Read The Bone Tree Online

Authors: Greg Iles

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Thrillers

The Bone Tree (4 page)

BOOK: The Bone Tree
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“What happened?” shouts another man from behind me. “Is there anybody still in the house?”

When I turn, I see a fire captain wearing a black hardhat and a fireproof coat. “Three dead men. That’s all I know. Not from the fire, though. There was a gunfight.”

His mouth drops open. “Gunfight? In Mr. Royal’s place?”

“Brody Royal’s one of the dead.”

“Oh, no.”

“His son-in-law is another. The third is Henry Sexton, the reporter.”

The fire captain shakes his head, unable to comprehend what I’m telling him. “Is that it? Nobody else?”

“I really don’t know. There’s nobody I’d risk my men to save.”

The fireman looks at me as if I might be out of my mind.

“They were torturing us,” I say. “Before the fire.”

“Torturing . . . ?” The captain looks closer at me. “Hey, I know you. You’re the mayor of Natchez. Penn Cage.”

“That’s right.”

“Are you okay?”

“I guess so. This is Caitlin Masters, the publisher of the
Natchez Examiner
.”

“What the hell started the fire?”

The answer to this question isn’t something the fire captain could accept.
Let’s see . . . Brody Royal was preparing to burn off Caitlin’s arm with a flamethrower. I was chained to the wall, tearing my hands to shreds in my desperation to break free. That’s when Henry Sexton, despite his injuries, somehow struggled to his feet and shielded Caitlin with his body. Royal meant to burn him too, but like some medieval martyr, the reporter charged Royal and threw his arms around him before the old man could safely ignite the flamethrower. While the rest of us stared in horror, Henry pulled the trigger and immolated them both, creating a firestorm that no amount of water could smother—

“Mayor?” says the fire captain, catching hold of my shoulders. “Maybe you ought to sit down, huh?”

“A World War Two flamethrower,” I mumble. “Loaded with gasoline and tar.”

The man shakes his head in disbelief, then motions for help and starts shouting orders.

The sound of gunning motors makes me turn toward the driveway entrance. Three Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Department cruisers roar up behind the fire truck. Two park there, but a Chevy Tahoe pulls around the fire truck and drives up to within ten feet of me before it stops.

“Thank God,” Caitlin says in my ear.

Sheriff Walker Dennis gets out of his cruiser and stumps toward us. Three years shy of fifty, he carries himself like a minor-league baseball star gone to seed. He weighs 220 pounds and has forearms that would discourage anyone from betting against him in an arm-wrestling match. The way he wears his brown uniform and Stetson gives the impression that he’s been a sheriff all his adult life, but in
fact he only took over the job about six weeks ago, after his predecessor was indicted on corruption charges that decimated the entire department.

“Are you okay?” Dennis shouts, striding forward and grabbing my forearm as though to reassure himself that I’m alive.

“Yeah, yeah. Caitlin, too.”

The sheriff looks over at the fire. Two crews have trained hoses on the base of the flames, but most of the house is gone already.

“Anybody in there?” Dennis asks.

“Royal and Regan, both dead.”

“Shit. They couldn’t get out?”

“No.”

The sheriff gives me an odd look. “You couldn’t get ’em out?”

“I didn’t try, Walker. They kidnapped us from the
Examiner
office—or sent two guys to do it. They were torturing Caitlin for information when this guy”—I point at the dead body of Sleepy Johnston—“busted in with Henry and saved us. Royal had a flamethrower in there. It was a miracle we got out alive.”

“Henry’s dead too,” Caitlin says.

Walker Dennis rubs his forehead like a man with an incipient migraine. This has already been one of the worst days of his life, and this event will only compound his difficulties. “I obviously should have pressed you harder about Brody Royal.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered.”

He takes a tin of Skoal from his breast pocket, opens it with some urgency, and jams a pinch beneath his bottom lip. “Who the fuck
is
that?” he asks, pointing at the dead man on the ground.

