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Revenge is a dish best served cold

PROLOGUE

1986

It was the worst day of Calvin Hayes’ young life. It would have been scant consolation to be told that he would never know a worse one.
Now that the rain had finally let up, the zancudos—mosquitos the size of a B-52 bomber that sucked a pint of blood at a time—were out in force. He swiped angrily at his dirt-smeared face as one dive-bombed his head, coming at him out of nowhere in the moisture-laden rainforest air, the bloated insect’s job made easier still by the scores of small cuts from the skin-slicing vegetation they’d fought their way through every step of the way from the airstrip.
He’d lost a couple thousand bucks’ worth of Nikon telephoto lens when he slipped on the treacherous ground at the height of the downpour and almost fell into a ravine, the lens tumbling away, disappearing forever into the impenetrable vegetation below. His skin was slick with sweat and rain and probably his own blood too, greasy unwashed hair in his eyes, shirt plastered to his back, blisters going Pop! Pop! Pop! as he struggled to keep up with the punishing pace in his too-tight boots.
And up ahead Kurt and the Asshole looking as if they were out for a relaxing after-dinner stroll around the park.
Worse, they were talking about him.
He knew it by the way Kurt glanced over his shoulder at him. Not to make sure that he was okay. What a joke. If he’d complained, Kurt would’ve laughed in his face.
You wanted to come.
No, it was because Kurt was scared that he might hear what the Asshole was saying. As soon as he looked away Calvin pushed all his gripes aside, found a hidden reserve of speed and stamina deep inside him, got up close. The Asshole was still talking, his voice hard and urgent as if he were revealing a terrible secret.
‘I’m telling you, if he sticks his stupid camera in my face again, I’m gonna put a bullet in his head.’
Calvin stopped dead as if he’d walked into a thick primeval swamp sucking at his legs, his mouth suddenly dry. The Asshole might be an asshole, but one thing he didn’t do was make idle threats. He’d seen the evidence of that already. The queasy churning in his gut told him he was about to see a lot more of it when they got to wherever the hell they were going.
A shiver rippled across his skin like still water brushed by a cold breeze, made him wonder if he was cut out for this after all.
It made him look behind him, at the men following. Tough, wiry men with weathered brown faces and silver-capped teeth, easy smiles and easier brutalities. He stepped to the side of the path to let them pass. The man in front stopped, turned his blood-streaked face towards him, dark eyes not seeing anything beyond the bleakness and pain of his own future. Hands clasped together in prayer so tightly they barely needed the rope that bound his wrists, a never-ending supplication slipping from his cut and bruised lips to a god who had surely abandoned him long ago.
Calvin bit down and swallowed hard as one of the men behind the prisoner jabbed him hard in the kidney with the barrel of his assault rifle, drew a sharp hiss of pain, interrupting the wasted prayers. The man stumbled, landing hard on his knees, unable to find the strength in his legs or the courage in his heart to raise himself.
Calvin knew better than to lend a helping hand.
Because here was the mad dog Salvatore himself, bringing up the rear.
And a man needs both hands to frame the perfect shot.
He pushed his camera behind his back with his elbow, held it there, head dipped lest he attract unnecessary attention.
Even though he was only an onlooker, his presence tolerated and nothing more, he felt dirty for being a part of it, more so in the knowledge that the worst was yet to come, a celebration of another man’s undignified death.
Kurt was waiting for him at the edge of the clearing.
‘Stay here.’
Like he was a disobedient dog. Indignation flared, an objection on his lips. Then the weight of Kurt’s hand on his shoulder, the intensity of his gaze silencing him.
‘You don’t want to watch. Not this. And you know what’ll happen if Salvatore catches you trying to photograph it.’
He nodded, the Asshole’s words in his mind.
If he sticks his stupid camera in my face again, I’m gonna put a bullet in his head.
And Salvatore was twice as bad and half as sane.
‘Okay.’
The grip on his shoulder tightened.
‘I mean it, Calvin.’
‘I said okay.’
Kurt shook his head, a touch of weary despair in the gesture, went to join the unholy gathering in the middle of the clearing, the bound man’s prayers carrying easily in the stillness of the afternoon.
Calvin glared at his feet, hot tears of anger and frustration pricking the backs of his eyes, cursing the stupid boots that had made him slip and lose the telephoto lens. Because if he still had it, he’d hide himself behind a tree and snap away with impunity, and to hell with their threats.
He was young. And the young believe in their own immortality above all else.
Nor did the inscription on the small brass plate on the back of the camera help his mood of dangerous insubordination. He read it now, even though he knew the words by heart.
When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.
A bitter laugh squeezed through his teeth. Thinking to himself, you should have chosen something different, something with pussy in it, if all you wanted me to do was take pictures of pretty flowers and old people with their grandchildren.
As always, the inscription inspired him. Made him feel the blood pulsing in his veins, heart thumping with pride as he conquered the world with his camera. Gone was the fear. In its place, a reckless stupidity fueled by a seething resentment at the Asshole’s dismissive attitude towards him. As if he were nothing more than another irritation that had to be endured in this godforsaken place along with the mosquitos and the rain and the stifling heat.
He looked at the scene unfolding in the clearing and felt a deep sense of shame come over him.
And he wanted to photograph stuff like this?
In that moment everything changed for him. He experienced a small epiphany, even if his new-found maturity would not be long-lived.
He would take his photographs. But not so that he might bask in the praise of his peers, the thunderous applause that had filled his head as he imagined himself modestly accepting the Pulitzer prize now dying its childish and vain death.
He would take them so that men like the Asshole would be exposed for what they truly were. Monsters who belonged in a cage.
He framed a shot in the viewfinder from where he stood, immediately dismissed it. The distance was too great, the evil that lurked behind the Asshole’s eyes not sufficiently blatant.
He crept silently into the clearing, camera in his hand and heart in his mouth, tried to close his ears to the distressing sounds that filled the air. The men ahead of him were too consumed by their godless task to notice him.
Or so he thought.
He was halfway between the safety of the trees and the indecent spectacle ahead of him, the fast clicking of the camera’s shutter like thunderclaps to his heightened senses, when the mad dog Salvatore raised his head.
He froze like a mouse under a cat’s paw, fear surging in his throat like a living thing. Then Salvatore turned his head. Stared directly at him with a look that curdled his blood.
Calvin knew then that he’d made the biggest mistake of his young life.

CHAPTER 1

Present day

Evan Buckley was a brave man. Or a foolish one.
He stood on the step of Elwood Crow’s Victorian pile, eyes front, back rigid. Trying not to think about what waited for him inside, doing his best to ignore the commotion going on a few yards behind him at the curb. It wasn’t easy.
The door swung open on its well-oiled hinges and tonight, more than any other day or night, he thought how inappropriate that was. The front door on a house like this, lived in by a man such as Crow, should creak when opened. It ought to be the law.
Crow’s face was like sin, standing before him like the Grim Reaper. Evan was only surprised he wasn’t wearing a ceremonial robe of some kind, something machine-washable to get rid of those difficult bloodstains.
Then Crow’s eyebrows went up, compacting the wrinkles on his brow, as he saw what was behind Evan at the curb. Evan turned reluctantly. Together they stared at his ‘69 Corvette bouncing on its suspension as if a fat man and his girl were screwing in the back seat—ignoring for the moment that a ‘69 Corvette doesn’t have a back seat.
Neither of them said anything as the sound of a person shouting drifted towards them.
You are going to be so sorry.
Didn’t he know it.
Despite the irritation in the voice, it was easily recognizable.
‘That sounds like Kate,’ Crow said.
Evan nodded unhappily.
‘It is.’
‘Is she coming in, too?’
‘She can’t, I’m afraid.’
‘No?’
‘No. She’s cuffed to the steering wheel.’
On any other night a guilty laugh or a low chuckle might have slipped out of Crow’s mouth. Just not tonight. Laughing, any hint of light-hearted behavior, seemed inappropriate given the purpose of Evan’s visit. Despite that, it was hard to keep the smiles off their faces at the sight of the bucking car and the sound of the muffled shouts—even if one of them would be paying a high price for the entertainment.
That made two reasons why Crow was very glad he wasn’t Evan that night.
‘I left the engine running so she doesn’t get cold,’ Evan said.
Crow nodded. Very considerate. What could she possibly complain about?
‘She’s not going to damage the suspension, is she?’
‘I hope not. It’d cost a fortune to get it fixed.’
Then something happened that made both men swallow, exchange a nervous glance.
The car stopped rocking, the sounds coming from inside cut off as abruptly as if a radio had been switched off.
Uh-oh.
They recognized it for what it was. The moment at which Kate Guillory decided to stop trying to snap the steering column in half, stop wasting her breath yelling, concentrate on later.
Later.
The thought of it sent a shiver through Evan, sweat beading his top lip.
‘Maybe I should’ve locked her in the trunk.’
Crow smiled, something he hadn’t expected would happen that evening.
‘That I would have liked to see. May I ask why you cuffed her to the wheel?’
Evan held up his left hand, extended the little finger. Crow nodded.
‘Ah.’
‘Exactly. She would have caused trouble. Insisted you take hers instead.’
Crow’s face darkened at the mention of the reason for Evan’s presence. The Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death himself, was back in the place of the man who’d been smiling at an amusing—for the person who wouldn’t be on the receiving end of the repercussions—situation only a moment ago. Except it seemed to Evan that there was something more, something troubling Crow beyond the everyday occurrence of cutting off the tip of a man’s little finger. Because that was the purpose of his visit. To pay a price long overdue, owed to a spiritual and moral vacuum of a man whose very name sucked the warmth out of men’s hearts.
‘C’mon, let me in. Let’s get this over with.’
But Crow did not step aside, usher him in with a low sweep of his arm as he usually did. He shook his head instead, looked very ill at ease.
‘No.’
Evan knew what he was about to say. A cold chill settled in his stomach that made thoughts of what Guillory might do when he set her free pale into insignificance.
‘He’s here?’
Crow nodded, looked more uncomfortable still, the graveyard pallor of his skin seeming to glow in the night.
‘You said he wouldn’t be.’
‘I couldn’t stop him. There was a knock on the door. I thought it was you. He pushed his way in, refuses to leave.’
Evan took a step forward.
‘Let’s do it anyway.’
The flat of Crow’s palm was hard on Evan’s chest, the strength behind it deceiving.
‘No. Don’t give him that pleasure. And you don’t want to meet him, put a face to the monster.’ He grabbed hold of Evan’s little finger, squeezed. ‘The pain of this will fade. The memory of him will leave a stain on your soul that won’t. We’ll do it another time.’
Despite the strength in Crow’s arm, Evan was less than half his age, could easily have pushed him aside, marched down the hallway to confront the evil that was Avery Pentecost. Thrown him out on his ear if necessary. But there was a plea in Crow’s voice that he couldn’t ignore. Crow gave orders and instructions. He did not beseech. It was a side to him that Evan had not seen before, one that his own son, Caleb, had seen only once. Revealing that vulnerable part of himself now produced the desired effect.
Evan took a step backwards.
‘Okay.’
In his fertile mind those everyday items that had loomed so large in his dreams—the stained cutting board, the strong sharp knife, the dish cloth tourniquet—resumed their innocent roles, left him feeling like a deflating blimp, the tension inside him dissipating, leaching away. He was exhausted, hollow inside, his limbs suddenly weary. He wouldn’t have been able to push past Crow if he’d wanted to. Crow put a hand on his arm.
‘I’m sorry.’
If he thought Crow was apologizing for having built up the fear and apprehension to fever pitch only to defer the moment once again, he was mistaken. Crow pointed over his shoulder at his car sitting eerily quiet and still at the curb, a faint curl at the corners of his mouth.
‘Looks like that was all for nothing.’
Evan didn’t turn around, didn’t need to. He felt the heat of Guillory’s glare on the back of his neck, made him think he might walk home. Now that the unholy purpose of his visit had been postponed, Crow allowed himself a proper smile.
‘How did you manage to cuff her?’ He took hold of Evan’s chin, turned his head from side to side. ‘You wouldn’t be looking so unscathed if you’d wrestled them onto her.’
Evan gave him the smile of a man who knows his sins are very soon about to catch up with him.
‘A dirty trick . . .’

***

Kate Guillory took a deep breath, let it out slowly, wanted to know when stupid shit like that ever made a difference. She knew exactly what it would take before she felt calm again—to see Buckley’s body stop twitching after she’d strangled him.
She leaned across, massaged her bruised and cut wrist cuffed to the wheel. It was her own stupid fault.
Close your eyes.
What for?
Just close them.
Okay.
Now hold out your hand.
Some fumbling in his pocket. Then a fast double-click as he snapped the cuffs shut around her wrist and the wheel. She couldn’t believe how fast he’d been. Or how slow she’d been. On the uptake as well as her reactions.
What the hell had she been expecting? An engagement ring, for Christ’s sake? She didn’t want a stupid engagement ring, he knew that. Something else they both knew.
He was going to be so sorry.
She understood why he’d done it. He knew her too well. Because it had indeed been in her mind to insist that she pay Pentecost’s price, that they take the tip of her finger and not his. It had been for her benefit that the deviant Liverman had been killed after all.
Her eyes had snapped open as fast as he’d closed the cuffs. Staring incredulously at her wrist shackled to the wheel as if it were somebody else’s. When the surprise subsided, she’d stayed calm, hadn’t ranted and raved, demanded that he set her free. Because she’d seen something in his eyes that no words could touch nor extinguish. They both knew why he’d done it. What was the point in arguing?
Later, after he’d left her fuming in silence, she’d given vent to her anger and frustration, her annoyance with herself. Shouting and screaming, doing her best to snap the steering column and bust the suspension. Because the cuffs were the real deal, not some cheap piece of junk he’d ordered from an online sex shop.
Nor was it only the way he’d tricked her so easily that made her want to poke herself in the eye. She should have thought of it first. If she’d been serious about taking his place, she’d have been prepared.
But something was wrong.
Crow had kept him standing on the front step. Put a hand on his chest. Hadn’t let him into the house. Now he was on his way back, walking down the path on leaden legs like a man climbing the gallows stairs.
As well he might. She’d have rubbed her hands together in anticipation if one of them hadn’t been cuffed to the wheel.
Only one thing to decide. Punch him as soon as he got in the car or wait until she had both hands free?

***

Evan was halfway to the car when his phone rang. Still walking, he pulled it out of his pocket. An unknown number. Briefly, he considered answering it. But only very briefly. It was bad enough imprisoning her in the car while he went to submit to his ordeal. She might not like it, but she understood why he’d done it, would’ve done the same herself if the roles had been reversed. But to stand and shoot the breeze while she was still cuffed to the wheel? That was another matter altogether. Active antagonization. An open invitation to respond violently, one that would be accepted gratefully.
The phone went back into his pocket.
A very good thing, given what would happen when he got around to speaking to the person who had called.
Touching the door handle he felt like a man testing a hot stove. He pulled it open, slipped his butt into the driver’s seat, head and upper body still outside the car. The punch caught him on the shoulder. Better than on the jaw or the ear but it still hurt, the amount of anger behind it. He grabbed her hand before she did it again. They sat there like that for a long moment, neither of them saying anything. He kicked it off.
‘You should think yourself lucky—’
Her mouth and tongue and vocal cords gave up at that, left her speechless. It was an excellent goldfish impersonation.
‘Crow said I should’ve locked you in the trunk.’
The tight, bloodless line—about the same width as her eyes—that was where her lips ought to be suggested she had her own opinion on where that suggestion should properly be attributed. She was still having trouble getting anything like meaningful words out.
‘Aren’t you going to shout?’ he said.
She mouthed a word at him.
Later.
He couldn’t decide about the feeling it gave him. A frisson in his lower gut. He wasn’t sure if it was pleasure or fear. He decided to have some fun nonetheless. It’s very easy to be brave when you’ve got a person’s only free hand in yours and the transmission tunnel stops her from kicking you.
‘You mean you want me to go, come back later to uncuff you?’
‘You dare.’
He didn’t dare, actually. He didn’t make a move to unlock the cuffs, either. Not yet. The uncomfortable silence stretched out. But it was doing its job. Uncomfortable silences are good like that. Women can’t stand them. She caved first, her curiosity overcoming her irritation, making her blind to the fact that she was still cuffed to the wheel.
‘What happened? Why’d he send you away?’
‘Pentecost is in there with him. He says meeting him will leave a stain on my soul.’
Ha! You don’t have a soul. You’re a brass-plated ass-soul, but you haven’t got one.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Uh-huh.’ The tone a little wary now.
‘How much quicker do you think remarks like that are going to get you uncuffed? A rough estimate will do.’
She didn’t answer, wasn’t really listening. Her mouth had been on autopilot ever since he’d mentioned that Pentecost was in the house. It had taken her back to the last time she’d been here. She’d come to get some answers out of Crow. About him and Evan and their whispered secrets in the back room with Crow’s stupid pet bird cawing in the background like something out of a bad horror movie. She’d come away with a whole lot more than she’d bargained for. Learned things that had rocked her back on her heels, things that had shed a new light on the man sitting next to her, the lengths he was prepared to go to for her—even if he had cuffed her to the wheel.
‘You ready for me to uncuff you?’ His voice brought her back into the here and now with a jolt. He cocked his head like a curious dog might, eyes narrowed. ‘Although . . . you look as if you’re getting to like it.’
He guessed from her face what she thought about that, pulled the key out of his pocket. He still didn’t unlock the cuffs. He wasn’t that stupid. Got out and dropped the key on the driver’s seat instead. Then started walking.
A couple minutes later he heard the sound of a heavy foot with a ton of pent-up anger and aggression behind it stomping on the gas pedal, the big V-8 responding with a meaty roar. He figured he’d have heard something like it coming out of her mouth if he’d stayed in the car. Then the screech of fifty bucks’ worth of rubber left on the pavement, a blur of ‘69 Corvette hurtling by a second later. Let her take it out on the car. Even so, he was mindful to keep a parked car or a streetlight or a tree between him and the pavement at all times.
He wasn’t sure what he’d find when he got home. She was too passionate about cars to set a classic like the Corvette on fire. Not unless he was in it, of course. Something with the handcuffs? No, there wouldn’t be any of that tonight. Maybe not ever again.
He fished his phone out of his pocket, ready to return the call that had come in earlier.
A simple tap with his finger on a small glass screen and with it his whole world would be turned on its head forever.

CHAPTER 2

He hesitated, finger poised a half-inch above the screen. Heard the evil little device calling to him.
Tap me. Unleash the shitstorm.
A feeling of unease had suddenly come over him. As if he’d done something stupid and now he was about to pay the price. Wanting to turn back the clock. Suddenly the prospect of a punch in the head from Guillory didn’t seem so bad. He’d shake his head to clear it, make a point of not rubbing it, risk being called a pussy. But he’d still be in the car. Driving home with a police officer in the seat next to him. Not alone, on foot, the street deserted.
Deserted, apart from the car tracking him fifty yards behind.
He’d been worried she might bump up the curb, try to run him down. Or at least give him a scare, have some fun of her own. He’d felt stupid keeping the parked cars and the streetlights and trees between him and any vehicles on the road. Now it didn’t feel so stupid after all. Fate had missed a trick there, for sure.
It started to rain.
Like fate had realized its mistake, wanted to compensate. A persistent drizzle that didn’t seem that bad but soaked into his clothes all the same. He upped his pace, pulse following suit as the adrenaline started pumping. Held his hand to the side, angled the now-dark screen of his phone to try to see the reflection of the street behind him. Even without the rain beading the glass, he might as well have tried seeing what was following him reflected off the bark of one of the trees. Just a pair of blurry dipped headlights keeping pace.
Didn’t matter. He had a good idea what it was anyway. A dark-colored SUV with tinted windows and license plates that didn’t exist. Inside, two men wearing cheap gray suits and poker faces. Working for a man called Newcomb, a man who wanted his inconvenient presence dealt with one way or the other. Not picky about how it was achieved. With two failed attempts under his belt, hoping for third time lucky.
He considered calling Guillory.
Then took time out for a quick reality check. Asked himself why he would want to waste time listening to a phone being deliberately not answered. Or answered with a mocking laugh and a question: enjoying the walk? Then a dial tone before he could say, there’s some bad guys after me. At best she’d think it was a ploy to make her come back for him, save him the walk in the rain. At worst, she wouldn’t care if it were true.
He did himself a favor, didn’t make the call.
Up ahead, the parked cars were thinning out, the trees too. As if the city’s tree-planting budget had been slashed without warning when they were only halfway down the street. Lots of big gaps, open spaces. More than enough room for a car to climb the curb, crush a man into the side of a building.
Or run him down as he crossed the street. Because that’s what he needed to do now, if he was going home. He couldn’t walk the streets all night in the rain, waiting for the men in the car to make their move.
He glanced at the reflection in the rain-spattered phone screen again, no idea why he didn’t simply look over his shoulder. They knew that he knew they were there, and so on. Except a nervous glance over your shoulder is an admission of fear, puts a grim smile on the hunters’ faces. So he glanced in the screen. The reflection was still not much more than useless. But good enough to identify that they’d closed the distance.
The phone rang suddenly as he watched the car headlights in the reflection, the sound impossibly loud to his heightened senses, almost made him drop it in the gutter. Same number as before. He laughed to himself at fate’s impeccable timing. Stuffed the phone back in his pocket. Things were coming to a head, about to get a lot more real than reflections off a phone screen.
Any minute now and he’d have to make a dash across the road.
With that thought memories that he didn’t have the time or the inclination to think about crowded into his mind, the similarities too great to ignore. A story about his dead wife Sarah. Run down as she crossed a different street a thousand miles from home, a so-called accident that wiped her memory.
Rubber squealing on asphalt. A horn blaring.
Her head snapping to the left, phone tumbling unanswered out of her fingers.
The monstrous grill of a black SUV looming over her, devouring her.
Opening her mouth to scream, a sound like a wind howling in a tunnel coming from her throat.
The SUV’s fender catching her in the side. Batting her high into the air like a cat playing with a mouse.
A scream erupting out of her gaping mouth. A high-pitch keening, melding with the screech of protesting tires and the hysterical shriek of the SUV’s horn. Filling her head, beating against the inside of her skull, sucking the breath and life out of her.
Bouncing on the hood. Head-butting the windshield.
Glass shattering.
Blood filling her eyes.
Her body catapulted off the hood, twisting gracefully, lazily in the air, expecting to see the judges hold up their score boards, into the path of the oncoming traffic.
A big pickup truck nose-diving, swerving crazily, rocking from side to side. Its fender giving her butt a cheeky smack as it passed, mounting the sidewalk on its massive tires, plowing a swath through the screaming, startled onlookers.
Landing on her back.
Whumpfh.
Like an unwanted mattress thrown out of a top-floor window.
The back of her head smacking into unforgiving asphalt, cold and hard, eyes losing focus.
Laying still. A pathetic, crumpled heap of arms and legs and lost shoes in the middle of the road.
The sudden angry blast of a horn brought him back to the damp and dark reality of his own predicament. He’d stepped into the road without realizing it. A car had pulled around the SUV following him, stomped the gas, impatient at being caught behind the crawling vehicle, missed him by a hair’s breadth. He jumped backwards, caught his heel on the curb, kept upright somehow. Disoriented, thinking the SUV had made its move. But it was still there, lights on high beam now, picking him out on the edge of the sidewalk.
An easy target.
His legs exploded into action, oxygen and adrenaline sledding through his veins. Sprinting across the road, arms pumping, heart going like a trip hammer. Onto the far sidewalk, tearing down the street, ignoring the pain like an axe stuck in his side sinking deeper with every step. Up ahead, the mouth of an alley. He reached it. Stopped. Looked back the way he’d come. The SUV still coming, an unseen menacing presence behind the dazzle of the high beams advancing on him.
He stared into the alley, couldn’t see the far end, just a deeper darkness. He was unfamiliar with the area on foot, always drove when he came to visit Crow. Nobody pays any attention to the sidewalk or an alley when they’re driving. He was no different. But the alley was narrow. Too tight for a large vehicle the size of an SUV to enter.
He hesitated. Tried to put himself in their minds. Unless they knew it was a dead end, they’d drop one man at this end, loop around the block to cover the far end. Then it would be one-on-one for the time it took the driver to get there. One-on-one in a dark alley was better than pinned to the wall on the street.
He dived in, walking fast, not running for fear of tripping. Praying for the sight of a dumpster, a dark alcove, somewhere to lie in wait for an over-confident man thinking he was flushing him through to where his partner waited at the far end.
Except it didn’t happen like that.
The vehicle following swung wide, turned in after him. Two conflicting thoughts went through his mind. Any ideas about lying in wait had gone right out the window. But it wasn’t an SUV. It might still be Newcomb’s men, but they weren’t in the standard-issue let’s-intimidate-the-public SUV.
Something was different.
And although different invariably means worse, it also offers an opportunity. Sometimes a bad choice is better than no choice at all.
Eyes never leaving the car, he backed slowly down the alley. The car crept after him. Each step placed carefully, securely on firm ground. Then some primeval sixth sense alerted him to a large presence behind him. He spun around. A brick wall, tall and impassable. Spinning again to face the car, an easy target picked out against the brickwork.
His phone rang.
The sudden noise in the cramped space made him jump. That was when he got an idea about what was happening. The vehicle, whatever it was, had stopped. He kept one eye on it, pulled out his phone. Same number as before. No surprises there. This time he answered.
‘About fucking time.’
Not a voice he recognized. Definitely not what he was expecting.
‘I’ve been busy. Who is this?’
The guy on the other end ignored the question, confirmed the suspicion that had been growing in his mind. Added some additional information for free while he was at it, all delivered in a tone heavy with contempt.
‘I could’ve run you down half a dozen times since your girlfriend drove off and left you if I’d wanted to.’
A couple things became clearer. He was speaking to the man sitting in the car twenty feet away. And that man had been following him since before he went to Crow’s house. Something else wasn’t clear at all. If it wasn’t Newcomb’s men, who the hell was it? And what did he want?
Standing, staring into the headlights, his mind was racing. The car had fit into the alley but it was a tight squeeze. If there was room to open the doors at all, it would be impossible to get out. Likewise, if the guy opened the window, he’d have a job getting his gun arm out and aiming properly. There was nothing to stop him from taking a run up, jumping onto the hood, then the roof, down onto the trunk and off the back. He’d be halfway home before the guy had backed it out of the alley.
Except a man who follows you all day and then curb-crawls behind you, a man who claims he could have run you down any time he wished but didn’t, might have something to say that you want to hear. Or, if not want to, ought to hear. If you know what’s good for you.
He stayed put. Still, it was reassuring to know there was an easy exit route available should he need it.
‘You want to turn off the lights? And tell me who you are.’
The lights flicked off, left him feeling as if somebody had pulled a sack over his head. The glare had destroyed his night vision. He wasn’t going anywhere until his eyes re-adjusted. And it seemed one out of two was as good as he was going to get. The guy didn’t give his name, said something cryptic instead.
‘I’m someone who can help you.’
‘Yeah? You gonna give me a lift home after chasing me down the street?’
Said for no reason other than to say something rather than admit the existence of an idea that was building strength in his mind, pecking away at his consciousness.
‘Better than that. And I don’t mean what you’d have gotten from your girlfriend if you hadn’t pissed her off so badly. What did you do, by the way?’
He shook his head, doesn’t matter.
‘Just tell me what it is. Then get out of the way before I jump all over your paintwork.’
Aggressive, confrontational, some weariness in there too. It made him feel good as the words came pouring out. Trouble was, it made someone upstairs see it as a challenge.
Enjoy it while you can, boy.
‘I can tell you what happened to your wife.’
He felt like he’d been mistaken about what had just happened. The guy hadn’t spoken those words, hadn’t said anything at all. He’d stomped the gas instead. Driven his body into the wall behind him. Foot down, pedal to the metal, wheels spinning, dirt kicking up as the engine howled. Pinned him wriggling to the past, a strangled wheezing sound leaking out of him.
Without knowing how he knew, he understood that after all the lies and half-truths he’d been fed over the past years, he was now, in this filthy alley in the dark and the rain, listening to the voice of truth, pure and simple. But he wasn’t about to let the guy know that. He played the game, gave the response expected of him.
‘I know what happened to my wife. She’s dead.’
With those words he was immediately back at a desolate graveside in the grounds of an asylum, the cold rain falling then as now, his weight sagging on Guillory’s strong arm. Newcomb pointing at the grave, there’s your wife. Telling him that she’d taken her own life. Him spitting confused angry words into his face, I don’t believe you.
Now a stranger’s voice coming at him through the drizzle, the same words that had plagued his dreams ever since.
‘Is she? Or is that just the bullshit that bastard Newcomb’s been feeding you? You ought to talk to your girlfriend. Or listen to her. Except we all know you’re not big on that.’
Through the thick haze that clouded his overcrowded mind, wending their way between the myriad thoughts and memories that jostled for his attention, two things became clear. In the midst of the indecipherable mess of what had and hadn’t occurred in the past, two details emerged for him to cling to that would be of use going forward.
That bastard Newcomb.
The man on the other end of the line, the other side of the windshield, had an axe to grind, a beef with Newcomb. That was something to be exploited.
You ought to talk to your girlfriend.
Kate Guillory knew more than she was saying. And that was something that cut him like a knife. To be pursued, nonetheless.
Then he heard the whine of an electric motor as the car window went down. Not from the distance away that he was, but in the background on the other end of the phone line. Five minutes earlier and he’d have already been moving towards the car, about to leap onto the hood and the roof and freedom beyond that as the driver fumbled to get his gun arm out of the window in the tight space.
Not now.
Now he waited for something else to appear in the narrow gap between the wall and the open car window. He had no idea what. It was enough to know that it would be something that had the power to do more damage, cause more pain and suffering than any bullet ever could. A bullet would put an end to suffering. What was coming would open up a wound that might never close again.
Suddenly he didn’t want to know.
He was moving forwards without being aware of having started, leg muscles bunching and then expanding as he leapt effortlessly onto the hood. It seemed that the man in the car had anticipated his every move. Or perhaps the dossier was handy on the passenger seat. Whatever it was, a hand appeared out of the window, a manila folder held aloft above roof level. He landed on the roof next to it, slipped on the slick metal, righted himself. Then crouched like a malevolent goblin eyeing a glittering trinket.
Everything changed in the space of one vengeful second. A hand moves from inside a car to outside it and the course of another man’s life changes forever.
Because it’s one thing to close your mind, make a blind dash for freedom, not knowing what it is that’s about to be offered to you. It’s a very different thing to be crouched on a car roof, the metal bowing and creaking under your weight, a manila folder inches from your oh-so-eager fingers. It may as well have had Answers printed in three-inch-high letters across the front. In bold and double-underlined for good measure. It called to him, sang sweetly to him, begged him.
Take me. Read me.
He snatched it from the guy’s hand, leapt from the roof to the ground without bothering with the trunk, ran off into the wet night. The guy’s parting words ran with him, his tinny voice coming from the phone still in his hand.
I’ll be in touch.

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER