“I wanted to take a bite out of BLIND SHUFFLE before breakfast but ended up reading straight through lunch. I finished it on a plane to Tijuana. This was my first Rusty Diamond novel…it won’t be my last. Dig in.”
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. The stage is set for a New Orleans noir perfect for fans of James Lee Burke and George Pelecanos.
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.
Excerpted from Chapter 1
The brunette hadn’t said a word the whole flight. Rusty detected an aloof vibe from the moment he took an aisle seat next to her when boarding the 737 in Baltimore. He made a cursory stab at conversation and got only an annoyed shake of the head. From the preflight safety spiel through takeoff and into cruising altitude, his comely seatmate did a fine job of acting like he wasn’t there.
It didn’t bother Rusty, but it made him curious. He wasn’t the easiest guy to ignore, based on appearance alone.
The brunette’s refusal to even glance at him rendered an uneasy feeling that he’d somehow become invisible. She looked up from her laptop only twice—both times to tell the flight attendant she’d like another glass of Pinot Grigio.
Maybe it’s the tattoos, Rusty thought.
He’d taken off his leather jacket and stuffed it under the seat, wearing a black t-shirt underneath, leaving the snaking vines of symbols and incantations covering both arms from shoulder to wrist open to plain view. His seatmate didn’t look like the kind of woman apt to recoil from some well-inked body art, but then it was sometimes hard to tell.
They occupied the two port seats in row 3. First class, the way it ought to be, located in front of the gangway and separated by a curtain from coach. Rusty was no snob, but after shelling out more than a grand to upgrade his ticket, he felt the difference should be noticeable.
He scratched his goatee and pondered draining another glass of scotch. The dimly-lit cabin filled with searingly bright illumination, making him blink. Huge flashes of lightning strobed through the windows, followed by an ominous roll of thunder deep enough to induce vibrations in his seat.
The brunette jerked her head up from her laptop to raise the window shade. Her posture had gone rigid. Rusty turned to look over her shoulder. A menacing mass of dark clouds filled the oval glass partition, pierced by another burst of lightning. The brunette pulled down the shade and recoiled into her seat. Rusty suddenly understood the source of her withdrawn demeanor.
She’s scared out of her wits.
Not an unjustified reaction, on this flight. The first two hours had passed calmly enough, but they ran into the outer rim of a massive cyclonic event shortly after entering Louisiana airspace. The “fasten seat belts” sign came on with a ping as the captain casually intoned over the intercom things might get a bit choppy between here and the tarmac.
That proved to be an understatement. For the past half hour, this 737 felt more like an ill-conceived amusement park ride than an airliner. Rusty had only flown through one serious storm before, years ago, and at the time he was so blasted on muscle relaxants and champagne he’d found it more entertaining than frightening. He was enjoying this flight considerably less.
“Shit!” his seatmate yelped as the plane banked ten degrees to the right, sending a splash of Pinot Grigio onto her laptop. The glass rolled off the tray table as its emptied contents trickled down the computer screen.
“Christ, I hate flying,” she said with an embarrassed glance at Rusty. “Did I spill on you?”
“Nah. Just missed me.”
He reached down to retrieve the errant glass and set it on her tray table. “Dead soldier, I’m afraid.”
“Doesn’t make any difference. I could hammer back a whole bottle and I’d still be a wreck.”
“It was supposed to be a clear evening, at least when I checked at BWI. Then again, I learned a long time ago not to trust the weather where we’re going.”
“Do you live in New Orleans?” she asked.
“Used to. This is my first visit in a while.”
The plane bucked again, harder than before.
“Oh Jesus,” the brunette muttered, gripping the seat divider. Rusty saw her expending great effort to maintain a polished facade, and failing. He couldn’t help but sympathize.
“I’m a little nervous myself,” he said, leaning just a bit closer. “But not about getting there safely. That’s the least of my worries.”
She looked at him with new interest, a trace of the fear removed from her eyes. “Why’s that?”
Rusty paused before answering. He saw no reason to confide in this stranger, other than passing the time a bit faster before they landed.
“I plan to visit some people I haven’t seen in a long time. They don’t know I’m coming, and I have no reason to think they’ll be glad to see me.”
