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BOOK ONE
THE ALMADU SANCTION

 


Chapter One

The body of the young woman had been twisted into a fetal position and strapped with duct tape. Then it had been dropped in a black plastic contractor bag and rewrapped. Which seemed like a heck of a lot of trouble if you were going to just dump the body in the woods.


Detective Sergeant Kelly Lockhart stroked his beard as the coroner's assistant stretched the body out. The corpse had been in the bag long enough for decomposition to work its way on the ligaments that stiffened the body in rigor mortis. And for the smell to change. But Kelly had seen far worse in his ten years as an investigator. And the department wanted to know, right away, if she was another victim of the Rippers.


Kelly was six two and a hundred and sixty pounds when he was watching his weight. Most people describing him used "thin" because "skeletal" was impolite. He'd started growing his hair when he got out of the army and hardly quit in the ensuing twelve years. It hung down his back in a frizzy, uncontrolled mass and was matched by a straggly beard and mustache.


Technically, since he'd worked his way out of vice and into homicide, he should have cut both back. But he still worked, occasionally, under cover and he'd managed to convince his bosses to let him hang onto the whole schmeer. Since he had a good track record for running down even tough murder cases, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye to someone that looked like a cross between the grim reaper and Cousin Itt.


As the corpse's legs were stretched out the open cavity of her torso and abdomen became evident and he squatted down to look at the incision. Something sharp, but not as sharp as a knife, had opened the young woman's body up from just above her mons veneris all the way to her throat. The edges of the cut were haggled; it was more of a rip than a cut, thus the name the papers had slapped on New Orleans's latest serial killer. And, as usual, all her internal organs were missing.


"Fuck," he muttered. "You know the problem with being me? It's always being right."


"Same MO," the coroner's assistant said, pointing at the cut. "I'd love to know what he's using."


"They're using," Lockhart replied, standing up as another car pulled down the dirt road. "And if I didn't know better, I'd say it's a claw, a big one like a velociraptor's."


"A veloco . . . what?" the coroner's assistant said, confused.


"What, you've never seen Jurassic Park?" Kelly said. "A dinosaur, you Cajun hick."


* * *

The edge of the bayou made the roads wet and treacherous but the driver of the black SUV expertly avoided the worst of the puddles and parked next to one of the parish unmarked cars. When he saw who was driving, Lockhart tried not to groan. And it looked as if the FBI agent had a boss with him.


"Detective Lockhart," Special Agent Walter Turner said, nodding to the detective. The FBI agent was black, just short of thirty, with a heavy build from football that was getting a bit flabby. "This is Mr. Germaine. He's a . . . consultant we sometimes call in on serial cases."


Germaine was a tall character, about six four, maybe two hundred thirty pounds, very little of it flab. Sixty or so, clean shaven, short black hair with gray at the temples, and a refined air. The suit he was wearing hadn't come off a rack. A very expensive consultant, Lockhart suspected. Then the consultant stopped looking at the body and locked eyes with the detective for a moment.


This is one dangerous bastard, Lockhart thought. As an MP he'd spent just enough time around the spec-ops boys to know one dangerous mother when he ran across one. Not the gangbangers, although they were nobody to turn your back on. But this was somebody who would kill you as soon as look at you and whether you put up a fight or not. He kept looking around, not too obviously but obviously enough, keeping total situational awareness like a cat at a dog convention. No, a lion at a dog convention, wondering if he should just go ahead and kill the whole pack. What the fuck was the FBI doing carting around somebody like that?


"Can you tell me anything that's not in one of the earlier reports?" Germaine asked, quietly.


The "consultant" walked strangely. Kelly had seen a lot of walks in his time. The robotic walk of a tac-team member, arms cocked, fists half closed, legs pumping as if trying not to leap all the time. The street "slide," feet half shuffling, hips moving. Military guys with their stiff march. Germaine's wasn't like any he'd seen before. His hands, instead of being turned in like most people, were rotated with the palms to the rear and barely moved as he walked. Legs were slightly spread, heel strike then roll to toe, stand flat foot as the next rose up in the air and forward. The ankles hardly flexed at all. Back straight but shoulders held down.


It was almost as if he had to think about each step.


He had an accent, faint, not one that Lockhart could place. European anyway, not British. Other than that faint trace his English was perfect. As perfect as his suit and just as obviously a disguise he could take on and off. The accent might not even be genuine.


"If it's like the others, not much," Lockhart replied with a shrug. "All the previous bags were clean of prints, body had been washed. Semen in the remaining vaginal tract, multiple DNA, none from any known sex offender. FBI's already gotten samples," he added, nodding at the special agent. "What's your specialty? Profiling?"


"I'm called in when the FBI suspects there are Special Circumstances to an investigation," Germaine said, walking over to the corpse. He squatted down and pulled out a pair of gloves, putting them on before reaching into the gutted corpse. He fingered the cut for a moment, lifting a bit of the mangled flesh along the side and then pushed the abdominal wall back to examine the underside. If he felt anything about manipulating a violently mutilated teenaged female, it wasn't evident.


"What are special about these circumstances?" Lockhart said, a touch angrily. "We've got five dead hookers and a group of rapists and murderers. Sick fuckers at that. Where are the guts, that's what I want to know. Draped on display? Eaten? Pickled in jars to await the body's resurrection?"


"Partially the group aspect," Special Agent Turner said. "Serial rape-murders are almost always individuals. And usually when there is a group, somebody cracks and burns it."


"The papers are saying it's a cult," the coroner's assistant replied. "Ritual killings."


"Perhaps," Germaine said, reaching up to close the girl's staring eyes. It was a gentle action that made Lockhart rethink his initial evaluation of the "consultant." "But cults can be taken down as well," the consultant continued. He stood up, stripped off the gloves and nodded at the FBI agent. "I've seen everything that's important."


"Got a bit of bad news," Special Agent Turner said, wincing. "You know that scale you recovered from the second body?"


"Yeah?" Lockhart said, uneasily. The thing had looked like a fish scale but it was about three times as large as any he'd ever seen. They'd sent it to the FBI to try to figure out what species it had come from. Probably it had been stuck to the body or hands of one of the rapists, a fisherman and God knew that there were enough in the bayous, which would probably be a dead lead. But a clue was a clue. You just kept picking away at the evidence until you got a match. Or, hopefully, somebody got scared and agreed to turn state's evidence in exchange for not being charged with capital murder.


"The crime lab lost it," Turner said, grimacing.


"Lost it!" Lockhart snarled. "It was the only thing we had that wasn't complete bullshit! How the hell could they lose it?"


"Things like that happen," Germaine said, placatingly. "And, eventually, we'll find the perpetrators and get a DNA match. One scale will not keep them from justice, Sergeant."


"What about the odd-ball DNA?" Lockhart asked. "Our lab said they couldn't make head or tails of it."


"Still working on it," Turner replied. "You get occasional human DNA that doesn't parse right. Your lab doesn't see as much DNA as the Crime Lab does; they've seen a couple of similar cases. We can match it fine for court, if we get the right perp."


"Which we will," Germaine added, steepling his fingers and looking at the trees that surrounded the small clearing. "On my soul, we will."


* * *

Barbara Everette stepped out of the tiled shower, patted herself dry with a towel and began blow-drying her long, strawberry blonde hair. The roots were showing again, about two shades redder than her current color with the occasional strand of gray. It didn't seem fair to have any gray at the ripe old age of thirty-three.


She dropped the blow-dryer into its drawer and brushed her hair out, examining herself critically in the mirror. She was either going to have to cut back on the carbs or find some time to exercise more; there was just a touch of flab developing around the waist and, yes, as she turned and checked there was a touch of cellulite around the top of the thighs. The body was, otherwise, much the same as it had been when she married Mark fifteen years before. Oh, the D-cup breasts were starting to sag a bit and showed plenty of wear from little baby mouths, but it still was a pretty good body. Pretty good.


She dropped the brush and took a cat stance, twisting through a short kata to stretch her muscles. Ball of the foot, turn, swipe, catch, roll the target down to the side, hammer strike. All slow, careful movements, warming up for the trials ahead.


She slipped on a tattered golden kimono, sat down at the vanity and did her make-up. Not too heavy. A bit of eye shadow, liner, very light lipstick. She still didn't have much to cover up.


Make-up done she stepped into the minimally decorated master bedroom, making another mental note among thousands to brighten it up a bit, and started getting dressed. Tights, leotard, wriggle into casual summer dress on top, brown zip-up knee boots with a slight heel. Her father had taken one look at them when she wore them last Christmas and immediately dubbed them "fuck-me" boots. Which . . . was Daddy all over.


Another brush of the hair to settle it after dressing, a pair of sunglasses holding back her hair, a slim watch buckled on her wrist, and it was time to go pick up the kids.


Barbara picked up her pocket book as she walked out the door, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor. The bag was a tad heavier than it looked: the H&K .45 with two spare magazines added significant weight to the usual load of a lady's purse. But she wouldn't think about going out the door without clothes nor would she think about going out the door without at least a pistol.


She climbed in the Expedition started it and waited for it to warm up. The SUV was a touch extravagant and simply devoured fuel but at least two days a week she ended up with six or more kids packed in the vehicle. It was a choice of a big SUV or one of the larger mini-vans, with not much better fuel economy. And Mark had flatly rejected the mini-van idea. If the stupid liberals back in the '70s hadn't created the CAFÉ regulations, SUVs never would have been economically viable. Serves them right. If they hadn't created the need, she could be driving a reasonably fuel efficient station wagon instead of this . . . behemoth.


When the temperature needle had started to move she drove sedately out of the neighborhood and then floored it. She knew that she already had too many points on her license and the local cops had started to watch for the green Expedition as an easy, not to mention pretty, mark. But cars were for going fast. If she wanted to take her time she'd have walked. And it wasn't as if she wasn't busy.


The radar detector remained quiescent all the way to the school zone by the high school and by then she'd slowed down anyway. She waved to the nice sheriff's deputy that had given her a ticket a couple of months before and got in the line of cars, trucks and SUVs that were picking up children from middle school.


Finally she got close enough to the pick-up area that Allison spotted her and walked over, her face twisted in a frown. The thirteen year-old was a carbon copy of her mother physically, with the true strawberry blonde hair that was but a memory to her mother's head, but she had yet to learn that a volcanic temper is best kept in check.


"Marcie Taylor is such a bitch," Allison said, dumping her book bag on the floor and climbing in the passenger seat.


"Watch your language, young lady," Barbara said, calmly. "You may be correct, but you need to learn a wider vocabulary."


"But she is," Allison complained. "She said sluts shouldn't be on the cheerleading team and she was looking right at me! She's just pi . . . angry because I got picked and she didn't! And she's trying to take Jason away from me!"


Barbara counted to five mentally and wondered if now was the time to try to explain the social dynamics of Redwater County. Up until the last decade or so, the county had been strictly rural with the vast majority of the inhabitants being from about six different families. Three of the families, including the Taylors, had been the "Names," old, monied for the area, families that owned all the major businesses.


Recently, as nearby Jackson expanded, the area had started to increase in population and the economy had become much more diverse. Chain stores had driven under the small-town businesses of the "Names" and while they retained some social distinction, it was fading. Even ten years before, Marcie Taylor would have been chosen for the cheerleading squad, despite being as graceful as an ox and with a personality of a badger, simply because of who her father was. And at a certain level she knew that. It undoubtedly added fuel to her resentment of a relative newcomer—the Everettes had only been in the county for ten years—getting such an important slot.


Barb had seen, had lived through, countless similar encounters being dragged around the world by her father. Marcie Taylor had nothing in arrogance compared to Fuko Ishagaki. But pointing that out wouldn't be the way to handle it, either.


"Why did she call you a slut?" Barbara asked, instead.


"Oh," Allison breathed, angrily. "There's some stupid rumor that I've been screwing Jason!"


"Ah, for the days when a daughter would put it more delicately," Barbara said, trying not to smile. "Have you been? Because if you are, we need to get you on birth control right now, young lady!"


"No, I haven't," Allison snapped. "I can't believe you'd ask. God, mother, I'm thirteen."


"Didn't stop Brandy Jacobs," Barb said, pulling into the line of traffic at the elementary school. "Not that you're that stupid. But if it's before you're eighteen, just make sure you ask me to get the pills for you beforehand, okay? I'd, naturally, prefer that you not have sex prior to marriage. But, given the choice, I'd much rather have a sexually active daughter who is not pregnant than one who is."


"God, mother," Allison said, laughing. "You just say these things!"


"Honesty is a sign of godliness," Barbara replied. "And you know what sort of a life you'll have if you get pregnant. Married to . . ." She waved around her and shook her head. "I won't say some slope-brow, buck-toothed, inbred, high-school dropout redneck simply because I'm far too nice a person. And far too young to be a grandmother." She lifted a printed sign that said "Brandon and Brook Everette" and then dropped it back in the door-holder as the lady calling in parents waved. The teacher was Doris Shoonour, third grade, and she immediately recognized Barbara. Everyone in both schools recognized Barbara. She'd been president of the PTO twice, worked every fund-raising drive and fair and could always be counted on as a chaperone on a school trip. Good old Barb. Call her Mrs. Dependable.


Finally she reached the pick-up point for Brandon and Brook and the two got in, bickering as usual.


"Hurry up, stupid," Brook said, banging at her younger brother's butt with her book bag.


"I'm going," Brandon said, irritably. "Quit pushing."


"Quiet, Brook," Barbara said. "Brandon, get in."


The seven-year-old finally negotiated the seats and collapsed with a theatric sigh as his eleven-year-old sister tossed her much heavier bag in the SUV with a thump and scrambled aboard. Both of the younger children had inherited their father's darker looks and were so nearly alike in height that they were often mistaken for twins.


When the attending teacher had shut the door, Barbara pulled out, following the line of cars.


"Mom," Allison said, "I want to go to the dance after the game Friday night."


"No," Barb replied, braking as a car pulled out right in front of her. "May the Lord bless you," she muttered at the driver.


"Why not?" Allison snapped. "I've got to go to the game anyway. And everybody else will be going to the dance! You can't make me just come home!"


"Because I said no," Barb said, calmly. "And no means no."


"You're impossible, mother," Allison said, folding her arms and pouting.


"Yes, I am," Barbara said.


Except for the regular argument in the back, the drive home was quiet.


"Get ready for tomorrow," Barb said as they were going in the door to the two-story house. "Brook, get your dance bag. Allison—"


"I know, mother," Allison spat, headed for the stairs. "Change into my work-out clothes."


"Brandon . . ."


"I'm going, I'm going . . ." the seven-year-old said. "I don't think I want to take karate anymore."


"We'll discuss it later," Barbara answered.


While the kids were getting ready, and keeping up a steady stream of abuse at one another, Barb got dinner prepped so all she'd have to do when they got home was pull it out of the oven. She often thought that the worst part of her current life was deciding what to cook every night. Followed closely by cleaning up after dinner and then the actual cooking.


So after much mental agony she'd simply decided on making a rut. Tonight was Thursday and that meant meat loaf. She'd made the loaf earlier in the day and now slipped it in the oven, setting the timer to start cooking while they were gone. Broccoli had been prepped as well and she slipped it in the microwave. She set out two packages of packaged noodles and cheese, filled a pot with water and olive oil and set it on the stove. When she came home all she'd have to do was pull the meat loaf out of the oven, get the water boiling, start the microwave and twenty minutes after they were back they'd be sitting down for dinner.


Technically, Mark could have done it all since he'd be home at least an hour before they were. But Mark was vaguely aware that there were pots and pans in the house and could just about make Hamburger Helper without ruining it. She'd wondered, often, if she shouldn't have at least tried to get him to learn how to cook. But that was water under the bridge: after fourteen years of marriage it was a bit late to change.


By the time she was done it was time to start chivvying the children out the door. Brandon couldn't find the bottom to his gi or his blue belt. Brook was missing one of her jazz shoes. Allison was dallying in the bathroom, trying to find just the right combination of make-up that would proclaim she was an independent and modern thirteen-year-old without being in any way a slut.


The gi bottom was fished out from under the bed, the belt had apparently disappeared, the shoe was found under a mound of clothes in the closet, and a couple of swipes of eyeliner, some lip gloss and a threat of punishment got Allison out of the bathroom.


All three children were dropped at their respective locations and when Allison was kicked out the door, still sulking, Barbara heaved a sigh of relief and drove to the dojo.


Algomo was a small town but unusual in that it successfully supported two schools of martial arts. For reasons she couldn't define, except a desire to, at least one night a week, avoid her children for an hour or so, Brandon had been enrolled in Master Yi's school of karate and kung-fu whereas Barb spent Thursday evening at John Hardesty's Center for Martial Arts.


She parked the Expedition, mentally cursing its wide footprint and inordinate length, and walked in the back door of the dojo. There was a women's locker room where she slipped out of the dress and boots and donned tight leather footgear that were something like Brook's missing tap shoe. Then she entered the dojo.


The room was large with slightly worn wood flooring and currently empty. In forty minutes or so the next class would flood in and she'd help with it for another forty minutes or so and then go pick up the kids.


For now she was alone and she started her warm-up, working through a light tai-chi exercise, stretching out each slow muscle movement. After she was slightly warmed up she sped up her pace, adding in some gymnastics and yoga movements for limberness.


"You know," John Hardesty said from the doorway. "It's a good thing I'm gay or I'd be having a hard time with this."


"You're not gay," Barbara said, rolling from a split to a hand-stand, legs still spread. She looked at him from between her hands and chuckled at his expression. "See?"


John Hardesty was middling height and weight with sandy-brown hair. His wife, Sarah, helped out a couple of evenings a week and between them they had five children, one from his previous marriage, two from Sarah's and two together. If he was gay, it was a very closet condition.


"Why do you do this to me?" John said, going over to the lockers and pulling out pads.


"It builds character," Barb replied, flipping to her feet. She fielded the tossed pads and started getting them on.


Once they were both in pads, with helmets and mouthpieces in, they touched hands and closed.


John started the attack with a hammer strike and then bounced away lightly, staying out of reach of her grappling attack. He'd learned, through painful experience, not to even think of grappling with her.


In honesty, the reason that Brandon and Brook, and up until recently Allison, studied with Master Yi, was that Master Yi was simply better than John. John had Barbara, a touch, on speed. And he was definitely stronger; any reasonably in-shape male would be. But Barb had started training when she was five, when her father had been a foreign area officer assigned in Hong Kong. Over the succeeding twenty-eight years she had never once been out of training. The quality varied and the forms definitely varied; over the years she'd studied wah lum and dragon kung fu, karate in the U.S. and Japan, hop-ki do in Korea and the U.S. and aikido. But by the time she was Allison's age, she could have won most open tournaments if they were "all forms." And if all attacks were allowed.


John Hardesty, on the other hand, was straight out of the "tournament" school of karate. He'd won southeast regional a time or two, come in second nationally, and now owned the de rigueur local martial arts school. He was good, but he was by no means a superior fighter. And he'd come to that conclusion after sparring with Barbara only once.


Master Yi, despite using "karate" to describe his school, had been studying wah lum before Barb was born and was, or at least had been, a truly superior hand-to-hand warrior. If the kids were going to train with anyone local, she wanted it to be Master Yi. In fact, she often wished that she trained with Master Yi instead of with John. You didn't get better by fighting someone who was your inferior. But, occasionally, she picked up something new.


Barbara followed up with a feinted kick and then two hammer strikes that were both blocked. But the second was a feint and she locked the blocking wrist with her right hand, coming in low with two left-handed strikes to the abdomen and then leaping out of range.


"Bitch," John said around the mouthpiece.


"Had to call Allison on using that term," Barb said, backing up and then attacking in the Dance of the Swallow. It was right at the edge of her ability and she nearly bobbled the complicated cross during the second somersault, but it ended up with Hardesty on his face and her elbow planted in his neck. "Don't use it on me."


"Christ, I hate it when you pull out that kung fu shit," John said humorously, taking her hand to get back on his feet. "Bad week?"


"Yeah," she admitted.


"Well, if you need to kick my ass to get it out of your system, feel free," Hardesty said, taking a guard position. "I have to admit that fighting you is always interesting. Anything in particular?"


"No," Barbara admitted as they closed. This time two of Hardesty's rock hard blows got through her defenses, rocking her on her heels, and she was unable to grapple either one of them. She'd take a blow if it meant she could get a lock; once she had most opponents in lock she could turn them into sausage. But she could feel her concentration slipping and she disengaged. "I'm just tired," she said, stretching and rubbing at her pads where the blows had slipped through.


"Take a break," John said, lifting his helmet and pulling out his mouthpiece. "You deserve one."


"I'm going to," Barb said. "This weekend. Mark doesn't know yet."


"He's going to be so thrilled," John quipped, slipping his mouthpiece back in. "You ready to get thrown through a wall?"


"You and what army?"


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