Vachss's seventh novel--and his first not to feature ``outlaw'' p.i. Burke (Sacrifice, 1991, etc.). The author's new antihero inhabits the same mean streets as Burke, but on the shadow side: Known as ``John Smith'' or ``Ghost,'' he's an uneducated contract killer--and in a voice that's so stripped-down simple that it veers close to parody, he tells the compelling, violent tale of how he tracked down a long-lost girlfriend. John and Shella first meet in a bar where she strips: ``Like blind dogs, we heard the same whistle. Recognized each other in the dark.'' The two hook up to play the ``Badger game''--a dry-hustle extortion--until John's caught and sent to prison. There, he makes an example of one ``wolf'' (``I got my thumb in his eye. Pushed it through until I felt it go all wet and sticky'') in order to serve quiet time for the next three years. Released, he begins to search for Shella even as he picks up stripper/hooker Misty, a born victim who doubles as a springboard for Vachss's usual street-moralizing (Shella won't hook so she's superior to Misty, etc.). John-- revealed as a product of child abuse and Dickensian reform schools- -travels with Misty until a lead on Shella takes him alone to Chicago. There, he hooks up with a radical Native American who introduces him to a mysterious government operative, a computer genius who asks John to kill the head of the paramilitary group of white supremacists who murdered the operative's undercover agent. In exchange, the operative will find Shella. John poses as a redneck bigot, infiltrates the group's camp, and, after much danger and death, makes his kill. He's then directed to Shella--whose surprising fate closes the story with a punch to the heart. Despite the absurdly hard-boiled prose: a swift, savage, and unexpectedly moving exploration--somewhat reminiscent of Jim Thompson--of love among the swamp lizards.