“Do they owe you money or something?” she asked, amused by the question.
“Just the opposite. I owe them a hell of a lot, more than I can ever repay. Especially the old man. He taught me my trade, asked for nothing except loyalty.”
Rusty paused before adding, “I let him down. His daughter too.” “So you’re coming to ask their forgiveness?”
The question hit a nerve. A sense of obligation cutting deeper than common regret had propelled Rusty from his comfortable rented home in coastal Maryland, all the way to the airport in Baltimore and into the first class cabin of this airliner. When he actually reached New Orleans and looked Prosper Lavalle in the eye for the first time in more than half a decade… he had no idea what might happen at that point.
“I just want to clean things up, if possible.”
He turned to his seatmate and detected an innate kindness in her face, tucked away beneath the glossy veneer.
“I hope it goes well,” she said. “People can forgive a lot if you’re sincere in asking for it. Seems like you are.”
“I appreciate that,” he replied, offering his hand. “My name’s Rusty.”
She reciprocated with a businesslike shake.
Another jolt to the cabin caused her hand to close tightly on his. Five lacquered nails dug into his skin in a way Rusty didn’t entirely dislike.
“God, I fucking hate this,” Erin said hoarsely. “Last time I ever get on a plane, guaranteed.”
“This is a homebound flight, then?”
“I’m a sales rep for Revlon. When I interviewed for the job I told them: no travel. So far they’ve honored that, but I really felt pressured to make the convention in Baltimore.”
“We’ll be all right,” Rusty said, looking at his watch and noticing she hadn’t freed his hand. “Less than an hour, you’ll have Louisiana soil beneath your feet.”
“I might just kiss it.”
A new ping on the intercom claimed their attention.
“Hey folks, this is Captain Thompson. I want to apologize for that last little dip. We ran into a microscale atmospheric gradient, also known as a wind shear. That tends to happen more often during clear air turbulence, but stormy conditions can sometimes produce the same result. Our aircraft is equipped with a reliable on-board detection system, so it’s extremely uncommon for us to fly directly into one of these pesky things. That wasn’t a very big one, even if it felt like it. Unfortunately the scope and severity of this storm may have confused our system regarding its exact location.”
“Very reassuring,” Erin said, clutching Rusty’s hand tighter.
“I’m guessing that’s not part of the airline’s approved spiel,” he answered.
“Not to worry,” Captain Thompson continued. “We’re lowering our altitude now as we approach our initial descent. This should cut down on the turbulence signifi—”
The plane banked hard, fifteen degrees to the left. Rusty and Erin tipped toward the window in unison. She cried out briefly before clamping her mouth shut. More than a few startled noises arose within the first class cabin, with one full-out scream emanating from coach.
“Just sit tight, folks,” the captain cautioned over the intercom, sounding noticeably less relaxed. “We’ll be out of this soon. It might not be the smoothest landing in aviation history, but we’ll get you on the ground as quickly and safely as possible.”
Erin had released Rusty’s hand, both of hers folded tightly in her lap. A trickle of sweat ran from her brow, sending a runny line of mascara down her cheek.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered in a strained whisper. “Say something to me, please.”
“What would sound good right about now?”
“Anything, doesn’t matter. Just take my mind off this.” Rusty considered offering some statistics about the safety of flight as opposed to other forms of transportation, but that wasn’t what was called for. What this woman needed was some misdirection.
“Look me in the eye, Erin.”
In response to her wary glance, he added:
“Trust me, this is a great distraction.”
“Good. I want you to think of someone. Someone you know personally. Don’t tell me who it is, just form a clear picture of this person in your mind.”
She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Then she opened them and said, “OK, I’ve got someone.”
“All right. Now give me both hands.”
She hesitated as he held his own hands out, palms up, then did as he’d asked. Rusty closed his fingers around each hand, pressing gently on the webbed flesh located between her thumbs and forefingers. He felt the inner play of muscles and tendons as her pulse slowed by degrees.
“OK. You’re thinking of a man, that’s obvious.”
She gave a wan nod.
“Fifty-fifty chance of getting that one right.”
“I’ll try to get a little more specific. Keep looking me in the eye.”
