Blind Shuffle: New Excerpt

Blind Shuffle by Austin Williams is the 2nd mystery in the Rusty Diamond series about a street magician who must navigate the deadly streets of New Orleans (available October 20, 2015).

Far from the neon lights of Bourbon Street, heinous crimes are being committed against young women, and a street magician seeks to pull off his greatest trick by staying alive long enough to see justice done.

Rusty Diamond abandoned the Crescent City years ago to pursue fame in Las Vegas, leaving Marceline Lavalle, the daughter of his mentor, with a broken heart. Now Rusty has come back to make amends with his former teacher and his first love—but Prosper Lavalle won't face him, and no one has seen Marceline for days.

Five months pregnant, Marceline's vanished without a trace. Her estranged boyfriend, a casino boss with criminal ties and a hair-trigger temper, claims no knowledge of her whereabouts. With the police not yet ready to declare foul play, Rusty launches his own investigation.

The search for Marceline will take Rusty into the darkest corners of New Orleans, where enormous profit can be made from human misery, where desperate people hunt on the fringes, and where not all magic is sleight of hand. It will force him to confront the mistakes of his past, and offer him a shot at redemption. And it will leave him—if he's not careful—at the bottom of a bayou.

Chapter One

Rusty’s cell phone vibrated as soon as he reached Royal Street. A 504 area code showed on the screen.

“Diamond,” a gruff male voice intoned. “Dan Hubbard, NOPD.”

The hairs on the back of Rusty’s neck rose, responding like sonar to an invisible threat.

“What is it, Detective?”

“There’s…well, there’s a body for you to identify. At the coroner’s. I just came from there.”

Rusty’s feet kept moving,but he had no awareness of forward motion.

“Turned up about an hour ago,” Hubbard continued. “Busboy found her in a dumpster behind the Crescent City Oyster House. Fits the description we have for Ms. Lavalle. Black female, average height. Looks to be in her twenties.”

Rusty swallowed before asking, “Was she—”

“I thought it best to call you,” Hubbard interrupted, “instead of the father. Figured this might be too much for the old guy.”

“You made the right decision. Was this woman pregnant, Detective?”

Hubbard gave what sounded like a sigh before answering.

“We think so. Given the condition of the body, it’s hard to say for sure.”

“What are you telling me?”

“Look, you should know what to expect before you walk in there.”

A brief pause elapsed. Rusty felt the heat of his phone pressed against his ear, a sense of dread seeping in through every pore.

“The coroner’s initial examination suggests she was carrying,” Hubbard continued. “That hasn’t been verified yet. A proper autopsy will tell us, but that’ll be a few days.”

“Did you see the body yourself?”

“I did.”

“So how can you not know?”

“She’s cut up bad, OK?” Hubbard paused before adding, “Bad as anything I’ve seen in twenty-two years.”

Rusty barely registered the last few words Hubbard had spoken. He froze on the sidewalk, drilled to the damp ground in front of the show window of an art gallery selling framed lithograph prints of historic New Orleans.

“Jesus Christ,” he said shakily.

“Yeah. Like I said, thought you should know before walking in there. We normally don’t call people in to do a formal identification, but I know you’ve been worried about Ms. Lavalle. I thought you’d want to know soon as possible.”

The potential reality of what he was hearing sunk in. Rusty felt the flagstones start to swim beneath his feet.

“Where do I go?”

“2116 Earhart Drive, off Claiborne. Technically they’re closed right now, but I told them to expect you. There’s an attendant waiting with the body.”

“I’m on my way.”

“Call me at this number, soon as you make an ID. Don’t worry about the hour.”

“I will.”

Rusty thought Hubbard had hung up, then heard the creak of a wooden chair over the line. He pictured the detective leaning back from the cluttered desk in his cramped office.

“I hope it’s not your friend, Diamond.”

The call went dead.

“So do I,” Rusty uttered to the empty street around him. Snapping into focus, he started to run back toward Bourbon where it would be easier to flag down a cab. Then he remembered how close he was to the Cornstalk Hotel. His rental car waited in the parking lot.

Turning on a heel, Rusty didn’t stop moving until the Mustang’s gearshift was in reverse. He backed out of the lot with a screech of rubber and without bothering to see if the road was clear.

Nineteen minutes later, Rusty pulled into a parking space in front of a gleaming marble building that occupied an entire block of Earhart Avenue, less than a stone’s throw from the I-10 overpass. He’d barely tapped the brake during the drive, blowing multiple red lights through some of midtown’s busiest intersections.

He killed the engine and got out on rubbery legs. The lot lay mostly empty. He forced a measure of composure upon himself, then climbed a broad set of concrete stairs leading to the main entrance of the Orleans Parish Forensic Center.

Rusty crossed the expansive breezeway in five hurried steps, finding a pair of glass doors locked. He pressed an intercom buzzer built into the marble edifice, hearing a faint digital ring emanate from inside.

The front desk, visible through the smoked pane of the door, appeared to be unoccupied. Rusty kept his thumb on the buzzer until he noticed the top of a bald head rise from behind the desk, followed by a formidable pair of shoulders cloaked in a dark blue night watchman’s uniform.

The watchman blinked away sleep as he rose from his napping position. He punched in a security code while giving an unfriendly scowl through the glass, then pushed open the door.

“I’m here to ID a body,” Rusty said, hearing a quiver in his voice that sounded alien, like it belonged to someone he didn’t know and didn’t want to meet.

“Uh huh,” grunted the watchman.

“Detective Hubbard of the Sixth Precinct called me. He said you were notified I’d be coming.”

