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Some things are best left forgotten

CHAPTER 1

JESSE STARED IN HORROR at the photograph in his hand and felt sick to his stomach. In it, a man lounged dreamily in a red easy chair, shirt open to reveal his chest and stomach, his pants pulled down around his ankles.
Jesse flicked quickly through the other photos that had arrived earlier that morning, his hands shaking, palms slick, the tightening in his gut intensifying as he did so.
An attractive young woman wearing a skimpy cropped T-shirt over a sparkly thong knelt between the man’s splayed legs, her head busy in his lap. Roughly nine inches above her rooty, platinum blond hair was the man’s stupidly grinning face—Jesse’s own face, in fact—nestled snugly in a second girl’s ample cleavage. From the look of things, he’d had a really good time.
‘Where are you, Jesse?’ His wife Diane’s happy, sing-song voice floated down from upstairs. ‘I’ve got your anniversary present here.’
She started down the stairs at a fast clip.
‘I’m …’
His throat had closed for the season, his voice packed up and gone away. She was almost at the bottom of the stairs already. Why the hell did she always have to run like an excited kid? He swallowed and tried to clear his throat.
‘I’m in the kitchen,’ he croaked.
What the hell was he going to do with these photos? Diane landed in the hallway with a heavy thump. Jesus Christ, you’d think she was six years old. His hands shook so badly he couldn’t get the photos back in the damn envelope. One missed and fell to the floor, landed face up.
Shit.
No time to pick it up. He kicked at it, towards the kitchen dresser, but it stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He shook his foot frantically but it wouldn’t come off, like it was made from fly-paper or he had gum on the sole of his shoe. Ten feet away, just around the corner, Diane skipped down the hallway.
Guess what I’ve got for you-ou.
Relax.
He put his left foot on the photo, held it down, yanked his right foot free. He shoved the photo angrily with the edge of his shoe, pushed it out of sight, under the dresser. A moment later Diane bounded into the room, bursting with fun in nothing but a sheer bra and panty set, just as he lifted his shirt tail and shoved the envelope down the back of his pants.
‘Ta-da.’
She threw her arms wide, her smile wider.
His eyes bulged.
Goddammit, don’t get horny now.
‘What are you up to?’ She craned her head towards him, her eyes narrowing. ‘You look guilty as sin.’ She wagged a finger at him and grinned slyly, licked her lips. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘Nothing.’
He swallowed again.
‘Are you sure? Your voice is all croaky. What are you hiding behind your back?’
‘Nothing.’ He held up his hands. ‘I was scratching an itch, is all.’
She advanced towards him slowly, hips swinging as the grin widened, her eyes full of mischief.
He scooted sideways so the kitchen table was between them. Wrong move. She thought he wanted to play.
‘Gonna make me work for it, are you? What do you think of your anniversary present?’
She did a little twirl, shaking her shoulder-length blond hair, then darted to the side of the table. He jumped the other way.
‘Not now, Diane. I’ve got to go to work.’
Big mistake.
She stood up straight, a pout on her face, her small fists on her hips. ‘You said you’ve got the day off. It’s our anniversary. You promised.’ The playful voice was gone, replaced by something more whiney.
And nothing good ever came after the you promised accusation.
‘I just got a text from Adams. I’ve got to go in. Sorry.’
‘Show me.’
He frowned. ‘Show you what?’
‘The text, dummy, what do you think?’
Whiney was morphing into semi-aggressive.
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
His eyes flicked to his phone sitting on the kitchen dresser. She caught the look and danced across the room, snatched it up before he could move.
It didn’t matter, he wasn’t paying any attention to the phone by then. Panic overwhelmed him, little pinpricks of sweat popping out on his top lip, as he stared in dismay at the corner of the photo he’d dropped, poking out from under the dresser. It was inching its way out as he watched. Was there a draft coming from somewhere? A troop of ants carrying it? He couldn’t get to it without her getting hold of him. She always grabbed him by the ass and then she’d feel the envelope.
She hadn’t seen it yet, was too busy scrolling through his messages. She threw the phone onto the table in disgust.
‘There’s nothing from Adams.’
‘I deleted it.’
Her face twisted. ‘Yeah right. You’d cut off your right hand before you deleted anything. Mr. Jesse-OCD-Springer.’
Semi-aggressive was fast turning into sullen. A full-scale argument was just over the horizon. Sometimes following her mood changes was like trying to keep your eye on the ball in a tennis match.
‘Look Diane, it won’t take very long, I promise. We can still go for lunch at that stupidly expensive place you like.’
The sullen look on her face gave way grudgingly to the mischievous grin. She moved around the table towards him again. He moved away, keeping the table between them. The game was back on.
‘You like it too.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
He had the sense to bite back the next words: Apart from the price.
‘See anything else you like? Sure you haven’t got time before you go?’ She leaned over the table and pushed her breasts out towards him. ‘Just a quickie on the table? It is our anniversary, after all.’
He looked down at the display being offered to him. At any other time, he’d have fought off ten men for half the chance. But all he could think of was the photographs stuffed down the back of his pants—the ones with his head resting between another woman’s equally inviting breasts.
‘The quicker I go, the quicker I’ll be back.’ He grabbed his phone from where she’d dropped it and made a dash for the door. ‘I won’t be long—I promise.’
She didn’t try to stop him, just pulled out a chair and plopped herself down at the table, rested her chin on her hands. He hated himself for deflating her like that, spoiling their anniversary, but what choice did he have? She stared straight ahead, didn’t say a word as he opened the front door and let himself out.
He prayed she’d go straight back to bed in a huff, hoped she wasn’t pissed enough to start drinking without him—the wine was in the kitchen dresser.

***

JESSE RESTED HIS ACHING head on the steering wheel of his new Porsche 911 a few moments before driving off. He loved this car, but today it might as well have been a twenty-year-old pickup truck for all he cared. He drove a couple of blocks and parked up under a tree. For once he didn’t even care about the birdshit. He pulled the envelope from the back of his pants and shook out the photos. It didn’t matter how long he stared at them, his mind was still a blank.
His phone beeped in the silence of the car, making him jump, as a message came through. It wasn’t from anyone in his contacts. Despite that, he had a nasty feeling in his gut that he knew exactly who it was from.
‘We hope you enjoyed looking at the photos. Confirm you received them. Do not ignore this message or we will send copies to Diane.’
He groaned. It couldn’t be true. Some bastard was blackmailing him.
‘I’ve got them,’ he texted back, his fingers fumbling on the keypad.
He leant back in the seat with his head on the headrest and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and then another, but the racing of his heart wouldn’t calm, his gut wouldn’t settle. His phone beeped again. He didn’t want to look.
‘Good. Looks like you had a nice time, doesn’t it? You should have done because you spent enough money. You were very generous. Don’t complain when you see your credit card statement or we’ll be in touch with the lovely Diane.’
He let out a strangled groan. This was getting stranger—and worse—by the minute. He didn’t remember the girls and he’d never spend money to get them. He wasn’t stupid, desperate or ugly. But the nagging unease was getting worse. You were very generous. What was that all about? He logged in to his online banking just to put his mind at rest.
And wished he hadn’t.
A cold sweat popped out on his forehead and his stomach turned over. He threw open the car door, smashing it into the trunk of the tree. He didn’t even notice as he tumbled out and leaned his head against the tree, welcoming the roughness of the bark where it dug into his skin. He tried to take a few deep breaths of the fresh air, but it was hard to get down, it was like a horse was sitting on his chest. All he wanted was to crawl away somewhere quiet like a sick dog dragging itself under a porch to die.
He banged his head hard against the tree trunk—to knock some sense into it if he was lucky—and looked back down at the spiteful little phone in his sweaty palm. Nothing had changed. The big fat entry was still there, taunting him, sticking out in the middle of all the other smaller, everyday amounts he’d spent, as if it was ringed with red highlighter.
He’d paid more than thirty thousand dollars for his evening’s enjoyment with the unknown ladies. And not even the stomach-turning shock of seeing it there in black and white could bring back a single memory.

CHAPTER 2

GINA MORGAN LAY IN BED, indulgently half asleep despite the bright, early morning sun that slanted through the window, listening to Marianne Faithfull on the radio singing The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan. The way she felt at the moment, she’d give anything for a boring life, going quietly crazy as a suburban housewife.
The song ended and she hauled herself out of bed. She padded across the bare wooden floor and stood in front of the window enjoying the warm sun and stretched lazily, giving the boy across the street his daily freebie. Little pervert, he’d go blind if he wasn’t careful. She caught a yawn in her fist. It felt like it was only five minutes since she’d flopped into bed, exhausted after another eight hour shift at the club.
Still snuggled in the warm covers on the bed, her black and white cat, Poppy, showed her how a proper stretch should be done and then started energetically cleaning. Gina sat on the edge of the bed and scratched her behind the ears.
God, how she hated the club but she couldn’t argue with the money. Sure, she could have got a job as a cocktail waitress in there or even as a regular waitress in a greasy diner, but how many waitresses got fifty dollar bills tucked down their panties for five minutes work? Her hair didn’t end up smelling of cooking fat either.
Her phone pinged on the nightstand when she came out the shower. She picked it up, saw the text from Destiny.
You okay? You rushed off without a word.
She texted back: Yeah, I’m fine, but I overslept again. I’m gonna be late.
No problem. Catch you later.
Destiny was the only girl at the club who talked to her. Not that she cared, she couldn’t stand the others. It was like they came from a different planet to her. It wasn’t just the looks—they were all silicon and bleached blond hair and she was slim and petite with a good figure and long, auburn hair. She swore she’d shave it off before she put bleach on it. They called her purty down here, with her piercing blue eyes and a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks.
They were jealous of her looks, but it wasn’t just that, it was the attitudes that really set her apart—they were strippers and always would be. It wasn’t going to happen to her. She wasn’t going to go the same way as her mother, she wanted more from life. She didn’t want to wake up one morning when she was sixty and look at her wrinkles in the mirror and realize she’d wasted her life chasing someone else’s version of it. And she was prepared to work for it, whatever it took.
She dressed quickly in jeans and a white cotton v-neck shirt, leaving herself no time for makeup—not that she needed any—and then wasted five more minutes hunting for her laptop. She was going to be late for her first class—again. At least she hadn’t lied to Destiny about that, but she hadn’t been truthful about how she was feeling. She wasn’t fine at all, far from it.
‘C’mon Mrs. P, let’s get you some breakfast.’
The cat leapt off the bed and showed her the way to the kitchen and her bowl, as if Gina had forgotten where it was. The bowl was empty as usual, the pattern almost licked off it. She looked up at Gina expectantly. Gina would have changed places with her in an instant.
Because lately there was something tucked away at the back of her that was trying not to drown. Call it her conscience. She was convinced some of the girls were blackmailing the customers. She’d seen them slip something into their drinks before taking them off into the private rooms. The guys couldn’t walk properly and it wasn’t because they’d enjoyed the show so much—more like they were drugged.
Until now she’d managed to compartmentalize the different parts of her life, but not any longer. It was eating her up inside. Her conscience was giving her a hard time, she couldn’t concentrate, and she was scared stiff her studies were going to suffer and she’d be thrown out of college.
She couldn’t go on like this much longer. Something had to give.

CHAPTER 3

EVAN BUCKLEY HADN’T SEEN Jesse Springer for years. Jesse’s family had a ton of old money and the last he’d heard, he was a hedge fund manager at some company called Grabbit & Run or something like that. Money goes to money. They’d lost touch, then, out of the blue, he’d got a call from him.
It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot, a light breeze coming through the open window of his office. The sort of day that made him glad to be alive. Jesse, however, didn’t look quite so chipper. Dressed in chinos and penny loafers sans socks, with his shades perched on top of his thick, wavy hair, he was the dictionary definition of preppy, but sitting in the visitor’s chair at that moment he looked very hot and ill at ease.
‘Take a look at this.’
Jesse laid his expensive briefcase on Evan’s newly-tidied and dusted desk and pulled out an envelope. He selected a photograph and pushed it across the desk.
‘I received this yesterday morning. Along with a load of others.’
Evan stopped tapping the rubber end of his pencil on his chin, leant forward to look at it. ‘This is at the yacht club, is it? No wonder there’s a waiting list.’
Jesse shifted in his chair and sighed. ‘For Christ’s sake, Evan, it’s not funny.’
Evan looked back down at the photograph of Mr Preppy nestled between the girl’s ample bosom while her friend busied herself in his lap.
‘You look like you’re having a nice time anyway.’
Jesse squeezed out a tight smile. ‘That’s what they said. Here, read this.’
He got out his cell phone and found the exchange of text messages, passed the phone to Evan.
‘What’s that about then?’
‘I checked my credit card statement. Seems I spent over thirty thousand dollars that night.’
‘And now they’re demanding more money?’
Jesse shook his head.
‘No. They’ve had their thirty thousand and that’s it. Just take it on the chin or we’ll tell your wife. I’m sure you remember what Diane’s like. Little Miss Jealous.’
Evan nodded, started tapping his pencil on his chin again. He remembered Diane. Nice girl but he wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
‘I’m not sure I understand what you want me to do. You had an expensive night on the town, but it’s all legit, it’s on your credit card after all.’ He shrugged as if he’d like to help but couldn’t see how. ‘It’s not like they’re demanding cash in a briefcase.’
‘There’s just one problem. I don’t remember a thing about it.’
Evan picked the photo up again.
‘Now that is a shame. If I paid thirty thousand for a BJ I’d want to remember it.’
‘Me too. But I don’t. I think I was drugged.’ He pointed at the photo. ‘Look at my eyes.’
Evan studied the photo. He couldn’t really make anything out. A little too close together, perhaps.
‘Why don’t you tell me what you do remember?’

***

‘I HAD TO GO to Louisville last week to meet with some clients,’ Jesse said, ‘and they insisted on taking me to a strip club called Chi Chi’s in the evening.’
Evan finished his coffee, then pushed back in his chair and swung his leg over the arm rest. He saw how scuffed his shoe was, caught Jesse looking and dropped it to the floor again. Jesse took a sip of his own coffee but it was cold. He pushed it away, shook his head when Evan offered to get some fresh.
‘We were having a few drinks, watching the show and then these girls came across and joined us. It looked like they knew some of the guys I was with. The guys are probably regulars there.’
‘Not the two girls in the photo?’
‘No. I never saw them before that arrived.’ He jabbed a finger angrily at the photo lying on the desk.
‘Show me your wallet,’ Evan said suddenly, leaning forward on the desk, hand out.
Jesse frowned. ‘You sound just like one of them.’
‘Just let me see it.’
Jesse pulled out an expensive alligator skin wallet and held it out. Evan grabbed his wrist and turned his arm to look at his watch. It had more dials and knobs on it than a jet fighter’s cockpit.
‘What’s that? Breitling?’
Jesse didn’t manage to keep the smugness off his face. ‘Something like that. Not quite so commonplace.’
Evan looked in the wallet and whistled. ‘There must be a couple of thousand dollars in there.’
Jesse shrugged. ‘There’s no point in earning it if you can’t spend it.’
‘Jesus Jesse, you might as well walk around with a sign stuck on your head: I’m Jesse and I’ll be your mark this evening. Did you flash this around in there?’ He waved the wallet in the air, and then threw it on the desk.
‘I don’t remember.’ He slipped the watch off his wrist and looked at it. ‘I suppose I’m lucky they didn’t steal this as well. Diane bought it. She’d see it was missing in an instant. She gets pissed if I don’t wear it in the shower.’
Evan tried to dig up some sympathy for a man forced to wear a twenty-thousand-dollar watch night and day. He didn’t get very far with it.
‘What happened next?’
‘Some of the guys left. There was just me and one other guy and the two girls. They kept ordering more drinks and putting it on my tab, but even at their prices there’s no way it cost over thirty grand. I was pretty drunk by then.’
‘And that’s when they took you into one of the private rooms?’
Jesse gave an irritated head shake. ‘No, that’s when everything goes blank. The next thing I remember it was morning and I was back in my hotel room feeling like death warmed up with a plane to catch. At that point that’s all there was to it. Too much to drink and I crashed out.’
‘It’s definitely your body in the photo, is it? They haven’t photoshopped your head onto some other guy?’
Jesse shook his head. ‘It’s me. You can see a scar on my stomach.’
Evan picked up the photograph and looked closely. The girl’s blond hair was hanging down tickling Jesse’s stomach but he could just about make out a long, jagged scar.
‘So, you think they drugged you? Some kind of date rape drug maybe?’
Jesse gave a small shrug. ‘I guess. What else can it be?’
Evan looked back at the photo. There was definitely something about Jesse’s eyes. He saw it now. ‘You look wide awake in the picture.’
‘I don’t know, is there something they might have used that lets you function but gives you amnesia?’
‘Beats me, but I’ll check it out. What about the other guy? Have you spoken to him since?’
Jesse stood and walked over to the window and looked out. ‘No reason to. Until the photos arrived, I had no reason to think it was anything other than temporary memory loss brought on by too much booze. Since then you’re the only person I’ve told.’
‘Do you think he’s involved?’
‘Who knows? Anything’s possible but I’ve known him a long time.’
A thought suddenly crossed his mind. He turned to look at Evan.
‘Same thing might have happened to him.’
‘Is he rich too?’
And stupid too?
Jesse looked pained. ‘I’m not rich, Evan. I do okay, but I’m not rich. Forrest St. John Jnr. is rich. Obscenely rich. Or at least his father is. Most of our clients are.’
‘Is there any way you can sound him out?’
‘Difficult without showing my hand.’
‘I suppose so. Have you thought about going to the police?’
Jesse rocked back on his heels as if Evan had hit him and held up his hands. ‘No way. One, I can’t risk Diane finding out, and two, they’ve been through my wallet and my phone. They know where I work.’
‘Even so—’
‘Just think how it would look. The company sends me down to see some important clients and what do I do? Get smashed and walk smack bang into some sordid scam. What if that gets back to the clients? It’s an expensive mistake if we lose a client as a result of some scandal.’
‘You were with the client—’
Jesse snorted. ‘You know what rich people and scandal are like. I’d be out on my ear before I knew it. They’d probably fire me first just to be on the safe side. No job and no wife, I’d rather pay the thirty grand.’
‘That’s what they’re relying on. That’s probably why they’re not pushing harder, asking for more.’
Jesse considered the implications of what Evan had just said, fiddling with the knobs on his watch as he turned it over.
‘You mean they’ve got some blackmailer’s algorithm—plug in my job, my wife, an expensive watch and a fat wallet, push the button and out comes thirty grand. He’ll roll over on that but don’t push any harder.’
Evan nodded. ‘Something like that. They’ve probably got an app on their phone does it for them.’
‘So, you’ll look into it?’
‘Yeah, sure. I’ll start with the date rape drug angle.’
Jesse nodded his thanks. ‘I appreciate it. I read about that case of yours last year, the one with the kid and his father buried in the basement—’
‘The Claytons.’
‘That’s the one. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to lose her kid and her husband. Jesus. At least you managed to give her closure. That must have felt pretty damn good. I sometimes wish I could do something worthwhile like that, instead of just make money.’
Evan was tempted to say it’s in your hands, no one else’s, but he stopped himself, reminded of the push he’d needed to start his own journey.
Jesse was almost out the door when he stopped and hesitated. He seemed at a loss for words, like he had something he wanted to say but didn’t know where to start. He fiddled with his expensive watch again and cleared his throat.
‘Whatever—’
With an awful premonition Evan knew he was about to ask about Sarah. He leapt from his seat, crossed the room in a couple of quick strides and frogmarched Jesse out into the hallway, slapping him enthusiastically on the back as they went, dislodging his sunglasses from where they perched on his head.
‘It was great to see you, Jesse, we should have a beer sometime. I’ll give you a call in a couple of days.’
He jabbed at the button for the elevator while Jesse picked up his shades, then dashed back into his office, closing the door firmly behind him, never giving Jesse a chance to say what was on his mind—even if the damage had already been done.

***

EVAN STOOD AT THE open window, hands stuffed into his pockets and breathed in the clean, fresh air, sucking it all the way down into the bottom of his lungs. He tried to clear his mind as he watched Jesse get into his fancy car and drive off. But his fingers brushed the smooth, worn metal of his Zippo lighter—the one he’d found half-buried in Carl Hendricks’ basement chamber. A cold shiver ran through him at the thought of how close he’d come to meeting his maker, a solitary, drawn-out death. He pulled the lighter out, ran his thumb over the inscription.
We the unwilling
Led by the unqualified
To kill the unfortunate
Die for the ungrateful
He knew the words by heart now, they’d become a mantra for him. It was a popular verse, engraved on hundreds, if not thousands, of lighters just like it. And there were other, similar verses—same sentiments, slightly different words. They were collectors’ items, that was all, everybody knew that.
But it didn’t matter what he thought in the cold, rational light of day. It didn’t stop his mind driving him crazy in the small hours of the morning when all your doubts and fears come calling. Was it the same one?
And the one person who could have helped him, helped put a stop to the endless what ifs and maybes, had died two years ago, their relationship never patched up after Sarah’s disappearance. Despite what they’d said, that they didn’t blame him, they did.
One of these days he’d visit Hendricks in prison and ask him about it. Not that he expected any joy there either. Hendricks would never tell him the truth. He’d have to stop carrying the damn thing around with him everywhere, but it had become a ritual, as automatic as putting on his watch in the morning.
And he sure as hell didn’t want to rake it all up with someone like Jesse, making things a hundred times worse with his well-intentioned comments about loss and closure.

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER