A Death in Seattle
(Second story I published on Medium three years ago when I hoped excerpts from my books might attract sales. Didn’t work. I originally posted in honor of a deceased editor of mine who wanted more LeMatte stories, but died before I could get around to them. I still haven’t. Writing comes more slowly these days…)
The calendar said it was springtime in the Pacific Northwest when LeMatte mustered out of the Army, wearing starch-stiff, ill-fitting khakis issued to him just before a car took him from the Saigon embassy to the airfield. All his original issue had been stuffed in a duffel bag and left far behind well over a year ago.
It felt very odd to be back in uniform again after more than a year in “mufti,” which his handlers assured him was the correct term for civilian clothing worn by a serving soldier. His primary handler, a “Mr. Smith,” introduced to him by his commanding officer, had financed his mufti at an obscure Saigon shop that once outfitted Colonial sport hunters; he wound up looking like Farley Granger in a movie about Africa.
Mr. Smith explained that Lematte had been hand-picked for temporary-duty (TDY) that required his knowledge of French and civilian attire. Later they took him to a remote, heavily guarded section of the big air base and handed him a Remington bolt-action .308 mounting an eight-power Unertl scope to verify his other credentials…
LeMatte felt uncomfortable with the brand-new sergeant’s stripes sewn on the sleeves of his brand-new khakis. The last time he’d worn a uniform, he had been a PFC. Stripes didn’t mean a thing in the places Mr. Smith had led him. But his orders said he was an E-5 now, appointment retroactive to six months earlier, with back pay due at separation. LeMatte thought the stripes were probably a goodbye kiss from Mr. Smith and the other anonymous men with whom he had passed his unusual tour, and who evidently had the ability to reach into Army records and massage 201 files.
Despite the calendar saying it was spring, he was cold all the time at Fort Lewis. His Louisiana bayou blood had been thinned even more in the places that the anonymous men sent him, one after another, not always in Asia. LeMatte didn’t really like flying, and figured he’d had a lifetime’s quota. None of the countries had been hot or humid enough to bother him that much, but LeMatte saw men suffer greatly who were not from Louisiana or Florida or some other state that touched the Gulf of Mexico.
Now it was his turn to suffer from the weather, in unheated transient barracks, during all the rituals that attended separation from service. He huddled in the wool Army blankets at night. Daytimes he wore a field jacket over his khakis that a medic had handed him and other returnees when he got off the charter jet at McCord Air Force Base. It wasn’t proper uniform to wear it with khakis and without rank and unit insignia, but nobody challenged him about it. They left all the returning combat veterans alone, and that’s how the paperwork classified him; the returnees had liberal leave privileges, too, as their last days wound down.
One of the headquarters company personnel sergeants arranged a double-date for LeMatte with his girl friend’s girl friend. She took him home with her to Seattle at the end of their first date and LeMatte was AWOL his last weekend in the Army. No one on post even noticed. When the Army finally turned him loose the following week, he took the Greyhound bus straight back to Seattle.
He had been with her now as a new-minted civilian for five days and nights, most of the time spent in bed. He knew her every surface and texture and taste. She gave herself completely, asking nothing, and she got everything in return that he knew how to turn loose of yet. He still was learning there, he knew he was, though whores in Bangkok had taught him a few things.
He knew she was more experienced in actual lovemaking. But together they seemed to be moving far outside even her experience, let alone anything he could have ever imagined given his limited experience with foreign prostitutes, and building a magical world of their own. For a brief blissful time the shadows of the men he had killed left him alone.
They whispered together in her bed like children in the darkest hours before spring dawn, telling their lives to each other. His stories always stopped at the point where he had been plucked out of his infantry unit on a “TDY” that had somehow stretched out to fill his entire service obligation. It wasn’t that what he had done bothered him particularly; but he had signed promises never to talk about it.
