There will be no turning back
‘I’M SORRY MR BUCKLEY, your card has been declined.’ The waiter’s expression suggested he’d just won a bet with the chef as a result.
On the other side of the table Kate Guillory stifled a smile. Evan handed over another card.
‘Try this one.’
The three of them waited expectantly. Evan avoided Guillory’s eyes, ignored the fact that she was kicking him under the table.
‘Sorry,’ the waiter said. The only thing he looked sorry about was that he hadn’t had a chance to place another wager with chef.
Guillory dug her card out of her bag.
‘That’s the trouble with stolen cards. Use this one.’
‘Thank you, Madam.’
The waiter gave Evan a small, sardonic smile as the charge was accepted, then scuttled off to collect his winnings.
‘You could have just asked me to pay,’ she said.
He wasn’t listening. He was doing something with his phone. Or trying to.
‘There’s no way they should be declined. Now I can’t even use my phone to check my account.’ He showed her the screen—no network available. ‘Let me use yours.’
‘Don’t worry about it, you’re worth it.’
‘Just let me borrow your phone.’
She knew which battles were worth fighting and which weren’t, handed it to him. He logged into his online banking. She watched him as all the color drained from his face.
‘Close your mouth, Evan.’ She took the phone from him. ‘Don’t prove them right.’
A couple of waiters were watching them from the other side of the room, supercilious smirks on their faces. It wasn’t surprising. The socioeconomic range of the other diners in the room was a small one, running from rich to richer. The sort of place frequented by old money, people whose families went back almost as far as those of their servants.
And Evan hadn’t even combed his hair.
She looked at his online banking account on her phone to see what had caused such a profound reaction.
‘Exactly what I’d expect.’ The statement echoed the sentiments of everyone else in the room. ‘Nothing in your checking account or your savings.’ She looked closer. ‘That’s strange. Your credit cards have been cancelled. That’s why they didn’t work.’
He told her how much had been in the accounts the previous day.
‘Your account must have been hacked. I’ve told you before about visiting all those porn sites.’
‘There’s no chance of me drowning in a sea of sympathy then. C’mon, let’s go before they throw me out for lowering the tone of the establishment.’
‘I need to go to the ladies’ room.’
Across the room the two waiters were still watching them.
‘I’ll wait for you outside.’
‘Bring the car around you mean. I bet they think I’ve been taking the help out to dinner. Twenty years’ loyal service sort of thing. You need a couple of bucks to get the coats?’
‘Put some lipstick on while you’re in there,’ he said and headed for the door.
When he got outside it was as if her words had come true. For a moment he thought she’d actually arranged it. A long black car sat waiting at the curb, the neon sputter of a cafe sign across the street reflecting off its gleaming paintwork. A man in a dark suit and tie stood by the open back door. He wasn’t wearing a chauffeur’s cap although Evan was sure it was sitting on the front passenger seat. Except he’d never met a chauffeur with a slick-smooth scar under his right eye before.
‘You shouldn’t have bothered,’ he said, smiling at him.
‘No problem, Mr Buckley.’
Something wasn’t right.
Was it the bottle of wine he’d shared with Guillory over dinner, or the couple beers before that, confusing him? How come the guy knew his name?
‘Sorry to spoil your date. She’s nice. You’re a lucky guy.’
He didn’t feel so lucky when a second man stepped out from the shadows of a darkened doorway and tasered him.
EVAN BLINKED HIS EYES open, looked around him. It was a small room, maybe ten-foot square. The walls and the floor and the ceiling were painted a dull gray, illuminated by a bare lightbulb. There were no windows. Just a single door, one without a handle.
His mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird’s cage, full of dust and bits of straw and feathers. He didn’t remember being hit, although he couldn’t remember much at all. He ran his tongue over his teeth and lips to make sure.
He was sitting on a metal chair bolted to the floor, the hood that had been over his head in his lap. A chain ran from the leg-irons around his ankles to a heavy-duty ring bolt fixed to the floor. His arms were secured behind his back. He flexed them. Felt metal against his wrists, heard the clank of handcuffs.
He thought about it. Shackles and handcuffs. Not cable ties, not rope or duct tape. So, something official. A government agency of some kind.
Then the door opened and proved it.
A man stepped into the room carrying his own chair. Like the last person Evan had seen, the man standing by the open back door of the car, this one was wearing a dark suit with a tie. Except this one had his jacket off, shirt sleeves rolled up to show off his muscular forearms. He wasn’t tall, didn’t look like he needed to be. The sort of guy you didn’t want hitting you when you were chained to a chair. Or at any other time for that matter.
He put the chair down backwards, sat on it movie-cop style. Arms crossed, resting on the chair back. Gave Evan a tough guy, movie-cop stare. The lanyard around his neck had an ID card on the end of it. He tucked it in his breast pocket so Evan couldn’t see it. Not that Evan needed to read it to know what was on it. Some three-letter acronym or the other—FBI, CIA, DEA. WTF maybe?
They sat and stared at each other for a while until Evan got bored.
‘Good to see my tax dollars hard at work.’
The guy eyed him with ill-concealed distaste. As if the man in front of him was a threat to decent people everywhere.
‘How’s your evening been so far?’
It was a strange question to lead with.
‘Not bad. Yours?’
The guy gave a small shrug, I’m at work, how good can it be?
Evan made a show of trying to see his ID card. He tucked it in further.
‘You can call me Smith. Or Mr Smith, if you prefer. I hope you weren’t too embarrassed earlier.’
Evan’s face creased into a frown. He sniffed surreptitiously, maybe he’d soiled himself when they tasered him. Thrown up the expensive dinner Guillory had bought him, perhaps?
‘In the restaurant, I mean.’
Evan put his lack of comprehension down to the effects of the booze-taser combination. Guillory would’ve said it didn’t make a difference either way. The thought of her gave him an inkling into what Smith was on about. Smith saw it in his face, nodded.
‘I bet you were on for a bit of . . .’ He winked, man-to-man style. At least he didn’t nudge Evan with his elbow which was something. ‘Until the lady had to pay.’
‘You cancelled my credit cards?’
‘Lucky Ms Guillory had hers with her, huh? But then she knows you. Knows how a couple beers in the Jerusalem Tavern is more your style.’
If Smith was hoping to demonstrate how much he knew about Evan’s life and habits, he was doing a grand job.
‘Lucky her phone’s still working too.’
‘You cancelled my phone contract as well?’
Smith nodded pleasantly as if Evan had asked if it was him who’d swept up the leaves from his yard.
‘Made a couple bank transfers while we were at it.’ He leaned forward, almost tipping the chair over. ‘How come you had so much money in your savings account? I had that sort of cash, I’d put it to work. Not leave it in the bank. Not that we wouldn’t have gotten hold of it wherever it was.’
‘Who do you work for?’
Smith’s face creased in mock confusion.
‘We work for you. You said so earlier. You know, tax dollars . . .’
It was a stupid question. He didn’t know why he’d asked it. To put off asking the one he didn’t want to ask, most likely.
‘Why are you doing this?’
Smith contemplated him with an ice-water gaze, one that made Evan understand who was in control here, who was the little guy. As if there was any doubt.
‘Because we can.’
Evan said it along with him under his breath.
‘And to teach you a lesson.’
Smith pushed himself up from the chair. Walked the couple paces needed to stand in front of Evan.
‘I’ve heard you’ve got a smart mouth. I’m not hearing much of that at the moment. Why is that, do you think?’
‘I’m sure you’re about to tell me.’
‘Uh-huh. If I was to ask Ms Guillory, she might say that for once in your life you’ve realized what you’ve got yourself into. Even you are learning there’s a time to talk, a time to listen. Am I right?’
Evan nodded dutifully. Even if he didn’t agree.
‘Why do I need to be taught a lesson?’
‘Because you like to stick your nose in where it’s not fucking wanted,’ Smith screamed into his face. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. Dabbed at Evan’s chin. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to spit.’
Evan decided Smith had been right a minute ago. It was a time to listen.
‘We’ve been having a discussion about how much of a lesson is required. And how long it should last. See, if I was to let you go home now’—he gave a soft chuckle to reinforce what a stupid thing that had been to say—‘you’d find it’s a bit cold in your apartment without any gas or electricity. That’s if you can get in, of course. You might have to sleep in your car. If it hasn’t been towed. And I know you wouldn’t want to sleep at your sister Charlotte’s place, bring some of this shit down onto her. Or Ms Guillory. Detective Guillory I mean. Hey, you’ll know this seeing as you’ve been lucky enough to get hold of her—what size patrol uniform do you think she wears?’
‘You’ve made your point—’
‘I haven’t even started,’ Smith screamed again. This time he didn’t wipe the spittle off Evan’s chin and eyelid, even though the handkerchief was still in his hand. ‘The thing is, we can change it all back again. If we want to. You are as screwed as we want you to be for as long as we want you to be. That’s where opinions differ. Some people think a week should do it. Let you know we aren’t messing around. But I’ve heard people say Buckley’s got the monopoly on stubborn and stupid, make it a month. Then there’s the folks saying how you’re just using up good air, don’t ever change it back. And I’m the poor schmuck has to decide.’
Evan tried to look suitably sorry for him, then risked another question.
‘Don’t we want you poking your nose in? I thought you’d never ask. Cole Nix, that’s where.’
Evan didn’t know if he was surprised or not. Recently, he’d been told a story by a recidivist called Jack Adamson. Adamson claimed Evan’s wife Sarah, who’d been missing for the past six years, had been involved with Cole Nix in a drug deal that went wrong. One that left Nix dead at the side of the road. Sarah hadn’t been seen or heard of since. Adamson claimed he had more information. Trouble was, he wanted something from Evan in return, something Evan was loathe to give.
Two days earlier, in a last-ditch attempt to put off giving in to his demands, Evan did an internet search on Cole Nix. He hadn’t found a thing.
But they’d found him.
‘You recognize that name?’ Smith said.
Smith smiled at that, we’ve got one here.
‘Quick learner, huh?’
‘I suggest you keep it that way. Forget you ever heard it.’
Smith gave him a look, the sort that government employees who’ve only been issued with the limited-version sense of humor give.
‘No need to overdo it, smartass. I know why you’re interested, what you think you’ll find. You’re wrong. All you’ll find is trouble. Drop it. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.’
He kicked at the chain attached to the shackles around Evan’s legs.
‘What do you think of these?’
‘Yeah, for small fry like you. Exactly the same as we use at Guantanamo Bay. Concentrates your mind though, doesn’t it?’
He rapped on the door with his knuckles. When it opened, another man was standing there, a hypodermic syringe and a bottle of clear liquid in his hands. He came in, moved around behind Evan’s chair.
‘Remember to forget that name.’ Smith smiled at his own joke. ‘For everybody’s sake. Yours, your sister’s, Kate Gui—’
The next thing he knew, Evan was in his own bed. And it wasn’t a bad dream. They wanted to show him one more time how easily they could get into any part of his life, that’s all.
The bottle of whisky on the nightstand and the unopened tub of prescription tranquilizers made out to Mr Evan Buckley next to it only went to reinforce the point.
‘IS IT BACK YET?’ Elwood Crow asked.
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. His pet bird, an American crow called Plenty, was sitting on Evan’s shoulder, inspecting the contents of his ear.
‘Yep. They left it a couple days to make their point. Then the money reappeared, credit cards started working again, the whole nine yards.’
‘And you’ve no idea who they were?’
‘Uh-uh. A government agency of some sort I suppose.’
‘Who don’t like you looking into Cole Nix. Interesting.’
It had been Crow who originally found the name following up on the story told by Jack Adamson. Now, he was practically bouncing with excitement in his chair. It was what he lived for, too old for the rough and tumble of the job out on the streets. From the little he’d told Evan about it, the rough had been very rough at times.
‘I want to know why they didn’t pick you up,’ Evan said. ‘Unless they think you’re too old to worry about.’
Crow did him a favor and acted like he hadn’t heard the last part.
‘Because I take precautions. I use the Tor browser amongst other things. You, on the other hand, might as well stand on your roof with a bullhorn shouting out what you’re looking for. At least that way they’d think you’re just some lunatic on a roof and not a subversive doing searches for a name on a watch list.’
‘Did you know the name was on a watch list?’
‘Of course not. But it clearly is.’
‘So what do we do?’
Crow looked uncomfortable for a moment. Then he contrived somehow, as he always did, to get his pet bird to cause a distraction. It pecked at something in Evan’s ear. Evan recoiled with a surprised yelp. The bird flapped away, settled on the back of Crow’s chair. But it didn’t work. Evan was getting wise to Crow’s ways.
‘Sorry, what I should have said is, what have you already done?’
Crow had been on the back foot these past weeks. In his role as mediator between Evan and Adamson, he’d recently failed to pass along a name to Evan until it was too late. Jackson Delacroix. It might have been the biggest step forward yet in Evan’s six-year search for his wife. As a result, Crow was anxious to make amends. He cleared his throat, a small ahem sound.
‘I know you’re not keen to do business with Adamson if you can help it. So I did some more digging into Cole Nix—’
Evan jerked forward in his chair, startling Crow and the bird at his shoulder.
‘It might have been you set them off.’
Crow stared at him a long moment as if his nose were turning into a carrot.
‘I’m going to get Plenty to peck out the mashed potato or whatever it is clogging up your ears. I told you, I take precautions. It wasn’t anything I did.’
Evan relaxed back into the chair, not completely convinced.
‘You find anything?’
Crow hesitated before answering.
‘Not on Cole Nix, no. Apart from the original news article I found, there’s nothing. Which is very unusual.’
Evan gave a noncommittal shrug. He wouldn’t know. What he did know in the dark, secret oozings of his entrails was that Crow was holding something back.
‘What aren’t you telling me?’
Crow inspected his fingernails briefly, put his hands on the arms of his chair as if to push himself up.
‘You want something to drink?’
‘To give you time to think up a story, you mean? No thanks. Spit it out.’
Despite the outward show of impatience with Crow’s reticence, a twinge of unease ignited in Evan’s gut. He knew Crow well enough to recognize that if Crow was reluctant to say something, he should make sure he paid particular attention to whatever it was when it finally came out.
Crow got up anyway, poured himself a couple fingers of bourbon. The good stuff, Evan noticed. He rested his bony hand briefly on Evan’s shoulder on his way back to his chair, sent a shiver through him as if the Grim Reaper had snuck up on him.
‘For Christ’s sake, Elwood, tell me.’
Crow took a careful sip of his drink, never one to be hurried. He cleared his throat again.
‘After Adamson telephoned me a second time to give me Delacroix’s name to pass along’—Evan smiled thinly and was good enough to say nothing about him forgetting to do so—‘I wanted to check his story again. See if Delacroix was mentioned in the news report. I’d bookmarked the original page I found. Luckily, I’d also printed out a hard copy. Because the article had been taken down.’
He took another sip of his drink, stared at Evan over the rim of the glass.
‘So? Maybe they archive stuff regularly. It was six years ago after all.’
Crow nodded his agreement.
‘That’s exactly what I thought—’
‘Well, there you go.’
‘—which is why I searched to see if everything from that time period had also been removed.’ He paused. Unnecessarily, in Evan’s view, but that was Crow. ‘It hadn’t.’
‘Maybe nothing, Evan. You want me to tell you about some of the things I found still up there gathering dust in the ether? Missing pets, underwear stolen off a clothesline, important stuff like that. This was the online version of a small local paper and you want me to believe they took down an article about a man shot dead at the side of the road to make room for the Little League results?’
Evan nodded, some of Crow’s paranoia rubbing off on him.
‘Add that to what happened to me when I did a search for Cole Nix . . .’
‘Exactly. Whoever Nix was, somebody wants to make it look like he never existed.’
They sat staring at each other a few beats as the implications sank in.
‘Want that drink now?’
Evan shook his head. He didn’t need anything to muddy the myriad thoughts spinning through his mind. There was one scenario hanging in the air between them, neither man giving voice to it. Evan gave in first when the silence got uncomfortable.
‘It’s possible that whoever wants to remove all traces of Cole Nix,’ he said, his voice slowing word by word in contrast to the thoughts racing ahead in his mind, ‘might also want to remove all traces of anyone connected to him. Like someone who was with him when he was shot at the side of the road.’
Crow said nothing, made no gesture, affirmative or otherwise. Evan got up, poured himself a drink now, refreshed Crow’s.
‘Consider this,’ Crow said. He raised his left hand, took hold of his little finger. ‘If they’re clearing the decks’—he moved on to his ring finger—‘and the woman with him was Sarah, they’d have made the connection between you and her when you went searching for Nix. They wouldn’t have let you go so easily. Not without finding out why both you and your wife have an interest in Nix, at the very least. That supports the view that it wasn’t Sarah.’
‘Or they didn’t make the connection.’
Crow shrugged noncommittally, have it your way.
‘It makes sense,’ Evan continued. ‘Who can make a person disappear without trace? The government, that’s who. The sort of guy I met the other night. Who’d have known where I was if they hadn’t let me go?’
‘You’re being paranoid.’
‘I wonder who I get that from.’
Crow patted the air, take it easy.
‘We need to know what happened before jumping to any wild conclusions, screaming conspiracy at the top of our voices. That’s all I’m saying.’
‘Great. Back to jumping through hoops for Adamson in the hope that he’s not just jerking me around.’
Evan was standing by now, staring out of the window. More than Crow’s words, the something hidden up my sleeve tone of his voice made him turn around.
‘As I said, I didn’t find anything on Cole Nix. However, I’ve got the name of the journalist who wrote the article I found, the one that has subsequently been removed. Abe Dalton. He might have more information. If they’ve taken the whole thing down, it’s possible there were things he wasn’t allowed to include in the first place.’
He shrugged, it’s worth a try. The look Evan gave him questioned who exactly it was who was paranoid.
‘He lives in Laredo, Texas.’
Evan nodded to himself.
‘Makes sense. It’s where the guy was found dead at the side of the road. Maybe Sarah’s down there living with him.’
It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, nothing meant by it. It would turn out to be closer to the truth than he could ever have imagined.
‘I thought secret government agents had eliminated her.’
Evan saw the half-smile on his lips and smiled himself.
‘Yeah, well. Maybe I was getting a bit carried away. Getting tasered can do that to you.’
‘So, what are you going to do?’ Crow made a show of looking at his watch. ‘I’d have thought you’d be on your way to Laredo by now already. Strike while the iron is hot.’
Evan knew what he was being accused of, did the translation in his head: Act first, think later.
‘There’s some things I need to do first.’
Crow raised an eyebrow, pulled his head back. As if to get a better look at him, make sure it was the real Evan Buckley standing in front of him.
‘That’s not like you. Normally any mention of a new lead to do with Sarah’s disappearance and you’re off like a rocket. Whoosh.’ He whipped his hand out towards the door, arm straight as an arrow. ‘What sort of things?’
Evan shook his head, doesn’t matter.
‘Something to do with Kate then,’ Crow said. ‘Good. She needs someone to lean on at the moment. I guess you’ll do.’
As was often the case with Crow, Evan felt like a laboratory rat pinned to a table, his skin and flesh pulled back while Crow poked around in his innards, never missing a thing, every juicy morsel extracted, analyzed, carefully stored away for future reference. He needed to get back on track.
‘What do you think I should do?’
‘Well, for starters, you should treat her better. Stop—’
‘No. About the journalist.’
‘Oh, him.’ He leaned back in his seat, folded his arms across his chest. His eyes were hooded like an ageing vulture he so closely resembled dozing off as it waited for him to die. ‘You really want to know what I think?’
Evan understood then that it was a different Crow who sat in front of him, appearing bigger somehow. A younger Crow in the guise of an avenging angel, a Crow who’d garrotted a degenerate, vicious thug in the name of natural justice and the world had become a better place for it. He nodded.
‘Take it to the bastards. Don’t wait for them to come to you.’
And Evan always tried to be a good boy, did as he was bidden by his elders and betters.