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What would you give in exchange for your soul?

CHAPTER 1

GEORGE WINTER FELT the Dead or Alive dip. A large or heavy man had stepped onto the stern deck. His pulse picked up, his mouth suddenly dry for no reason that he could explain. Except that there was something not quite right about the job, simple though it was.
He took a deep breath to calm his nerves, then slipped out from behind the galley table, went to welcome them aboard. He slid open the glass doors to the salon, stepped outside.
That’s when he got his first surprise.
There were three of them. Bormann and Hitch he’d been expecting. The third man he hadn’t, didn’t think anybody ever would. Unless they were a mortician.
Bormann, a grim-looking man with a taste for mindlessness, that rare ability to do almost anything to anybody for no good reason at all, was in the fighting chair. Leaning back, feet pushed hard into the footrest, an imaginary rod in one hand, winding furiously with the other.
Dickhead.
‘Whoa! Think I’ve caught myself a whale.’
Spoken around a mouth full of gum as always, the irritating wet sucking sound as he chewed with his mouth open punctuating everything he said. Most of the time it made more sense than the words themselves.
Winter laughed dutifully.
Moron.
Bormann’s partner Hitch was helping the third man into the boat. As you would a person who had to be over a hundred years old, more like a hundred and ten. He was so old, the warmth gone from his flesh so long ago, he wore a heavy overcoat despite the heat of the tropical Florida night. And a waistcoat under that, a strange-looking patchwork affair that Winter couldn’t quite make out.
An aura of having cheated death for far too long clung to him. Maybe that was why Winter felt his stomach clench, knew he didn’t want to look into the man’s cadaverous eyes. Fragments of stories shared with good friends here on this very deck came back to him, made him shiver.
Strong hands streaked with dirt and grime hauled the three grunts into the back of the slick by their pack straps. Behind them the rotor wash bent the elephant grass flat, blew the marker smoke every which way.
The moron Bormann jumped out of the fighting chair and the old man took his place. Except he didn’t grab an imaginary rod and reel. Just sat staring out over the dark ocean humming a song to himself.
Winter recognized the melody, couldn’t put his finger on it. It took him back to when he was a young man, to a time when he’d have laughed in the faces of men such as these. It would come to him.
He ushered Bormann and Hitch into the salon. Bormann slid in behind the galley table, made himself at home.
‘Nice boat. Got anything to drink?’
‘Light beer,’ Winter said.
Bormann gave him a look like he’d just offered to empty the chemical toilet into his mouth. He stuck his hand in his jacket pocket, came out with a pint of Johnny Walker.
‘Lucky I brought this along, eh?’
Winter shook his head, went to fetch a glass.
‘Not for me, thanks.’
Then he caught sight of Bormann’s face, saw that he’d offended the man. He might be a moron, but he was a big moron and not somebody you wanted to upset.
‘Maybe a small one. What about your friend outside?’
Jesus Christ! I’m not getting my ass shot to hell for that crazy son of a bitch.
Bormann shook his head, the light reflecting off the shiny bald dome. Winter had the sense to keep his thoughts and jokes to himself, knew that any crack about finding their master a pint of blood would not be well received.
He laid three glasses in a row on the table in front of Bormann, watched him carefully fill them. His more than the other two.
‘To a job well done,’ Bormann said and raised his glass, his eyebrow too.
‘Absolutely,’ Winter said, slopping some of his drink in his haste to pull the slip of paper from his pocket. He put it into Bormann’s outstretched hand.
‘Any problems?’
‘Like a walk in the park.’
Bormann raised his glass again and Winter took a sip of the whisky, felt the burn all the way down his throat. It made him think of better times with better people. Out on the deck under a perfect night sky. Like kids around a campfire, trying to scare each other with their ghost stories.
Drop it, you sick bastard.
After two more reluctant shots Winter at last began to relax, a gentle mellowness creeping through his body. Then the door to the salon slid open and that all changed. There wasn’t a distillery in the world that could pump out sufficient booze to warm the chill that blew in with the old man.
He lashed out. A vicious open-handed slap across the mouth that grinned around its prize.
Winter dropped his eyes. Didn’t want to look into the man’s face. He knew he didn’t want to hear him speak either, a sound that would be like shovels in the dirt.
But he was being melodramatic. Blame it on the whisky. The old man was more human than he looked, even made a joke. He shivered as he came in, hunched the collar of his overcoat up around his ears. Some impertinent bird had deposited a dollop of birdshit on the shoulder of his coat. From the size of the mess it must have been a big one, a seagull or a crow.
‘Getting a bit chilly out there.’
Everybody laughed.
Winter, to let out the nervous tension building strength inside him.
Hitch, because he was a sycophant.
Bormann, because he laughed when everybody else did.
Everything would have been okay if it had stopped there. But it didn’t. Because the old man laughed at his own joke.
And when Winter looked into the grinning mouth, he knew he’d gone to hell. Because where else would you meet a man with his teeth filed to points.
Like an animal that has returned to its natural habitat, the place where it can be what it truly is, do what it was brought into this world to do.

CHAPTER 2

‘I’M NOT GOING BACK in there,’ Kate Guillory said. ‘Not after what happened last time.’
Evan tried to look disappointed. The place was eye-wateringly expensive after all.
‘If you’re sure . . .’
‘I’m surprised you want to.’
He shrugged, you’ve got a point, looked down at his newly-shined shoes. He was standing in the exact same spot where it had happened. A couple months back, he’d taken her to dinner at this very restaurant. They’d had a great evening. Up until the point where he was tasered in the exact spot he was standing in now. And then abducted. It’s not how anybody wants their evening to end. She’d been in the ladies’ room at the time, hadn’t spoken to him for days afterwards.
She put her hand on his arm, a smile on her lips.
‘I know you’ve shined your shoes specially.’
He rubbed the toe of the left one against the back of his right calf. It had gotten scuffed already.
‘It is your birthday, after all.’
She leaned away from him to get a better look at him, her eyes narrowing to see what else was different.
‘Combed your hair too.’ She flicked her head towards the restaurant door. ‘Maybe we should—’
‘No, you’re right. Don’t want to tempt fate.’
Neither of them could stop themselves from glancing around. Because both of them had their private suspicions that the events that followed that evening might not be as closed as they pretended to each other. They both felt a little stupid, nonetheless.
‘So. Where shall we go instead?’ Mr Disingenuous said.
‘Idiot.’
She’d already looped her arm through his. He clamped it tightly to his side with his elbow, trapping it, avoiding the clip around the back of the head that generally accompanied the idiot accusation.
‘Looks like it’s the Jerusalem Tavern,’ she said, trying and failing to put some resignation and disappointment into her voice.
‘If you insist,’ he said, trying and failing to keep the grin off his lips.
Despite his relief at the prospect of an evening in the Jerusalem instead of in an over-priced restaurant, he scanned the whole of the room quickly as they entered. Because in the course of the interrogation that followed his abduction, the man doing all the shouting and spitting in his face had made a very astute observation: A couple of beers in the Jerusalem is more your style. Just so that there was no misunderstanding about how deeply they’d dug into his life.
‘There’s nobody here,’ Guillory said.
He hadn’t realized she’d caught him looking. She peeled off to go to the ladies’ room as he headed to the bar, got settled into his usual seat. Lucinda Williams’ bittersweet Lake Charles playing on the jukebox set a nice, mellow tone, relaxing him. The manager, Kieran, wandered over, a frown on his face.
‘I thought you were taking the lady to a fancy restaurant.’
‘She didn’t want to go.’
Kieran nodded knowingly.
‘Is that so?’
‘Uh-huh.’
Without saying anything more, Kieran went to pour their beers. A minute later he put a single glass in front of Evan, got some helpful advice back.
‘It’s a lot more efficient if you bring them both over together.’
‘Yep,’ Kieran said, turning to the cooler cabinet behind him, his voice muffled as he did so. ‘If you’re both having the same thing.’
Then he pulled a fresh bottle of champagne from the cabinet, placed a champagne flute on the bar in front of Guillory’s empty chair. Evan watched as he popped the cork, then carefully filled the glass.
‘You can thank me later,’ Kieran said as he put the bottle back in the cabinet.
If you wink at me, I’ll put my finger in your eye, Evan thought as he wandered away.
Guillory did a small double take when she got back from the ladies’ room.
‘What? Have they run out of beer?’
‘I thought you’d like a glass of champagne instead. Seeing as it’s your birthday.’
‘Seeing as you’re not having to shell out for dinner, you mean.’
She took a small sip, nodded approvingly.
‘I could get to like this. Thank you, it was very thoughtful of you.’
He took an embarrassed mouthful of his beer. He felt Kieran’s grin as he watched them, all the way from the other end of the bar.
‘I see you didn’t put any lipstick on while you were in the ladies’ room,’ he said to get the attention away from himself.
‘No dinner, no lipstick.’ She held up the champagne. ‘I didn’t know about this at the time.’
He pulled something out of his pocket and put it on the bar. She stared at it as if it might explode in their faces. At that moment Kieran walked past them. He saw what was sitting on the bar. He paused, caught Evan’s eye. Raised his own eyebrow.
‘Looks like we’ll be needing a lot more champagne.’ Then to Guillory. ‘Well, go on Kate. Open it.’
Guillory picked up the small black box with the name of an up-market jewelry store embossed in gold on the lid. It was as if everybody in the bar was holding their breath, the music on the jukebox paused mid-song. With her heart beating a crazy tattoo in her chest, she flipped the lid open. Stared at the contents sitting on a red velvet cushion.
Evan let the grin creep across his lips as her face relaxed, the frozen features softening.
‘What did you think it was?’
‘Damn,’ Kieran said, moving away. ‘I was sure it was an engagement ring.’
Guillory lifted out a pair of gold earrings.
‘They’re lovely, thank you.’
‘So what did you think it was?’ Evan said again.
‘Just shut up. It might have helped if you’d said Happy Birthday instead of just putting the box on the bar with that stupid look on your face. Even if you can’t help it.’
He called Kieran over, ordered two more beers while she held one of the earrings to her ear, tried to see in the mirror behind the bar. Kieran brought one beer back, topped off Guillory’s champagne.
‘That’s two disappointments the lady’s had in one night.’
‘Hey!’ Guillory laughed, ‘less of that. That’s what I call a close shave.’
But despite the banter and the joking, it was clear to Evan that her heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t just tonight either. She’d been getting worse over the past weeks, becoming increasingly withdrawn and irritable. He knew what was causing it, too.
And he had plans to do something about it.

CHAPTER 3

‘YOU THINK SHE’S PLANNING on doing something stupid?’ Elwood Crow said.
Evan held up his hands, beats me.
‘I’m not sure. But she’s not herself.’
They were sitting in Crow’s back room as usual. Crow was an ageing, semi-retired investigator who’d helped Evan out on a number of his cases. Particularly if they turned overly cerebral or required access to information that he wasn’t strictly entitled to. Crow’s pet bird, an American crow called Plenty, was sitting on Evan’s shoulder, its new favorite position, watching Evan’s ear as if something tasty to eat might poke its head out at any moment.
‘You can hardly blame her after what happened,’ Crow said.
Guillory had only recently returned to duty. She’d been suspended for attacking a suspect in custody, a convicted pedophile called Robert Garfield. During her suspension she was abducted by the pedophile gang. She was beaten and interrogated, then driven, hooded and bound, out to the woods to be executed. Through a combination of circumstance and a not-so-simple twist of fate, she’d escaped.
And while the visible cuts and bruises had healed, the psychological wounds had not. Nor would they for a long time. She had no idea who had abducted and beaten her. No idea who had given the order for her to be killed as if she were simply an inconvenient irritation to be dealt with. Or so she claimed.
Evan suddenly realized the possible double meaning in Crow’s question.
‘When you say do something stupid, you don’t mean . . .’
Crow shook his head. But Evan saw that his words had put the thought into Crow’s mind. And it hadn’t been immediately dismissed.
‘No. I didn’t mean kill herself. I meant take things into her own hands. But now you mention it . . .’
The toxic thought hung in the air between them, palpable like a bitter taste in the mouth. It made Evan wish he never mentioned it. Then Crow put the spotlight on him to try to reverse the damage that the words had done to their mood. He put a lot of bright and breezy into his voice. For Crow, that is.
‘That’s why she needs you.’
‘That’s why I’m here.’
Crow’s wrinkly brow squeezed in a few more creases, a new world record for one person’s forehead. He made a show of looking around the room to see if Guillory was hiding in the corner or behind the drapes.
Evan got his wallet out, extracted a battered business card. He held it out towards Crow.
‘Todd Strange,’ Crow said, reading the name on the front. Underneath it was a cell phone number and a PO box address. He gave Evan a questioning look.
‘He’s the contract killer the pedophiles hired to kill Kate. Or, he was. He’s dead now.’
‘How did you get his card?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Crow looked as if he was going to object, thought better of it. Because Guillory wasn’t the only one who’d changed. Evan had too. It was understandable. His search for his missing wife Sarah had recently come to an end. He’d found the answers to the questions that had plagued and tormented him since the day six years ago when she went to work and never came home. It hadn’t been a happy ending, the answers not the hoped-for outcome that had kept him going during his long search. She had committed suicide while incarcerated in a state psychiatric facility and was buried in the hospital grounds. Kate Guillory had been there with him at the graveside when he’d learned the truth. It should have brought them together. For some reason it had so far failed to do so.
Crow had his suspicions about why. Nothing concrete, no evidence to base it on. Just a feeling in his wrinkly old bones based on a lifetime spent digging into other people’s lives. He wasn’t sure either of them believed what they’d been told.
So he didn’t push Evan now, cut him some slack. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a dead hit man’s business card in your wallet.
‘You want me to find out where he lives? Lived.’
Evan shook his head.
‘I know where he lives. I saw his driver’s license when I found the card. I wrote the address on the back.’
Crow turned the card over, saw the hand-written address and a phone number. He leaned forward, elbows on his bony knees. He looked like an ageing vulture that had just seen the animal carcass in front of him try to get away. Things were getting interesting.
‘Have you been around there?’
‘Not yet.’
Crow didn’t miss the yet. He’d have been disappointed if it had been omitted. He waved the business card in Evan’s face.
‘You don’t think you should give this to the police?’
‘There were more in his wallet along with his driver’s license. They’ll have found them. Who knows whether they’ll have bothered to go around there. If you listen to Kate, it sounds as if nobody’s very interested.’
‘And that’s where you come in.’
‘Somebody’s gotta do it.’
Crow slapped the card back and forth against the edge of his palm, making an irritating flapping sound. His pet bird launched itself from Evan’s shoulder at the sound, left a reminder of its visit on his jacket.
‘What about the phone number on the back?’
‘And that’s where you come in,’ Evan said, mimicking Crow’s remark of a moment ago.
Crow leaned back in his chair and studied the number. As if he could come up with the answer if he stared at it long and hard enough.
‘Any idea who it belongs to?’
‘Nope.’
‘But you’re hoping it’s the people who hired him to kill Kate.’
‘That, or I suppose it could just be his mom.’
Crow ignored the flippant remark, asked the obvious question.
‘Have you tried calling it?’ He held up a hand quickly before Evan had the chance to answer. ‘No, let me re-phrase that. I hope you haven’t tried calling it.’
Evan shook his head slowly.
‘Once bitten, twice shy.’
It was the correct response.
‘Good. We don’t want to set off the same as happened last time.’
Last time was when Evan was tasered outside the restaurant and abducted. It had been a direct result of him doing an internet search for a name that had been on a watch list. Although much as Evan agreed that he had no desire to repeat the experience, neither of them could deny that it had set in motion a chain of events that resulted in him finally learning what had happened to Sarah.
If blindly calling the number on the card would have resulted in Guillory finding the same relief from her ordeal as he had, he’d have done it. And let them taser him until the cows came home.
All of this Crow knew and understood. Which was why he was keen to take on the task. Stop Evan from barging straight in, good old Buckley style. It was what he was good at, after all, now that he was too old for the rough and tumble of the job out on the streets. It was the prospect of that rough and tumble that gave him slight pause before he spoke again.
‘There’s something I want you to do for me in return.’

***

‘I’M WORRIED ABOUT a friend of mine,’ Crow said, feeling a small pang of guilt as he chose the word worried rather than admit to the fears that kept him awake at night. ‘George Winter. I haven’t been able to contact him for a couple of days.’
‘Maybe he died in his sleep. If he’s as old as you.’
Crow did Evan the favor of pretending he hadn’t heard.
‘He called me a week ago sounding more excited than I can remember him sounding for years. He was a private investigator too, until he retired.’
‘Did you work together?’
It wasn’t just an idle question, an invitation to an old man to share a few reminiscences from the glory days. From what little Crow had told him about his work, Evan knew that it had been very rough at times. Not the glory days so much as the gory days. Anybody who’d worked with him would be cut from the same cloth.
‘No.’
Evan waited for more but more didn’t come.
‘Okay, just a friend.’
Crow started to say something. Stopped. Then came out with it.
‘He’s someone I knew from the old days. But that doesn’t matter.’
Evan knew that when Crow referred to the old days, he was being a lot more specific than it sounded. He was talking about his time in Vietnam. He was very aware of Crow’s reluctance to talk about it. He’d tried on a number of occasions to pry stories out of the old dog. Crow always deflected the conversation. It made him wonder what he’d gotten into over there. Now it seemed his reluctance extended to talking about people he’d known there.
Much later, the reasons for that reluctance would become clear. The statement that it didn’t matter wasn’t so much disingenuous as an outright lie.
‘After he retired, he sold up and bought a boat. Moved down to the Florida Keys. He makes a bit of money running fishing charters.’
The twist to Crow’s lips and the wrinkling of his nose made it clear what he thought about such a lifestyle.
‘He’s filling in time waiting to die?’ Evan suggested.
Crow nodded vigorously with all the conviction of a man who knows that the Devil can’t catch you if you don’t sit still.
‘Exactly. There’s only so many fish a man can eat.’
‘I think you put them back these days.’
Crow looked at him as if he’d confirmed that the world had indeed gone mad. To spend time and money and effort to catch a fish and then throw it back again. Then to do it again tomorrow. And the day after. He was sure the fish got tired of it too.
‘Whatever. Seems George finally realized it himself. He started doing a few bits and pieces of proper work again, anything that came his way.’
‘That’s what he was so excited about.’
‘Yes. Just some chickenshit little job, he said. But it made a pleasant change from spending the day afloat with a bunch of drunken Midwesterners.’
‘Did he say what it was?’
‘He had to identify some people in a video.’
‘Why not ask whoever took the video?’
Crow crossed one bony leg over the other, rested his hands on his knee. Stared at Evan, a long-suffering look on his face.
‘I don’t know, Evan. Maybe that’s what he did. But that was the job. Identify the people in the video. Report back. As far as I know, he wasn’t to approach them or make contact with them.’
‘Who gave him the job?’
‘I don’t know.’
Therein lay the problem as far as Evan could see. Crow didn’t know. And he didn’t like it.
‘Did you ask him?’
The long-suffering look grew longer and more suffering.
‘Of course I asked him. He was very evasive. Just a friend of a friend.’
Evan smiled to himself, takes one to know one. If you put the word evasive into an internet search engine, you get a picture of Crow’s face staring back at you at the top of the results.
‘Does it matter?’
‘Well it might do if something’s happened to him,’ Crow snapped.
Since it was a day for letting things slide, Evan ignored the sharpness of his tone. Because he’d gained some information—Crow was more than just worried about his friend.
‘The job shouldn’t have taken him more than a day at most. Given how excited he was, I should’ve heard from him by now. He should be answering his phone if nothing else.’
Evan didn’t bother saying that he was most likely enjoying his money, lying on a beach somewhere. A cold beer in his hand, his cell phone left far behind. Nonetheless, he felt bad about his crack that maybe he’d died in his sleep. Crow’s demeanor suggested that he thought he may well have died. Just not peacefully in his sleep.
‘I’d like you to check up on him. Make sure everything’s okay. And’—he paused a moment, swallowed drily—‘if it isn’t, find out what exactly it was he was working on. And who gave him the job.’
‘You sound as if you’ve already got your suspicions. You just want me to confirm it.’
Crow shook his head energetically which only proved it.
‘Not at all. I’d go down there myself, but . . .’
He flicked his head towards the ceiling. His wife—also called Sarah—lay above them in her bed. She’d suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease from before Evan first met Crow. Crow insisted on caring for her at home. Nor was he happy to entrust her wellbeing to professional carers. He looked a little uncomfortable putting Evan in a position where it was impossible for him to refuse, felt the need to explain.
As all people hiding something do.
‘I thought about asking Caleb—’
Caleb?
‘Evan. I’ve got Plenty here to repeat every word I say. I don’t need you to do it as well. Caleb is my son.’
Evan hadn’t been aware Crow had a son and told him so.
‘No reason why you should.’
‘Is he anything like you?’
Crow knew exactly what he meant. When they first met, Crow had indirectly admitted that in his younger days he had garrotted a degenerate and vicious man in the aftermath of one of his investigations, dispensing a rough natural justice like a self-styled avenging angel. And the world had not mourned his passing, had become a better place for it. That killing had never been officially solved.
‘Oh yes.’
Good to know, Evan thought to himself. A man with skills like that would be useful when he went down the road that started with Todd Strange. He noticed that Crow was smiling now, a gleam in his eye, knew something was up.
‘But then I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? I know somebody who could use a short vacation in Florida. And I don’t mean you. Take Kate with you. It’ll do her good.’
He fished in his pocket and pulled out a bunch of keys, held them out towards Evan.
‘George gave me a spare set of keys to the boat. He never married, didn’t have anybody else.’
Evan took the keys and made a note of where the boat was moored. He was halfway to the door when Crow called him back.
‘Don’t worry, I didn’t ask Kate on your behalf. But I will do if you’re not quick about it.’

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER