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By Dan Simmons
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Joe Kurtz, former investigator and convicted felon, is on parole. But the years he spent in Attica didn’t make his old haunts any safer. Back on the streets of Buffalo, he’s already marked by a local Mafia don.
As if watching his back weren’t enough work, Kurtz has also been hired by a gravely ill John Frears, whose daughter met a grisly fate at the hands of a murderer. Frears wants one thing before he dies: for Kurtz to find the fiend that the authorities couldn’t. But the calculating killer — a master at changing identities — has a little unfinished business of his own. Dodging a contract on his head and tracking a serial killer on the loose, Kurtz plunges headfirst into the icy waters of revenge as both victim and avenger.
JOE KURTZ KNEW that someday he would lose focus, that his attention would wander at a crucial minute, that instincts honed in almost twelve years of cell-block survival would fail him, and on that day he would die a violent death.
He noticed the old Pontiac Firebird turning behind him and parking at the far side of the lot when he pulled into Ted’s Hot Dogs on Sheridan, and when he stepped out, he noticed three men staying in their car as the Pontiac’s engine idled. The Firebird’s windshield wipers moved the falling snow aside in two black arcs, but Kurtz could see the three men’s heads outlined by the lights behind them. It was not yet 6:00 P.M., but full night had fallen in that dark, cold, claustrophobic way that only Buffalo, New York, in February could offer.
Kurtz scooped three rolls of quarters out of the console of his old Volvo, slipped them into the pocket of his peacoat and went into Ted’s Hot Dogs. He ordered two dogs with everything except hot sauce, an order of onion rings, and a black coffee, all the while standing where he could watch the Firebird from the corner of his eye. Three men got out, talked for a minute in the falling snow and then dispersed, none of them coming into the brightly lighted restaurant.
Kurtz carried his tray of food to the seating area around behind the long counter of charcoal burners and drink machines and found a booth away from the windows where he could still see out and was in line of sight of all the doors.
It was the Three Stooges.
Kurtz had glimpsed them long enough to make a positive identification. He knew the Stooges’ real names but it didn’t matter—during the years he had been in Attica with them, everyone had known them only as the Three Stooges. White men, in their thirties, not related except via some sexual ménage à trois that Kurtz didn’t want to think about, the Stooges were dirt stupid but crafty in their mean and lethal way. The Stooges had made a career of exercise-yard shank jobs, taking orders from those who couldn’t get at their targets for whatever reason and contracting their hits out for pay as low as a few dozen cartons of cigarettes. They were equal-opportunity killers: shanking a black for the Aryan Brotherhood one week, killing a white boy for a black gang the next.
So now Kurtz was out of stir and the Stooges were out of stir and it was his turn to die.
Kurtz ate his hot dogs and considered the problem. First, he had to find out who had ordered the contract on him.
No, scratch that. First he had to deal with the Three Stooges, but in a way that allowed him to find out who had put the contract out. He ate slowly and looked at the logistics of the matter. They weren’t promising. Either through blind luck or good intelligence—and Kurtz did not believe in luck—the Stooges had made their move at the only time when Kurtz was not armed. He was on his way home from a visit to his parole officer, and he’d decided that even the Volvo wasn’t a good place to hide a weapon. His PO was a tough-assed lady.
So the Stooges had him without a firearm and their specialty was execution in a public place. Kurtz looked around. There were only half a dozen other people sitting in the booths—two old-timers sitting silent and apart, and an exhausted-looking mother with three loud, preschool-age boys. One of the boys looked over at Kurtz and gave him the finger. The mother ate her french fries and pretended not to notice.
Kurtz looked around again. The two front doors opened onto the Sheridan Drive side of the restaurant to the south. Doors on the east and west sides of the brightly lighted dining area opened onto the parking lots. The north wall was empty except for the entrance to the two rest rooms.
If the Stooges came in and started blazing away, Kurtz did not have much recourse except to grab one or more of the civilians to use as a shield and try to get out one of the doors. The drifts were deep out there and it was dark away from the restaurant lights.
Not much of a plan, Joe. Kurtz ate his second hot dog and sipped his Coke. The odds were that the Stooges would wait outside for him to emerge—not sure if he had seen them—and gun him down in the parking lot. The Stooges weren’t afraid of spectators, but this wasn’t the exercise yard at Attica; if they came inside to kill him, they’d have to shoot all the witnesses—diners and workers behind the counter included. It seemed excessive even for the Attica Three Stooges.
The oldest of the three boys two booths over tossed a ketchup-covered french fry at Kurtz. Kurtz smiled and looked at the happy family, wondering whether two of those kids, held high, would offer enough bone and body mass to stop whatever caliber slugs the Stooges would be firing. Probably not.
Too bad. Kurtz lifted one foot at a time onto the seat of the booth, removed his shoes and slid off his socks, balling one inside the other. One of the boys in the nearby booth pointed at Kurtz and started babbling excitedly to his mother, but by the time the sallow-faced woman looked his way, he’d tied the second shoe and was finishing his onion rings. The air felt chilly without socks on.
Keeping his eye on the pale Stooge faces just visible through the falling snow outside, Kurtz brought out each roll of quarters and emptied them into the double-thick sock. When he was finished, he set the ad hoc sap into the pocket of his peacoat. Assuming that the Stooges were carrying handguns and/or automatic weapons, it wasn’t quite a fair fight yet.
A Buffalo police officer came into the dining area carrying his tray of hot dogs. The cop was uniformed, overweight, armed and alone, probably on his way home from a day shift. He looked tired and depressed.
Saved, thought Kurtz with only a little irony.
The cop set his food on a table and went into the rest room. Kurtz waited thirty seconds and then pulled on his gloves and followed.
The officer was at the only urinal and did not turn around as Kurtz entered. Kurtz passed him as if heading for the stall, pulled the homemade blackjack out of his pocket and sapped the cop hard over the head. The officer groaned but went down on both knees. Kurtz sapped him again.
Bending over the cop, he took the long-barreled .38 service revolver, the handcuffs, and the heavy baton from his belt. He removed the cop’s hand radio and smashed it underfoot. Then he tugged off the cop’s jacket.
The rear window was high up on the wall in the stall, was reinforced with metal mesh and was not designed to be opened. Holding the cop’s jacket up to deflect the glass and muffle the sound, Kurtz smashed the glass and pulled the metal grid out of its rusted hinges. Stepping up on the toilet, he squeezed through the small window and dropped into the snow outside, getting to his feet behind the Dumpster.
East side first. Sliding the cop’s revolver in his belt, Kurtz went around the back of the restaurant and peered out into the east parking lot. The Stooge called Curly was pacing back and forth behind the few parked cars, flapping his arms to stay warm. He was carrying a Colt .45 semiauto in one hand. Kurtz waited for Curly to make his turn and then walked silently out behind the short man and clubbed him over the head with the lead-weighted baton. He cuffed Curly with his hands behind his back, left him lying in the snow and walked around the front of the restaurant.
Moe looked up, recognized Kurtz, and started fumbling a weapon out from under his thick goosedown jacket even as he began to run. Kurtz caught up to him and clubbed him down into the snow. He kicked the pistol out of Moe’s hand and looked through the glass doors of Ted’s Hot Dogs. None of the workers at the empty service counter had noticed anything and the avenue was free of traffic at the moment.
Throwing Moe over his shoulder and pulling the .38 from his belt, the baton dangling from his wrist by its leather strap, Kurtz walked around to the west side of the building.
Larry must have sensed something. He was standing by Kurtz’s Volvo and peering anxiously through the windows. He had a Mac-10 in his hands. According to other people Kurtz had known inside, Larry had always sung the praises of serious fire-power.
With Moe still on his shoulder, Kurtz raised the .38 and shot Larry three times—body mass, head, and body mass again. The third Stooge went down quickly, the Mac-10 skittering away on ice and ending up under a parked SUV. The shots had been somewhat muffled by the falling snow. No one came to the door or window to check.
Still carrying Moe and dragging Larry’s body, Kurtz tossed both men into the back seat of his Volvo, started the car, and drove around to the east side of the parking lot. Curly was moaning and beginning to come to, flopping around listlessly with his hands cuffed behind his back. No one had seen him.
Kurtz stopped the car, got out, lifted Curly, and tossed the moaning Stooge into the back seat with his dead and unconscious pals. He closed Curly’s door, went around and unlatched the door behind the driver’s position, got in, and drove away down Sheridan to the Youngman Expressway.
The Expressway was slick and icy, but Kurtz got the Volvo up to sixty-five miles per hour before glancing around. Larry’s body was slumped up against the cracked-open door, Moe was still unconscious and leaning against Curly, and Curly was playing possum.
Kurtz cocked the service revolver with an audible click. “Open your eyes or I’ll shoot you now,” he said softly.
Curly’s eyes flew open. He opened his mouth to say something.
“Shut up.” Kurtz nodded toward Larry. “Kick him out.”
The pale ex-con’s face paled even further. “Jesusfucking-Christ. I can’t just—”
“Kick him out,” said Kurtz, glancing back at the road and then turning around to aim the .38 at Curly’s face.
His wrists handcuffed behind him, Curly shoved Moe aside with his shoulder, lifted his legs, and kicked Larry out the door. He had to kick twice to get him out. Cold air whirled inside the car. Possibly because of the storm, traffic on the Youngman was light.
“Who hired you to kill me?” asked Kurtz. “Be careful…you don’t get many chances at the right answer.”
“Jesus Christ,” moaned Curly. “No one hired us. I don’t even fucking know who you are. I don’t even—”
“Wrong answer,” said Kurtz. He nodded at Moe and then at the open door. Icy pavement was roaring by.
“Jesus Christ, I can’t…he’s still alive…listen to me, please…”
The Volvo tried to slide a bit as they came around a curve on the ice. Keeping one eye on the rearview mirror, Kurtz corrected the slide, turned back, and aimed the pistol at Curly’s crotch. “Now,” he said.
Moe started to gain consciousness as Curly kicked him across the seat to the open door. The icy air revived Moe enough that the bigger man reached up and grabbed the seat back and held on for dear life. Curly glanced at Kurtz’s pistol and kicked Moe in the belly and face with both feet. Moe flew out into the night, striking the pavement with an audible wet noise.
Curly was panting, almost hyperventilating, as he looked up at Kurtz’s weapon. His legs were up on the back seat, but he was obviously concocting a way to kick at Kurtz.
“Move those feet without permission and I put two into your belly,” Kurtz said softly. “Let’s try again. Who hired you? Remember, you don’t have any wrong answers left.”
“You’re going to shoot me anyway,” said Curly. His teeth were chattering in the blast of cold air from the open door.
“No,” said Kurtz. “I won’t. Not if you tell me the truth. Last chance.”
Curly said, “A woman.”
Kurtz glanced at the road and then back. That made no sense. The D-Block Mosque still had a $10,000 fatwa out on Kurtz as far as he knew. Little Skag Farino, still in the pen, had several reasons to see Kurtz dead, and Little Skag had always been a cheap son of a bitch, likely to hire skanks like the Stooges. An inner-city Crips gang called the Seneca Social Club had put out the word that Joe Kurtz should die. He had a few other enemies who might hire someone. But a woman?
“Not good enough,” said Kurtz. He raised the aim toward Curly’s belly.
“No, Jesus Christ, I’m telling the truth! Brunette. Drives a Lexus. Paid five thousand in cash up front—we get another five when she reads about you in the paper. She was the one who told us about you probably not carrying today because of your PO visit. Jesus Christ, Kurtz, you can’t just—”
“What’s her name?”
Curly shook his head wildly. Curly was bald. “Farino. She didn’t say…but I’m sure of it…she’s Little Skag’s sister.”
“Sophia Farino is dead,” said Kurtz. He had reason to know.
Curly began shouting, talking so fast that spittle flew. “Not Sophia Farino. The other one. The older sister. I seen a family picture once that Skag had in stir. Whatshername, the fucking nun, Angelica, Angela, some fucking wop name—”
“Angelina,” said Kurtz.
Curly’s mouth twisted. “You’re going to shoot me now. I told you the fucking truth, but you’re going to—”
“Not necessarily,” said Kurtz. It was snowing harder and this part of the Youngman was notorious for black ice, but he got the car up to seventy-five. Kurtz nodded toward the open car door.
Curly’s eyes grew wide. “You’re fucking joking…I can’t—”
“You can take one in the head,” said Kurtz. “Then I dump you. You can make your move, take a couple in the belly, maybe we crash. Or you can take a chance and tuck and roll. Plus, there’s some snow out there. Probably as soft as a goosedown pillow.”
Curly’s wild eyes went to the door.
“It’s your call,” said Kurtz. “But you only have five seconds to decide. One. Two—”
Curly screamed something indecipherable, scooched over on the seat, and threw himself out the door.
Kurtz glanced at the mirror. Headlights swerved and spun as cars tried to take evasive action, tangled, bounced over the bundle in the road, and piled up behind Kurtz’s Volvo.
He lowered his speed to a more sane forty-five miles per hour and exited at the Kensington Expressway, heading back west toward Buffalo’s downtown. Passing Mt. Calvary Cemetery in the dark, Kurtz tossed the cop’s pistol and baton out the window.
The snow was getting thicker and falling faster. Kurtz liked Buffalo in the winter. He always had. But this was shaping up to be an especially tough winter.
THE OFFICES OF High School Sweetheart Search, Inc., were in the basement of a former X-rated video and magazine store close to the Buffalo bus station. The XXX store had never looked too classy and looked even less so now after it had been closed for three months and the entire block condemned by the city for demolition. A little before 7:30 A.M., Arlene parked in the alley behind the store, used her key to let herself in the back door, and was surprised to find Joe working at his computer. The long room was unfurnished except for the two desks, a coatrack, a clutter of servers and cables, and a sagging couch set against one wall.
Arlene hung up her coat, set her purse on her desk, removed a pack of Marlboros from the purse and lit one, then turned on her computer and the video monitor connected to the two cameras upstairs. The abandoned interior of the adult bookstore on the monitors looked as littered and empty as always. No one had ever bothered to clean the bloodstains off the linoleum floor up there. “You sleep here again last night, Joe?”
Kurtz shook his head. He called up the court file on Donald Lee Rafferty, age 42, 1016 Locus Lane, Lockport, NY. The file showed another DWI on Rafferty’s record—the third this year. Rafferty’s driver’s license was one point away from being pulled.
“Goddamn it to hell,” said Kurtz.
Arlene looked up. Joe rarely cursed. “What?”
Kurtz’s e-mail announcer chirped. It was a note from Pruno, replying to Kurtz’s e-mail query sent at 4:00 that morning. Pruno was a homeless wino and heroin addict who just happened to have a laptop computer in the cardboard shack he sometimes shared with another homeless man named Soul Dad. Kurtz had wondered from time to time how it was that Pruno was able to keep his laptop when the very clothes the old man wore were constantly being stolen off his back. Kurtz opened the e-mail.
Joseph: Received your e-mail and I do indeed have some information on the surviving Ms. Farino and the three gentlemen in question. I would prefer to discuss this in private since I have a request to make of you in return. Could you stop by my winter residence at your earliest convenience? Cordially—P.
“Goddamn it,” Kurtz said again.
Arlene squinted at him through a haze of smoke. Her own computer monitor was filled with the day’s requests for searches for former high-school boyfriends and girlfriends. She batted ashes into her ashtray but said nothing.
Kurtz sighed. It was inconvenient to go see the old man for this information, but Pruno rarely asked Kurtz for anything. Come to think of it, Pruno had never asked for anything.
The Rafferty thing, though…
“Goddamn it,” whispered Kurtz.
“Anything I can help with?” asked Arlene.
“All right, Joe. But since you’re here today, there are a few things you can help me with.”
Kurtz turned off his computer.
“We need to find new office space,” said Arlene. “This place gets demolished in a month and we get thrown out in two weeks, no matter what.”
Arlene batted cigarette ashes again. “So are you going to have time to help me look for a new office today or tomorrow?”
“Probably not,” said Kurtz.
“Then are you going to let me choose a place on my own?”
Arlene nodded. “Shall I scout some places? Let you look at them later?”
“Okay,” said Kurtz.
“And you don’t mind me looking during office hours?”
Kurtz just stared at his once and present secretary. She had come back to work for him the day he had gotten out of prison the previous autumn. After twelve years of hiatus. “Have I ever said anything to you about office hours or how you should spend your day?” he said at last. “You can come in and handle the on-line Sweetheart Search stuff in ten minutes for all I care. Take the rest of the day off.”
“Uh-huh,” said Arlene. Her look finished the sentence. Recently, the Sweetheart Search business had run to ten- and twelve-hour weekdays, most Saturdays, and the occasional Sunday. She stubbed out the cigarette and pulled out another but did not light it.
“What else do we need?” asked Kurtz.
“Thirty-five thousand dollars,” said Arlene.
Kurtz reacted as he always did to surprise—with a poker face.
“It’s for another server and some data-mining service,” added Arlene.
“I thought this server and the data-mining we’ve already done would handle Sweetheart Search for the next couple of years,” said Kurtz.
“They will,” said Arlene. “This is for Wedding Bells.”
Arlene lit the next cigarette and took a long, slow drag. After exhaling, she said, “This high-school-sweetheart search was a great idea of yours, Joe, and it’s making money, but we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns with it.”
“After four months?” said Kurtz.
Arlene moved her lacquered fingernails in a complex gesture. “What separates it from the other on-line school-sweetheart services is you tracking some of these people down on foot, delivering some of the love letters in person.”
“Yeah?” said Kurtz. “So?” But he understood then. “You mean that there’s only so much market share in this part of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania and Ohio within range of my driving. Only so many old high-school yearbooks we can look through in the region. After that, we’re just another on-line search agency. Yeah, I thought of that when I came up with this idea in prison, but I thought it would last longer than four months.”
Arlene smiled. “Don’t worry, Joe. I didn’t mean that we’re going to run out of yearbook sources or clients for the next couple of years. I just mean we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns—or at least for your door-to-door part of it.”
“So…Wedding Bells,” said Kurtz.
“Wedding Bells,” agreed Arlene.
“I assume that’s some sort of on-line wedding-planning service. Unless you’re just going to offer it as a bonus package for our successful Sweetheart Search clients.”
“Oh, we can do that,” said Arlene, “but I see it as a full-service on-line wedding-planning dot com. Nationwide. Beyond nationwide.”
“So I won’t be delivering corsages to Erie, Pennsylvania, the way I’m doing now with the love letters?”
Arlene flicked ashes. “You don’t have to be involved at all if you don’t want to be, Joe. Besides putting up the seed money and owning the company…and finding us an office.”
Kurtz ignored this last part. “Why thirty-five thousand? That’s a lot of data-mining.”
Arlene carried over a folder of spreadsheet pages and notes. She stood by Kurtz’s desk as he looked through it. “See, Joe, I was just grabbing bits and pieces of data from the Internet and tossing it all into an Excel spreadsheet—more or less what the present on-line wedding services do—but then I used some of our income to build a new data warehouse on Oracle81 and paid Ergos Business Intelligence to begin mining the database of all these weddings that other individuals or services had planned.”
She pointed to some columns on the spreadsheet. “And voila!”
Kurtz looked for patterns in the charts and columns. Finally he saw one. “Planning a fancy wedding takes two hundred and seventy to three hundred days,” said Kurtz. “Almost all of them fall in that range. So does everyone know this?”
Arlene shook her head. “Some individual wedding planners do, but not the few on-line wedding-service companies. The pattern really shows up when you look at a huge mass of data.”
“So how does your…our…Wedding Bells dot com cash in on this?” asked Kurtz.
Arlene pulled out other pages. “We continue using the Ergos tool to analyze this two-hundred-seventy- to three-hundred-day period and nail down exactly when each step of the operation takes place.”
“What operation?” asked Kurtz. Arlene was beginning to talk like some bank robbers he’d known. “Isn’t a wedding just a wedding? Rent a place, dress up, get it over with?”
Arlene rolled her eyes. Exhaling smoke, she brought her ashtray over to Kurtz’s desk and flicked ashes into it. “See, here, at this point early on? Here’s the bride’s search for a dress. Every bride has to search for a dress. We offer links to designers, seamstresses, even knock-off designer dress suppliers.”
“But Wedding Bells wouldn’t be just a bunch of hyperlinks, would it?” asked Kurtz, frowning slightly.
Arlene shook her head and stubbed out her cigarette. “Not at all. The clients give us a profile at the beginning and we offer everything from full service down. We can handle everything—absolutely everything. From sending out invitations to tipping the minister. Or the clients can have us plan some of it and just have us connect them to the right people for other decision points along the way—either way, we make money.”
Arlene lit another cigarette and ruffled through the stack of papers. She pointed to a highlighted line on a 285-day chart. “See this point, Joe? Within the first month, they have to decide on locations for the wedding and the reception. We have the biggest database anywhere and provide links to restaurants, inns, picturesque parks, Hawaiian resorts, even churches. They give us their profile and we make suggestions, then connect them to the appropriate sites.”
Kurtz had to grin. “And get a kickback from every one of those places…except maybe the churches.”
“Hah!” said Arlene. “Weddings are important revenue sources for churches and synagogues. They want in Wedding Bells dot com, they give us a piece of the action. No negotiation there.”
Kurtz nodded and looked at the rest of the spreadsheets. “Wedding consultants referred. Honeymoon locations recommended and discounts offered. Limos lined up. Even airline tickets reserved for relatives and the wedding couple. Flowers. Catering. You provide local sources and Web links to everything, and everyone pays Wedding Bells dot com. Nice.” He closed the folder and handed it back to her. “When do you need the seed money?”
“This is Thursday,” said Arlene. “Monday would be nice.”
“All right. Thirty-five thousand on Monday.” He grabbed his peacoat from the coatrack and slipped a semiauto pistol in his belt. The weapon was the relatively small and light .40 SW99—a licensed Smith & Wesson version of the Walther P99 double-action service pistol. Kurtz had ten rounds in the magazine and a second magazine in his coat pocket. Considering the fact that the SW99 fired formidable .40 S&W loads rather than the more common 9mms, Kurtz trusted that twenty cartridges would do the trick.
“Will you be back in the office before the weekend?” asked Arlene as Kurtz opened the rear door.
“Anywhere I can reach you?”
- "Simmons at his hard-driving best...[A] high-octane thriller."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Simmons' novel uncoils into a deliciously brutal chess game between a chameleon serial killer and ex-con PI Kurtz...action scenes that'll leave your hands clammy on the page."—Booklist
- "Hard Freeze makes for great escapist reading...get ready to dip into a terrific, take-no-prisoners read."—Denver Post
- "Readers looking for two-fisted, take-no-prisoners action should pick up a copy."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- "A bristling climax...Kurtz makes a riveting protagonist for the noir-is-beautiful crowd."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "In addition to crafting one of the least likeable protagonists you'll ever find yourself rooting for... [Simmons] writes action scenes that'll leave your hands clammy on the page."—Booklist
- "This straight-ahead, no-frills read is sure to garner enthusiasm among fans of Richard Stark."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2015
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books