“Sleepy Johnston. You know him better as ‘Gates Brown.’”

The sheriff’s eyes widen. Dennis knows “Gates Brown” as the alias of a man who haunted the periphery of our investigations for the past couple of days. Walking closer to the body, he looks down at the face of a sixty-seven-year-old black man who lived in this area as a boy, then fled to Detroit for the rest of his adult life.

“This the guy who called me about seeing Royal and Regan burning the
Concordia Beacon
?”

I nod.

“We need to get the hell out of here. The state police could show
up any second, and we need to get some things straight before you talk to them.”

I glance at Caitlin, who’s watching us closely. I nod, thinking the same thing that she and Dennis must be:
Captain Alphonse Ozan
.

“All right,” Dennis says. “Let’s get back to the department to get your statements. At least that way I’ll be on my home turf if they try to take this case away from me.”

“What about the FBI?”

“Agent Kaiser called me just before I got here. He’d just heard about the fire, but he didn’t seem to know it was Royal’s house yet.”

“I’ll bet he does by now.”

Sheriff Dennis spits on the ground and leans close to me. “We’ve got a jurisdictional clusterfuck on our hands here. And both our asses are on the line.”

“I know.”

“You ride with me,” he says, pulling me toward his Tahoe. “Ms. Masters can come in the car behind us.”

“Hold on.” I yank my arm loose. “Caitlin rides with us.”

Walker shakes his head. “Sorry. I have to separate you two. A lot of eyes will be watching this. I’ve got to follow procedure.”

“Surely she can ride with us? You can swear we didn’t talk on the way.”

Sensing danger, Caitlin has come up beside me and taken hold of my arm.

“I’m sorry,” Dennis says firmly. “It’s got to be this way.”

Before I can argue further, Walker leans in close and says, “My brother-in-law will be driving the second car. If you need to call her on the phone, you can. The stupidest thing we can do is stay here and argue. You want Ozan to arrest you two for killing one of the richest men in Louisiana? A friend of every governor for the past fifty years?”

“I’ll be fine in the second car,” Caitlin says, nudging me toward Dennis’s truck. “Let’s not waste one more second. Just let me grab Henry’s files.”

Walker gives her a grateful look, then signals a deputy standing by one of the cruisers behind the fire truck. The man reaches us as Caitlin trots back with her box, and Dennis introduces him as Grady Wells, his
brother-in-law. I beg Wells to take care of Caitlin like he would his own flesh and blood, and he promises that he will.

“If the state police try to pull us over,” Walker tells Wells, “ignore them. Don’t stop until we get back to base. You only take orders from me. Ignore the radio, and if they start yelling at you over their PA speaker, pay no mind. We’ll hash out the jurisdictions when we get to the station.”

Moments later, six doors slam, and our small convoy begins racing toward Highway 84 and the Mississippi River. Turning to look back through the rear windshield, I see the pillar of fire still towering over the vast alluvial plain, announcing calamity to the world. If my mother and daughter were to look out of their third-floor window high on the Natchez bluff, they would see it in the distance. As I think of my mother, a double-edged knife of guilt and anger slips between my ribs, and I wonder whether my father is within sight of that roaring flame.

CHAPTER 2

TOM CAGE DROVE
through the cold Louisiana night in a stolen pickup truck, his .357 Magnum pressing hard against his right thigh. An unconscious hit man lay on the seat behind him, hands bound together and lashed to a gun rack mounted at the rear of the cab. A corpse lay on the floor between them, a bullet from Tom’s .357 in his belly.

Tom had taken a Valium and some nitroglycerine, but he was still suffering from tachycardia, and no thought he could summon seemed to calm his overburdened heart. Walt Garrity had almost certainly been killed tonight, trying to extricate Tom and himself from the trouble Tom had gotten them into, and now nearly every cop in two states was combing the highways in search of them, believing they’d murdered a Louisiana state trooper, as well as Tom’s former nurse, Viola Turner.