Rusty’s thumbs pressed more closely, feeling out the part of her hands known in medical texts as the thenar eminence. He picked up on each tiny throb, felt the muscles tense and relax in sequence as his touch grew heavier.
Reading her gaze, he spoke with better than moderate confidence:
“This guy’s name begins with an M.”
A small spark lit Erin’s eye, and he saw her smile for the first time.
“Not bad,” she said, “but come on. You had a 1-in-26 chance of getting that right. Probably one of the more common letters in a first name.”
Rusty heard the words, but kept his focus on the way she was unconsciously communicating with him. The faint wrinkling of her nose, a tightening of the jawline so minute as to be undetectable by anyone who hadn’t spent years studying the vast range of facial and bodily gestures people employ to transmit information without being aware of it.
“It’s not Matt,” he said. “No, definitely not. And it’s not Martin.”
Erin replied with a nod, sensing that to speak would offer an unintended clue.
“I won’t even bother asking if it’s Monty. And Mycroft is a long shot, unless his parents are really into Sherlock Holmes.”
“You’re just fishing now.”
That was partially true, but in replying Erin supplied him with another telling bit of insight—the emphasis she placed on the first syllable of fishing.
“Nope,” Rusty answered casually as he released her hands. “I knew his name was Michael all along.”
He let that hang there for a moment, clocking her reaction. The smile that grew on Erin’s face, free of any tension or anxiety, made up for her earlier standoffishness.
“He goes by Michael, right? Not Mike.”
“Michael it is. I’m impressed.”
“And he’s your…fiancé. Yeah. Probably waiting to greet you at the airport with a big kiss.”
Now the smile changed shape, widening to express something beyond passing amusement.
“Not bad. So you’re, what, a magician?”
Rusty was pondering an adequate reply to that question when the 737 hit a massive wind shear at two hundred miles per hour. The plane’s nose buckled down sharply like it had been nailed with a gigantic fly swatter.
Erin screamed. A genuine scream, pulled from her lungs with the force of real terror, and hers wasn’t the only one.
Multiple bags tumbled from overhead containers jolted open by the drop. A service cart near the flight deck rolled from the galley into the aisle on spinning wheels, its brake set loose. A plump flight attendant fell to her knees trying to stop a heavy roller bag from falling onto an elderly man in 4C. The attendant’s head struck the metal edge of an armrest, opening up a deep gash. Blood sprayed from the wound, prompting a fresh volley of screams from the first class cabin. The noise coming from coach sounded like a packed theater in the middle of a particularly intense horror movie.
Another first class attendant ran to assist his partner, yelling for calm over the panicked cries. It was a futile effort, even the captain’s voice on the intercom was lost in the din.
Rusty and Erin huddled in their seats, arms wrapped around each other in an instinctive clinch. The cabin trembled and heaved, everything rattling hard enough to loosen hinges and splinter apart.
The 737 kept dropping into a sharp dive for well over a thousand feet. Three thousand. Five. The engine roar overlapped what sounded like a hurricane raging outside the shuddering windows. It seemed to go on and on, as if the ground below kept racing away to delay the inevitable, catastrophic impact.
Finally, Rusty felt the cabin start to level out. He and Erin were shoved back into their seats as the plane’s nose pushed upward. Some measure of calm returned to the first class cabin.
“Flight personnel be seated immediately,” Captain Thompson resumed on the intercom, his voice hardened to a drill instructor’s bark. “Suspend normal cross-check.”
The wounded flight attendant lowered herself into a galley seat. She pressed a towel seeped in red to her face and strapped on an over-the-shoulder safety belt. Her partner scrambled into the adjacent seat.
Rusty clutched Erin tightly, feeling her heartbeat hammering against his chest. His eyes blinked shut against another burst of lightning off the plane’s port side. He felt no particular fear. He sensed, on a gut level that had nothing to do with logic, this plane would reach the ground safely.
I know it, without knowing why.
Secure in his intuition of momentary safety, Rusty inhaled deeply, allowing oxygen to fill his lungs at a slow controlled pace. He felt completely alive. He felt good. Yet at the same time, he couldn’t entirely dismiss an unnerving sense that whatever awaited him down on the Louisiana soil threatened him more gravely than the prospect of crashing to it from high above.