There are none so blind as those who refuse to see
Daryl Pierce came alive as if she’d bitten him.
A black Audi A4 had just driven into the deserted parking lot. Its beams cut a swath through the darkness and the rain as it turned in, falling short of where they were hidden in the deeper shadows of the loading dock by a good ten feet. He swiveled his head to the right to watch its progress through the side window. Pressed himself deeper into the seat, a pointless involuntary reaction.
A woman’s voice drifted up from his lap.
‘A car just drove in.’
‘So? That’s what you wanted. The thrill of maybe getting caught. So long as it’s not a police cruiser I don’t care.’
An unwelcome thought went through Daryl’s mind. It had been Ava’s idea to come here, to this cheerless dismal place. How did she even know of its existence? Had she brought other men here? Was one of them in the black Audi? The thought lent a spiteful edge to his voice.
‘You’d care if it was your husband. It looks like his car.’
‘Ha, ha, I don’t think. Besides, you don’t know what he drives.’
‘I’m serious. Burnt-orange Honda Accord.’
That brought her head up. Fast. Sneaking a look over the top of the door at the car creeping across the pitted and weed-infested concrete towards the derelict warehouse on the other side of the lot.
‘You jerk. It’s probably your wife with three guys.’
The smile slipped off his face like birdshit off a windshield. She always had to go one better. Why not make it three well-hung black guys while you’re at it?
‘We should’ve gone to a motel.’
‘You wanted a cheap thrill. I thought that’s what gets you excited.’ A sour, disappointed note entered her voice. ‘Can’t say it looks like it from here.’
He ignored her. Watching the Audi as it stopped in front of a door set into the side of the building opposite.
‘You said all these warehouses are empty.’
She didn’t answer. Busy trying to revive his flagging interest. Better than her saying, they were the last time I was here.
On the other side of the lot, the driver’s door opened. The interior dome light snapped on.
Daryl rocked in his seat as if he’d been slapped.
‘What now for Christ’s sake?’
‘I recognize that guy.’
She let out a heavy sigh, her voice weary.
‘Give it a rest, Daryl. It wasn’t funny the first time.’
‘No, seriously. He’s getting out.’ He clamped his hand on the top of her head. Held her still. Pulled his own head down into his shoulders. Another subconscious gesture that achieved nothing. ‘Keep down.’
The urgent hiss of his voice stopped her pushing against him. She let her head slump into his uninterested lap.
‘Who is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You just said—’
‘I know what I said. I recognize him. But I can’t place him.’
‘What’s he doing?’
The Audi’s passenger door opened as she asked the question.
‘Another guy’s getting out.’
‘I bet it’s a couple of gays. They’re going to get in the back seat. More room.’
Daryl looked over at the two men. A shiver rippled through him that had nothing to do with his pants being down around his knees.
‘They don’t look like gays to me.’
Ava snorted, her breath warm on his stomach.
‘You can tell just by looking at them, can you?’
She went to raise her head. He locked his arms, stopped her. Despite his denial, the driver went to the back door on his side. Pulled it open. Leaned in. On the other side, the passenger opened his rear door, did the same. The driver’s body was blocking what they were doing from Daryl’s sight. The tightening knot in his stomach told him they weren’t straightening a picnic rug on the back seat to make themselves more comfortable. Then the driver stood up. Pulling at something.
She tried to lift her head again. He pushed her down, harder this time. She squirmed against him, an angry whine in her voice.
‘Quit doing that. What the hell’s wrong with you?’
He held her firm, hissed at her.
‘Stay down. They’re pulling someone out of the back seat. His hands are tied behind his back.’
It was too much for Ava.
She put the flat of her hand on Daryl’s stomach. Twisted her head out from under his hand. Popped it up. Across the parking lot a man stumbled out of the back seat of the black Audi. Fell to his knees in a puddle of dirty water. Looking straight at them. Except it wasn’t a couple caught in a tawdry extra-marital liaison that he saw staring horrified and unbelieving back at him.
It was his own too-short future.
The driver had his back to them. The passenger’s upper body was still in the car after pushing their captive out. Now he stood up. Pulled his phone from his pocket. Videoing the man on his knees as he walked around the front of the car to join his partner in their unholy task.
He wasn’t paying attention. Maybe they hadn’t done their recon thoroughly enough. Or somebody had purchased the building recently and installed a security light over the door.
Whatever it was, the light burst into life as the guy walked through its detection zone. Five thousand lumens of searing white light lit up the junk-strewn lot like the second coming of the Son of Man.
Ava ducked her head down. But not before she looked the man on his knees full in the face. For a brief moment their eyes met. Then his lips moving silently mouthing words through the rain.
Help me, Ava.
The driver saw it. Spun around. Ava’s head was already in the sweaty safety of Daryl’s lap. Daryl stared stupidly back at the two men now looking directly at the car. At him.
There was a moment of indecision. Then they started across the lot at a fast, purposeful lick. The man on his knees saw his one chance of salvation. He scrambled up. Ran blindly for the exit. No easy thing to do on legs purged of strength by an all-encompassing paralyzing fear with arms numb and useless, wrists tied too-tightly behind his back. It was more the desperate lurching stumble of mortally-wounded big game before the hunter’s copper and lead bullet brings it crashing down. His captors hesitated a second time, heads snapping back and forth in the rain.
They chose prey over onlookers and went after him.
Inside the car, everything went berserk.
Daryl turned the ignition, nearly broke the key. Ava pulled her head out of his lap and bounced it off the steering wheel. He punched her on the jaw grabbing wildly at the gear shift. Floored it. Pedal to the metal. No lights, wheels spinning, tires biting, the car surging forwards, an angry yelp from Ava as she was thrown backwards. Straight at the two men wrestling with their easily-caught prey, the three of them lit up in the glare of the security light, the man with his phone out videoing their car, the other one reaching for his pocket. All three jumping sideways as Daryl drove right at them. Then the sharp crack of a gunshot. Expecting glass to shatter or tires to burst. Steering for the exit when neither happened. Looking in his mirror, the captive and the driver struggling, the driver trying to get another shot off, tires squealing as Daryl threw it around the corner and they were on the street and safe.
Ava leaned between the seats staring out the rain-streaked back window as they rocketed down the street. Expecting to see the black Audi behind them any second. Angry arm out of the passenger window then more gunshots and their car slewing into the curb or a wall as their tires exploded.
It didn’t happen.
Neither of them gave a thought to what that implied for the bound man.
Fear and panic never bring out the best in anyone. Ava and Daryl were no different. Seemed it brought out the stupid in him. Yelling at her as he blew through a red light.
‘We should’ve gone to a damn motel.’
She stared at the side of his head. Mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Then she punched him. A hard, glancing blow on the cheek, an explosive involuntary release of anger at the petty injustice of his accusation. His head rocked on his shoulders, glasses flying off his nose, eyes off the now-blurred road momentarily, the car veering into the path of an oncoming truck, horn blaring in irritation as it swerved to avoid them.
She tried to speak, to apologize, but the words refused to come, small animal noises catching in her throat and him wild-eyed and half-blind shouting over her as he fumbled for his glasses in his still-naked lap.
‘Just shut up and let me think how I know that guy.’
And she closed her eyes and prayed for a merciful oblivion to still her racing mind.
A young woman clutching a cat carrier with a very unhappy cat inside was waiting for Evan Buckley when he got to his office. He smiled at her.
‘The vet clinic is further down the street.’
She didn’t smile back. Glaring at him as if he’d offered to put the cat down on the spot seeing as she was here, a hypodermic needle already in his hand. Not a laughing matter, then, whatever it was she wanted. It seldom was.
‘You wanted to see me?’
She nodded as he opened up and ushered her inside. She put the cat carrier on the floor, then dropped into the visitor’s chair while he opened the window and got the coffee machine going. A faint acrid odor came from the carrier as if the cat had relieved itself. Her obvious agitation suggested it was more likely her.
He did his best to relax her.
‘What’s the cat’s name?’
She leaned forward to put her fingers through the mesh door of the carrier, a nervous stuttering laugh on her lips as the cat nuzzled them.
‘Her name’s Lily, but I ought to call her lifesaver.’
‘Why? Does she float?’
She looked at him as if he’d just thrown her in the river to find out.
‘No. She saved my life.’