Walt had shot the trooper, all right, but only to stop him from killing Tom in cold blood. Even so, the cold-eyed state policeman had put a bullet through Tom’s shoulder before he died, and while that wound had been treated some hours ago, the pain had now built to an excruciating level. Tom didn’t dare take enough narcotics to dull the agony. Fifty years of medical experience told him that the gunshot wound had pushed him into a state where he could simply collapse behind the wheel and be dead before the pickup truck came to a stop. Only two months ago he’d suffered a severe coronary and barely survived. In the past seventy-two hours, he had endured more stress than even a healthy seventy-three-year-old man could take without caving under the strain.

Tom could scarcely believe that six weeks ago life had seemed relatively quiet. Having recovered from his heart attack, he’d been looking forward to his son’s marriage, which was planned for Christmas Eve. But then Viola Turner had returned to Natchez, trailing the past like a demon in her wake. The cancer that drove Viola back home after four decades in Chicago had reduced the beautiful nurse he’d once loved to
a desiccated shadow of herself; despite his nearly fifty years of medical experience, Tom had been profoundly shocked by the sight of her. The grim truth was that Viola had come home to Natchez not to retire, but to die. The first night he saw her, he’d realized he might conceivably be charged with murder in the near future. A merciful act that usually went unreported might well draw the attention of a vindictive sheriff and DA. But not even in his darkest dreams could Tom have imagined that he and Walt would be running for their lives.

The bound man in the backseat moaned. Tom debated whether to stop the truck and sedate the would-be assassin again. The hit man’s name was Grimsby, and he was thirty years younger than Tom. If he regained full consciousness, Tom would have difficulty handling him, even with his hands and feet bound. Tom had only managed to tie the bastard by chemically incapacitating him first. Along with his now-dead partner, Grimsby had cornered Tom at the edge of a nearby lake. And though Tom had been armed, he’d resigned himself to death before the two killers ever appeared. But then—by the simple act of checking his text messages—Tom had learned that Caitlin was pregnant. That knowledge had transformed him from an old man tired of running (and killing) into a patriarch committed to seeing his fourth grandchild—and perhaps his first grandson—born. With chilling deliberation, Tom had shot one of the two arrogant hit men as they faced him, then disarmed Grimsby and forced him to carry his dead partner up to Drew Elliott’s lake house, in which Tom had been hiding.

After retrieving his weekend bag, Tom had filled a syringe with precious insulin and jabbed Grimsby in the back as he loaded his dead partner into the truck. That put the hit man into insulin shock. While he lay sprawled across the backseat of the truck, barely breathing, Tom had bound his hands with an old ski rope he’d found in Drew’s garage, then tied his hands to the gun rack so that Grimsby couldn’t attack him if he revived during the ride. Tom hadn’t intended to kill the other man, but his options had been limited, and the pair had surely meant to execute him beside the lake—an emotionless murder for hire. If Grimsby died (or lived out his days in a coma) as a result of the insulin overdose Tom had given him, so be it.

Tom’s real dilemma was what to do next. If he pointed the truck toward civilization, he would come to a roadblock sooner rather than
later, and there he would be shot while “resisting arrest.” To avoid this, he’d driven the truck into the low-lying backcountry between Ferriday, Rayville, and Tallulah, endless cotton fields so thinly populated that they felt deserted, but Tom knew better. He had been born in the southwestern part of Louisiana, and he’d gone to undergraduate school at NLU in Natchitoches, where he’d met his wife. But Peggy Cage, née McCrae, was from an eastern Louisiana farm only ten miles from where he was now. The nearest conglomeration of people to her father’s homestead was a tiny crossroads village called Dunston, which lay about forty miles north of Ferriday. This familiarity gave Tom the only sense of security he’d felt in a long time: Peggy had relatives in this area, and Tom had treated them and most of their neighbors for medical emergencies while visiting over the years. He knew he could rely on the loyalty of clannish country folks.

He needed to get rid of the truck as fast as he could. Grimsby and his partner had almost certainly notified their boss that they’d cornered him at Drew’s lake house, and that meant Forrest Knox would have an APB out for their truck in no time. Tom felt confident that his wife’s brother would help him ditch the truck, but that meant putting another family at risk, and Tom had already gotten people killed by doing that.

Peggy would tell me to do it,
he thought.

The real question was what to do if he
did
manage to get safely to ground somewhere. This nightmare had begun when he was charged with Viola’s murder, but the death of the state trooper had complicated matters exponentially. Jumping bail on the first charge only made him look more guilty, and further reduced his options. Walt’s plan had been to seek help from the superintendent of the Louisiana State Police (who, like Walt, was a former Texas Ranger) in getting the APB on Tom and Walt withdrawn. But something had obviously gone wrong. Tom had expected Walt back long before the two hit men found him, yet he’d heard nothing.

That left two options. He could try to turn himself in to some arm of law enforcement—preferably the FBI, if he could reach them—and hope to survive the encounter. Or he could do exactly what he’d advised Penn not to do—deal with the devil direct, and try to remove his family from harm’s way by any means necessary. Given that he was likely
surrounded on all sides by Louisiana’s state and local cops, the chance of safely delivering himself into the arms of federal agents was small. Simply using his personal cell phone was likely to bring a state police helicopter down on his head within five minutes, and the last burn phone Walt had left him might well be compromised by now. They had used it too many times already.

The ring of the very phone Tom was thinking about stunned him, and his shoulder began to pound, telling him his blood pressure had spiked at the sound. He stared at the phone for two more rings, then answered.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said a voice that made him sag against the truck’s door. “Are you okay?”

“I thought you were dead.” Tom craned his neck around to try to see if the hit man had woken up.

“I didn’t want to put you at risk by calling you. Even now we shouldn’t spend more than a minute on the phone.”

“Did you have any luck with Colonel Mackiever?”

“No. And don’t say his name again. He got delayed, but he’s on his way up here now.”

“Up here” meant Baton Rouge.

“FK has already moved against him,” Walt said.

Forrest Knox,
Tom thought.

“I don’t know the details,” Walt continued, “but it sounds like they’re trying to discredit Mac and take his job.”

“So he can’t get the APB revoked?”

“Not with a phone call. He needs to hear our side of the story before he can move. That’s the next step. But that’s not why I called. The colonel just told me something you need to know. Brody Royal was killed tonight, in his house on Lake Concordia. That reporter died with him, Henry Sexton.”

“No.” Tom’s heart began to pound again.

“Yep. And there’s more bad news.”

The hammering in Tom’s chest began to solidify into angina. “Not Penn—”

“No—hell, no. But Penn was apparently there when it happened, and Caitlin, too. They’re alive, but that’s all I know right now. Mac just
caught it over his radio. Royal’s son-in-law died there too, and a black fellow I never heard of. Nobody Mac trusts seems to know what really went down.”

“Where are Penn and Caitlin now?”

“In custody. Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Department. State police heard it from firemen on the scene. Alive and in squad cars, only minor injuries. I’ll try to learn more, but you don’t hear from me, they’re fine. If anything’s seriously wrong, I’ll call you. Don’t call me back except in an extreme emergency.”

“Okay.”

“How you doing? Melba still there?”

“No. I’m not either.”

“What?”

“FK sent two guys to the lake house, and they nearly got me. I’m lucky to be alive, to tell the truth.”

“What?”

“He sent them to kill me. I turned the tables. One’s KIA, the other tied up in the backseat.”

“Jesus. How the hell did you manage that, the shape you’re in?”

“A little luck and a lot of drugs. What the hell do we do now?”

Walt only paused for a few seconds. “You need to go to ground somewhere while I talk to the colonel. And don’t try to cover any distance—you’ll hit a roadblock. Can you think of anywhere close that’s safe?”

“Actually, yes. But your part’s done. You need to get back to Texas. You’ve got Carmelita to think about. Just get clear, buddy.”

“That’s enough of that. Look, we’ve been on the phone too long already. Let me ask you one more question.”

Walt’s voice sounded strange.

“What is it?”

“What do you plan to do with the survivor in the back?”

“I’m not sure. I figured I’d ditch him somewhere. Cotton field, probably.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Where, then?”

“Nowhere.” After a pause, Walt said. “He’s KIA. Just like the first one.”

It took a moment to absorb Walt’s meaning. “I can’t do that. Too
much has . . .” Tom trailed off. “Too many people are dead already.”

“Listen to me,” Walt said in a voice that came all the way from their days in Korea. “Mercy is a virtue you can’t afford. We already made that mistake once this week.”

Tom thought of Sonny Thornfield and wondered if saving the old Klansman had really been a mistake, or whether he might yet play some positive role before events resolved themselves.

In the backseat, Grimsby stirred. Tom looked back but could see little in the darkness.

“Hey,” Walt said. “Did I lose you?”

“Now that I think about it,” Tom said, in case Grimsby had awakened, “going to Mobile was about the smartest thing you could have done.”

“What?” Walt said. “Oh. I get it.”

“I wish to God I was there with you,” Tom added, meaning it. He waited about ten seconds, then said, “Well, I don’t like it, but I guess it’s my best chance. Mobile it is.”

“That’s enough dinner theater,” Walt said in a quieter voice. “Listen to me now. Get yourself a new burn phone at a Walmart. Better yet, send someone you trust to get you a half dozen. Then call this number. I want you to use a code to tell me where you are—a basic code. Three steps. Number the letters in the alphabet from one to twenty-six. Then spell out your message, convert it to numbers, and multiply each letter-number by the number of men who died in the ambulance at Chosin. We clear on that number?”

Just the mention of that ambulance made Tom grimace. “Yeah.”

“Call and give me a string of numbers, nothing else. Like thirty-six, break, two-seventy-five, break, one-fifty, break. You got it?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember, if you don’t hear from me, Penn and Caitlin are fine.”

Tom nodded wearily in the dashboard light. “It’s good to hear your voice, Walt.”

“Same here, buddy. Time to go, though. Just remember, you’ve got one tough thing to do before you do anything else. Finish that son of a bitch. This is war, Corporal.”

“Walt—”

“He meant to kill you in cold blood, didn’t he?”

“I’ll see you soon.”

Tom broke the connection and put down the phone.

The revelation that Walt was alive had buoyed him in a way that nothing else could. With Walt still working to get the APB revoked, the most immediate threat to their lives might actually be removed. The news about the killings at Lake Concordia, on the other hand, had deeply unsettled Tom. He knew he bore some of the blame for those deaths, as he did for the earlier ones. Worse, Penn and Caitlin could only have turned up at Royal’s house because of their efforts to help him. But it was Henry Sexton’s death that most haunted him. To think that Henry Sexton had survived two earlier attacks only to die at Brody Royal’s house . . . it seemed almost incomprehensible.

Tom squinted down the twin headlight beams illuminating the narrow road between the empty cotton fields, watching for deer or stray cattle. He couldn’t afford an accident that might disable the truck. In his present state, he was incapable of walking to safety.

He tensed as a pair of headlights appeared in the distance, and his heart and shoulder began to pound in synchrony. Unless he stopped dead, turned around, and made a run for it, he had no choice but to continue toward the oncoming vehicle.

As the two vehicles closed the distance, a sharp pain stabbed him high in the back, and his breath went shallow. If whoever was in that car or truck was a cop, Tom knew, he was likely to die in the next minute. His photo—along with Walt’s—had been circulated across the state for the past few hours, saturating all media. Any cop who stopped him would recognize him. And what police officer was going to give a fugitive cop killer time to explain a corpse and captive in the backseat? Tom had treated plenty of cops over the years, and in this situation, eight out of ten would shoot first and take the glory.

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