One evening their intimate revelations were drowned out by harsh heavy footsteps in the hall outside her basement apartment, annoying but dismissable. The next two evenings, though, furtive shadows flickered on her curtained windows, slinking down the alley behind the building. The shadows in the alley made him afraid in some primal way, like a cave dweller hearing the padded prowl of predators beyond the fire glow.
The local newspapers, when they left the apartment for long enough to eat something, were full of a double murder on Queen Anne Hill, two stewardesses slaughtered bloodily — that was the way the morning paper described it — in their apartment. The story was winding down already, because the police had no suspects; it looked like just another one of those urban horror stories.
But the combination of that particular story, and the shadows skulking in the alley, awakened bayou survival instincts finely honed by his unmentionable TDY. Something dangerous was afoot in the chill, rain-washed Northwestern city. The girl was no longer safe in her apartment, or in this neighborhood. He knew that she wasn’t. And he was scheduled to fly home to Louisiana tomorrow.
She laughed indulgently at his worry. This was peaceful Seattle after all; nothing bad would happen here. She had the urbanite’s easy disbelief: the newspapers were just being sensational, like always, and sooner or later it would prove to be some shoddy domestic drama, with the second girl killed by the murderous boyfriend to leave no witnesses.
But he trusted his unease absolutely against the force of her dismissal. He had grown to manhood in the dark superstition-laden swamps of Louisiana, and could smell danger. The proof of it to him was that he has survived his unusual year completely unscathed, but he couldn’t make that argument without straying into forbidden information.
Not that she would understand anyway. Her antecedents were Scandinavian and her legends were of Norse blood and thunder. She would laugh at the idea of a grandmother with the second sight, who practiced obeah against the monsters of this world. But the old Cajun blood bred true. LeMatte’s natural instincts had proved superior to the lethal dangers of the shadowy world to which he had been dispatched by his civilian handlers.
They had sought out LeMatte because the French had left their mark in a number of those far alien lands as clearly as on La Vieux Carre, which made it easier for him to function in those cultures. The handlers also liked his way with a rifle and a knife, but they really had no way of computing that extra thing that lived in his blood and fitted him so well for the secret role they chose for him.
But the enemy knew.
As well as wrought-iron and long-simmering hatred among the ruled peoples, French administration seemed to have left behind an inordinate number of believers in the supernatural. Even the African Muslims had their fearsome Djin to fret about. Within six months of LeMatte’s advent into those shadowy precincts, some particularly scary inhabitants, who tried for him and failed, began to mutter about the faceless hunter who was unkillable because he was under the protection of the unknowable.
Mr. Smith got a big kick out of the rumors, but considered it no more than excellent theater. LeMatte’s simple mission was to cause terminal things to happen to enemies of his country who had thought themselves unreachable, and he turned out to have a talent for the work — and for getting away with it. Others in that small cadre of hunters — far more highly trained; seasoned warriors — died awful, painful deaths in the shadows of those alien cities where they had no business being.
Such attrition had caused the urgency with which they seconded a novice like LeMatte to the work. They were pleased that they had recruited a natural; as for LeMatte, he developed an almost mystical belief in his bayou blood and instincts.
Now, here in this mist-wrapped, always chilly, twilight city, with its polyglot population so careless of shadows, those instincts were alive and quivering. The surface tranquility of the place only sharpened his awareness. Something was wrong, desperately wrong, in this neighborhood. But she merely smiled at him tenderly, and he didn’t know what to do.
Their last night, when the aging springs of her bed were in full cry beneath their passion, a fist slammed the apartment door in fury. A rough voice yelled be quiet in there god damn it you slut! For a single instant he thought the evil had arrived, and LeMatte went from sexual oblivion to cold killing rage before she even realized what the sound had been.
It took her long moments to soothe him, calm him, stroke the tension out of his coiled body. She didn’t know of course about the Inglis Hi-Power lying just below the zip of his AWOL bag beside the bed, where his fingers rested, or the British commando dagger beneath that.
“There are all kinds of nuts in this neighborhood,” she murmured tolerantly.
“There will be one less if I catch him,” he said without affect. Her hands went still and she seemed afraid at last. Not of whatever unknown thing lurked beyond their cellar cave, but of what came up in his eyes just then. He saw it, and felt defensive. Remember the Boston Strangler, he told her. Remember the career girl killings in New York City. Please think about those two stewardesses on Queen Anne Hill two weeks ago. There are monsters loose in every land. Some of them prey on women. There’s one loose in this city right now; I can feel him.
She couldn’t grasp his fear. There were stewardesses who rented right here in this building, and no one had ever slaughtered them in the night like those two poor girls on Queen Anne. That was all the way across town, and probably a jilted lover anyway. She remained as careless of shadows as every other oblivious citizen in this cold rainy city.
“I’m afraid of you when you get like this,” she said softly.
“This is my cave. My lair. You are my mate. This is the first lair I have ever had. If something wants to come prowling here, it better be very dangerous indeed.” At least until tomorrow he added, guiltily, to himself.
“Am I your mate?” Her eyes shone then.
“I’ve never had another.”
“Liar,” she teased gently.
“This is serious.” He had too much experience of danger, almost none of love.
He gave up. You couldn’t teach a healthy paranoia; it had to be hard-earned. There was no need to try to explain the harsh things that he had learned in the shadow world, even if he could. He had automatically traded his too-new Army shoes and khakis at the Fort Lewis PX for gum-soled Clark boots to move silently, and a soft black nylon ski parka and dark jeans to blend with shadows, as well as keep him warm in this dank city. He was unwilling yet to shed the habits of stealth from his dangerous year.
At this point in his life he was leaner and more fit than he had ever been, even back on the bayou, and finely attuned to the smell of danger. He figured it would take a year of daily grind back in New Orleans to inflate his waistline, deaden his muscle tone, dull his senses. Not completely; never completely, because his blood was his blood, and The Big Easy hosted plenty of dangers of its own. But months of tight white collars and office drudgery and smoke-filled rooms away from the bayous would dull his whetted edge.
While he thought about that, her hands were never still, touching him, coaxing him, re-igniting the sensual fire doused by the door-pounder. He exhaled deeply, and began to touch her in return. His pulse thudded in his ears and dangerous shadows drifted out of thought. Just like that, they were back into it, hot and hard and urgent, and to hell with the bedsprings. Later, utterly spent, they lay close and warm, and listened to the water drip-drip in the kitchenette sink.
“Darling?” she murmured finally.
“Um,” was all he could manage, his lips slack against her shoulder.
“I know you are all big and scary and tough, like some kind of wolfhound. And so-o-o fine…”
“But — would it be beneath your dignity to go get our fresh sheets off the line in the laundry room? I can’t, darling. I just can’t move. And it is your fault, after all.”
Levis and the ski parka; he shoved his feet into the Clarks without socks.
“I’m locking it behind me. So you’ll have to get up anyway.”
“It’s locked.” He closed the door.
Dim-lit hallway, dusty worn carpet; the smell of soap and damp clothing from the laundry room. Then a rustling sound, something moving against dry cloth. Another late-night visitor in the laundry room. But the sound for no knowable reason made his back hairs lift and brought him to full alert. And of course he had left the Hi Power and the dirk behind in the AWOL bag. Stupid; he was getting lax already. Not much point in smuggling them home with him if he was going to start leaving them behind. The sound came again. He paused in the laundry room doorway like a dark ghost.
Neither of them heard him.
The woman wouldn’t have been listening anyway. Her eyes goggled at the man who had her. Her throat worked against his hand, clamped cruelly beneath her chin. She was trying to speak, to scream, to beg. A small gagging sound escaped. He had her up on the dingy laundry tub, skirt pushed up obscenely, legs asprawl on either side of him. Her own hands pawed weakly at his hand on her throat.
Her assailant was slender, also wearing black. A cotton turtleneck with the sleeves pushed up, black jeans. Ropes of muscle stood taut in his left forearm from his grip on her throat. Muscles writhed in his right arm each time the quite ordinary French chef’s knife in his hand slipped beneath another button of her blouse and sliced it free.
As he cut the last two, and the blouse fell apart, the buttons arced and slapped against the bed sheet hanging nearest them. A light plop, then that rustling sound as they slipped down. That was the sound that had alerted LeMatte.
The blade moved precisely to the left bra strap.
When the steel slid between her flesh and the material, she seemed to shrink in upon herself. The knuckles at her throat whitened. She went still again, her eyeballs rolling up. She was almost unconscious now. The blade twisted away from her flesh, and the strap parted. The attacker’s back was to the door. He reached under his restraining arm, feeling for the second bra strap, resting his chin on his shoulder to watch the blade. He worked with the utter absorption of a hobbyist building a model airplane.
LeMatte forgot about his Hi Power or the commando knife. They might as well still be in Algeria or Cambodia. Without the thought rising to consciousness, he slithered the ski parka’s nylon belt out of his pocket. The cold roundness in his palm of the D-ring keepers on the belt triggered the memory he sought: an Indian rupee knotted into the end of the rumal had been the secret weapon of the Thuggee worshippers of Kali. The French-Canadian operator who sold him the Inglis had been a thorough historian of the fatal arts.
The belt’s keepers were too much lighter than an Indian coin for the classic movement. He couldn’t flip the end of the belt around his target’s neck below eye level. So he twisted the ends of the belt in both hands, inhaled deeply, took five gliding silent steps and dropped the loop over the attacker’s hunched head.
He cracked his wrists together and yanked back and up.
If it had been the piano wire (le garotte) the Canadian always carried, the attacker would have died simply. But he came upright, struggling against the bite of the nylon. He grabbed for it with both hands and gouged his own cheek with the forgotten knife. The blade clattered in the sink then, and he tried to cry out. A dry croak. He tried to turn.
A modified front kick to the back of the knee buckled his legs; the classic sentry take-down. His full weight sagged against the ski belt as LeMatte yanked once more. This time the neck went, and with it all the furious trapped energy of the attacker.
The woman screamed.
She floundered off the laundry tub and stumbled to her knees over her crumpled assailant. She screamed again. Then she scuttled toward the door on hands and knees like a panicked infant. She made mewling wordless sounds as she crawled. She caught the doorjamb and thrust herself up. As soon as she was upright she screamed again. This one was loud and long. Then she was gone.
LeMatte released one end of the belt, jerked it free, and pulled the sheets off the clothesline. His hands were shaking. His stomach revolted at the stench of the dead man’s released bowels. But the sense of foreboding he had felt since arriving in this cold damp city had vanished.
He could still hear the woman screaming, somewhere upstairs now. Doors slammed, other voices were raised. He bundled the sheets under his arm and walked back down the corridor and knocked.
“Jesus, what’s going on out there? Darling, is that you?”
He locked the door behind him again.
“What was all that?”
“Don’t ask me. Some woman went running by me in the hall, screaming.”
“Well, at least you got the sheets.”
“Do we need to change the sheets tonight?
“I’ll do it tomorrow. Let’s go back to bed.”
Loud footsteps in the hall, voices and sirens in the street, kept her awake most of the night. She wondered if maybe the neighborhood was more dangerous than she had thought. But he said not to worry about it and snuggled back against her under the warm covers and went right to sleep.
Their lovemaking the next morning was tender and lingering, and they held each other a long time before they dressed so she could drive him to the airport. By the time the cops got things sorted out enough to canvass every apartment in the building, he was on a Boeing 707 en route home to Louisiana. When a sallow homicide detective asked her if she lived alone, she simply answered yes.