What you don’t know can’t hurt you

CHAPTER 1

Kieran, the manager of the Jerusalem Tavern, gave Evan a curious look as he sat on his favorite stool up at the bar.
‘On your own?’
Evan nodded, told a bare-faced lie.
‘Yeah. Kate’s working.’
Feeling slightly guilty about the lie. And very apprehensive about the consequences of it when Kate Guillory found out. Their earlier phone conversation came to mind, and with it the difficulty he’d had identifying the dominant emotion behind her words—the disbelief or the total absence of sympathy.
‘You’ve got a cold?’
Like he’d said he’d caught leprosy from a toilet seat.
He’d squeezed his nose tighter, croaked something pathetic about man flu. Another flood of non-sympathy had come gushing down the line.
Aw. Poor baby.’
‘Thank you for your concern. You don’t need to come around and rub it better.’
‘You can’t rub a cold better, Evan.’
‘No? I thought if—’
‘Enough! Besides, isn’t beer supposed to be the answer to all of life’s problems, great and small.’
‘It is. Just not man flu.’
And now, here he was sitting up at the bar in the Jerusalem Tavern waiting for Kieran to put a cold one down in front of him. Kieran gave a weary headshake as he did so.
‘I’d have thought she’d want to be here under the circumstances.’
Evan shrugged, that’s women for you. Kieran had the sense not to push it. It was Evan’s neck, after all.
The previous evening Evan had taken a call from him.
‘That guy was in here again. The one who bought Kate and you a drink.’
‘You’re sure it was him?’
‘Definitely. I’ve got a good memory for faces. Especially anyone who wants to buy you a beer.’
Evan had laughed with him, both of them knowing it wasn’t him the stranger had been interested in. He just happened to have been with Guillory at the time.
She was being stalked.
Or so she thought.
In a rash moment he’d suggested something along those lines. That perhaps she was imagining it. He hadn’t suggested it a second time.
According to her, a man had sat beside her on a park bench when all the other benches were unoccupied. He’d been sneaking glances at her. Then she’d seen him in a diner trying to be inconspicuous—a difficult trick to pull off when you’re holding the menu upside down. A couple days after that, she’d spotted him in the Jerusalem Tavern. She’d chased after him, but was too slow. Then Kieran had put two beers down on the bar in front of them, told them the stalker had paid for them.
It was an escalation, if only a small one. The stalker wanted them to be aware of his presence.
And now he’d come back again. The question was, would a further escalation ensue?
‘Did he say anything?’ Evan said.
‘Nope. Didn’t even buy a drink. He had a look around, then left when he saw you and Kate weren’t here.’
‘And he didn’t leave any money for drinks this time?’
It was worth a try. It got him a roll of the eyes but that was all.
‘I’ll point him out if he comes in again. You can ask him yourself. I still think Kate would want to be here.’
Evan ignored the excellent advice, carried his beer over to a table where the lighting was dimmer—what Kieran would describe as having more mood or atmosphere—and settled in to wait.
He’d only just sat down when his phone beeped at him. He pulled it out. A text from Guillory.
How’s the patient?
He groaned inwardly, knowing where this was going. He composed a totally inadequate reply.
Asleep.
The reply didn’t take long to arrive. One that he could’ve put everything he owned on.
I was thinking about rubbing things better.
I’m asleep. And infectious.
I think you’ve got another woman there.
Two, actually. I’ll call you tomorrow.
He kept the phone in his hand, but the message had been received loud and clear: go away. It wouldn’t have surprised him if she’d sent one last cutting reply.
Don’t bother.
After a minute he dropped the phone in his pocket, feeling like something unpleasant on the bottom of somebody’s shoe.
He told himself it was for all the right reasons, wasn’t sure who was going to tell her.
In front of him the beer sat untouched on the table. He wasn’t tempted to drink it. Barely even saw it, staring instead at his left hand resting on the table beside it. Feeling a twinge in the little finger. Echoed by the queasy churning in his gut.
Time passed slowly. A steady flow of people entered and left the bar. He got into a rhythm. The door opened, somebody walked in. His head came up as if it was attached to the door handle by a piece of string. Glance at the newcomer, no recognition. Look at Kieran, get a small headshake back.
The same thing, over and over.
Until it wasn’t.
The door opened. Nobody came in. There was a direct line of sight from the open door to the end of the bar where he and Guillory habitually sat. Somebody was watching from outside. Or they didn’t like the look of the place. A man walked in. Evan glanced at him. He’d never seen him before. He looked away, towards the bar. Kieran was nowhere in sight.
The man stopped just inside the door. Looked around the room. Like any normal customer might, scanning the bar for his friends. Except Evan didn’t think so. There was something predatory about him, a hunger clinging to him. He dipped his head as the man’s gaze swept over him. He’d have sworn he felt it catch, linger on him a little longer than on the people seated at the other tables. He sipped at his beer, glanced up from under his eyebrows at the bar.
Still no sign of Kieran.
Then a movement registered in his peripheral vision. Kieran collecting empty glasses from the tables on the far side of the bar, his back to him.
That was when his phone rang.
He jumped at the sudden noise. It felt like everybody else did too, all eyes on him at the intrusive ringtone. It was the default tone, but it might as well have been called The Guillory Song as far as he was concerned. He ignored it. Half expected the man to shout at him to answer it, let him talk to her.
On the other side of the room Kieran was in full flow, talking to the customers whose table he was clearing. If it hadn’t been full of beer, Evan would’ve thrown his glass at the back of his head.
The stranger was already turning towards the door. Maybe he hadn’t seen his friends. Perhaps he’d strayed into the wrong bar. Evan knew better.
And Kieran was still talking.
Time to shake it up.
He swept his hand across the table, sent his glass flying. Warm beer went everywhere, then a loud crash as the glass shattered on the floor. Conversations stopped. People jumped sideways to avoid the splashes. Kieran spun around to see which idiot had made a mess on his clean floor. And the stranger turned away from the door, an instinctive reaction to the sudden noise behind him. Staring directly at Kieran across the empty space where people had been a moment before.
Evan kept his eyes on Kieran’s face. Saw the small jolt of recognition on it, the sort of reaction you experience when you see something you didn’t really think would ever happen.
Then Kieran ruined everything. His head snapped towards Evan’s table as if he’d climbed on it and started singing. The stranger followed his gaze, saw Evan’s face full-on.
With that, he was off running.
Evan came out of his seat like the whole place was on fire, went after him. The stalker pulled over a table by the door as he went past, blew through the door as a couple of guys were coming in, both of them heads down, phones in their hands. The stalker slammed into the nearest one. Shoved him hard into a car parked at the curb, set the alarm off. He grabbed the other one by the arm, spun him around, threw him through the open door, smack-bang into the guy who’d been sitting at the table he’d overturned, now on his feet yelling at the stalker’s back while his girlfriend shrieked in dismay at the red wine soaking into her white dress while the car alarm added its insistent maddening screech to the mix.
The two men stumbled backwards into Evan as fate choreographed the chaos perfectly, all of them off balance as they tried to avoid the up-turned table and broken glass on the floor. Suddenly everyone was on their ass, Evan on the bottom, a writhing tangle of arms and legs and wet butts and angry shouts. He heaved the two men off him, rolling away in the glass and spilled beer. One hand on a table leg, the other on the boyfriend’s head, pushing himself to his feet, tearing after the stalker.
He stopped on the sidewalk. Head snapping back and forth. Heart going like a trip hammer. Nothing. It had felt like forever, but the confusion inside hadn’t cost him more than fifteen seconds.
The guy who’d been thrown into the car staggered in front of him like he’d spent too long inside the bar already, eyes fixed on the gutter as if he’d come outside to be sick.
Evan shouted at him over the noise of the alarm.
‘Which way did he go?’
‘I’ve lost my phone.’ Sounding like the world had come to a premature end.
Evan resisted the temptation to yell at him again, tell him he’d help him find it and stick it somewhere he’d never lose it again if he didn’t answer the damn question. He gripped his arm, shook him violently.
‘Which way?’
The guy pulled his arm free. Then waved it, an angry dismissive gesture that took in the whole street, the buildings opposite, half of the night sky.
‘That way. Or the other way. I don’t know. I’ve lost my phone.’
Evan looked both ways. To the right there was nowhere to hide, not unless the guy was crouching between the parked cars.
He went left.
A block from the Jerusalem there was a boarded-up storefront. The door got busted down by local kids as fast as the landlord fixed it, the building used for casual sex and taking drugs.
Not so long ago, he’d been jumped by a man with a grudge hiding in the doorway as he passed. Tonight, it was a young woman leaning there, half-hidden in the shadows as he crept up, sucking hard on a cigarette. In her middle twenties, she was twice as old as the kids who hung out there. If she’d been wearing a short skirt and high heels with more bare flesh on show instead of jeans and sneakers and a hoodie, he’d have said she was taking a break between servicing clients.
The door behind her was ajar, the kids currently one step ahead of the landlord. The boards that had been pried loose were stacked neatly in the corner behind her.
He leaned in, got a waft of cigarette smoke as he got up close, dropped his voice.
‘Did you see a man run past?’
She nodded, mouthed something at him.
He went inside.
‘Anyone else in there?’
She shook her head, then stepped out of the doorway. Dropped the cigarette butt on the sidewalk.
‘I’ve gotta go. You want me to call the police?’
‘No, it’s okay.’
He picked through the boards leaning in the corner until he found a solid piece of lumber two and a half feet long. He hefted it in his hands, then eased the door slowly open. Stepped inside. Dusty shelves lined both side walls, the back wall bare apart from a door in the middle. The room was full of junk. Broken chairs and packing crates, crumpled beer cans and squashed fast food containers. Other things he didn’t want to inspect too closely. On one side of the room, an old mattress he could smell from six feet away. A couple of full-size female-body dress mannequins were arranged suggestively on it. The last store had sold women’s designer clothes.
He waited, listening, the sound of the car alarm that everybody was ignoring still audible in the distance. Then crept across the room to the mattress, wishing he had the head cold he’d told Guillory he was suffering from. He leaned the makeshift club against the wall, disentangled the two mannequins. Somebody had added the anatomical details that the manufacturer had omitted with a whiteboard marker, then appended helpful written instructions with arrows in strategic places. He pulled off his coat, draped it around the mannequin’s shoulders.
Back to the wall, he edged up to the open door to the storeroom. Standing to the side of the doorway he waited, pictured the stalker on the other side of the wall, their backs no more than a foot apart. Each waiting for the other man to make a move, poke his head into the opening.
He stepped sideways, a short fast movement, scraping his foot along the floor to create maximum noise. Thrust the mannequin’s upper torso through the dark doorway. Heard a whistling rush of air and a resounding thud. The mannequin came alive in his hands, jerked violently as a metal bar bounced off the wooden ball on top of its neck.
He dumped the mannequin, grabbed the bar. Yanked hard. The stalker stumbled forwards into the open doorway. Exposed. Off-balance. Evan stepped in, buried his fist up to the wrist in his gut. Hands on top of his head as he doubled over, pushed him down onto the floor, twisting his arm up between his shoulder blades, a knee on his spine pinning him to the floor.
Guillory would’ve given him a grudging round of applause.
The guy hissed in pain. Tried to squirm out from under Evan’s knee. Evan bent his arm up tighter, bearing down harder on him until finally the struggles let up.
‘Who are you?’
Not great, but he had to start somewhere. It didn’t impress the guy much either. He spat something into the floorboards between the rasping suck of air as he tried to breathe.
‘Fuck you.’
Evan squashed his nose into the floor. Increased the pressure on his arm to concentrate his mind and improve his manners, tried again.
‘Why are you following Kate Guillory?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘So, why’d you run?’
The guy heaved air into his empty lungs, coughed it back out again. Shook his head.
‘Get off me. I can’t breathe.’
Evan bounced on his back to show him what not being able to breathe really felt like.
‘What do you want?’
Later, he’d blame the sound of the car alarm that was still going off outside the Jerusalem. Or the attacker was naturally light on their feet. Whatever it was, the first he knew about it was the smell of cigarette smoke over the top of the fast food leftovers and the sour odor of the mattress.
Then a soft whoosh from behind him as the second-best piece of lumber from the pile in the doorway cut through the stale air and knocked him into oblivion.

CHAPTER 2

Evan became aware of a rhythmic jabbing sensation in his hip. As if somebody was kicking him. Then a woman’s voice coming from somewhere far above him, as bereft of sympathy as the last time he’d heard it. But filled with a lot more irritation. He almost wished somebody would hit him again.
‘How’s your cold?’
He slowly pushed himself into a sitting position. Very careful to ensure that not the slightest moan or groan slipped through his lips, lest he invite comments along the lines of only having himself to blame. In the semi-darkness he didn’t see the heavy metal rod that he’d yanked out of the stalker’s grip sitting on the floor beside him. He rested his hand on it as he pushed himself up, sent it rolling away.
Guillory stepped on it to stop it.
‘Is this what you were hit with?’
‘No. Forget about prints. The guy was wearing gloves.’ He pointed at the piece of lumber the stalker’s accomplice had dropped. ‘I was hit with that.’
Guillory picked it up. She looked at the end, then at his head. Something which in other circumstances might have been called a smile curled her lip. He beat her to it.
‘I know. You feel sorry for the lumber.’
‘At least I know what the remedy is the next time you’re complaining about having a cold.’
‘If the sympathy and concern don’t do it, you mean?’
She threw the plank into the corner, stuck out her hand. He grabbed it, pulled himself to hit feet. Put his hand against the wall to steady himself until the room stopped going in and out of focus. Then slapped at his butt to get rid of the worst of the crud sticking to the still-damp patch on his ass from sitting in the spilled beer in the Jerusalem. Keeping hold of the doorframe, he stepped into the back room, picked up the mannequin that was still wearing his jacket. The wooden ball where its head ought to be had a crack right down the middle that hadn’t been there before. If it had been his head, he’d be on his way to the morgue, not the hospital to check for a concussion.
Guillory admired the mannequin as he pulled his coat off it. Then glanced at the other one still on the mattress. The hint of a smile was back.
‘These are your two new friends, are they?’
‘At least they don’t answer back.’
It was out before he could stop it. Blame the potential concussion.
‘Number one requirement in a woman, eh?’
Despite the bang on the head, he had the sense to not be drawn into that one. She wasn’t paying attention to him anyway, busy studying the artwork on the mannequin that had saved his head from being cracked open.
‘You added these realistic touches, did you?’
Again, no comment. She wasn’t to be put off.
‘You should’ve said. I can draw some arrows and instructions on my body if you want me to.’
It was time to leave.
He took the mannequin from her, threw it in the corner. Hand on her elbow, steered her towards the door.
‘Your new friends not coming?’
On balance, if all he had to suffer was her puerile remarks for the next hour, day or even year, he’d gotten off lightly. Somehow, he didn’t think so.
Outside on the sidewalk he turned right towards the Jerusalem.
‘My car’s the other way,’ she said. ‘I’ll take you to the hospital.’
He touched the back of his head gingerly. Again, no wincing. His fingers came away virtually clean, a faint smear of blood on them. He’d been hit with the flat side, not an edge.
‘Maybe later. I need a beer.’
She shrugged.
‘Doctor Buckley knows best.’
Kieran didn’t look overly pleased to see him again when they walked in. He softened when he saw Guillory behind him, wagged a finger at her.
‘Don’t let him out without a grown-up again, okay?’
She smiled sweetly at him, made Evan swallow a lump to equal the one on the back of his head.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll be having that discussion later.’
They took their usual seats at the bar. What came next was what he guessed was the lull before the storm. Most of the other customers looked as if they’d found a way to drink their beer and hold their breath at the same time.
‘This is nice,’ he said.
‘Yeah.’
‘Peaceful.’
‘Uh-huh.’
‘I think I’ll put something on the jukebox.’
‘Stay right there.’
People sometimes said that he didn’t always pick up on verbal nuances, subtle body language cues, the sort of underhand things that women use to trip unsuspecting men up. Tonight, they’d have said he invented the concept of sensitivity, ought to receive an award for it. He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to listen to, anyway.
Kieran delivered their beers. Evan buried his face in his. She sipped hers. Perhaps to leave more in the glass should the need to pour it in his lap arise.
It seemed that her plan was to remain silent. Wait for him to dig himself into a deep hole. It was a good plan, one that had worked for her on many occasions in the past. In the future too, he’d bet.
He briefly considered feigning the onset of a serious concussion, dismissed the idea. Went back to self-medication.
‘What made you come out?’ he said eventually.
‘What, after I called you earlier and spoke to a man who sounded like he was squeezing his nose so hard it was about to fall off, you mean?’
He said, yes, after that. Took another slurp of self-medication.
‘And then after I called you and you didn’t pick up?’
He admitted, yes, after that too.
She beamed at him, the smile of a woman thoroughly enjoying herself.
‘It must be because I’ve met you before. Strange how the first thing that pops into my mind is, what’s he up to now?’
It was peculiar, he allowed her that.
‘So, I decided to take a drive over here. See what was happening. And just as I was looking for somewhere to park, I saw a man coming out of that boarded-up store. He froze and then pulled himself back into the shadows. But he wasn’t quick enough. I recognized him. It was the stalker. Then he disappeared inside again as soon as he saw my face.’
A thought popped into his mind. One he kept to himself.
Looking at your face now, I can believe it.
He said something less provocative instead.
‘And it was just him?’
‘Uh-huh.’
‘There wasn’t a young woman with him?’
‘Not that I saw. There could’ve been somebody else inside.’
‘That was who hit me. I had the stalker pinned to the floor and she snuck up on me.’
‘You sure about that?’
The honest answer was no. He’d smelled cigarette smoke, assumed it was the girl in the doorway.
‘I thought I was. Now I’m not so sure.’
‘Well, I only saw him. And when I did, I thought to myself, Buckley’s not in the Jerusalem having a cold beer without me like my nasty suspicious mind thinks, he’s lying half-dead in that empty store.’
‘Why didn’t you go after them?’
She shook her head, no point.
‘He or they were long gone by the time I got there. They must have gone out the back door. I wasn’t about to drive around all night trying to find them. Besides, you were lying there. I needed to see if my long-term prediction had finally come true.’
She’d always maintained that her role in life was to be called out in the middle of the night to some dark alley—or perhaps a derelict store a block away from the Jerusalem Tavern—to investigate a dead body that a wino or bag lady had stumbled upon. And to watch as the medical examiner turned the corpse over, only to be greeted by his face, still grinning stupidly in death.
Kieran wandered down to see if they were ready for another beer. Evan didn’t like the look on his face. He had a nasty feeling that payback for the trouble he’d caused earlier was on its way. Kieran immediately proved him right.
‘I thought you were working tonight, Kate.’
‘Really? What gave you that idea?’
Kieran shook his head, shrugged as if maybe he’d been mistaken.
‘I don’t know. Somebody must have mentioned it. Can’t imagine who.’
Evan picked it up from there rather than wait for it to be dragged out of him. He explained about Kieran’s call the previous evening and how he’d hoped to follow the stalker if he showed up again. She listened patiently while he dug the grave ever deeper, looked bored by what he was saying.
‘I figured all that out for myself,’ she said, proving it. ‘What I want to know is why you didn’t call me instead of doing your usual Lone Ranger trick.’
At that point he’d liked to have done a different trick—answering an impossible question. He cleared his throat, a well-known inflammatory action.
‘And stop wasting time.’
‘You’re right. I should’ve called you. Together we’d have cornered him.’
She nodded, a satisfied look on her face that said he’d proved her right. It was possible to train lower life forms to perform simple tasks. Then he spoiled it rather than bask in the warm glow of her approval.
‘Except he wouldn’t have told us anything. I wanted to follow him. See what I could find out about him before we confront him. Not scare him off.’
‘That’s a bad thing, is it? I think I feel better already now you’ve scared him off’—she did the air quotes thing with her fingers—‘in your own special way.’
Only if you believe they’ll stay scared off, he thought and didn’t say. They’d be better prepared the next time, that’s all.
Which is what had happened anyway.
No good deed goes unpunished.
He didn’t say anything. Let the silence work on her. Two could play at that game. After a while he got the feeling of sitting next to a gradually melting ice cube, the hard edges softening as the atmosphere warmed. He risked a fast glance in the backbar mirror, caught her staring at him.
‘What?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Tell me.’
Five minutes earlier and he wouldn’t have risked such an open-ended invitation to lay into him. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Then took a swallow of her beer. He used one of her favorite accusations when the roles were reversed on her.
‘Stop guzzling beer and answer the question.’
She smiled at him. The anger in her had watered down to a residual frustration, one that was never far away when he was around.
‘I know you do all the half-assed things you do for the best reasons, but that doesn’t make them any less half-assed.’
‘Is that a backhanded compliment?’
‘You tell me. I just wish you’d told me. We could still have done it your way.’
‘No, we couldn’t. You wouldn’t have agreed to it. I saw your face that time he was here and bought us a drink. You get this red mist comes down—’
She choked on her beer at the accusation, her voice an indignant squeak.
I get a red mist comes down?’
‘Yep. You should see it. It’s scary.’
That’s when she dropped it. They couldn’t change the way it had panned out. Deal with it.
‘At least something useful came out of it,’ Mr Positive said.
‘Really?’
Translation: I’d like to hear what.
‘Now we know that there are two of them.’
‘Okay.’ Somewhat hesitant. As might be expected from someone wondering in what way having two people stalking them is better than one. She changed the subject.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Never better.’
‘Headache?’
‘Nope.’
‘Problems with your vision?’
He reached out to take hold of her beer which had a lot more in it than his own. She slapped the back of his hand.
‘I’ll take that as a no. Any disorientation? Trouble with your balance?’
He slid off his stool, stood on one foot. Did a little twirl that got him a few curious looks.
‘Uh-uh. I was out for less than a minute. Tell me, Nurse Guillory, do you think a more thorough examination is necessary?’
There’s something about the word examination. As is the natural order of things, the anger that had given way to frustration passed quickly through the weary acceptance stage and now settled on something a lot more interesting. Mischief. He saw it growing on her face in the mirror, knew what was coming.
‘Perhaps. Have you still got that whiteboard marker you used to draw on those mannequins?’ Sounding like butter wouldn’t melt.
He worked an indignant look onto his face.
‘That wasn’t me.’
‘No, you’re right. Some of the arrows would’ve been pointing the wrong way if it had been.’
‘The wrong way? Is there a wrong way?’
‘C’mon, lets go find out.’

CHAPTER 3

Early the next morning Evan went to see Elwood Crow. Back in the day, Crow had been an investigator himself—and more, the line between the investigation and identification of wrong-doers and the swift administering of Old Testament-style retribution sometimes blurring. His more distant past, the time spent in the jungles and paddy fields of the bloodbath that was the Vietnam war, was murkier still.
As time went by, their lives became ever more closely intertwined. Crow viewed him as his protégé, a situation that filled Guillory with horror. He was more than capable of breaking every rule he came across without needing any encouragement from Crow.
And there was the matter of the man called Avery Pentecost, of course.
In short, there was a price to pay for the services that Crow provided. Being too old for the rough and tumble of the job out on the streets, he confined his activities to sticking his beak of a nose into places where it had no business to be from the back room of his Victorian pile, a room full of secrets that he shared with his namesake, an American crow called Plenty.
‘You’re not looking so good,’ Crow said by way of a greeting. He craned his head forward, eyes squinting, like an ageing vulture might inspect the carcass of a dead dog to see if it had missed any juicy scraps.
‘It was a long night.’
They went through to the kitchen, Crow’s breakfast half-eaten on the table. The pet bird, normally confined to the back toom, was also on the table, pecking hungrily at the toast on Crow’s plate. Crow saw the disapproving look on Evan’s face.
‘Better than eating alone.’
Evan’s eyes flicked to the ceiling, an automatic response.
‘How is she?’
‘No better, no worse. Some days she knows who I am, other days . . .’
He shrugged. There’s no fun in growing old.
Crow’s wife suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, had done ever since Evan had known him. Crow insisted on caring for her at home. Evan had only met her once and Crow rarely spoke of her. Still, you didn’t have to spend much time in Crow’s house, sitting in the back room in front of the flickering fire, Crow’s head in the shadows and a glass of bourbon in your hand, before the stories that the old women whispered—that he’d turned her into the pet bird—didn’t sound so far-fetched after all.
Crow waved a hand towards the loaf of bread on the kitchen counter.
‘Make yourself something to eat.’
Evan glanced at the bread, more specifically at the scarred wooden board it sat on, the knife lying beside it.
‘No thanks.’
He’d swear the ghost of a smile crossed Crow’s wrinkly old lips as they both sat down at the table in the high-backed, hard wooden chairs that were as old and unforgiving as Crow himself. Crow shooed the pet bird away, reclaimed his toast. It hopped across the table, then up onto the back of Evan’s chair, a flutter of wings in his face as it got comfortable.
‘How’s Kate?’ Crow said.
Not for the first time, Evan wanted to know how the old buzzard did it. Crow had worked tirelessly at trying to unite Guillory and himself, long before that situation had ever come to pass. That wasn’t what was behind the question today, asking after her as a doting grandparent might. He always knew when Evan had something on his mind, when something troubled him.
And the pet bird was in on it too.
It had been sitting quietly on Evan’s chair, its black eyes on the back of his head. Looking for something to eat hidden in Evan’s ear or his hair, now that the toast was out of bounds. In the shower that morning the shallow cut on the back of his head had bled slightly but soon stopped. A small scab had formed. Now the bird had spotted it, its curiosity picqued.
Without warning it pecked at the scab, a hard tap with its pointy beak.
‘Ow!’
Evan jerked forwards, swiping backwards at the bird. It flapped away, its harsh caw bouncing off the walls, sounding a lot like a laugh to him. Crow watched as if it happened every mealtime, paused from chewing contentedly on his toast.
‘Don’t be such a baby.’
It could’ve been Guillory. He touched where the bird had pecked, felt a slight wetness.
‘Somebody hit me over the head with a plank of wood last night.’
‘Really? Did it knock any sense into you?’
‘If you weren’t so old and were better looking and didn’t have so many wrinkles, I’d think you were Kate’s twin brother.’
‘Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment.’
He didn’t bother saying it sure as hell wasn’t meant as one, told him what had happened the previous night instead.
‘You’ve only got yourself to blame,’ Crow said when he’d finished. ‘Why didn’t you tell Kate?’
‘I didn’t want to tell her what I think it’s about.’
‘And what’s that?’
He leaned back in his chair, let Crow figure it out for himself. Crow took a bite of toast, chewing thoughtfully. Evan made a suggestion after a minute of silence.
‘I don’t think you’re getting enough vittles to get your brain going. Maybe you should try some of the bird’s food.’
‘Stupid boy.’
But still the answer didn’t come.
He got up, went over to the counter. Took the loaf off the breadboard. Swept the crumbs into the sink. Picked up the knife. Turned towards Crow, the board in one hand, the knife in the other. He saw the aha moment register by the bunching of the wrinkles on Crow’s brow.
‘Liverman?’ His voice a whisper, as if saying the name louder would make it true. Even the pet bird had fallen silent.
Evan nodded at the name, spoken aloud for the first time since he couldn’t remember when. The same words came to mind as they always did when the memory fouled his consciousness.
Deviant.
Aberration of nature.
‘I think so.’
Crow stared at him as he considered the possibility. Nodding to himself. It made him look like an old man dozing off in his chair. Except only a fool would make that mistake.
‘I can see why you didn’t want to tell Kate. But what makes you think it?’
Evan replaced the chopping board on the counter, the knife still in his hand. The pet bird eyed him suspiciously from the top of the wall cabinets as if it were worried it was about to end up in a pie for dinner.
‘Because of Robert Garfield.’
Garfield had been a pedophile. An attorney by trade, and a slippery one. He exploited loopholes in the care system that gave him and others who shared his unnatural tastes access to the most vulnerable children. The damaged and disturbed ones, the ones who were least likely to be believed should an accusation ever be made. Not that it ever was. He knew how to cover his tracks.
Guillory had interviewed him. In an unheard-of loss of professional control, she’d attacked him when his mocking cockiness at her inability to make anything stick had pushed her over the edge. Knocked his teeth so far down his throat, he’d have found it easier to chew by pushing his food up his ass.
She’d been suspended—even if what they really wanted to do was pin a medal on her. Whilst on suspension, she’d seen Garfield in a car with a young girl. At least she thought she had. She’d given chase and lost him. All she’d achieved was to make herself an object of pity in the eyes of her colleagues. And a problem in the eyes of Liverman, the deviant in charge of the pedophile ring that Garfield kept supplied with fresh victims.
Liverman had abducted and interrogated her. She’d escaped but was by no means unscathed, her sanity stretched to breaking point, her self-esteem at a dangerously low ebb for a person in a job where eating your gun was always an option. Liverman, having let her get away, then ordered his men to butcher Garfield instead.
In an attempt to pull her back from the edge of the abyss, Evan had conspired with Crow and his associate, Avery Pentecost, to kill Liverman himself. But Pentecost wasn’t a man who worked for free. His price had been the tip of Evan’s little finger, a price as yet unpaid.
And now the touch of Liverman’s filth was on them again from beyond the grave.
Crow watched him carefully as he talked, his eyes on the knife still in his hand.
‘Why don’t you put the knife down.’
Evan looked surprised to see it there. He laid it on the counter, went back to trying to convince Crow—or himself.
‘Liverman should never have killed Garfield. He was too useful to them. They wouldn’t have killed him unless they had no choice. They knew Kate wouldn’t give up. They were scared he’d divulge something much bigger than his own role in the hope of cutting a deal.’
He picked the knife up again, a Freudian reaction to the disgust he felt talking about the deviants, the anger that was still inside him thinking of the harm they’d done Guillory.
‘What they did to Kate doesn’t make sense, either. They’re sick but they’re not stupid. They didn’t take the risk of abducting a police officer to find out what she knew about Garfield. They wanted to find out what else she knew. Otherwise just kill Garfield in the first place.’
‘Okay.’ Crow sounded a lot less skeptical than a moment ago. ‘But I don’t see how the stalkers fit in. Revenge for killing Liverman? And why now?’
The same questions had crossed Evan’s own mind. He shook his head.
‘I don’t know. That’s why I didn’t want to confront them. They’re not going to admit it. I wanted to follow them, see where it led.’
‘And then what?’
‘Depends on where it ended up.’
Crow recognized the pointlessness of trying to get a definitive answer out of him on the things he hadn’t worked through himself yet. He changed the subject.
‘What does Kate think it’s about?’
The question took him back to the previous evening. On the way home with her. Passing the boarded-up store where he’d been knocked out. He’d asked her the exact same question. He didn’t have any problem recalling her reply.
Jesus, Evan, can’t you let it drop for two minutes?
The situation was getting to her more than she wanted to admit or show. Either that, or she had her own ideas about what was behind it. And was equally wary about speaking them aloud.
‘Whatever it is, she’s not telling me.’
Crow smiled a knowing smile.
‘Sounds like the two of you are perfectly matched. What now?’
It was a stupid question and they both knew it. Evan spelled it out all the same.
‘See what you can dig up on Liverman.’
Crow sucked in air between his teeth.
‘It won’t be easy.’
‘I’d do it myself if it was.’
Crow’s ego swelled at that. Then a different sort of smile crept onto his face. What it lacked in humor was more than compensated for by the other sentiments behind it, the wry acceptance that none of us can ever know the full consequences of our actions, however well-intentioned they are at the time.
‘It makes you wish you hadn’t killed him, eh? Make life easier.’
Evan’s own smile was as bleak and bereft of humor as Crow’s, his eyes unrepentant.
‘No. I wouldn’t change that for the world.’

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER