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By Mark Cohen
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It doesn’t seem like a bad idea when Pepper Keane agrees to steal a champion bluetick coonhound from the leader of a sadistic biker gang. After all, the dog also belongs to the biker’s missing girlfriend, Karlynn Slade. And though Karlynn stole three hundred grand from him, she’s not entering the Witness Protection Program without the prized pooch. Karlynn’s attorney asks Pepper to keep an eye on her until the feds are ready to help her disappear. But when Pepper also accepts payment from the biker to “look” for Karlynn, things get a little tricky. Soon, Pepper loses Karlynn, the biker puts a price on his head, gangs in every direction are after him, and there’s still an unsolved murder that’s begging for his attention….
ALSO BY MARK COHEN
The Fractal Murders
The events and characters in this book are fictitious. Certain real locations and public figures are mentioned, but all other characters and events described in the book are totally imaginary.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Cohen
All rights reserved.
Hachette Book Group
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New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
The Mysterious Press name and logo are registered trademarks of Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: September 2009
In memory of Dexter S. Cohen and George Vandenberg
I want to thank my agent, Sandra Bond of the Bond Literary Agency, for her professionalism and her unwavering belief in me. (Well, she might have wavered a little as the deadline approached, but she now knows we are capable of a fourth-quarter comeback.) I want to thank my editor, Kristen Weber, for her patience and guidance. (She flatters me with her praise of my imagination; I fear that someday she will visit Nederland and learn that my depiction of the town and its characters is entirely accurate.) Finally, I want to thank Mysterious Press for having the courage to take a chance on a quasi-vegetarian private eye who lives with his dogs (Buck and Wheat) in the mountains, reads philosophy in an attempt to make sense of life, and has strong convictions on the subject of cola.
The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.
I'D BEEN SCOPING the place for a week. That seemed a long time, but this wouldn't be a traditional dognapping. Not that I had much of a basis for comparison. I had never dognapped before, though I had taken a few catnaps.
I focused my binoculars on the area between the cabin and the million-dollar mountain home. They were a good fifty yards apart. It was an old two-room cabin and its windows were protected from the winter wind by faded pine shutters. But for a dozen empty antifreeze containers piled near the door, there was no sign the cabin was in use.
The animal was chained to a tall pine about halfway between the cabin and the residence. He had maybe thirty feet of slack. He lay in a plywood doghouse, his muzzle resting near its entrance. His expression showed boredom and sadness. The water in his metal bowl had long since frozen.
There were two Harleys parked in front of the home—the fewest I had seen yet. I'd been there four hours this day and seen only two men. One was about fifty and looked like Jerry Garcia a few years before his death. The other was a lanky ponytailed man in his early thirties, who walked from the house to the cabin every few hours with a machine pistol in one hand. Both displayed tattoos on their faces and hands, and they probably bore more beneath their winter clothes. Neither fit Bugg's description. I decided I would make my move tonight.
It wasn't quite dark enough. I walked through the dense pines about a half mile back to the F-150 I'd parked just off a county road. Had anyone looked through the shell into the back of the truck, they would have seen a chain saw, a few dozen logs, and some camping gear. My hope was they would assume I had been cutting firewood.
I placed the binoculars on the passenger seat, then removed my parka and tossed it into the truck as well. If things got hairy, I didn't want bulky winter clothes slowing me down. A down-filled vest over a flannel shirt over a high-tech undershirt would keep me warm enough. I clasped my hands together, then brought them to my mouth and blew on them to keep them warm. Tiny clouds of mist spiraled before me as I exhaled. It was the third Tuesday in November—Thanksgiving was two days away—and though there was little snow on the ground, there was moisture in the air. The thermometer in my truck showed twenty-six degrees.
It was overcast. No stars were visible and the moon was nowhere to be seen. As the last remnants of the day's light vanished, it became wonderfully dark. There would never be a better time to do it.
I climbed into the truck, placed the keys in the ignition, and started her up. I waited a few minutes, then exited the vehicle, leaving the driver's door slightly ajar, but not enough to cause the dome light to come on. If someone came along and stole it in the next twenty minutes, I'd be shit out of luck. Chances of that happening on a Tuesday night in a national forest were slim. I checked my Velcro shoulder holster; the Glock was still there.
