two?”

“How about this time we leave the mosquitoes behind?”

It was nine-thirty p.m., the streets almost dead, sane people safe at home. Harry and I were parked near the downtown library. We were working four to midnight, something we did a couple times a week, most bad guys being nocturnal as owls. Not that we’d see much of them tonight; of the five hours we’d been in the car, two were spent against the curb, blinded by sheets of rain.

The radio came to life, the signal mangled by nearby lightning.

“DB . . . Eldredge and . . . truck driver heading to hosp . . . ains.”

“Did I hear DB?” Harry said. DB was Dead Body. He grabbed the microphone.

“Nautilus here, Dispatch. You’re breaking up. Repeat.”

“DB . . . corner of Industrial and Eldredge. Called in by a truck driver. Driver on route to hospital with chest pains.”

We were eight blocks away.

“Nautilus and Ryder confirm message received,” Harry said. “We’re on our way.”

Harry jammed the Crown Vic into gear, roared toward the scene. I figure we left a wake like a speedboat. The radio crackled again. Not Dispatch, but another detective team in the vicinity.

“This is Logan and Shuttles. We’re closer, just five blocks. We’ll take it.”

Harry growled and keyed the mike again. “Nautilus and Ryder have the call.”

“Why’s Logan out at this hour?” I said. “I’ve never seen his lazy ass work past five-thirty.”

The radio crackled with Pace Logan’s voice. “Dispatch, this is Logan. Mark this one ours, we’re almost there.”

I felt the car accelerate. Harry growled, “Negative on that, Dispatch. Carson and me are making the run.”

“Goddamn it, Nautilus, it’s ours,” Pace Logan barked over the radio, no longer using Dispatch as an intermediary.

Harry threw the microphone to the floor. “It’s whoever gets there first,” he muttered, flicking on the lights and screamer and taking a right so fast it about threw me in his lap.

Pace Logan was a disgruntled, hotheaded old-timer waiting to grab his retirement pay, buy a trailer in Florida or Branson, and make life miserable for a succession of lonely women picked up in bowling alley bars. Logan’s young partner, Tyree Shuttles, was a good guy, a new-made detective with the misfortune of being assigned Logan as a partner, like being chained to a dinosaur.

Harry cut another corner hard, skidding toward a line of parked cars barely visible through the rain. I held my breath and braced for an impact that somehow never arrived. We blew through a deserted intersection and I saw a flashing red light paralleling us one block over: Logan and Shuttles. We were three blocks from the scene.

“Jeez, Harry. It’s a drag race.”

“I’m not picking up after Logan again,” he said. “No goddamn way.”

Six or seven weeks back, Logan’s mishandled evidence in a homicide case almost bought the defense a dismissal. Harry and I got called in at the eleventh hour, eleven forty-five, maybe. It took weeks of twelve-hour-a-day work to re-trace Logan’s investigative steps, supplanting tainted evidence with new finds. Harry’d finally nailed it using information Logan had overlooked in his own records.

I’d spent the bulk of my time handling our standard overweight caseload, meaning Harry had mopped up pretty much on his own. Both of us had worked doubles most days, and Harry’d ended up postponing a vacation with family in Memphis. He was still royally steamed about Logan’s screw-up.

I rolled the window down an inch. Between the beats of our screamer, I heard Logan and Shuttles’s siren. It would be close.

“Next block, Harry. Turn right.”

A radio car at each end of the block had secured an intersection at the edge of a warehouse district. On one corner was a restaurant equipment wholesaler, cattycorner was an industrial laundry.

We raced down the street from one direction, Logan and Shuttles from the other. A semi sat dead in the street, a red Mazda a dozen feet from the big truck’s grille. Harry skidded to a stop and dove into the rain, no time to pull on his rain gear. I slid into a plastic slicker and followed.

Harry splashed toward the Mazda as Logan jumped from his vehicle, almost on the Mazda’s bumper. Logan stepped in front of Harry, finger jabbing, voice angry. The uniformed officers closed in, drawn by the smell of confrontation. I hurried over, rain pouring into my eyes.

“I’ve got the scene, Nautilus,” Logan said. “Get back in your vehicle and haul ass.”

“Not gonna happen, Logan,” Harry said. “It’s ours.”

“I got seniority, Nautilus.”

“Then join AARP,” Harry said. “I’m not saving your worthless ass anymore.”

Logan froze. His eyes tightened. “It was a Forensics screw-up, not mine.”

“You almost blew the case, Logan,” Harry said. “Have the balls to own up to it.”

Logan’s hands squeezed into fists. “For a simple fuck, Nautilus, you’re a sanctimonious son of a bitch.”

“And for a cop, Logan, you’re a helluva defense lawyer.”

Logan made a guttural sound and launched a punch toward Harry’s gut. Harry blocked it, grabbed Logan’s wrist, twisted, dropped to a knee. Logan went down. Harry rammed Logan’s arm behind his back. He writhed on the wet pavement, cursing and threatening.

“Knife!” someone yelled, a nightmare word. Everyone froze, heads turning, hands dropping to holsters.

“Easy guys,” Tyree Shuttles said, a few feet behind the Mazda. He pointed into shadows by the curb. “I found a big-ass knife. Over here in the gutter.”

Harry released Logan’s wrist. Logan squirmed up, gasping and wheezing, a heavy smoker. He leaned against the Mazda to catch his breath. Something seemed to catch his eye, and for a moment he seemed transfixed by an image near the sidewalk. I turned to look, but all I saw was water rushing down the gutter, dumping into a storm sewer.

Harry and I jogged to Shuttles, kneeling beside a metal object in the gutter, only a portion of the handle visible above the water. Logan wheezed up, looked at the weapon, then at Shuttles. Harry backed away and sighed, having the civility to invent an ad hoc protocol.

“Shuttles found evidence, Logan. You guys get the case.”

Logan leaned against the driver’s side of the Mazda, looked inside. He stared a moment, pulled a flashlight from his pocket, checked again, shook his head. Logan laughed without a trace of humor.

“You want this one, Nautilus? It’s yours.”

Logan turned away, walked back to his vehicle, climbed in the passenger’s side. Shuttles shot a glance at his vehicle, Logan sulking within. The young detective looked embarrassed.

“I’m sorry about what went down with Pace,” Shuttles said. “He’s been in a shitty mood the last couple weeks.”

Harry brushed rain from his face, stepped closer to Shuttles, lowered his voice so the uniforms couldn’t hear. “I know you won’t request a new-partner assignment, Tyree. I respect that. But transfer to another district. Get a new partner that way. Logan’s not doing your career any good.”

“Pace is retiring in two months, Harry. He’ll be gone soon.”

“You sure?”

Shuttles nodded. Harry said, “Hang in there.”

The slender black officer walked back toward his car. He paused, turned to Harry and mouthed Thanks. Shuttles climbed in, flicked off the flashers behind the grille, pulled away. I didn’t envy him the rest of his shift with Logan pissing and moaning and inventing ways he got screwed.

Harry told the uniforms the show was over and to get back to diverting traffic, if any happened to show up. I put on latex gloves, opened the door of the Mazda. The victim’s bowels had released and the car was thick with the smell of blood and excrement. She was tumbled across the transmission hump, her head on the passenger seat, braided and beaded hair flung like a rag doll’s. Her nose appeared broken. Her lower lip was torn. There were wounds across her torso, her blouse glossy with blood. Her throat had been slit.

I took a deep breath and continued my visual inventory. One of her hands looked odd. It was hanging down on the passenger side, in shadow. I went to the passenger side and opened the door, my fears confirmed. Three fingers broken, the digits bent backward. It was unsettling, like a hand assembled incorrectly.

I made myself concentrate on the pillaging of the vehicle--sound system removed, wires dangling. The glove box was open, contents scattered. Maps half open on the floor, registration, manual, tire-pressure gauge. Sunvisors pulled forward. Sometimes folks clipped a few spare bucks there, for toll roads and the like. Blood was everywhere, like the interior had been hosed down with an artery.

I knew why Logan passed on the case. This one had an immediate bad feel, a one-glance Creep Factor. I studied the woman again, a cold wave spreading through my gut. The smell overwhelmed me and I withdrew.

“She was beaten and cut,” I told Harry. “It’s bad.”

Harry had gone to the car for his rain gear, not that it would do much good. He leaned in and scanned the scene for several minutes, his mind taking pictures. Now and then a detail pulled a grunt or a sigh. He studied the floor at the woman’s feet, put his hand in, touched the floor, looked at his fingertips. Then, aiming the flashlight close to the floor, he repeated the motion.

“What is it, bro?” I asked.

Harry didn’t hear me. He turned his face to the sky, like looking for the answer to something.

Reprinted from Garden of Vipers by Jack Kerley by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Jack Kerley, 2006. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.