“Uh huh,” the watchman repeated. “We been notified.”

“Gonna let me in?” Rusty asked after a weighted pause. “I’d like to get this over with.”

The watchman stepped aside to let him enter, then closed the front door. Rusty heard an automatic metal lock click into place.

Returning to his post at the front desk, the night watchman sunk into a padded chair behind a bank of computer screens. He tilted his head toward the far end of the lobby.

“Take the stairs, one floor down. Room 013.”

Rusty nodded and brushed past the front desk. A haze of humming electricity burned down from the high ceiling above. It struck him as surreal. The lobby was overlit and elegantly designed in a style that felt inappropriate to this building’s grim purpose.

Every surface gleamed—from the polished floor, to the curved brass sconces holding two symmetrical lines of overhead lights, to the steel handrail along a set of stairs leading to the subterranean examination rooms.

Rusty descended on leaden feet, fighting off the fear that built within him. Each step brought him closer to answers he wasn’t prepared to face.

Is it her? Can it possibly be her? What will I tell Prosper? What will I tell myself?

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, a narrow hallway stretched off in two directions.

Rusty turned left, his pace slowing by degrees. After the manic crosstown drive, he suddenly felt less hurried to reach his destination.

As he passed three closed doors, a band of cold sweat formed along his brow. He reached an open doorway on the right side of the hall. Room 013. A beam of faded white light stretched out into the hallway, creating a parallelogram on the buffed cement by his feet.

He stepped inside.

On first glimpse, the examination room appeared devoid of the living. One side of the room contained row after row of dull gray lockers, built into the wall and reaching from floor to ceiling. How many of them held the newly dead? Rusty had no way of knowing, and didn’t want to ponder it.

“Hello?” he called out. “Anyone here?”

A muffled cough sounded from a darkened corner of the room. Rusty saw a dull green lab coat emerge from behind a column of lacquered wood file cabinets. It hung loosely on the frame of a gaunt man with a bloodless pallor that could have easily belonged to one of the lockers’ inhabitants.

The attendant coughed again, covering his mouth with a balled fist.

“Here for the Jane Doe, I assume.”

“That’s right.”

“Must have some powerful friends in the department.”

“No. I don’t.”

When Rusty didn’t elaborate, the attendant continued, “They hardly ever let civilians down here. Not once at this time of night, far as I can recall.”

“Just show me the body,” Rusty said tersely. He wasn’t about to give any explanation for his appearance here tonight, not that he had any to offer. He really didn’t know why Hubbard had shown him the courtesy.

Shrugging as if he’d expected no more than a quick rebuff to his query, the attendant shuffled over to the wall of lockers. He opened a chest-high lateral door marked 2104-A. The door squeaked softly.

The attendant reached inside and grabbed the steel handles of a slab placed on rollers. Bending slightly at the knee, he pulled with a grunt. The slab shuddered out, extending for two feet before halting with a clang.

A body lay there. Visible in outline from the top of the head to the ribcage, the rest hidden within the locker. It was covered in a white sheet pulled up almost to the hairline, totally obscuring the facial features. Rusty could just make out a thin strip of mocha-colored skin between the top of the sheet and the long tufts of wavy black hair spilling out onto the slab.

Was he looking at the remains of Marceline Lavalle? Absolutely impossible to tell.

He could be. He most definitely could be.

“If you’re ready,” the attendant coughed, his face forming an expression that could have been either aloof or sympathetic.

He reached for the sheet, placing his fingers on the edge just below the corpse’s hairline.

“Wait!” Rusty ordered. He laid a restrictive hand on the shoulder of the attendant, who looked at him with alarm.

“Hey, buddy. I can’t let you touch—”

“Just hold on, for Christ’s sake.”

The attendant released his grip on the sheet and retreated half a pace. He casually repositioned himself closer to a security callbox.

“Relax,” Rusty said in a calmer voice. “I won’t cause any problems. Just give me a second, OK?”

The attendant nodded, keeping the callbox within reach.

Rusty leaned closer to the slab. He squinted, trying to pick up some clue that would give him an answer to the mystery of this body’s identity before confirming it with his eyes.

The thin sliver of flesh visible above the top of the sheet looked very much as Marceline’s complexion appeared in his memory. Both the shade and the smooth, unblemished texture struck him as horrifyingly familiar.

He couldn’t recognize any telling clues in the dark,curled tresses spread across the slab. Hell, he didn’t even know what kind of hairstyle Marceline had worn recently. This woman’s hair appeared damp and furiously tangled, as if some terrible struggle had consumed the final moments of her life.

A sick tightness filled Rusty’s chest, constricting his breath to a shallow ebb. Eyes traveling down the sheet, over twin mounds indicating the woman’s breasts, he flinched like he’d been stuck with an electric needle. Clearly visible just where the slab disappeared into the locker, a dark stain spotted the sheet. A complex pattern of dried gore, covering as much of the dead woman’s stomach as he could discern from where he stood.

Hubbard’s voice rang in his head. Worst I’ve ever seen.

Rusty tried in vain to steel himself. He abandoned the effort and gave a terse nod.

“Do it.”

The attendant paused for half a second before he again reached for the sheet. He looked down at the floor, as if rendered unable to behold either the cadaver or the man who’d been summoned at this terrible hour to identify her.

“Do it!” Rusty shouted.

The attendant pulled down the sheet.

Copyright © 2015 Austin Williams.

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Austin Williams is the author of the suspense novels Misdirection, Crimson Orgy and The Platinum Loop. He is the co-author (with Erik Quisling) of Straight Whisky: A Living History of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll on the Sunset Strip.

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