The hike back to Bugg's secluded mountain home took ten minutes. The wind hadn't changed, so I was able to approach without the dog picking up my scent. The trees surrounding the home had been cleared to a distance of one hundred feet in an effort to make it more defensible in the event of a forest fire. I stopped before I hit the clearing and surveyed the area one last time. I donned a black ski mask to protect my identity, then got down on my belly and started crawling toward the dog. He was awake but resting on his side with a vacant look. I was within twenty feet when he raised his magnificent head and scanned the area. I didn't want him barking. Still on my belly, I removed a roast beef sandwich—one I had purchased at the B&F just for this purpose—from my vest pocket and tossed it at him. Then I sprinted.
He let out two melodic barks, then went to work on the meat. I unhooked the chain from his collar and snapped my leash into place. With the dog now under my control, I started running back to the trees. He ran alongside, as if we'd been friends for years, gulping the sandwich as we went. As we hit the trees a man inside the home yelled, "Fuck!"
We continued toward the truck. I heard a door slam. Floodlights suddenly illuminated the house and cabin, but I was back into the trees by then. "Something's going down!" the man yelled. "Check the cabin." One of the Harleys roared to life. I continued running, dodging the pines as best I could. It was incredibly dark in the forest, and my forty-something face took more than one hit from low branches weighed down by accumulated snow. The bike noise grew faint as the rider headed to the highway.
The dog dropped what was left of the sandwich and tried to go back for it, but I yanked the leash hard. By this time I had my second wind and was running at a good clip given the darkness and rough terrain. It was a good thing I had the dog with me, because mountain lions can be unforgiving if you startle them.
I smelled the exhaust from my truck, then saw the truck itself. I reached the truck and opened the driver's door. The dog jumped right in and I followed suit. Headlights off, I drove down the dirt road at a moderate speed toward Colorado Highway 72 just west of Ward. All I had to do was make the highway without coming into contact with the bike.
I was less than two hundred yards from the pavement when a single headlight appeared and started toward me. Think fast, Pepper, I told myself. I didn't want to shoot the guy, but I didn't want him to get a look at my truck either. I could have clipped him with the truck, but somebody might have noticed the damage to my vehicle and put two and two together. I punched the accelerator and went straight at him. When I was twenty yards away I turned on my brights. He held one hand up to his eyes to dim the glare. It was Jerry Garcia. I blasted my horn and swerved to the right just as I met him. He took a nasty spill and ended up in the drainage on the side of the road. I killed my headlights, turned right at the pavement, and headed home to Nederland.
I had trouble sleeping that night. Dognapping gets my adrenaline flowing. This is particularly true when the dog is a champion bluetick coonhound owned by the leader of the Sons of Satan.
AT NINE THE NEXT MORNING I was enjoying a cup of hot coffee in the plush reception area of the downtown Denver offices of Keane, Simms & Mercante. My cup had the firm's logo emblazoned on it. I had known "Big" Matt Simms more than fifteen years. We had formed a law firm after I had left the U.S. attorney's office. Matt was now a prominent attorney and the managing partner of what had grown to be a nine-person firm. I had left the practice of law some years back, primarily because of burnout, but my former partners had voted not to change the firm's name. They did not do this out of affection for me; they did it because the firm had invested a lot of money in that name over the years. Or, as Matt had so eloquently summarized the decision, "I don't want to have to pay some fucker to design a new logo."
"Would you like more coffee, Mr. Keane?" the receptionist asked. She was a tall brunette with pouty lips and fine cheekbones. Late twenties. Her dress was made of satin or something like it, and the vertical black and white stripes of the fabric only served to accent her curves. I had seen her once or twice before when visiting Matt in connection with the projects he occasionally asks me to undertake. She was beautiful but maintained a certain formality she felt was expected at a first-rate law firm, and I suspected that had deterred many a man from asking her out.
"More coffee would be wonderful," I said. She retrieved my cup and saucer, then returned with a fresh cup. I started reading the Rocky Mountain News. The big stories concerned Islamic militants, a new report on global warming, and tax cuts for the rich. "Thank God for cabernet and antidepressants," I muttered.
A few minutes later Matt strolled toward me and extended his hand. A former offensive lineman at Colorado State, Matt stands six-two and weighs in at about 270 pounds. His ego is even bigger. We shook hands.
"Thanks for coming on short notice," he said. His collar was unbuttoned and his sleeves rolled up, his brown, wavy hair a bit disheveled. "How was the drive in?" He had already turned around and was heading for his office. Not even looking at me.
"Glad I don't do it every day," I said. It is forty-six miles from my mountain home in Nederland to downtown Denver. "The traffic is unbelievable."
"Tell me about it," he said. "If I didn't have three kids in high school, I'd move downtown." Matt lives in Cherry Hills Village, an exclusive suburb with an exceptional school system. It is home to many doctors, lawyers, and overpaid athletes.
Even before we hit his office, I smelled the aroma of a cigar. It's supposed to be a smoke-free building, but Matt possesses a healthy disregard for rules. Not coincidentally, it's a trait shared by most of my friends.
I entered his corner office first and he closed the door behind me. Matt sat in the executive chair behind his mahogany desk, and I sat in one of the burgundy leather chairs in front of it. Our perch on the thirty-seventh floor of the Qwest Tower provided a nice view of the city on this sunny winter morning. The snowcapped Rockies glistened in the distance. I had been looking at the same mountains since the day I was born, and though Denver had grown from a sleepy little cow town on the plains into yet another land-devouring urban cancer, I took comfort in the fact that the mountains remained more or less unchanged.
"I appreciate your help with this," he said. "The dog means a lot to my client. She's under tremendous pressure, and the dog's her only friend." I said nothing. "Did you have any trouble?"
I shook my head. "You think I never stole a dog before?"
He reached into his desk drawer, removed a white envelope, and handed it to me. I thumbed through it. It contained twenty hundred-dollar bills. "That cover it?" he asked. He picked up half a stogie from a ceramic ashtray—one his kids had probably made years ago—inserted one end into his mouth, and lit the other end with a gold-plated lighter. It reminded me of Roger Miller's old song "King of the Road":… Smoke old stogies I have found, short but not too big around …
"Two thousand is fine," I said. I placed the envelope in the pocket of my blue blazer.
"To get right to the point," he said, "some things have happened and I need your help." I folded my hands and waited for him to continue. "I've kept most of this from you because I thought your role would be limited to getting the dog, but it's become more complicated." He paused to consider his words.
"Start at the beginning," I said.
"Right," he said. He puffed on the cigar. "I don't do as much criminal law as I used to," he said.
"Who needs it when you can bill corporate clients three hundred bucks an hour?" He nodded in agreement.
"When I do take a criminal case," he continued, "it usually involves some kind of white-collar crime. Antitrust, regulatory offenses, things like that." He leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk, still holding the stogie in his right hand. "About a month ago a woman named Karlynn Slade came to see me. Turns out her common-law husband is Thadeus Bugg, the leader of the Sons of Satan."
"The guy I stole the dog from. You told me this before."
"You know anything about the Sons of Satan?"
"Just what you told me," I said. "It's a biker gang that consists mostly of thugs who live in the mountains. Bugg lives a few miles out of Ward, about fifteen miles north of Nederland. Way out in the boonies. He's got a meth lab in a cabin behind his house, by the way." There could be no other reason for the abundance of antifreeze containers and the periodic trips to the cabin by the man with the machine pistol.
"He has meth labs all over the West," Matt said, "and that's just the tip of the iceberg. These are bad guys. They're into drugs, prostitution, fencing, weapons, loan-sharking, and murder for hire. Some are on the fringe of the White Power movement. They're not the largest gang in Colorado, but they are the most violent." He paused. I'd seldom seen him display anything other than supreme confidence, but this morning I detected concern.
"The feds have gone after Bugg before," he continued, "but they've never been able to make anything stick, because key witnesses keep turning up dead. They think he played a role in the death of an ATF agent in Wyoming about six months ago."
"Didn't they kill one of their own a few years back?"
"A guy named Rankin, a probationary gang member. Bugg somehow found out he was working for the feds. They found his body in his cabin. He had been secured to a support beam with radiator clamps, then blow-torched. His dick was in his mouth when they found him."
"I remember that," I said. "They never identified a suspect."
"And they probably never will," he said. "The Sons of Satan are like brothers. The penalty for betrayal is a slow, painful death. That's why each member has 'SPD' tattooed on his left wrist. You can't look at your fuckin' watch without being reminded of what awaits those who are disloyal. There are men sitting in maximum-security prisons as we speak because they'd rather spend the rest of their lives behind bars than betray the Sons of Satan."
I sipped my coffee in silence as I stared out at the city. I despised the Sons of Satan and others like them, but I felt grudging admiration for the value they placed on loyalty.
"Anyhow," Matt said, "this broad comes to me because the day previously two FBI agents visited her and told her she was going to spend a long time in prison if she didn't become an FBI informant."
"What do they have on her?" I asked.
"Enough to make life unpleasant," he said. "She lived with Bugg for seven years, knew what he was doing, and used his money to buy lots of nice things for herself. I spoke with the new U.S. attorney after she retained me, and he made clear that the Sons of Satan are number one on his priority list. He's got his eyes on a Senate seat, and he's going to use the Sons of Satan to beef up his law-and-order credentials. They're going to nail Bugg on something eventually, and when they do they'll indict her for aiding and abetting, accessory after the fact, conspiracy, and misprision of felony. She also ran a blue-collar prostitution ring that provided just about anything you can imagine to working men up and down the Rockies, so they've got her on conspiracy to violate the Mann Act if nothing else."
"She have a date for New Year's?" I asked. Matt forced a smile.
"She comes to me and doesn't know what to do. She's not thrilled with the prospect of prison, but if Bugg finds out she's working for the feds she'll end up in a fifty-five-gallon drum at Monster Joe's Truck and Tow. It's not really my cup of tea and I'm thinking I should refer her to someone else, when she opens a briefcase filled with twenties, fifties, and hundreds."
"How much?" I asked as I sipped my coffee.
"Over three hundred thousand," he said.
"That's a lot of blow jobs," I said.
"Very funny," he replied. "It's drug money. As soon as the feds left, she took all the cash she could find in the house and went into hiding."
"Then she decided she needed an attorney?"
"Yeah, the money is in my safe." He swiveled in his chair and gestured to show that the safe was in the credenza behind his desk. "It's possible she took even more and just hasn't told me about it. I guess Bugg doesn't like banks. Anyhow, it didn't take long for me to realize she had a serious meth habit, and I knew the feds would consider her more credible if she got clean, so I urged her to enter a treatment program. There's no way she can go back to Bugg, but she could still be of immense help to the feds. I told her the Witness Protection Program was her only chance, but she'd have to be drug free. She pitched a fit, so I told her to find another lawyer. She finally agreed to enter a thirty-day residential program on the condition that I get the dog for her."
"And recalling that I am unemployed and moderately adventurous, you hired me to snag the dog formerly known as Prince for your kinky, drug-addicted, dog-loving client?"
"Yes," he replied. I finished my coffee and he asked if I wanted more. I said I did, so he punched the intercom button with one of his beefy fingers and asked the receptionist to bring me a refill.
"How is Prince?" he asked.
"He's fine," I said. "His lot in life has improved greatly in the last fifteen hours. He's asleep on the couch in my basement."
"You didn't leave him outside?"
"Can't," I said. "Don't want word getting out that I recently acquired a bluetick coonhound. Dog like that would stick out in Nederland."
"How come?" he asked.
"When's the last time you saw a hippie hunting raccoons at eight thousand feet?" Nederland sits 8,236 feet above sea level. It is widely known as one of the last hippie towns in America, though it is also populated by cowboys, miners, professionals who work in Boulder, and the occasional ex-Marine JAG who just wants to live in a small mountain town and not be bothered by anyone. Ninety-nine percent of the dogs in Nederland are descended from malamutes, huskies, or wolf hybrids.
"I get your point," Matt said. "Does he get along with your dogs?"
"Seems to," I said. I have two dogs, Buck and Wheat. Buck is a cross between a Great Dane and a Rhodesian ridgeback. Wheat is purebred schipperke and resembles a black fox.
The receptionist brought my coffee and took back the empty cup and saucer. I flashed my pearly whites and thanked her. She remained pleasant but professional. "Cold," I said, after she had departed.
"The coffee or Theresa?"
"I thought you had a girlfriend," he said.
"I do," I said. "I was just making an observation."
"Anyhow, she's not your type."
"My type is hard to find," I replied.
"I'll bet," he said. "You can get beauty and brains if you're lucky, but beauty, brains, philosopher, and redneck is hard to come by."
"I'm an enlightened redneck," I said. "I own a gun, but I vote Democratic."
"Getting back to the business at hand," he said. I met his eyes to signal I was listening. "While Ms. Slade was in treatment, I worked out an agreement with the U.S. attorney. She gets immunity but has to tell all in front of a grand jury, then testify at trial. When it's over, they'll relocate her and give her a new life."
"Do the feds know she took money from Bugg?" I asked.
"I'm sure they've heard she took some money," he said, "but they haven't really asked about it and I haven't volunteered it. It may come up as they begin to prep her for the grand jury, but for now I think they are content to let her keep whatever she took as long as she cooperates. And they understand that I need to get paid somehow."
"Sounds like you earned your money," I said. "She stays out of prison and starts life over with three hundred grand."
"That's what I thought," he said, "but when I went to visit her a few days ago, she was having second thoughts. She'd been in jail when she was younger and wasn't looking forward to being babysat by federal marshals in a Ramada for the next year or two while the feds build a case."
"I don't like what I see coming," I said.
"It would just be for a few weeks," he said. "I'm working on an arrangement that will enable the feds to relocate her now and just bring her back when she has to testify. That has to be approved by some deputy assistant something or other at the Justice Department, and that takes time. In the meantime, I need someone to protect her from Bugg—and from herself." I let out a long sigh.
"There are people more qualified than me," I said. "Security professionals, bodyguards, retired cops." He sat up straight and looked me right in the eyes.
"I've practiced law for nearly twenty years," he said, "and I've employed a lot of those types. Most of them are dumber than shit. You read Wittgenstein for fun and have more balls than anyone I know."
"It doesn't sound like this is going to involve much philosophical analysis," I said.
"No, but you'll be well compensated."
"How much did you have in mind?"
"I was thinking two thousand a week," he said. "And as much money as you need for expenses. She left Bugg with little more than the clothes on her back, so she'll need some new clothes and some personal items." He looked at me, waiting for an answer. His eyes give him only slightly less moral authority than the Uncle Sam portrayed in those wonderful World War I recruiting posters.
"All right," I said.
"When do I meet her?"
"In about twenty minutes," he said. "She finished treatment this morning. My paralegal is headed over there now to pick her up."
THE DRIVE BACK to my mountain home was tense. Karlynn and I had not gotten off to a good start. After Matt had introduced us and told her I had recovered Prince, her first words had been "What kind of name is Pepper?" That was strike one.
"It's the name my parents gave me," I said. She sighed, then sat down in one of the chairs opposite Matt's desk and lit a cigarette without asking. That was strike two. Matt's cigar was one thing, but cigarettes were another.
Matt and I took our seats, and he explained what was happening with the feds and what my role would be. FBI agents had interviewed Karlynn at the treatment center before finalizing the immunity agreement. Those agents and federal prosecutors would question her again several times in the next few weeks, and those sessions would lay the foundation for the case against Bugg and the Sons of Satan. Her statements would provide the probable cause needed to obtain permission to install wiretaps and to subpoena bank and phone records. Then the feds would begin building a case from the bottom up. "If things go as planned," Matt told her, "you and Prince will be living a new life before the end of the year." That sounds like more than a few weeks, I thought. When it was time to seek indictments, Matt continued, the feds would bring her back to testify to a grand jury. Then they would make arrests. The first trials might not take place until a year later.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing