The Devil at Your Door by Eric Beetner is the third volume in the Lars and Shaine series (available February 12, 2018).
Lars and Shaine have returned to a quiet life on the islands, but for Lars there is unfinished business. When he gets information that will lead him to exact revenge on behalf of his young protégé, the young woman he’s grown to think of as a daughter, he decides to take action in secret.
When he lands in a hospital Shaine is called in from a thousand miles away and she must take the lead in the last job of Lars’ storied career of death for hire.
Facing his own aging body, Lars struggles to take a back seat to the youngster he has trained in his image. They’ll face a local drug boss along with an old enemy as they work to fire the last bullet they’ll ever need to—before one finds them first.
Lars left a note. He’d been planning for weeks, hiding it like a surprise party from Shaine. He’d packed a small bag with clothes for three days. Left behind his razor and his gun. One of them he would replace when he got there.
He’d gotten the address a while ago, when his arm had nearly healed from his time on the East Coast and the bullet he brought home as souvenir. The information was one final favor from an FBI agent he had nearly killed, then spared, and the bullet was from a man he did kill. One in a long list. A list about to get one more name.
When Lars asked Special Agent Earl Walker Ford for the address, Ford didn’t question it, though Lars suspected he had plenty of questions that wouldn’t be answered about why Lars would want to find his former boss now in witness protection. If Ford thought for a second that Lars was about to jump back into the killing for money business, he never would have given him the address. But he knew it wasn’t about that. Now retired, the former agent would have had to stop Lars from killing again, unless that target was a man Ford thought deserved to die.
But Lars wasn’t doing it for Ford. He wasn’t even doing it for himself. As betrayed as he felt by Nikki Pagani after he’d been lured back East in the dead of winter, Nikki was the man who gave him everything he had in life. Money, stability, a career. Despite the career being murder-for-hire and the money being soaked in blood, Lars felt a debt to Nikki and knew the old mobster had been more of a father to Lars than his old man ever was.
But he was doing it for her. For Shaine.
It was like doing it for his daughter. Nikki was the one who put out the hit on Shaine’s father all those years ago. The one who ruined her childhood, who sent Lars out to the desert to kill a man for vengeance.
After the last job, Shaine wanted Nikki to pay for his actions more than ever. So this was Lars’s gift to her, even if he never told her about it. Not before and not after.
He set the note on the counter of their beach bungalow and moved through the darkened house toward the door. His soft-sided carry-on bag made no noise and he’d oiled the hinges on every door in anticipation of this moment. He knew how attuned Shaine was to any disturbance, any sound that could mean danger. He’d trained her in it.
He taught her how to shoot, how to react, how to defend herself. In exchange she taught him how to live life outside of the criminal world. Now, here, on a remote shore in Hawaii, he was leaving it behind for a long weekend away of murder and revenge.
But at least he left a note.
He didn’t think she would worry. He’d kept the note vague enough and he’d only be gone a day or two. Lars had quirks in his routine so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary, except for leaving the island, but he hadn’t mentioned that. He preferred to be alone—alone with Shaine, that is—and didn’t take many excursions where crowds of people gathered. But a man has his needs and he made the note sound like he was off on one of his rare and getting rarer jaunts to the big island for some time with a lady.
Better to make it something Shaine wouldn’t ask follow-up questions about or wouldn’t dare go after him for fear of finding him in the middle of his intended purpose. At nearly nineteen, she had been talking more lately about getting out among civilization a little bit herself. If it was for the same carnal reasons, she never said. For that Lars was grateful.
Lars knew the time to strike out on her own was coming near. This would be his parting gift to her. The last ghost of her past exorcized from the world. Maybe then the wider world would be safe for her. He could open her cage and let her fly free.
He boarded a plane leaving at one-thirty in the morning. After a short hop to the big island he caught a flight to San Francisco, connecting to Denver and then onto a double prop plane he didn’t even think they made any more for his final leg.
He had to crouch to walk down the aisle. The plane seated only forty-eight passengers in twelve seating pairs of two by two. He ended up with an empty seat beside him, which made the flight at least tolerable. A lone flight attendant brought drinks midway through and the drone of the propellers had Lars’s ears ringing by the time they landed.
He unfolded himself from the seat and wanted nothing more than a good stretch. The sun lit the eastern sky with bright yellows as the clouds caught the sunrise. Lars stepped out of the doorway and onto a set of stairs leading down to the tarmac. He’d never seen so much sky. It stretched over them like a dome, his view to the east unsullied by buildings and to the west decorated by far off mountains pushing at the horizon.
The flight attendant gave him a plastic smile and said, “Welcome to Montana.”
Lars had gotten used to the dramatic rising greenery of Hawaii. He’d seen the tan-on-tan undulations of the New Mexico desert, the thick New England tree stands as they burst into colors, but nothing prepared him for the vast, lonely flatness of Eastern Montana.
So this was where they put Nikki out to pasture. Lars knew Nikki wanted Florida. He could picture the sly smile on Special Agent Ford’s face when he handed Nikki the plane ticket to the middle of fucking nowhere, as Nikki would surely see it.
A city boy all his life, Nikki would fit in around here as well as Martin Luther King at a Klan rally. Lars briefly thought he’d be doing Nikki a favor by killing him. This was not the way Nikki would have imagined living out his final days after a lifetime of wealth and power at the top of the family.
Lars set down his bag, inhaled deeply and faced the rising sun. He reached high over his head and put his palms together, stretching toward the expansive sky. He held that position for a few moments then bent at the waist and laid his palms flat on the ground. Joints popped the way they didn’t used to when he began practicing yoga. But he’d passed fifty a month ago. A half century. Probably a record for someone in the hitman business. Men like Lars usually died young and died ugly.
Lars stopped at the single rental car counter inside the terminal. He marked directions on a map the clerk had to print out from his computer and then set out on Highway 212 in search of Nikki.
But first, some sleep. Christ, he was tired.
Nikki opened his eyes slowly and took in the sparse, beige room. Shit, still in Montana.
Each day he held out hope that he’d wake up from a dream bathed in Florida sunshine, but those bastards at the FBI wanted one more fuck you, even though Nikki had handed them a dozen top criminals on a platter.
He’d anticipated their double-cross though. He had money stashed; a decent amount of it. Not that it did him a hell of a lot of good out here. Goddamn Montana.
Until six months ago the only men he’d ever seen on horseback were cops riding through Central Park. Might have been the widest expanse of open land he’d ever seen, too. And Indians. Real goddamn Indians all around. A Cheyenne reservation only twenty miles east of him. They didn’t look anything like they did in the movies.
He groaned as he sat up on the edge of the bed. The west made him feel younger in some ways, older in others. The air was cleaner and he could breathe easier than he had in years. But wind always seemed to be blowing in a constant low hum. It made it hard to stay warm. He kept bundled up in sweaters, even through most of the summer. Nothing said old man like a guy always in a sweater. Now it was fall again and he’d heard stories of the winters out here on the plains. Snow drifts ten feet high. Storms lasting three days.
Nikki wasn’t sure how much his old bones could take.
Guess this was the deal, though. Put him out to pasture. Montana, he decided, was the perfect place to do nothing but wait to die.
And then he’d met Michelle.
People who live outside the law are drawn to each other. Any like-minded person usually is. Gays in a small, conservative town will find each other. Suburban punks will instinctively know who else likes their kind of music. And criminals can smell it on each other like blood on their hands that won’t wash off.
She was the best thing about Montana for Nikki. He looked over his shoulder at her sleeping form. Her mouth hung open and her breathing rasped one step away from a full-on snore of which he knew she was fully able. She was a rugged, western woman like he imagined a pioneer lady must have been. Tough and capable, able to care for herself and still take care of a man. Dark hair with only a hint of gray at the roots, and she kept vigilant about those invaders. Her skin wrinkled only where it should, lightly freckled from a life lived outdoors and her figure still enviable for a woman half her age.
It wasn’t sexual, this thing they fell into. It was mutually beneficial. She showed him genuine affection and he thought maybe someday he’d get her to try to prime the old pump and see if he could still work it, but for now he was too damn tired.
Nikki pushed off the bed with a grunt and made his way to the kitchen over rough-hewn wood floors. Already the wind outside rattled the windows.
Michelle felt him get up, but kept her eyes shut. This strange old man who was going to help her get rich.
She was deep into her forties, once married, now widowed. It was after her husband’s death she got into the drug trade. It had been Tommy’s work, but she never knew about it. When he was found in a ditch on the road between Lame Deer and Cowell Junction—his body on one side of the road and his head on the other—she learned an awful lot about the man she married out of high school.
Mostly she learned the only reason they had two nickels to rub together was the crank business Tommy ran. His storm window sales office had been barely bringing in enough to make the rent for a decade or more. But with the influx of oil companies and now the shale-fracking going on less than a hundred miles away, Michelle moved Tommy’s modest-sized trucker speed business into being the dealer of choice for a transient flock of roughnecks with nothing better to do after a shift than crank up and try to make the monotony of Montana life speed by a little quicker.
Then Nikki arrived with his funny accent, his wild tales of vice and crime from back in New York. He offered to help her, be her mentor. So she moved in like it was a dorm and this was her university of crime. She’d learned a lot and business steadily climbed.
She always felt like things were on the verge of getting sexual with Nikki, and she’d have done it. She owed him that much, she decided. Besides, life since Tommy had been one long dry spell. Good men were as few and far between out on the prairie as skyscrapers and ocean beaches. Guys who put away a case of beer a week, who drove trucks as old as their mothers and changed their underpants as often as the oil in those trucks were easy to find. They’d sweat over you and scratch your face and inner thighs up with their three day stubble and then expect a plate of ham and eggs in the morning. Michelle could do without a Montana courtship, as she called it. She honestly thought more and more about finding a high school senior and popping his cherry. Maybe do a little classroom activity of her own. But all that took a backseat to the drug trade and her new role as CEO.
This new deal promised to be a huge boost to her business. Moving product out of town, all the way to New York. With the local crowd and the oil workers her business could only grow so much. Then Nikki arrives and he’s like a venture capitalist for crank. She needed money to expand—he gave her money. She needed a way to get more customers—he offered her a contact back East. When Nikki found out how cheap she could make the stuff using four different trailer-home labs out on the Cheyenne reservation, he said she could mark it up three hundred percent and it would still be cheaper than what they buy and sell in New York.
A partnership was born. And so far, she hadn’t had to sleep with him. Each day it went on without him asking, she started to think it may never come to that. His soft body like uncooked dough on top of her. She’d let him do it from behind so she wouldn’t have to look at him. She could imagine anyone and as long as he took a little blue pill, a stiff dick was a stiff dick. In her head, though, her plan was to get him to marry her so when he did kick off—which was going to happen sooner rather than later—she could get half of his mysterious reserve of cash, the amount he never discussed.
Tommy’s inheritance had been quite the surprise. She wanted to know what she was getting next time around.
She opened one eye and checked the clock on the bedside table. Early still. Sun barely cresting the horizon. Their phone call to this guy Darren in New York wasn’t for a few more hours. She closed her eyes. Smelled coffee. Drifted back to sleep.
Shaine read the note once more. Sounded like Lars needed a break from her.
She often wondered how much he really liked living with a teenager. He seemed to enjoy teaching her to shoot. They were happy, squirreled away in their jungle hideout. But everyone needed some change.
Shaine had been thinking of it too. When she turned twenty, she told herself. Maybe try the mainland…and do what? Being a trained assassin, even if you’d been trained by the best, wasn’t exactly great résumé material.
They had money to last them a few more years at least. And here in their island shack, they didn’t live in fear of the past coming to kill them. The outside world wasn’t only unfamiliar—it was dangerous.
So Lars needed to go off and find a lady every now and then. Shaine had been thinking the one thing missing in her life was a guy. There weren’t many to meet where she lived, especially since she and Lars mostly avoided interacting with people. She could easily go a few miles down the road to one of the resorts and meet a guy, give him a vacation fling he’d tell his friends about. But she wanted more. She wanted to try a real relationship with commitment and feelings and other things she’d only read about.
It could wait.
She folded the note and left it on the counter. She checked out the door and looked at the waves. Decent sets, tide moving in. She went to the fridge for a yogurt and a mango. She’d eat. She’d surf. Read a book. Maybe a little target practice later.
Why did she want to leave here again?
Lars slept most of the day. Jet lag, he told himself, but he also had to admit he didn’t expect this side of fifty to take such a toll on his body. A trip like this and he would have been able to bounce back from much easier in his thirties. Now, he lay on the cheap motel bed and had to do some serious self-convincing to get to his feet.
But his hand, laying slack on the bed beside him, urged the day on. A slight tremor in his finger—a pulsing of the muscle like the finger was ready to get the day started and move on with the task of finding and killing Nikki—twitched urgently at him. Lars had to smile as he thought, the proverbial itchy trigger finger.
He’d driven to this place in his rental compact, stopped when he saw a Vacancy sign and a marquee advertising rooms for $49.95 AND FREE HBO. It also happened to be the first motel he’d seen in fifty miles and he didn’t figure on too many more cropping up.
The room was what he expected for fifty bucks. The carpet worn, the furniture outdated the day they made it. He didn’t see any cockroaches but he assumed they were sleeping it off during the day and would make themselves known after sundown. What other kind of bugs they had in Montana he didn’t know, but if they lived around here he assumed they’d be his roommates tonight.
He unwrapped a plastic-covered cup, let the water run in the bathroom sink for a full minute before filling it and drank some surprisingly clean tasting water. Then he’d climbed into the bed after a thorough check of the sheets to make sure nothing was already sleeping in there, and fell asleep so fast he was dreaming of Nikki within minutes.
Morning came quick and he jolted awake, disoriented with the new surroundings. His reason for being in Montana came to him quickly and Lars exhaled in his practiced deep yoga breathing as he sat on the edge of the bed. He wanted nothing more than to reach into his bag, arm himself with his trusted Beretta and head off to find Nikki’s address, but modern air travel made that impossible. He had to find a new gun.
With a tip from the kid behind the desk of the fifty-buck motel he made his way down the road “a spell,” as the kid put it, to the Buffalo Head Saloon, a roadhouse with a weathered-wood exterior and a neon beer sign in every window. The parking lot was dirt and filled with pickup trucks, SUVs and rusted workhorse vehicles at least twenty years old. This was a place where men didn’t rush to replace what could be fixed.
Lars parked his compact car between two pickups and it looked like a bright green plastic fork laid in a drawer of steel cutlery.
Inside, country music played on the jukebox, more neon beer signs buzzed and two dozen customers were settled in for the evening’s drinking. There was a pool table in back and a long shuffleboard table where two guys shoved old hockey pucks back and forth to land on hand painted numbers. Over the bar hung a namesake buffalo head mounted on a plank, the fur mottled and missing in patches and someone had stuck a cigarette in the animal’s mouth.
Lars found a seat at the bar. He’d allow himself one drink. Normally drinking on the job was a no-no, but he couldn’t exactly come into a place like this and just start asking about buying a gun. He had to act the part a little bit.
The bartender spotted him and wandered over, laughing about something the crowd at the other end of the bar had said. He wore a scruffy beard, twenty extra pounds around his middle and his left eye drooped either by birth defect or some long ago fight.
“Welcome to the Head. What can I get you?”
“Bottle of High Life.”
The bartender nodded and Lars continued to take in the scenery. Nobody else in the bar seemed to notice him at all. When the bartender returned Lars admired the mother-of-pearl buttons on his western-style shirt. Seemed half the people in the bar, women included, wore the same style shirt. The other half in flannel. Lars fit in that way, at least. He’d dug out a ragged flannel to bring with him because he assumed Montana would be cold. Colder than Hawaii anyway. So far it hadn’t been too bad, except for the constant wind.
The bartender set the beer down in front of him, not bothering with a coaster. The bar top was chipped and worn from years of use, and more than a few people had carved their initials into the wood.
“Thanks,” Lars said.
“New around here,” the bartender said. Not a question, he knew it. “You working out at the Exxon?” One of the new shale fracking fields Lars heard about.
“Me? No. Came out to do some hunting.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your game?”
“Whatever you got.” Lars hadn’t done any research on what kind of animals lived around here. He hoped he hadn’t talked himself into a corner in the first ten seconds. “Deer. Elk. Bison, maybe? You got any of those around anymore?”
“A few.” The bartender smiled at him. “Do a lot of hunting, do you?”
You don’t bullshit a bullshitter. Lars knew better.
“Nope. Not much.” He took a light pull on the beer. Hunting, no. Time to do some fishing though. “In fact, I’m not going to do any unless I get my hands on a new rifle. Airline lost mine.”
“They make you check it, right? All this bullshit with the TSA and declaring firearms. I had to fill out a form, had to have a hard shell case for my rifles. Then they go and lose them. How’s that for you?”
Lars lifted the bottle and wet his lips. “So, you know where a guy could get his hands on a new firearm?”
The bartender let the smile slowly drip off his face. He sized up Lars, unsure but not unreceptive. A rube from back East, sure, but was there something more to this guy?
To keep playing his part Lars sat and took another sip of beer, not pressuring the guy. He concentrated on not lifting the bar stool and running screaming across the floor to slam it into the jukebox to stop the damn country music from playing. When he got back to the car he’d have to dial up some of the tunes Shaine loaded into his iPhone for him—some AC/DC, Steppenwolf, The Sonics. Like an antidote to this ear poison.
“What are you looking for, like a twenty-twenty? Thirty-ought-six?”
“I’m easy. Beggars can’t be choosers, right. Something decently long range. Medium-fire power, unless you still have some of those buffalo around.”
“You could do cash?”
“Cash, yeah. I’d wait it out on the airline, you know, but I’m only here a few days. By the time they get my case back from Miami or wherever they sent the damn thing, I’ll have missed my chance.”
“Where you out from? New York I wanna say.”
“Exactly right. Damn, do I still have my accent?”
“It’s slight. Say, what do you do for work?”
Lars knew he was in. The question was coded. If Lars was a cop, he’d have to say so, otherwise this was entrapment. “Retired,” he said.
The bartended rapped his knuckles twice on the bar like he was making a decision. “Okay, New York. Hang tight. I’ll go make a call.”
Lars raised his beer bottle in a salute of thanks and watched the bartender walk away down the bar. He swiveled on his seat and watched the other patrons for a while. Men and women hung on each other, then the women would push away. They all looked like tanned leather. Razors seemed to be in short supply around here. Beer was the drink of choice and when they stopped gabbing to take sips, half a glass or bottle would disappear in a single tilt of the elbow.
The music changed from one three-minute suck-fest to another. They didn’t even have the decency to play Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash—country music Lars could hang with for a short time. For the first time in his life Lars found himself actually wanting the sweet sounds of .38 Special or, God help him, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Hey, New York.”
Lars looked up to see the bartender waving him over. He left his beer and waded through the crowd.
Standing next to the bartender were two men in their late twenties. One went the flannel route, the other pearl buttons. Neither had shaved in a while.
The bartender pointed at the flannel shirt. “This here is Roadrunner.” He pointed at the pearl buttons. “And this here is Squirrel.”
Lars shook hands with each man in turn. “Are those, like, Indian names or something? I thought it was all Standing Bear and Little Hawk.”
Squirrel gripped his hand tighter. “We look like Indians to you?”
“No. You look white. I’m just asking.”
Lars didn’t squeeze any harder, but didn’t look away either. He knew this was his first test. Immediately he recognized the type of men these were. He’d dealt with their kind before.
Squirrel let his hand go. “What’s your name?”
“Call me New York. I’m feeling like I fit in around here already.”
The bartender backed away. “I’ll leave you to it.”
“What do I owe you for the beer?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get my cut in whatever you boys settle on.”
Lars said to Roadrunner, “Probably beats a three-dollar beer, I’m guessing.”
“Depends on what you’re in the market for.”
“Why don’t we see what you’re selling first and then you can overcharge me later.”
The two locals traded a brief look, then Roadrunner jerked his neck toward the back. “Let’s go then.”
Lars followed them, wishing he had a gun already on him in case things went the way he thought they might, but damned grateful to get away from the shitty music.
Excerpted from THE DEVIL AT YOUR DOOR Copyright © 2018 by Eric Beetner. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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Eric Beetner has been described as “the James Brown of crime fiction—the hardest working man in noir.” (Crime Fiction Lover) and “The 21st Century’s answer to Jim Thompson” (LitReactor) He has written more than 20 novels including Rumrunners, Leadfoot, The Year I Died 7 Times and Criminal Economics. His award-winning short stories have appeared in over three dozen anthologies. He co-hosts the podcast Writer Types and the Noir at the Bar reading series in Los Angeles where he lives and works as a television editor.