Southern Lights: A Novel

Chapter 1

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