Southern Lights: Excerpt

Southern Lights
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Chapter One

The man sitting in the threadbare chair with the stuffing pouring out of it appeared to be dozing, his chin drifting slowly toward his chest. He was tall and powerfully built with a tattoo of a snake peering out of his shirt on the back of his neck as his head shifted down. His long arms seemed lifeless on the arms of his chair in the small dark room. There was an evil cooking odor coming from the hallway and the television was on. A narrow unmade bed stood in the corner of the room, covering most of the filthy, stained shag carpet. The drawers of a chest were pulled open and the few clothes he had brought with him were on the floor. He was wearing a T-shirt, heavy boots, and jeans, and the mud encrusted on his soles had dried and was flaking into the carpet. As peacefully as he had been sleeping, suddenly he was wide awake. He jerked his head up with a snort, and his ice-blue eyes flew open, as the hair stood up on his arms. He had an uncanny sense of hearing. He closed his eyes again as he listened, and then stood up and grabbed his jacket with a single stride across the narrow room. With his head erect, the snake tattoo disappeared back into his shirt.

Luke Quentin slipped quietly over the windowsill and made his way down the fire escape after closing the window behind him. It was freezing cold. January in New York. He had been in town for two weeks. Before that, he had been in Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky. He had visited a friend in Texas. He had been traveling for months. He got work where he could find it. He didn’t need much to live on. He moved with the stealth of a panther, and was walking down the street on the Lower East Side, before the men he had heard coming reached his room. He didn’t know who they were, but he was smarter than to take a chance. They were cops more than likely. He had been in prison twice, for credit card fraud and robbery, and he was well aware that ex-cons never got a fair shake, from anyone. His friends from prison called him Q.

He stopped to buy a paper and a sandwich, shivered in the cold, and went for a walk. In another world, he would have been considered handsome. He had huge powerful shoulders, and a chiseled face. He was thirty-four years old and, with both sentences, had done a total of ten years. He had served his full time and hadn’t been released on parole. Now he was free as the wind. He had been back on the streets for two years, and hadn’t gotten into trouble so far. Despite his size, he could disappear in any crowd. He had sandy nondescript blond hair, pale blue eyes, and from time to time he grew a beard.

Quentin walked north, and west when he got to Forty-second Street. He slipped into a movie house just off Times Square, sat in the dark, and fell asleep. It was midnight when he got out, and he hopped on a bus and went back downtown. He assumed that by now, whoever had come to visit earlier would be long gone. He wondered if someone at the hotel had tipped the cops off that he was a con. The tattoos on his hands were a dead giveaway to those who knew. He just hadn’t wanted to be around when they walked in, and hoped they’d lose interest when they found nothing in the room. It was twelve-thirty when he got back to the dreary hotel.

He always took the stairs. Elevators were a trap–he liked to be free to move around. The desk clerk nodded at him, and Luke headed upstairs. He was on the landing just below his floor when he heard a sound. It wasn’t a footstep or a door, it was a click. Just that. He knew it instantly, it was a gun being cocked, and moving like the speed of sound, he headed back down the stairs on silent feet, and slowed briefly only when he got to the desk. Something was off, very off. He realized they were behind him then, halfway down the stairs. There were three of them, and Luke wasn’t going to wait and find out who they were. It occurred to him to try and talk his way out of it, but every instinct told him to run. So he did, he ran like hell. He was already down the street by the time they made it out the door at a dead run. But Luke was faster than nearly any man alive. He had run track in the joint for exercise. People said that Q was faster than the wind. And he was now.

He was over a fence, behind a building, and grabbed the roof of a garage and swung over another fence. He was in the thick of the neighborhood, and he knew by then he couldn’t go back to the hotel. Something was very, very wrong. And he had no idea why. He had a snub-nosed gun shoved in his jeans, and he didn’t want to be caught packing arms, so he dumped it in a trash can, and ran behind a building into an alley. He just kept running and figured he had lost them, until he hit another fence, and suddenly a hand came up behind him and grabbed his neck in a viselike grip. He had never felt anything so tight, and he was glad as hell he’d dumped the gun. Now all he had to do was get rid of the cop. His elbow shot into the ribs of the owner of the grip, but all he did was tighten his hold on Luke’s neck, and squeeze, hard. Luke was dizzy almost instantly and despite his impressive size fell to the ground. The cop knew just where to grab. He landed a resounding kick into Luke’s back, who let out a stifled groan between clenched teeth.

“You sonofabitch,” Luke said, grabbing for the other man’s legs, and suddenly the cop was down, and they were rolling on the ground. The cop had him pinned in a matter of seconds, he was younger than Luke, in better shape, and he had been waiting for the pleasure of Q’s company for months. He had followed him all across the States, and had already been in his room twice that week and once the week before. Charlie McAvoy knew Luke Quentin better than he knew his own brother. He had gotten special permission from an interstate task force to track him for almost a year, and he knew that if it killed him, he was going to get him, and now that he had, he wasn’t going to lose him. Charlie got on his knees and slammed Luke’s face into the ground. Luke’s nose was bleeding profusely when he looked up, just as the two other detectives came up behind Charlie. All three of them were plainsclothesmen, but everything about them screamed cops.

“Easy boys, play nice,” Jack Jones, the senior detective, said as he handed Charlie the cuffs. “Let’s not kill him before we get him to the station.” There was murder in Charlie’s eyes. Jack Jones knew Charlie had wanted to make him, and why. Charlie had told him in confidence one night when he got drunk. Jack had promised him not to say anything to anyone when he saw him the next morning. But he could see what was happening to Charlie now, he was shaking with rage. Jack didn’t like personal vendettas getting into business. If Luke had moved a hair to break free and run from them, Charlie would have shot him. He wouldn’t have winged him or shot him in the leg, he would have killed him on the spot.

The third man on the team radioed for a patrol car. Their own car was several blocks away, and they didn’t want to move Luke that far. They weren’t going to take that chance.

Luke’s nose was bleeding copiously onto his shirt, and none of them offered him anything to stop it. He would get no mercy from them. Jack read him his Miranda rights, and Luke looked arrogant despite the ferocious nosebleed. He had icy eyes, and a stare that took them all in and gave nothing away. Jack thought he was the coldest sonofabitch he had ever met.

“I could sue you bastards for this. I think my nose is broken,” he threatened, and Charlie gave him a scathing glance as the other two men pushed him toward the car. They shoved him into the car, and told the cops driving they would meet them at the station.

The three men were quiet on the way back to their car, and Charlie glanced at Jack as he turned on the ignition and then slumped against the seat, looking pale.

“How does it feel?” Jack asked him as they drove downtown. “You got him.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said quietly. “Now we gotta prove it and make it stick.”

By the time they got downtown and into the station, Luke was looking cocky. There was blood all over his face and shirt, but even cuffed, he was strutting his stuff.

“So what are you guys doing? Looking for someone to pin a mugging on, or stealing an old lady’s purse?” Luke laughed in Charlie’s face.

“Book him,” Charlie said to Jack, and walked away. He knew he’d get credit for the collar. He’d been following him for way too long. It was just sheer luck Quentin wound up back in New York. Providence. Fate. Charlie was happy to have nailed him in the city where he worked. He had better connections here, and liked the DA they worked with. He was a tough old guy from Chicago, and more willing to prosecute than most. Joe McCarthy, the DA, didn’t care how full the jails were, he wasn’t willing to let suspects go. And if they proved everything Charlie hoped they would about Luke Quentin, it was going to be the trial of the year. He wondered who McCarthy was going to assign the case to. He hoped to hell it was someone good.

“So what’s the beef you trumped up for me?” Luke asked, laughing in Jack’s face, as a rookie shackled him and started to lead him away. “Shoplifting? Jaywalking?”

“Not exactly, Quentin,” Jack said coolly. “Rape, and murder one, actually. Four counts of each so far. Maybe you’d like to tell us something about it?” Jack asked, raising an eyebrow, as Luke laughed again and shook his head.

“Assholes. You know it won’t stick. What’s the matter? You got a bunch of murders you can’t solve, so you figured you’d do some one-stop shopping and pin them all on me?” Luke looked totally undisturbed, and almost amused, but his eyes were like steel, and an evil shade of blue.

Jack wasn’t fooled by the bravado. Luke was slick. They had evidence that he had committed two murders, and they were almost sure of two others. And if Jack’s guess was right, Luke Quentin had killed over a dozen women in two years, maybe more. They were waiting for a more conclusive DNA report on the dirt from his shoes that Charlie had gotten out of the shag carpet in Quentin’s hotel room. If the dirt was a match, as Charlie hoped it would be, Quentin had just been on the streets for the last time in his life.

“What a crock of shit,” Luke mumbled as he shuffled away. “You know you won’t make it stick. You’re just fishing. I have an alibi for every night. I hardly left my hotel room in the last two weeks. I’ve been sick.” Yeah, Jack thought to himself, very sick. They all were, guys like him, sociopaths who didn’t bat an eye after they killed their victims, dumped them somewhere, and then went out to lunch. Luke Quentin was handsome and looked as though he could be charming. He was the perfect type to spot some innocent young girl, and lure her to a secluded spot where he could rape her and then kill her. Jack had seen guys like him before, although if the stories were true about this one, he was one of the worst. Or the worst they’d had in a long time anyway. Jack knew there would be a lot of press on this, and every last detail had to be handled right, or Quentin would get a mistrial on some finicky detail. Charlie knew it too, which was why he had let Jack handle the booking, and after Luke was taken away to be searched and get his mug shot done, Jack called the DA himself.

“We got him,” Jack said proudly. “All our hunches paid off, and luck was on our side. That and Charlie McAvoy, who ran his ass off and caught him. If I’d had to run down all those alleys and hit all those fences, he’d have been halfway to Brooklyn before I got over the first one.” Jack was in good shape, but he was forty-nine years old, and he and the DA teased each other about their weight. They were the same age. The DA congratulated him for his good work, and told him he’d see him in the morning. He wanted to meet with the arresting officers to decide how they were going to handle the press.

By the time Jack left the station half an hour later, Luke was already in a cell. They had decided to put him in a cell alone. He was being scheduled for arraignment the following afternoon, and Jack knew the press would be all over them by then. Arresting the man who may have killed a dozen women or more in seven states was going to be big news. And if nothing else, it was going to make the NYPD look extremely good at what they did. Now it was up to the DA’s office, the prosecutor, and the investigators they used to do the rest.

He drove home with Charlie that night, after they made the arrest. It had been a long day watching the hotel all afternoon. They had seen Luke when he left, and Charlie had wanted to grab him then, but Jack told him to wait. Since he didn’t suspect they were onto him, they knew he’d be back. And there were too many people around then, Jack didn’t want anyone in the hotel to get hurt. It had worked out just right for them in the end. And not so well for Luke.

Luke Quentin was sitting in his cell then, staring at the wall. He could hear all the familiar sounds of jail. In an odd way it was like coming home. And he knew that if he lost, this time he was home for good. His face gave away nothing, as he stared down at his shoes, and then he lay on his bunk and closed his eyes. He looked totally at peace.

Excerpted from Southern Lights by Danielle Steel Copyright © 2009 by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.