Book excerpt

Gravewriter

A Novel

Billy Povich

Mark Arsenault

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One 
Providence, Rhode Island
5:50 a.m., September 1
 
That ain't piss down my pants, thought the old convict. That's blood.    
 
He reached a hand around, fingered the wet tear in his shirttail, stuck a pinkie in the hot, sopping sinkhole in his lower back, gasped at the pain.
 
He ran on, cradling the package, wrapped in a garbage bag and a newspaper, like a football in his left arm.
 
I ain't been shot for twenty years.
 
Garrett had been shot two times before, and shot at two dozen times. None of those bullets had brought him down. He doubted that the small-bore pistol that had drilled this new peephole onto his kidneys would take him down, either. Nobody was going to snuff Garrett Nickel--the outlaw the papers liked to call "Nickel-Plated"--with a single pop of a .22-caliber Ruger.
 
Garrett grinned as he ran, impressed with the double-crossing son of a bitch who had taken Garrett's own gun and shot him when his back was turned.
 
Garrett's first whiff of the betrayal had been the gunpowder. That son of a bitch had colder blood than Garrett had ever figured. To conceal a killer's soul from Garrett Nickel was a trick; Garrett usually recognized a kinsman the moment he looked into his eyes.
 
He ran along a deserted street in a failing industrial park, toward the pink horizon to the east, and the flickering yellow glimmer of the harbor.
 
Garrett ran with a loping stride, still graceful after nine years in an eleven-by-seven cell. He ran on toes that lightly tapped the asphalt. He had been starving himself by necessity the past two months, yet he felt no fatigue as he ran. Garrett was juiced on adrenaline and two lines of coke. He switched the package to his other arm and pumped his legs harder.
 
To his left, a thin railing of iron pipe ran between the street and a narrow canal of swamp water flowing from a bog, toward the bay. Straight ahead, single-story manufacturing buildings, dark and shuttered at this hour, were silhouetted black against the sunrise. He heard the distant groan of heavy machinery at the docks, where the work of unloading cargo ships took no notice of night or day. To his right, a sagging chain fence surrounded a construction site on three sides. The side that fronted the road was open. Dusty tire tracks curled from the site into the street.
 
Garrett needed a place to hide, to regroup, to stuff a wad of cloth in the hole in his back, and to plot his revenge. Garrett's vengeance would be slow and bloody.
 
His spiteful side, which was most of him, wanted to run to the police station, bust through the front door, and spike the package, like a running back in the end zone, right on the blue-and-gold Rhode Island state seal embedded in the floor. That would teach the son of a bitch to double-cross him. He chuckled at the fantasy. Visiting the cops would not be in Garrett's best interest, and Garrett Nickel was a slave to that which was best for Garrett.
 
He heard a car.
 
He dived left, toward a billowing bush on the side of the street, at the base of a utility pole. He tucked up against a newspaper vending box, flinched at the wave of pain, gritted his teeth, and held his breath as the worst of the agony passed. He panted. Burning vomit rose in his throat to the back of his tongue. He choked it back down.
 
The car sped away.
 
The bullet hole felt like somebody was slowly turning a hot screw into Garrett's back.
 
Hiding beside the vending box, he rested. The telephone pole smelled like tar.
 
On the front page, in the newspaper machine's window, Garrett saw his own face and laughed aloud.
 
"Lookie there. They printed a late-night extra--just for me," he said out loud.
 
The picture was a courtroom photo from before he got his life bid, before his hairline had started its retreat. Even after nine years in max, Garrett was still a front-page headline:
 
"NICKEL-PLATED" OUTLAW ESCAPES
Killer of three, Garrett Nickel,
in prison break with 2 armed robbers
 
Killer of three? If they only knew . . .
 
Garrett was impressed he had made that day's paper; they had only been free for one night.
 
Beneath Garrett's photo, the paper had printed police mugs of two other convicts: a scarred street thug with a bulging Adam's apple, and a kid, half Garrett's age--big-eyed, sunken-cheeked, smooth-skinned. They call him an armed robber? A junkie punk, that's what he was. The kid had tried to look tough in the picture--eyes narrow, head cocked to the side, lips in a half pucker--but to Garrett, he looked like a frightened bunny. Garrett hacked up phlegm from the back of his throat and spat on the image.
 
The goop that oozed down the glass was dark brown.
 
Motherfuck.
 
Must have been blood in his vomit--the bullet had reached deeper than Garrett had thought.
 
Fear passed over him like a cold breeze, and he felt his bladder release.
 
"Goddamn it," he cursed, wiping the front of his pants. Even after a lifetime as a predator, and nine years locked up with men eager to jam a pencil in your neck for spitting in the shower, the Nickel-Plated Outlaw was still afraid to die.
 
He had rested long enough; the double-crosser would be looking for him. They would meet again, Garrett swore, as soon as Garrett found a weapon. He also decided to find a doctor, for a house call--at the doctor's house. Garrett would do the calling; the doctor would do the healing at the point of a gun.
 
But first--the package; it was slowing him down and he had to stash it.
 
Garrett tugged the door of the vending box. Locked. He didn't have four bits. The stream? No. The package was his insurance.
 
Across the road, at the construction site, a wall of cinder blocks climbed a squared-off steel frame. New offices, probably. Maybe a bank. Garrett peeked around the vending box, saw nobody, pulled himself up with a groan and a grimace, and jogged across the street.
 
 
The artists of the night had tagged the unfinished walls of the construction site with graffiti and cast their empty paint cans to the ground. Over a background of baby blue, a twisting green snake spelled out "Isaiah" in script.
 
Isaiah? I know Isaiah.
 
On impulse, Garrett picked up a spray can and shook it. The shaker ball clacked inside. This can still had a little color in it.
 
The can hissed at the wall.
 
Garrett smiled at his own cleverness as he sprayed two-foot-high balloon letters in ruby red, spelling out a fragment of Scripture he had committed to memory, to remind himself of where he had hidden the package.
 
He stood back, admired his work, and tossed the can aside.
 
Behind him, somebody cocked a gun.
 
Garrett froze.
 
"Quoting the Old Testament?" the double-crosser said. "The line I like best is, 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.' "
 
Garrett smirked. He continued the verse: " 'Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.' "
 
"Turn around, Garrett."
 
Hot piss dribbled down Garrett's right leg. He bit his bottom lip in anger. "Why don't you shoot me in the back again?"
 
"You're empty-handed, I see. Where is it?"
 
"Fuck you."
 
"I want it," the double-crosser said. "I want the picture back, too."
 
Garrett said nothing.
 
The double-crosser clicked his tongue. "Turn around, Garrett."
 
Garrett bent at the knees and rose up on the balls of his feet. He rolled his head lazily around his shoulders.
 
"Did you hear me?" the double-crosser barked. "I said, Turn around."
 
Garrett lit fire to his rage and exploded at the double-crosser in a sudden bull rush--mouth open, teeth bared, his huge hands clenched into claws, Garrett hissed like a wildcat and sprayed a dragon's breath of bloody drool at the son of a bitch who had shot him.
 
The double-crosser reared back in shock and raised an arm on instinct as Garrett pounced.
 
The gun fired once.
 
Garrett wheezed. His chest tightened, as if all the air in the world had been suddenly sucked out into the vacuum of space.
 
Son of a bitch knocked the wind out of me.
 
He staggered past the double-crosser, toward the street. Garrett couldn't inhale; he felt like he was breathing through a pillow. His right palm pounded his own chest to loosen whatever had gotten stuck in there. The thump against his chest echoed through him.
 
His hand came away smeared red.
 
The gun fired twice more. It sounded far away.
 
Garrett made for the river. It came unsteadily toward him.
 
He reached for the railing at the river's edge to brace himself, and then heard the gunfire again; it sounded muffled to Garrett, like it was underwater. He heard the crack of splintering bone, and then suddenly Garrett went blind and deaf, as if deep beneath a silent black sea. Don't be afraid of the water, he told himself. He remembered his Scripture.
 
What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?
 
He felt himself roll over the rail.
 
Fearing nothing, Garrett plunged into the river.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Arsenault MARK ARSENAULT has been a reporter since 1989 and presently covers state politics for The Providence Journal in Rhode Island. His previous novels include the Shamus finalist Spiked and Speak Ill of the Living. He lives in Rhode Island.