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There are none so dead

CHAPTER 1

MONDAY STARTED ALL WRONG for Levi Stone. He only had himself to blame. Don’t ever open the door for anyone before six a.m. Sitting on his ass on the floor, he shook his head to clear it, his nose only inches from the zipper of the man standing over him.
A few moments earlier he’d opened the door and Henry Woods, a man with rocks for hands and eyes you didn’t want to catch, punched him full in the face. Henry believed in first impressions. Scarred knuckles bit into soft flesh. Levi’s lip burst against his teeth. He rocked back on his heels, the startled cry on his lips absorbed by Henry’s large fist.
It wasn’t the way anybody wants their day to start. And it was only going to get worse.
He tried to slam the door. It was already too late. Henry pushed his way through, the door crashing into the wall. He put a hand flat on Levi’s chest and shoved him backwards down the hallway. The back of Levi’s heel caught on the rug. Next thing he knew he was sprawled on his ass on the floor. Henry stepped carefully over him like a man in new shoes encountering a large puddle on the sidewalk. Behind them, his sidekick Tomás slipped inside, leaving the door ajar.
A third man stayed outside. He glanced briefly through the doorway before leaning forwards to pull the door shut. In that brief moment when their eyes met Levi knew that this man was the dog that ate first. Then an image that made his breath catch in his throat sprang into his mind.
Five years ago. Standing in the cold drizzle beside an open grave. Dirt in his hand and hot tears pricking the back of his eyes. Wiping angrily at the snot and rain that ran constantly down his top lip into his mouth. And another man who looked at him in that same way, who tried to talk to him—a man Levi knew had no words of comfort for him.
Then the door banged shut and it was gone.
‘What the—’ Levi started, putting a hand on the wall to steady himself as he tried to get to his feet.
Tomás’s leg whipped around, the heel of his fancy boot connecting solidly with Levi’s cheek. The impact snapped his head sideways, flicking blood onto the wall as the rest of the indignant shout disappeared back down his throat. Tomás stood over him, legs planted apart as if he was standing in front of a urinal, contemplating relieving himself into Levi’s hair. He smiled a bright smile at Levi, the sort of smile a cat might give a mouse to take to the grave. He pushed his jacket to the side. Levi saw the butt of the gun on his hip.
Meanwhile, Henry quickly searched the house. He poked his head in the kitchen and then came out again, not bothering to go in. He did the same with all the downstairs rooms, dipping in and straight out again, then ran quickly up the stairs, his speed deceiving for such a big man. Levi heard the door to the master bedroom directly above open, then footsteps across the room. He imagined a quick, cursory look in the closets, then back out again.
Henry repeated the procedure with the other bedrooms before clumping back down the stairs. Levi felt every heavy footfall reverberate through his aching head. He pushed himself harder into the wall as Henry approached. Henry reached into his pocket. Levi’s stomach knotted as he pictured the hand coming out again, brass knuckles or maybe a straight razor gripped tightly.
But it wasn’t either. Instead, he pulled out a brown envelope. He smacked it loudly against his open palm. Tomás moved a half step to the side to let Henry get closer. The two of them stood over him, boxing him in. It was suddenly very quiet as Henry stopped slapping the envelope into his palm, so quiet Levi heard Tomás lick his lips. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, their zippers preferable to meeting their eyes.
Henry shoved the envelope at Tomás, then hunkered down. With one hand he grabbed Levi by the neck. He pushed Levi’s head up and into the wall, lifting his butt off the floor.
‘Don’t think you’re going to get away with this,’ Henry spat.
Tomás amused himself, marking time on the top of Levi’s head with the envelope. Levi gurgled, fighting for breath, the huge face in front of him blurring as Henry’s thick fingers dug into the flesh under his jaw, the pressure on his throat increasing.
With just one arm, Henry lifted Levi further off the floor. Then he opened his fingers, dropping him. Levi’s ass hit the floor as he sucked in huge gulps of air, his breath high and wheezy. As Henry stood up, Tomás rolled the envelope into a tight tube. Henry smiled at the games his compadre liked to play. Tomás stuffed the tube into Levi’s mouth while he gasped for air, then clamped his lips shut around it with a hard smack under the chin.
‘Hey, Henry,’ Tomás said.
Henry looked at him, wondering, as was Levi, what he was going to do next. But Tomás just nodded towards the kitchen. Henry looked, saw what Tomás had seen. Levi’s laptop sat on the kitchen table, next to his phone.
‘Worth a look,’ Henry said, more to himself than anyone else as he went in and scooped up both phone and laptop.
Then they were gone, slamming the door noisily after them. The only words they’d spoken directly to Levi still hung in the air.
Don’t think you’re going to get away with this.
If his legs hadn’t turned to mush, Levi might have run to the door, screamed after them.
Get away with what, assholes?
Then again, maybe not.
He spat out the envelope and a mouthful of blood into his lap, the blood spattering the front of his pants. He stared at it, his heart racing, a roaring in his ears. Touching his lip without thinking, he winced in pain. He felt his front teeth, convinced they were loose. Anything to stop himself from having to look inside the envelope. Finally, he picked it up, damp and sticky with his blood and saliva, his fingers fumbling with the flap.
He held it upside down, shook out the contents. Two photographs fluttered out onto the floor. One landed face up, one face down. He shook it harder, then looked inside. Nothing else, just the photographs. And because it’s a natural reaction, he picked up the one facing upwards. He stared uncomprehendingly at the face of a man he’d never seen before, his arm around a woman’s shoulders. And even though the woman’s face was hidden behind the umbrella the man held over her, he knew what was coming, knew that his life would never be the same again.
He didn’t want to touch the second photograph, the one that was still face down on the floor. After the sudden violence, the outrage and the fear, he felt strangely calm. His mouth was dry and dusty, devoid of moisture to ease the harsh scratchiness in his throat. He swallowed, the feeling like dirt shoveled down his gullet.
His hand shook as he reached for the second photograph. He held it by the edge a long time before he turned it slowly over.
And for the second time in five years his whole world turned over with it.

CHAPTER 2

‘SAY THAT AGAIN,’ Evan Buckley said, leaning forward in case his ears were having a bit of fun at his expense.
Levi said it again.
It didn’t make any more sense the second time.
Dressed in chinos and a plaid shirt that hadn’t felt an iron since it left the factory some years before, Levi shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
Evan picked up one of the photographs Levi had just pushed across his desk and studied it more closely. It was still warm and slightly moist from being in Levi’s pocket, a bloody fingerprint in one corner. A minute ago, Levi had taken two photographs out of his pocket and placed them carefully on the table. He’d turned them around and pushed them towards Evan.
Evan’s heart had sunk. He didn’t do that sort of work anymore.
Then Levi had said something that surprised the hell out of him, made him snatch up one of the photos as if he’d seen a winning lottery ticket on the floor in Grand Central station. It wasn’t a great photo. It was out of focus, taken surreptitiously on somebody’s phone—most likely from across the street or from a moving car. Being stuffed in Levi’s pocket hadn’t helped any.
Evan looked at the attractive young woman in the photograph. Despite the poor quality, it was easy to see how good-looking she was, understand why Levi was in the state he was.
‘You don’t know who this man is,’ Evan said, pointing at the man the woman was embracing warmly. It wasn’t surprising seeing as you could only see the back of his head, the woman’s face visible over his shoulder as they hugged.
Levi shook his head.
Evan picked up the second photograph and studied it closely. It was as blurred as the other one. They were coming out of a hotel. Not a sleazy no-tell motel, but an up-market sort of place. Definitely not pay-by-the-hour. It was raining. They both sheltered under the man’s umbrella. He was being the perfect gentleman, holding it over her head. As a result, his face was now clearly visible. Hers was almost totally obscured.
He didn’t say it, but Evan could think of worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than in an upmarket hotel with a woman as attractive as the one in the photograph.
Except it wasn’t that at all.
‘Why don’t you talk to whoever took these?’ He waved the photos in the air. ‘They’d be more help than me.’
Levi shook his head, swallowed nervously. His face creased unhappily.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why not?’
Levi took a deep breath. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. It looked like he was trying to stop them from shaking.
‘Because I don’t know who they are or how to get in touch with them. Even if I wanted to.’
Evan’s forehead developed a few more creases of its own.
‘So how did you get hold of the photos?’
‘There was a knock on the door a couple days ago,’ Levi said, then told Evan about the visit from Tomás and Henry and the man who waited outside.
Evan nodded to himself as he listened, the reason for the blood on the photographs, the cut on Levi’s lower lip now obvious, the swelling and bruising on his cheek.
‘Do you know what they were looking for?’
‘They stole my laptop but that wasn’t it. It was sitting on the kitchen table, so why not? They took my phone too. I had to buy a new one. That’s when he pulled an envelope out of his pocket. He started smacking me around the head—’
‘And you don’t know what he meant by don’t think you’re going to get away with this?’
Levi threw up his hands in frustration.
‘I haven’t done anything to get away with.’
‘They didn’t say anything else?’
Levi looked like it was too many questions all at once. His face compacted as he tried to remember.
‘I don’t think so. I can’t remember. He was choking me. And he was right in my face, his spittle landing on my face as he spoke.’ He wiped at his chin with the back of his hand as if it was still there. ‘I wasn’t—’
‘It’s okay, it probably doesn’t matter,’ Evan said, keeping his voice steady to calm Levi’s increasing agitation. Best to stick to easy questions. ‘The photos were in the envelope he was hitting you with?’
Levi nodded.
‘Anything else?’
‘Like what?’
Evan gave a you tell me shrug.
‘A note? A number to call? Something like that. Something telling you what you’re supposed to do with the photos.’
‘No. Nothing.’
Evan picked up the photographs again, studied the man in them. With the rain and the poor quality, it could have been anyone.
‘This isn’t one of the guys?’
‘No. Definitely not. I won’t forget their faces in a hurry.’
He touched his lip and winced. Evan held his hopeful gaze. As far as Levi was concerned, he’d done his part, he’d supplied negative answers to all of Evan’s questions. Now it was over to Evan. Despite the negative answers and improbable nature of what Levi had told him, Evan knew then that he would take on the case. He was intrigued, more than anything else.
‘Why did you come to me?’
Levi shrugged.
‘I did some research on the internet. Your name came up. Your—’
Evan groaned inwardly. He knew what was coming next. It seemed he would be forever defined by it.
‘—your wife going missing. I thought you’d understand what I’m going through. That’s got to help.’
Help who?
As far as Evan was concerned, any parallels between their two situations, any reminders on a daily basis of Sarah’s disappearance, weren’t going to help him one jot. Except help get him into the bar earlier than usual.
‘I didn’t find her though,’ Evan said.
‘I know, but—’
‘And there’s one big difference.’
Levi carried on nodding.
Just get the excuses out of the way and get to work.
‘Because as far as I know,’ Evan said, swallowing thickly, choking on the words, ‘unlike your wife, mine hasn’t been dead for the last five years.’

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER