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Be careful what you wish for

CHAPTER 1

He got back from putting Patsy Cline’s Crazy on the jukebox to find a woman sitting on his stool at the bar. She looked like she was about to drink his beer.
‘I can get you one of your own, if you like,’ he said to her messy blond ponytail, ‘or we can share mine, whatever works.’
She jumped and twisted in his seat, a hint of a smile on her cushiony lips. ‘Hello Evan. I see your lines haven’t improved any in the last five years.’
‘Jesus Christ.’ He gave her an awkward, mismatched hug. ‘Ellie?’
He found another stool, squeezed in next to her, as the other drinkers shifted along and made room. He stared at her a few beats. She didn’t look as good as she used to, but still good enough for the drinkers to look her up and down as if she were hanging naked in a butcher’s window.
She noticed what was playing on the jukebox, smiled. ‘I suppose you put that on.’ She flicked her head upwards.
He gave a you-got-me shrug. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I called at your office—the guy downstairs said I’d find you here.’ She picked up his drink and sipped it as if it was Drano, leaving a smear of lipstick on the glass. ‘Ugh. I don’t know how you drink that. I’ll have a vodka rocks.’
She leaned forward, forearms on the bar, her cleavage leveraged against her arms, breasts pushed upward. The display wasn’t for his benefit and it wasn’t for the other drinkers along the bar, but that didn’t stop them all staring. He ordered her drink but she didn’t touch it, just stirred the ice and stared down into the glass. A slight tremor shook her hands. She swallowed nervously. It was like being on a first date, the sort where there isn’t going to be a second one.
‘How long’s it been?’ he said. ‘Five years? What are you up to these—‘
‘I’m in trouble. I need your help.’
He liked a woman who cut to the chase.
‘There’s someone I want you to find for me.’
‘What sort of trouble?’
She shook her head. ‘It’s too complicated. I don’t want to go into it now.’
‘Why do you need me to find him—it is a him isn’t it?’
She picked up a coaster, put it down again. ‘You’re right, it’s a guy.’
‘But you can’t tell me what it’s about?’
‘Can’t you just do it for me without asking a ton of questions?’ She tried another smile. It got about a third of the way to her eyes.
It was like being in a time machine—he’d been whisked back five or six years, back to the same old manipulative Ellie. She probably couldn’t remember the last time the world didn’t work out for her. At least she hadn’t said for old times’ sake.
She put her hand on his arm and he laughed silently to himself.
Here it comes, the emotional blackmail.
‘I know we didn’t always see eye to eye,’ she said, surprising him with her unexpected honesty, ‘but I really do need your help. I’m in serious trouble.’
‘And you don’t think it would help if you told me about it? You know, a problem shared is a problem halved.’
She dropped her head and shook it, a few stray strands of hair falling forward, partially obscuring her face. He leaned in towards her but she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
‘Why me? After five years of nothing. How did you even know what I do?’
‘I didn’t.’
‘Then why?’
‘Because I didn’t have anyone else to turn to.’
It was a lie. It was just when you searched for soft touch in the yellow pages, his number was top of the list.
‘That’s worked out well then. And putting those investigative skills to work right now—’
She glanced up at him now, as if he was about to deliver the answer to her problems from behind the bar.
‘—makes me think there’s something important you’re not telling me.’
He waited for confirmation but got a glare instead: don’t be ridiculous!
‘Like it’s dangerous.’
She held his gaze and shook her head. ‘Not really.’
His brain did the translation on autopilot: Yes, very.
They sat staring at each other without talking for a moment. Evan finished his beer and ordered another. She still hadn’t made a dent in her drink.
She broke the silence first. ‘There is another reason I came to you.’
He allowed himself a small smile as she inched her way cautiously towards the truth. Not that she’d ever get all the way, but a little closer would be nice.
‘Uh-huh.’
She put her fingers between her eyebrows as if stanching a headache. ‘You’re right, I could have gone to any PI and asked them to do it. But there’s something I can do for you in return. Something that would only be of interest to you.’
She sat back in her seat, finally took a big gulp of her drink and waited for him to bite.
But if she thought he was that easy to hook, she was wrong. She didn’t have anything he wanted. Then she leaned in towards him and the smug, sneering glint in her eyes—the one that said you have absolutely no idea what is going on—told him before the words were out that he was wrong.
That he could not have been more wrong.
‘I can help you find Sarah.’

CHAPTER 2

It’s just a question of finding the right button to push. Evan’s button wasn’t hard to find—it practically stuck out the top of his head—and Ellie hadn’t pushed it, she’d hit it with a sledgehammer.
The back of his neck went cold and his glass slipped out of his slick palms and hit the bar top with a thud. Had he heard her correctly? He was vaguely aware that she was still talking—her mouth was moving, vocal cords twanging away tirelessly, but he couldn’t hear a thing apart from a roaring silence, his blood a steady pounding of fists against his ears.
His head slowly cleared. It felt as if it had expanded and snapped back into place like a rubber band. Now Patsy Cline was singing I’ve Loved & Lost Again in the background, which was some sick coincidence if you asked him. The song ought to be banned. Ellie was saying something to him.
‘Evan! Have you heard a word I’m saying?’ She took hold of his arm and shook him.
‘I’m not sure I heard you right.’ It came out more like a croak than his voice, hollow behind the blood in his ears.
‘I said I can’t guarantee anything, but I can help.’
He grabbed hold of her arm more roughly than he meant to and squeezed. ‘Where is she?’ Five years’ worth of pain and hurt crammed into three little words.
She slapped at his hand. ‘You’re hurting me.’
He let go and slumped down into his seat. ‘Sorry.’
‘You have to help me first.’
It took a moment for her words to sink in. He stared at her open-mouthed, words beyond him. Did she think it was some kind of game and he’d pulled the short straw so she got to go first?
‘If I tell you what I know now, you’ll be out that door’—she nodded her head towards the door behind them—’probably without opening it first, faster than a scalded cat.’
He nodded several times, his breath exiting through his nostrils. She was damn right about that.
‘Also’—she squeezed his arm in a patronizing way so that he knew something really nasty was on its way—’and there isn’t any nice way to put this, but you’ve been waiting five years already. Another day or two won’t make any difference.’
It was as if he’d been slapped.
Had she really just said that? You’ve been waiting five years already.
‘I need help right now. If you don’t help me, I won’t be around in five days’ time, forget about five years.’
He stared at his reflection in the mirror, his eyes never blinking, sucking air up from the floor and forcing himself to calm down.
‘Evan?’
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, his jaw moving tightly, as another hateful hypothesis intruded into his mind. Did she really know something or was she pulling his chain, pushing the right button to make him help her? There was only one way to find out and he hated himself for being so easy to manipulate.
‘What’s this guy’s name?’
There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. Eyes that deserved a sharp poke.
‘Dixie.’
He pulled a face. ‘That’s it?’
‘No, his full name’s Richard LaBarre, but everybody calls him Dixie.’
‘Why? Is he from down South?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know—it doesn’t matter anyway. I know he spends time in a bar called Kelly’s Tavern. That’d be a good place to start.’
He knew the place. Everybody knew the place—so they could avoid it. It was the roughest dive in the whole city.
No danger, my ass.
‘What do you want me to say to him if I find him?’
‘Ask him to call me.’ She handed him a piece of paper with her number scribbled on it.
‘Nothing else? What if he asks why?’
She shook her head.
‘I might be prepared to do everything you ask without a word of explanation, but not everybody’s so amenable. Some people want a reason before they hop to it.’
She ignored the jibe, the smug confidence in her voice irritating the hell out of him. ‘He won’t, trust me.’
‘Have you got a picture of him?’
She fished in her bag and pulled out half a photograph. It had started out as a photograph of two people but one of them had been cut out. It had been taken somewhere hot and sunny and there was a woman’s bare arm but that was all. Was Ellie the other person and she didn’t want him—or anyone else—to know it?
‘Is that you who’s been cut out?’
‘No.’
‘Do you know who it is?’
‘No.’ She shook her head. Not no, sorry, just no.
‘There’s no risk of me drowning in a sea of facts then.’
She climbed off her stool and picked her bag up off the bar, ready to go. That suited him fine. He gave her his number and she punched it into her phone as if he’d given her the number for dial-a-cockroach.
He watched her in the mirror behind the bar as she walked back towards the door. A number of the other guys were watching her too, all sitting in a line at the bar like grinning idiots. One of them picked up his beer bottle and blew a hollow toot with it. You couldn’t blame them.
He ordered another beer and sat staring into the distance, his mind reeling, her words echoing in his head.
Trust me.
Yeah, right. That would require the kind of faith religions were founded on—because how likely was it that a person would wait five years before telling her best friend’s husband what she knew about her disappearance?

CHAPTER 3

Evan pushed open the door to Kelly’s Tavern and stepped inside. He’d spent a lot of time in different bars over the years and, like anyone else who’s a regular bar-goer, it didn’t take any longer than that for him to get the feel of the place. There’s a difference between a tough, blue-collar bar and a white-trash dive and this was the latter. Maybe it was the clientele—men with too much time on their hands and too little money in their pockets who came in to try to forget about what they’ve lost or never had in the first place. Or maybe it was that indefinable smell—a subtle mix of strong beer, sweat and stale cigarettes with an aftertaste of curdled dreams.
The bartender looked up briefly and went back to watching the TV. No doubt a lot of people came in, took a quick look around and headed straight back out again. He’d normally be one of them.
It was still early and the place was almost empty. Three inbred-looking guys sat at the end of the bar drinking beer, talking and laughing loudly. Another two were shooting pool in the back. But it was the couple of guys sitting at a small table, who somehow didn’t look as much like losers as the rest of them, that he instantly knew were the ones to be wary of.
The bartender turned his back to get a better view of the TV as Evan sat down on a stool at the bar. Heavyset with a crew cut and in his fifties, you could tell he still thought he had it in him. Maybe he did.
He gave it a minute and then ordered a beer from the bartender’s back. With an exaggerated sigh the guy turned away from the TV and pulled Evan’s beer. Then he walked down and started talking to the three guys at the end of the bar.
The rattle of ice cubes in a glass next to him made him turn his head. One of the guys from the table behind him had come up to the bar and stood a couple of feet away, swirling the last of his drink before tipping it down his neck. The bartender came back down and served him and Evan took the opportunity to get a better look at him.
Tall and Hispanic, he definitely wasn’t one of the regulars. For one, his clothes told you he wasn’t a loser and two, this place was strictly white trash. And this guy was confident walking into a dive like this, where he stuck out like a sore thumb, knowing there was nothing in here he couldn’t deal with. The guy glanced at him and gave him a small nod, then carried the drinks back to his table.
The bartender was about to rejoin the guys at the end when Evan called him back. Automatically he picked up Evan’s glass, then frowned when he saw it was still three-quarters full.
‘I’m looking for somebody.’
‘Uh-huh.’ He cocked his head like he didn’t understand what that information had to do with him. ‘Isn’t everybody?’
‘I think he comes in here.’
The inbreds at the end had stopped talking and were paying close attention to the conversation. The bartender winked at them. They grinned back. They looked like they’d have trouble spelling gum and chewing it at the same time.
‘His name’s Richard LaBarre.’
The bartender creased his forehead and tugged his chin as if he was giving it some serious thought, his eyes flicking sideways to the inbreds, then shook his head. ‘Never heard of him.’
There was a titter of laughter from the end of the bar. The bartender gave Evan a big up-yours smile.
‘Everybody calls him Dixie.’
‘That’s nice. Still never heard of him.’ He started to move away.
‘I’ve got a photo of him.’
The bartender made a big fuss of stopping dead in his tracks and turning around. He came back and stood in front of Evan and spread his large hands on the bar. He wore a couple of heavy rings on each hand, the knuckles criss-crossed with faded, and not-so-faded, scars.
‘I’ve got you, his name’s Richard something, everybody calls him Dixie but I’—he jabbed his thumb at his chest—’might know him as Bill or George?’ He turned towards the inbreds at the end of the bar and got a bunch of you-tell-him head nods.
‘Just take a look, will you?’ Evan said wearily, pulling the photo out of his pocket. He put it on the bar top. The bartender peered at it as if he’d placed a steaming dog turd on his nice clean bar, but then his curiosity got the better of him.
‘It’s been cut in half.’
Evan slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. ‘So that’s what happened to it.’
The bartender gave him a withering scowl. ‘No need to be a smartass.’
‘Do you recognize him?’
The bartender pushed the photo back towards Evan with a large, grubby finger. ‘Sorry.’ He didn’t look sorry at all. ‘Why do you want to find him anyway? You don’t look like a cop.’
‘No, I don’t suppose I do. I’m a private investigator.’
The bartender nodded as if that explained a lot. ‘You working for his wife?’
‘No, just someone who wants to find him.’ Evan got out his wallet and pulled out one of his cards. ‘Can I leave this with you?’
‘What? In case a guy I’ve never heard of or seen in my life happens to pop in one day?’
Evan glanced around the bar and smiled. ‘Who knows? Even if he doesn’t, one of your customers might want to hire me.’
The bartender walked away and laughed over his shoulder. ‘I think you’re about to find out the people who come in here have their own way of dealing with problems.’

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER