To err is human. To repeat error is of the devil.

PROLOGUE

October 5th, 1999.

 

It was as she’d described it. The body an ungainly pile of limbs on the kitchen floor, eyes wide with disbelief staring sightlessly into the ever after. Right hand limp on the left side of his neck, the blood no longer flowing from the wound beneath his fingertips, now congealing on the polished ceramic floor tiles, seeping into the joints, creeping inexorably along them. The deceased still wearing his coat as if he’d been in such a hurry to meet his maker he hadn’t wasted time removing it.

The knife that had severed his carotid artery lay on the floor beside him, a lonely flash of silver adrift in the sea of darkening red, her words running hard and fast through his mind like a night train hurtling past.

I did something stupid. Something I need you to help me fix.

He couldn’t help but smile, a quick joyless twitch more akin to a facial tic. It wasn’t that she believed he had magical powers, control over the speed or direction of time, or over the ability of the human body to function with a major artery severed, that he could bring the corpse back to life.

She had no regrets that the bastard was dead, happy to finally be free of him.

He stepped further into the room, to better see what needed fixing. Working hard to convince himself that the criminal act he was about to perform was righteous in the eyes of a power greater than any jury of his peers, that it would ensure justice in its true sense prevailed.

And when he saw what she’d done, he closed his eyes momentarily, a whispered reproach on his lips.

You stupid, stupid, woman. What were you thinking?

No matter, it would be easy enough to fix.

Before he did so, he pulled out a compact camera and took a number of shots, all of which would be replicated by the professionals in the hours ahead. Crime scene-style shots showing the location and position of the body, as well as a number of the type that the medical examiner performing the autopsy would take. Like the ME, he paid particular attention to the victim’s hands, surprised to see that they were unmarked. He ignored the sense of foreboding that settled in his stomach at the sight of them, moved on to the victim’s face. A momentary spike of guilt washed through him as he framed the shot, the damage to the face plain to see—although nothing that would keep him awake at night.

Very little did, these days.

He allowed his mind to drift as he went about the task with practiced ease. Thinking about the new digital cameras that were being introduced. How technology would soon make the recording and analysis of crime a lot simpler and more accurate, the identification of the guilty parties equally so. Sadly, it would do nothing to address the underlying problem of human behavior, alter the fact that it doesn’t take much for the shadowlike illusion of civilized behavior to fall away, lay bare the atavistic animal instincts below.

And until the day came when such technology was available to all, he had a number of tedious hours in his basement darkroom ahead of him. It was a lot of work, and most likely all for nothing.

Except there was something not right about this one.

Finally, he took a couple of shots of her stupid mistake. Were he as unscrupulous as people believed the majority of practitioners in his line of business to be, he’d have something very valuable on his film roll now.

It didn’t take him long to do what needed to be done. He tried not to think about her face as he worked, her eyes red-rimmed and streaming with tears, the raw hurt and broken spirit that filled them, her cut and swollen lips. Pushing the memory of the breathless shuddering catch in her voice from his mind, lest he succumb to the relentless skepticism of the voices in his own head he was doing his utmost to ignore.

Had he been played for a fool?

When he was done, he backed out of the room, satisfied he’d left no trace of his presence, blue crime scene booties on his feet to match the gloves on his hands. He swept his eyes around the room one last time, saw nothing untoward—ignoring the fast-cooling body in the middle of the floor, that is.

He turned to leave.

That’s when he saw it. A CCTV camera high on the wall opposite. Pointing directly at him as he stood frozen in the kitchen doorway staring stupidly at it. An all-consuming rage rose up inside him. At himself, his carelessness for not having seen it on the way in. But more so, at her.

Why hadn’t she mentioned it to him?

No time to search for the recorder. Nor could he risk calling her to ask where it was located. Her phone records would be the subject of intense scrutiny in the days ahead.

The only saving grace was that there’d been no camera in the kitchen. Except was that such a good thing? There would be no record of what he’d done on film. But nor would there be proof of what he hadn’t done—murder the man lying dead in the room behind him.

And much as life had hardened him, inured him to the majority of its cruel surprises, his limbs were suddenly leaden, his stomach a chill void as an unpalatable thought intruded on his mind.

Had she deliberately not told him about the CCTV for that very reason?

 

CHAPTER 1

Present day.

 

A mischievous light edged into Kate Guillory’s eyes when she saw it, standing at the jukebox in the Jerusalem Tavern while Evan ordered a couple more beers.

He looked up as the first bars of the song filled the room, a frown on his face at the unauthorized behavior. Suspecting the worst. Some girly crap, no doubt, the sort of schmaltzy drivel pre-pubescent girls cry themselves to sleep listening to. David Cassidy fifty years on, but without the hair.

It didn’t start well, the F-word in the first line. Feeling. He resisted the urge to pull the power cord out of the wall, made a heroic attempt to appear interested.

‘Who’s this?’

‘Ray LaMontagne.’

He nodded like he’d heard of him, thinking that it sounded more like a cheese than a person as he listened for a minute. It wasn’t bad, not that he’d admit it to her. He worked a very uninterested note into his voice.

‘What’s the song called?’

She pulled her head away, as if to see him better.

‘Don’t tell me you like it?’

What he didn’t like was the suppressed grin trying to break out on her face. He rocked his hand in answer to her question, tried again.

‘Come on, what’s it called?’

She took a long swallow of her beer before answering, doing well not to choke on it.

‘It ought to be called men.’

What he ought to have done was stop right there. But that same irresistible force that causes a man to touch a newly-painted fence he’s been told is still wet was at work, compelling him.

‘Uh-huh. And what’s it really called?’

Such A Simple Thing. I saw the title and immediately thought of you.’

He let her enjoy her joke for a minute, then asked a question.

‘Do you actually like it or did you just pick it for that reason?’

‘Both.’ Looking like she was going to burst.

They listened without talking for a minute before he went for further clarification.

‘A simple thing, huh? What? Just me’—pointing at himself—‘or all men?’ Taking in the exclusively male drinkers strung out along the bar with a broad sweep of his hand.

‘All men, of course.’ She leaned forward, looked up and down the row of men he’d indicated. ‘I mean, how complex can something that runs on beer and hotdogs be?’

It was time to spoil her fun.

‘Crow doesn’t run on beer and hotdogs.’

As expected, the mention of Crow put a scowl on her face. If she’d been drinking milk she’d have turned it sour.

‘No. Roadkill. With blood gravy.’

‘When he’s all out of fresh first-borns, you mean?’

‘Exactly.’ She twisted in her seat, elbow on the bar, an earnest look replacing the scowl. ‘He didn’t say why he wants to see you so urgently?’

‘Nope.’

The dismissive flick of her eyes said she could’ve told him. Which she proceeded to do.

‘Grown men acting like little boys, all huddled together in the back room whispering their secrets. And his stupid pet bird flying around screeching—’

‘It’s called cawing.’

‘—and crapping on everybody’s heads. At least it wipes off his shiny head easily enough.’ She leaned in, parted his hair as if looking for nits. ‘Is that still some of it from the last time you were there?’

‘Could be. I thought I’d combed it all out.’

‘You don’t know what a comb is.’

‘True. Like you don’t know what lipstick is. Anyway, I don’t know what you’re so grouchy about.’

‘I am not.’ Her tone proving the lie.

‘You wouldn’t have wanted to come anyway.’

Stupid Evan.

He felt as if all the drinkers lined up along the bar had turned as one to stare at him. Is he for real?

‘That’s not the point.’

Too late he raised a hand, an acknowledgement of and apology for past, present and future stupidity.

‘I know. You wanted the opportunity to say that you’ve got better things to do than sit around in his back room while the pet bird craps on your head.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Like what?’

‘I haven’t decided yet.’ Her brow creased as she returned to what was annoying her. ‘Did he really say not to bring me? He didn’t just tell you to come alone?’

‘Uh-uh. Don’t bring Kate. You must have done something to upset him.’

‘More likely he wants you to do something illegal.’

He waited a couple of beats, then prompted her.

‘Aren’t you going to finish the sentence?’

She nodded, a weary, resigned gesture.

Like normal. I suppose I’m better off not knowing.’