On reflection, he should’ve started the standard way. Asked her what her name was and to hell with trying to relax her. He did so, now.
‘Ava Hart,’ she said.
‘What can I do for you, Ava?’ He indicated the coffee machine. ‘You want coffee?’
Two questions in quick succession threw her. Undid the progress he’d made getting her name. She shook her head at the coffee.
‘I want to hire you to find out what happened to my . . .’ She paused as if searching for the right word. Made him wonder if she was about to say dog, or perhaps another cat. ‘I don’t know what to call him. Boyfriend sounds so stupid at my age.’
She wasn’t more than thirty, but he knew what she meant. It was the same with him.
Her face compacted as if already things were getting too complicated.
‘I’m married. To somebody else. So’s he.’
He didn’t suppose cheating spouse was the phrase she was after, kept it simple.
‘Friend will do. What’s his name?’
‘And he’s disappeared?’
The nervous laugh made a faltering reappearance, heading towards unhinged.
‘No. He’s dead. Somebody shot him in his house three nights ago.’
‘Have you asked your husband about it?’
He didn’t say that, of course. He didn’t need to. The question was bouncing off the walls. He was surprised the cat hadn’t asked it. She tried a small smile as if she’d seen someone do it once from a distance.
‘I know what you’re thinking. It was my husband.’
‘It crossed my mind. Or Daryl’s wife.’
‘I wouldn’t put it past the bitch. But I don’t think it’s her.’
The vitriol in her voice took him by surprise after the tentative smile. He waited to see what came next. It wasn’t what he expected.
‘I’ve changed my mind about coffee. Milk, no sugar.’
No please, either, he thought to himself. He hopped to it and went over to the machine sitting on top of a metal filing cabinet, his back to her. She started talking immediately. As if she’d decided she’d get more sense out of that side of him. It had been said before.
‘It’s not my husband. We’re in the middle of a messy divorce. He doesn’t give a damn about what I do. Apart from how it might benefit him in the settlement.’
‘What about Daryl? Was he leaving his wife?’
She accepted a cup of coffee from him, her mouth turning down as if she’d swallowed a mouthful of yesterday’s dregs.
‘He kept promising he would, but nothing ever happened. Now it never will.’
She sniffed and blinked rapidly a couple times looking like she was about to burst into tears. Top of his list of things he didn’t want to deal with first thing in the morning. She swallowed thickly, hiding behind her coffee cup. He asked an obvious question in an attempt to get her past it.
‘What do the police think happened?’
‘They said he came home in the middle of a burglary.’
‘You don’t believe that?’
The speed and conviction behind the negative response set off something he didn’t want to think about in his brain.
‘Why not? You sound very sure it’s not your husband or Daryl’s wife. Do you know who it is?’
She shook her head from the safety of behind her cup.
He groaned inwardly, here we go again, as he realized he’d been right about what was coming. The cat mewled in sympathy, turning around and around in the carrier as she came out with it.
‘—but what killed him. I think it was a cop.’
And he thought, give me hysterical crying any day, but not this.
‘Why don’t you start from the beginning?’ he said. ‘Tell me how you arrived at that conclusion.’
She took a sip of coffee, then directed her attention down towards the cup cradled in her hands, her voice barely above a whisper.
‘We’ve been having an affair for the past six months. My husband moved out a month ago, but he didn’t take all his things with him. He’s still got a key to the apartment and he comes back, gets stuff when he wants it. He never gives me any warning. It’s like he’s hoping to catch us at it. I don’t know if it makes any difference to the settlement.’ She looked up at him—you’re a sleazy PI, you should know. He shrugged, didn’t pass comment. ‘Daryl never comes to the apartment is what I’m saying.’
‘You go to motels.’
She nodded. Cleared her throat. Eyes on her lap again.
‘And sometimes in the car.’ Making it sound as if they stopped in the middle of the street while all the traffic honked and drove around them.
‘Makes you feel you’re seventeen again, eh?’
‘Sort of. And it’s cheaper.’
Less expensive would’ve been a better way of phrasing it. But cheap covered it, in more ways than one. He waited for her to continue.
‘Three nights ago, we went to a deserted warehouse I know. We parked in the shadows . . .’
Had she not been so reluctant to start talking, he’d have interrupted. Asked her how come she was familiar with deserted warehouses. He pushed the random thought aside for now. Listened as she told him how another car had turned up and two men had pulled a third man from the rear seat. His hands had been tied behind his back. Then somebody had accidentally set off a security light, illuminating their car in the shadows.
‘We didn’t hang around. That’s not the sort of cheap thrill either of us were looking for.’
‘Did they follow you?’
She took a deep breath. The color had risen to her cheeks as she’d talked, whether from embarrassment or becoming flustered from re-living the experience it was impossible to say.
‘Did they see you?’
She dropped her eyes, the color intensifying in her cheeks.
‘They saw Daryl.’
She left it at that. It wasn’t hard to figure out the rest of it. They’d still been in the front of the car. Things would’ve ended very differently if they had to climb out of the back and get into the front before making their escape. There isn’t a lot of room in the front of a car. It limits your options. He guessed her head had been below the window line. And not on her side of the transmission tunnel.
He moved them past the awkwardness with an obvious question.
‘What happened next?’
‘Daryl drove me back to where I’d left my car. We had a big fight on the way. I punched him and nearly made us crash. He was blaming me. Saying how he’d wanted to go to a motel which wasn’t true.’ She waved her hand dismissively. ‘That doesn’t matter. The thing is, Daryl recognized the driver.’
‘Knew him or just recognized him?’
She sat forward on her chair, her voice more animated at finding somebody who understood.
‘That’s exactly it. He didn’t know him, but he recognized him. He couldn’t say why or where from. All the way to my car he was telling me to shut up—’
‘After you’d finished punching him.’
She smiled, more relaxed now.
‘After that, yeah. Telling me to shut up so he could think where he knew him from.’
‘That’s when he said it was a cop?’
She shook her head as if he couldn’t have been more wrong.
‘No. Daryl didn’t think it was a cop at all. I’m the one who thinks that. I’m not making much sense, am I?’
He was forced to agree with her.
‘Talk me through it.’
She took another deep breath, huffed it out.
‘I didn’t see any of this, okay? This is what Daryl said happened.’ She waited for him to nod that he’d understood so far. All it made him understand was an unusual desire to stress that she hadn’t seen anything personally. ‘Daryl stomped the gas and drove right at them. They had to jump out of the way. One of them was trying to get a gun out, struggling to hold onto their prisoner going crazy trying to get away. He fired at us and missed. The guy must have knocked his aim off. It was raining and there was so much shit going on there’s no way they saw Daryl’s face. But the guy without the gun had his phone out. He’d been videoing what they were doing with the prisoner. He got us as we went past. The security light was shining right on the license plate. I thought they’d come after us, but they must have been too busy hustling the prisoner back to their car.’ She jabbed her chest a couple times with a red-tipped finger. ‘That’s the one thing I know for sure. The minute we cleared the parking lot, my eyes were glued to the road behind us. Nobody followed us.’
‘As if they knew they didn’t have to.’
‘Exactly. They shot Daryl later that same night. The only way they could’ve found him so fast was if they were cops and they traced the license plate number.’
‘Or they know a cop who traced it for them.’
‘That’s as bad.’
She wasn’t wrong. If they’d been given Daryl Pierce’s name and address by a contact in the police, that contact would’ve put it together when Pierce turned up dead shortly thereafter. If the perps hadn’t been picked up subsequently, it implied the contact was a lot dirtier than simply running an unauthorized DMV check.
‘Do you know what happened after he dropped you at your car?’
She shook her head helplessly.
‘I tried to call him but he didn’t pick up. Or the next day. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I thought maybe it scared him so badly he decided to cut me off completely. Or because I punched him. Then I read about it in the paper. How he’d been shot dead and the police were saying it was a botched robbery.’
There was something missing.
‘I don’t understand why you don’t believe that. I’m assuming his wife was out?’
She dug in her bag and came out with a folded newspaper cutting instead of answering. Held it towards him.
‘That’s all I know.’
He unfolded it, skimmed it. It didn’t take long. The explanation—we haven’t got a clue—re-phrased by the police into a catch-all botched robbery. A single line confirmed that the victim’s wife, Catalina, had been out at the time. Despite the paucity of information, he laid it on the desk, took a picture of it on his phone. Summed up what seemed obvious to him.
‘His wife was out. Daryl was out with you and would’ve been out a lot later if all this hadn’t happened. Why not a burglary? They’d been watching the house, knew everybody’s routines.’
She gave him a look as if what he’d been watching was too much TV.
‘He’s not rich. It’s not as if he’s got anything that would make it worth somebody spying on his house for a week before breaking in. You’re distracting me. I know it wasn’t burglars. I’m sure it was a cop or someone who knows one because they tried to kill me as well.’
He took a step back. Tried to sift through the paranoia.
Her nervousness suggested she believed it, that an attempt had been made on her life. That didn’t make it true. He guessed she saw cold-blooded killers behind every tree and sitting in every parked car.
‘What actually happened?’
A spasm of anger flashed across her face at the word actually. The way it implied that once she’d told him a few simple facts, he would have no problem providing an alternative and innocent explanation.
‘I’m not making this up.’
He leaned back, showed her his palms. It didn’t stop her from picking up the cat carrier and resting it on her knees ready to leave. Find someone who believed her. Except she didn’t get up.
‘They were in my apartment.’
Seemed okay was as bad as actually. She heard, I’m humoring you for now. She glanced at the cat as if she wanted its opinion on whether to stay or go, then resumed.
‘When I got home from work last night Lily was in the hallway sitting outside the front door.’ She lifted the cat carrier an inch off her knees. In case he’d forgotten who Lily was. ‘She can’t get out on her own, but she’s always waiting behind the door. When I get home and open it, she shoots out. I leave the door open for her to get back in for her dinner after she’s sniffed around outside. Jeff does the same thing.’
‘That’s your husband.’
‘Yeah. If someone broke in, Lily would shoot out, but the intruder would close the door immediately. They’re not going to leave it open.’
‘And your husband always does the same as you? Leaves the door open?’
She nodded like he could take it to the bank.
‘Just because he’s moved out, doesn’t mean he’s going to change the habits of a lifetime. I know they were still inside when I got home because Lily never stays out long. She would’ve been waiting by the door if they came out again, ready to shoot back in thinking it was dinner time.’
It all made sense—even if it did rely heavily on the regularity of the cat’s habits.
She placed the cat carrier back on the floor, its use as a prop now over.
‘It had to be the cop again. My DNA is all over Daryl’s car and his clothes. Especially given what we were doing . . .’
She trailed off as she realized what she’d said, embarrassment pushing aside the need to convince him. He made a more realistic suggestion that didn’t rely on prioritized lab tests or her DNA being in the system in the first place.
‘Or they traced your calls when you were trying to reach him.’
For a moment, he thought she was about to pull her phone from her bag, throw it out the still-open window. The anger was directed at herself this time.
‘You think they can track me through it?’
‘It’s possible. But it means a lot of other people are going to have to get involved. There’s a limit to how much one dirty cop can do on his own. Still, it might be best to keep it switched off when you’re not using it.’
She pulled it out immediately. Did exactly that.
‘I’m buying a new one.’
‘It’s not a bad idea. I’ll be able to get hold of you when the other one’s off. What happened after you got home and found the cat—’
‘—in the hall.’
‘I picked her up and got the hell out, what do you think?’
‘You might have hidden somewhere to watch. See if you were right, if anyone came out?’
She gawked at him, speechless for a moment.
‘You’re kidding, right? I drove to PetSmart. Bought the carrier and some cat food. Checked into a motel and locked myself in. Checked out again this morning and moved to another one. Then I did a search on the web and came straight here.’ Sounding as if it was the last step that she was now having second thoughts about.
He felt obliged to say what he said next, not entirely sure he knew how he wanted her to answer.
‘You could take it to the authorities. Internal Affairs.’
She shook her head, her mind made up.
‘No. I know you think I’m paranoid, but I don’t trust any of them. If you don’t want the job, I’ll find someone who does.’
He stopped her as she went to pick up the cat carrier again.
‘It’s okay. But you need to be realistic about how far I can take it before we have to go down that route. Why don’t you start by telling me where exactly you and Daryl were parked when this all started?’
And when she did, her words stole the breath from his lungs, caused his world to tilt on its axis.