Mystery James Lee Burke The Neon Rain

ISBN 13: 9780712634960

The Neon Rain

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9780712634960: The Neon Rain

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR JAMES LEE BURKE

THE NEON RAIN

Detective Dave Robicheaux has fought too many battles: in Vietnam, with killers and hustlers, with police brass, and with the bottle. Lost without his wife's love, Robicheaux's haunted soul mirrors the intensity and dusky mystery of New Orleans' French Quarter -- the place he calls home, and the place that nearly destroys him when he becomes involved in the case of a young prostitute whose body is found in a bayou. Thrust into the world of drug lords and arms smugglers, Robicheaux must face down a subterranean criminal world and come to terms with his own bruised heart in order to survive.

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About the Author:

James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, is the author of twenty-one novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Sunset Limited, Cimarron Rose, Cadillac Jukebox, Burning Angel, Dixie City Jam, Purple Cane Road, Bitterroot, and Jolie Blon's Bounce. He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary. The anti-capital-punishment crowd -- priests, nuns in lay clothes, kids from LSU with burning candles cupped in their hands -- were praying outside the fence. But another group was there too -- a strange combination of frat boys and rednecks -- drinking beer from Styrofoam coolers filled with cracked ice; they were singing "Glow, Little Glow Worm," and holding signs that read THIS BUD IS FOR YOU, MASSINA AND JOHNNY, START YOUR OWN SIZZLER FRANCHISE TODAY.

"I'm Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, New Orleans police department," I said to one of the guards on the gate. I opened my badge for him.

"Oh yeah, Lieutenant. I got your name on my clipboard. I'll ride with you up to the Block," he said, and got in my car. His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial bones of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder. "I don't know which bunch bothers me worse. Those religious people act like we're frying somebody for a traffic citation, and those boys with the signs must not be getting much pussy over at the university. You staying for the whole thing?"

"Nope."

"Did you nail this guy or something?"

"He was just a low-level button man I used to run in once in a while. I never got him on anything. In fact, I think he screwed up more jobs than he pulled off. Maybe he got into the mob through Affirmative Action."

The guard didn't laugh. He looked out the window at the huge, flat expanse of the prison farm, his eyes narrowing whenever we passed a trusty convict walking along the dirt road. The main living area of the prison, a series of two-story, maximum-security dormitories contained within a wire fence and connected by breezeways and exercise yards and collectively called the Block, was as brilliantly lit as cobalt in the rain, and in the distance I could see the surgically perfect fields of sugar cane and sweet potatoes, the crumbling ruins of the nineteenth-century camps silhouetted against the sun's red afterglow, the willows bent in the breeze along the Mississippi levee, under which many a murdered convict lay buried.

"They still keep the chair in the Red Hat House?" I said.

"You got it. That's where they knock the fire out their ass. You know how the place come by that name?"

"Yes," I said, but he wasn't listening.

"Back before they started putting the mean ones in lockdown in the Block, they worked them down by the river and made them wear striped jumpers and these red-painted straw hats. Then at night they stripped them down, body-searched them, then run them into the Red Hat House and threw their clothes in after them. There wasn't no screens on the windows, and them mosquitoes would make a Christian out of a man when a baseball bat couldn't."

I parked the car and we entered the Block, passed through the first lockdown area, where both the snitches and the dangerous ones stayed, walked down the long, brilliantly lit breezeway between the recreation yards into the next dormitory, passed through another set of hydraulic locks and a dead space where two hacks sat at a table playing cards and where a sign overhead read no guns beyond this point, into the rec and dining halls where the black trustees were running electric waxers on the gleaming floors, and finally walked up the spiral iron steps to a small maximum-security corner where Johnny Massina was spending the last three hours of his life.

The guard from the gate left me, and another one pulled the single lever that slid back the cell door. Johnny wore a white shirt, a pair of black slacks, and black Air Force shoes with white socks. His wiry gray and black hair was dripping with sweat, and his face was the color and texture of old paper. He looked up at me from where he was seated on his bunk, and his eyes were hot and bright and moisture was beaded across his upper lip. He held a Camel cigarette between his yellowed fingers, and the floor around his feet was covered with cigarette butts.

"Streak, I'm glad you come. I didn't know if you were going to make it," he said.

"How you doing, Johnny?"

His hands clutched his thighs and he looked at the floor, then back at me. I saw him swallow.

"How scared you ever been?" he said.

"In Vietnam I had some moments."

"That's right. You were over there, weren't you?"

"Way back in '64, before it got real hot."

"I bet you were a good soldier."

"I was just a live one, that's all."

I felt instantly stupid at my remark. He saw the regret in my face.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "I got a whole bunch of shit to tell you. Look, you remember when you took me to a couple of those AA meets, that step you guys take when you want to confess something, what'd you call it?"

"Step Five, admitting to yourself, God, and somebody else the exact nature of your faults."

"That's it. Well, I done it. To a colored preacher, yesterday morning. I told him every bad thing I ever done."

"That's good, Johnny."

"No, you listen. I told him the truth and I come clean with some really heavy shit, sexual things I always been ashamed of and I never understood. You know what I mean? I didn't keep nothing back. I also told him about the two guys I whacked in my life. I dumped one guy over the rail of a passenger liner on the way to Havana, and in 1958 I took out Bugsy Siegel's cousin with a shotgun. You know what it means to ice a relative of Bugsy Siegel? After I confessed it to the preacher, I told the guard and the assistant warden about it. You know these dumb cocksuckers couldn't care less?

"Wait a minute, let me finish. I told all this stuff because somebody's got to believe I didn't snuff that broad. I wouldn't throw no young girl out a hotel window, Streak. I got no kick coming about being fried. I figure it all comes out even in the end, but I want these bastards to know I only pushed the button on guys that played by the same rules I did. Can you relate to that?"

"I think so. I'm glad you did a fifth step, too, Johnny."

He smiled for the first time. His face glistened in the light. "Hey, tell me something. Is it true Jimmie the Gent is your brother?"

"You hear a lot of bullshit in the street."

"You both got that black Cajun hair with a white patch in it, like you got skunk blood in you." He laughed. His mind was now moving away from the ride he would take in three hours, manacled in a waist chain, to the Red Hat House. "Once he contracted us for some poker machines for his places. After we put them in we told him he gets all his machines from us -- cigarettes, Pac-Man, and rubbers. So he says no rubbers, he's got class clubs and he don't put rubber machines in them. So we tell him he don't have a choice, he either buys the whole line or he don't get linen service, the Teamsters put a picket up on his sidewalk, and the parish health office finds out his dishwashers got leprosy. So what's he do? He invites Didoni Giacano -- Didi Gee himself -- and his whole family for lasagna at his restaurant, and they arrive on Sunday afternoon like a bunch of cafoni that just got off the boat from Palermo, because Didi thinks Jimmie has got respectable connections and is going to get him into the Knights of Columbus or something. Didi Gee probably weighs three hundred pounds and he's covered with hair like an animal and he scares the crap out of everybody in downtown New Orleans, but his mama is this little dried-up Sicilian lady that looks like a mummy wrapped in black rags and she still hits Didi on the hands with a spoon when he reaches across the table and don't ask.

"So in the middle of dinner Jimmie starts telling Mama Giacano what a great guy Didi Gee is, how everybody down at the Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau think he's a big plus for the city, and how Didi don't let anybody push his friends around. For example, he says, some scumbags tried to put some machines in Jimmie's restaurants that Jimmie, a Catholic man, don't want. Mama Giacano might look like she's made out of dried-up pasta, but her hot little black eyes tell everybody she knows what he's talking about. Then Jimmie says Didi tore them machines out, smashed them up with hammers, and run a truck up and down on them behind the restaurant.

"Didi Gee's got a mouthful of beer and raw oysters and almost chokes to death. He's spitting glop all over his plate, his kids are beating him on the back, and he coughs up an oyster that could plug a sewer main. Mama Giacano waits till his face ain't purple anymore, then tells him she didn't raise her son to eat like a herd of pigs and says he should go wash

out his mouth in the bathroom because everybody else at the table is getting sick looking at him, and when he don't get up right away she busts him across the knuckles with her spoon. Then Jimmie says he wants to take the whole family out on his sailboat and maybe Didi Gee ought to join the Yacht Club, too, because all these millionaires think he's a swell guy, and besides, Mama Giacano would really love the Italian-American celebrations they have on the Fourth of July and Columbus Day. And even if Didi don't join, which everybody knows he won't because he hates water and pukes his guts out just crossing the Mississippi ferry, Jimmie is going to drive out and get Mama Giacano whenever she wants and sail her all around Lake Pontchartrain."

He laughed again and ran his hand through his wet hair. He licked his lips and shook his head, and I saw the fear come back into his eyes.

"I bet he already told you that story, didn't he?" he said.

"They didn't give me too long, Johnny. Is there something else you wanted to tell me?"

"Yeah, there is. You always treated me decent and I thought maybe I could repay you a little bit." He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the flat of his fingers. "I think maybe I got some heavy dues to pay on the other side, too. It don't hurt to try to square what you can now, does it?"

"You don't owe me."

"A guy with my track record owes the whole fucking earth. Anyway, here's the deal. Yesterday this punk by the name of L. J. Potts from Magazine Street is pushing a broom out in the corridor, clacking it against my bars and making all kinds of noise so I can't sleep. So I say I ain't working on the Good Housekeeping Award and would this punk take his broom somewhere else before I get my hands on it and shove it up his hole. So the punk, who's got a brother named Wesley Potts, tries to impress me. He asks if I know a New Orleans homicide roach named Robicheaux, and he's smirking, see, because he thinks you're one of the cops that nailed me. I tell him maybe, and he keeps smirking and says, well, here's some good news because his brother Wesley has it that this particular homicide roach has stuck his nose in the wrong place and if he don't stop it he's going to get whacked."

"He sounds like a gasbag, Johnny."

"Yeah, he probably is, except the difference with him and his brother is I think they're connected up with the greasers."

"The Colombians?"

"Fucking A. They're spreading around the country faster than AIDS. They'll take out anybody, too -- whole families, the children, the old people, it don't matter to them. You remember that bar on Basin that got torched? The greaser that did it stood in the doorway in broad daylight with a fucking flamethrower on his back and because he was in a good mood he gave everybody one minute to get out of the place before he melted it into a big pile of bubbling plastic. You watch out for those cocksuckers, Streak."

He lit a fresh Camel from the butt in his hand. He was sweating heavily now, and he wiped his face on his sleeve and smelled himself simultaneously. Then his face got gray and still and he stared straight ahead with his palms gripped on his thighs.

"You better leave now. I think I'm going to get sick again," he said.

"I think you're a stand-up guy, Johnny."

"Not on this one."

We shook hands. His hand was slick and light in mine.

They electrocuted Johnny Massina at midnight. Back in my houseboat on Lake Pontchartrain, with the rain beating on the roof and dancing on the water outside, I remembered the lines I had heard sung once by a black inmate in Angola:

I ax my bossman, Bossman, tell me what's right.
He whupped my left, said, Boy, now you know what's right.
I wonder why they burn a man twelve o'clock hour at night.
The current much stronger; the peoples turn out all the light.

My partner was Cletus Purcel. Our desks faced each other in a small room in the old converted fire station on Basin Street. Before the building was a fire station it had been a cotton warehouse, and before the Civil War slaves had been kept in the basement and led up the stairs into a dirt ring that served both as an auction arena and a cockfighting pit.

Cletus's face looked like it was made from boiled pigskin, except there were stitch scars across the bridge of his nose and through one eyebrow, where he'd been bashed by a pipe when he was a kid in the Irish Channel. He was a big man, with sandy hair and intelligent green eyes, and he fought to keep his weight down, unsuccessfully, by pumping iron four nights a week in his garage.

"Do you know a character named Wesley Potts?" I asked.

"Christ, yes. I went to school with him and his brothers. What a family. It was like having bread mold as your next-door neighbor."

"Johnny Massina said this guy's talking about pulling my plug."

"Sounds like bullshit to me. Potts is a gutless lowlife. He runs a dirty movie house on Bourbon. I'll introduce you to him this afternoon. You'll really enjoy this guy."

"I've got his file right here. Two narcotics, six obscenity busts, no convictions. Evidently one serious beef with the IRS."

"He fronts points for the greasers."

"That's what Massina said."

"All right, we'll go talk to him after lunch. You notice I say 'after lunch,' because this guy is your real genuine bucket of shit. By the way, the parish coroner in Cataouatche returned your call and said they didn't do an autopsy on that colored girl."

"What do you mean, they didn't do one?" I said.

"He said they didn't do one because the sheriff's office didn't request it. It went down as a drowning. What's all this about, anyway, Dave? Don't you have enough open cases without finding work down in Cataouatche Parish? Those people down there don't follow the same rules we do, anyway. You know that."

Two weeks before, I had been fishing in a pirogue on Bayou Lafourche, flycasting popping-bugs along the edge of the lily pads that grew out from the banks. The shore was thickly lined with cypress trees, and it was cool and quiet in the green-gold morning light that fell through the c...

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