He placed his hand over hers where it rested on her thigh, like a priest, benign, fatherly. Squeezed.

‘Attagirl. Plausible deniability, that’s what you need.’ He slipped off his stool, started to move away. ‘I won’t be long.’

She called after him.

‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’

He came back, looking suitably shamefaced.

‘Sorry.’

Pecked her on the cheek. Got a roll of the eyes back.

‘No. You forgot to say, don’t let anyone sit on my stool. I’m surprised you’re not taking it with you, you’re so precious about it.’

A brave or foolish man might have said, no need, not with a face like yours sitting next to it. At the moment he was feeling neither.

CHAPTER 2

‘You’re in big trouble.’

Evan made no attempt to keep the schadenfreude out of his voice as Crow ushered him into the dark and musty Victorian mausoleum he called home.

‘Really? With whom?’

‘Who do you think?’

Crow’s eyebrows went up into his wrinkly brow.

‘Not Kate?’

‘Yep.’

Crow gave a dismissive shrug of his angular shoulders.

‘No more than usual, I suppose.’

Tall and gaunt, and with the beak and eyes of an under-nourished vulture, Elwood Crow had been an investigator himself back in the day, his methods questionable even by the lax standards of those far-off times. What’s more, his perception of his own role in the way in which the universe unfolded had been somewhat over-inflated. As such, the line between the investigation and identification of wrongdoers and the swift administering of Old Testament-style retribution had often blurred. When they first met, Crow had indirectly admitted that in his younger days he’d garroted a degenerate and vicious thug in the aftermath of one of his investigations, dispensing a rough natural justice like a self-styled avenging angel. Now that he was well into his second century—according to Evan—and too wrinkly for the rough and tumble of the job out on the streets, he increasingly viewed Evan as his protégé, always on hand to whisper contrariness and mischief in his ear, suggest ways in which inconvenient laws might be disregarded.

Hence Guillory’s earlier accusation of illegal activities.

Evan followed him down the hall and then to the right—the back room as Guillory had predicted—and not the kitchen. As Evan knew only too well, it was the matter at hand and not the time of day that determined where they would confer. They got themselves settled on either side of the fire, a glass of red wine on the small table beside Crow’s chair. Crow’s pet bird, an American crow called Plenty, didn’t move from the back of Evan’s chair when he sat down, inspecting his hair for insect life, much as Guillory had.

‘What have I done?’ Crow said.

‘She wasn’t happy to be told she couldn’t come.’

A rapid flash of regret flitted across Crow’s face, didn’t stay long. Crow was not one to dwell on what cannot be changed.

‘As it happens, she could have come after all. Call her now, if you like.’

Evan gave him a pained look. Crow nodded.

‘No, maybe not.’

‘What is it that she wasn’t allowed to hear, but now she would be if she was here?’

It took Crow a moment to get his head around the complexity of the question.

‘I’ve changed my mind, that’s all. There’s something I want you to do for me. I was planning on giving you the background to it first, but I’ve decided against it.’

Evan felt like jumping to his feet. Clicking his heels and saluting. As if he was a soldier and his commanding officer had told him that they knew exactly where the enemy machine-gunners were dug in, but he wasn’t going to share that information until after the mission was over, should he get back.

‘Sending me in blind, you mean?’

Crow waved his hand dismissively.

‘Don’t make it sound like I’m sending you on a suicide mission. There’s nothing dangerous about it. I want you to take a look at an old autopsy report for me, that’s all. Let me have your take on it.’

Now Evan understood.

‘It’s the circumstances that led to someone needing an autopsy in the first place that you didn’t want Kate to hear.’

‘Precisely.’

‘You might as well tell me, now that she’s not here.’

Crow shook his head.

‘No. It will color your thinking. I want a completely fresh pair of eyes, not have you trying to confirm or otherwise what I’ve told you.’

Evan stuck his hand out, palm up.

‘Let’s see it then.’

Crow looked a little uncomfortable at that, like a man trying to ignore a friend’s dog humping his leg.

Hmm.’

Something else Evan knew. Nothing good ever followed a Crow hmm. He pushed on regardless, even though he knew what was coming.

‘Where is it? In the other room? Upstairs? I can fetch it if you’re feeling frail.’

‘Stupid boy.’

Evan pulled his hand back, stared at Crow as he squirmed in his chair.

‘Did you, or did you not just say that it wasn’t anything dangerous?’

Crow reluctantly admitted that he had indeed done exactly that.

‘And yet you want me to ask Kate . . .’ He held up a finger, a mission-sensitive point on its way. ‘This is the same Kate who is currently feeling very unwelcome and unloved. I’ve got to ask that Kate to pull an autopsy report for me? For you, I mean.’

Crow nodded, didn’t feel words would add anything constructive. Evan asked for some advice.

‘You think I should ask her tonight or wait until the morning?’

Crow relaxed visibly, the smile of a man who has successfully passed the buck on his face.

‘You decide. You know her best.’

‘And if I was to say that there is no good time? Not ever.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a way. You always do.’

Evan put his hands on his knees and drove himself upright, headed towards the door.

‘I’m going to look in the fridge, see if the answer might be in there.’ He pointed at Crow’s glass. ‘You want a top-up of children’s blood?’

He was back a minute later, a bottle of Dogfish Head IPA in one hand, a half-empty bottle of California Pinot Noir in the other.

‘Any answers in there?’ Crow said, holding out his glass.

‘Nope. You want to give me at least a few details?’

Crow took him at his word, sticking religiously to the few. The deceased’s name was Jack Lister and that he’d been stabbed to death by his wife, Jodie, on the night of October 5th, 1999. It took under ten seconds—the telling, not the stabbing.

Evan made a rolling gesture with his hand when it became obvious Crow had finished.

‘Is that it?’

Crow considered him. Head back in the shadows, long fingers interlaced over his cadaverous stomach. As if he was considering divulging a state secret, the location of a hidden presidential bunker, perhaps.

‘Jodie Lister was my client.’

Evan gawked at him.

‘This would be when you were already almost a hundred years old?’

Crow’s mouth twitched, a stupid boy epithet halfway out, hastily withdrawn.

‘It was towards the end of my active years, yes.’

He pretended that his eyesight had failed him temporarily as Evan clenched his hands into fists facing each other as if holding the wooden handles of a garotte, then jerked them violently apart before asking a pointless question.

‘Anything else? Ignoring for now that else implies something has come before.’

‘Not until you’ve read the autopsy report.’

‘Why now? It was over twenty years ago. What’s happened?’

Crow shook his head, his face resolute, as if Evan was six and pleading to stay up for another ten minutes before going to bed.

‘I’ll explain everything when you’ve read the report. You’ll have to trust me.’

The word trust slipping through Crow’s wine-stained lips put a vivid image in Evan’s fertile mind, the flickering light from the fire playing on their faces in the semi-dark of the room compounding it. Of flames licking at his feet in the hot, red-black darkness and Lucifer himself with his horns and pointy tail inviting him into his domain with a similarly-worded assurance, to trust him that it was pleasantly cool inside.

And then another voice, Guillory’s voice, sounding as if he’d told her he was going to lie his head on the railway tracks, rest awhile despite the irritating vibrations growing steadily stronger.

Trust him?

He couldn’t blame her for her illegal-activities accusation of earlier, however tongue-in-cheek.

They stared at each other for a long moment across the fire as the image and voices receded. Then Evan set them off on a brief discourse of the sort where both parties already know everything that’s being said. Like a couple of old men in a bar passing the time by rolling out the same tired anecdotes.

‘I assume this doesn’t end with my opinion on the autopsy report. That opinion will then lead to other things.’

‘Very probably.’

‘Things for which I’m unlikely to receive any monetary recompense.’

More than unlikely, Crow was quick to confirm.

‘But which could be dangerous?’

Crow nodded his agreement a little too enthusiastically for Evan’s liking.

‘Certainly more dangerous than reading an autopsy report, yes.’

‘But not necessarily more dangerous than asking for it in the first place?’

Crow scrunched his face. Rocked his liver-spotted old hand.

‘A very close-run thing.’

Evan pulled his phone from his pocket, tossed it into Crow’s lap.

‘In which case, you call her.’

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER