Godless Country: New Excerpt

Godless Country by Alaric Hunt is the 2nd thriller in the Guthrie and Vasquez series about a NYC stalker who seems to have developed a taste for more than just idle observation (available August 25, 2015).

Clayton Guthrie is a private fixer for the aristocracy of New York City. His latest job is to protect a Manhattan heiress from a dangerous stalker. He hires retired bodyguard Abraham Swabe to protect her while he runs a trap operation assisted by his young operative, Rachel Vasquez, who juggles her new responsibilities while suffering from the shaky aftereffects of a shootout.

Guthrie and Vasquez pursue the stalker across the city, from watching a quiet townhouse on the Upper East Side, to staking out New York University around Tompkins Square, and even crawling through the grimy industrial guts of Brooklyn. Searching for the stalker's hideout, they learn the identity of one of his previous victims. She was murdered, but the killer is still at large.

Chapter One

If anyone had asked, Rachel Vasquez would have been forced to admit the stupidity of getting drunk and picking up college boys; good Puerto Rican girls in the city didn’t cruise. So she dodged the question before it was asked.

Since she worked for a private detective in midtown Manhattan, traffic, long drives, and stakeouts cluttered her days and nights. Encouraged by some mumbled excuses, her parents chalked overnight absences from their Lower East Side tenement apartment to her busy schedule. Her loco overprotective brothers Miguel and Indio had already stolen all her school years of adolescent exploration, but her job placed her suddenly outside their grasp. They would never catch her at Skinny’s, the white dive she prowled on the edge of the Lower East Side.

After September had become October, and then a wild Halloween screamed past, Vasquez realized she cruised out of defiance. Each day, she made the motions of living, but at night her fists clenched and she wanted payback.

So sometimes after work she slid into soft, faded blue jeans, a too tight T-shirt, and running boots from the bundle she kept at the office. In the bathroom before she left, she checked the beads threaded onto the damaged lock of her long black hair, cut short by a knife-slash the previous August; the dark wooden beads melded the loose lock, tucking it above her ear. She always added a small feather to the beads before she went drinking. She crowned herself with a Yankees cap tilted with an East Side twist, then prowled.

The bouncers at Skinny’s always passed her with a shrug after eyeing her fake ID, and the dark interior was perfect for her. The speakers blared Pantera instead of Pitbull; dancers swayed and ground. The white boys liked skinny girls—easy for her, a young woman with no curves, to catch eyes. In the drunken darkness, Vasquez took the chances she had left. She always found someone willing to take her home, no matter what her face looked like. All too often the boy she chose clung to her like a prize, bruising her mouth with eager kisses; faint marks from possessive hands lingered afterward like fingerprints on her shoulders and calves. Alongside a few stiff drinks, boys were enough to lift her outside the box of herself. The fierce sex scalded away her memory. While she could taste their sweat on her lips, Vasquez was happy. Late at night she knew the truth: Any hope of more had ended when her face was destroyed.

That Thursday night started like any other. A teeming mass of young people filled the narrow space edged by the wooden bar at Skinny’s. Slashing guitar riffs alternated with shouted vocals. Rows of bottles glowed behind the bartender. Vasquez killed a rum and Coke while she threaded the crowd. She brushed away unwanted hands, then paused at the far end of the bar to wave her empty glass at the bartender. While she waited, she began to vibrate with the music, swimming on the dark undercurrent of the rum.

Vasquez found a boy named Steve Hartford, with broad shoulders and a mop of curls that looked in the darkness like honey swirled in chocolate. She caught her second rum and Coke without taking her eyes off him. She paused along the way for sips of her drink and angled glances, then slid as close as his shadow. His hair was as soft as fur and clung to her fingers like rings.

At Skinny’s a smile substituted for hello when the music blared. Hartford had bright eyes and a startled grin with a few slanted teeth. He was unclaimed. He rested his hands on her shoulders while they danced, and traced the lines on her palm with a fingertip as they shouted in breaks between songs. Steve was young, cute, and earnestly drunk—exactly how Vasquez liked her boys. She tugged him through the crowd. By the time he entered the pool of light around the door, he realized she wanted to leave.

They stopped at Hy Ly’s on Pearl for dim sum and jokes. The night was cold and clear. A student at Fordham, Steve had a tiny fifth-floor walkup in the Heights. After the cab rides and the rushing cold air on the sidewalks, the apartment seemed warm and cozy. He played jazz on his radio, they had a nightcap, and then they explored his bed. Afterward, Vasquez settled into a blissful, rum-soaked sleep.

In the small hours Vasquez wanted slow, sleepy kisses, followed by a face-to-face wound in sheets. Steve Hartford had other ideas; his golden curls were the angelic disguise of a demon. He tried to turn their drunken hookup into a kinky interlude. Vasquez snapped wide awake when she heard the rattle of handcuffs. The sound opened a wormhole to the fight in August that had almost left her dead; she threw a punch without asking questions. A few more punches and a bite broke up the date.

Vasquez wasn’t an innocent to bad endings for overnight adventures. On previous occasions, she called a girlfriend to bail her from messes. Isadora’s anxious looks reminded her that her friend knew her brothers, a loco mess she should tiptoe to avoid, and held a mixture of guilt; Isadora invited her out onto the limb of cruising. Downstairs in the cold vestibule of the Washington Heights walkup, Vasquez sobered enough to realize she didn’t want to be second-guessed.

A fistfight with a hookup was a bigger mess than usual, carrying a couple of complications. Vasquez hadn’t brought a jacket. With drunken hindsight, she realized a mid-November night needed a jacket, even though baggage made catching a boy harder. On top of that, she was broke, after splurging her pocket money on a two cab fares, Chinese food, and a bottle of Bacardi Golden Reserve for the nightcap. She needed a ride. The subway stopped well short of her parents’ Henry Street tenement, not to mention the dashes for midtown transfers.

Reluctantly, Vasquez called Tommy Johnson, a boy who worked for NYPD Investigative Services. He was a small-town kid from Ohio, transplanted to the city with some guidance from her boss, Clayton Guthrie. The boy was oafishly cute, with a lingering case of small-town helpfulness that brought him to the hospital repeatedly to see her while she recovered, in August, from having her face rearranged with the butt of an empty pistol, a condition never completely corrected despite surgery. Working for Clayton Guthrie included moments of insanity mixed into the pedestrian yawns. The killer was insane; Tommy Johnson was a yawn.

“I’m cold,” Vasquez suggested on the phone, once Johnson seemed awake enough to understand. She repeated the address, and then while she waited she took off her running boots for long enough to put on her socks. She considered marching back up the stairs to demand her underwear, but decided Steve Hartford deserved a trophy to go with the punches. She did have the bottle of Bacardi. She settled on the bottom step, hugging her knees for warmth, and drifted on the downward slope of the rum.

Johnson materialized at the door, peering through the glass. He rattled the knob. Vasquez rose unsteadily to let him inside; her legs cried asleep with an insistent prickling. He wore a dark, heavy peacoat, and held a lighter jacket by its collar.

Johnson brushed by Vasquez. Worry lines on his face morphed into an angry scowl as he studied her. He caught her arm and shook her.

“What’re you doing, Rachel?” he demanded.

“What?” she asked, tugging to free her arm. He didn’t let go. His grip was as sure as a slugger’s grasp on a baseball bat. Sitting at her bedside in the hospital, he’d never seemed large. In the small vestibule he was huge. Vasquez barely came up to his shoulder; he was even bigger than Indio, her middle brother. His anger startled her.

“Look at you!” Johnson whispered fiercely. He dropped the jacket, and plucked at the tag jutting from the neck of her T-shirt. In a hurry, she had pulled it on inside-out and backward.

Vasquez shrugged. “So?” She tugged to free her arm again. Even drunk, she wasn’t going to blurt out the apology bouncing between her ears, not for Tommy Johnson. “Let me go.”

“That’s it?” he demanded. “The time I spent worrying about you, trying not to rush you when you were hurt—holding your hand when you wanted someone to talk—” He shook her, like jabs of punctuation forceful enough to rattle her teeth. “You needed me to get you drunk? I can’t drink!”

“Let go!” Vasquez fired a sloppy jab, but Johnson pushed her to arm’s length and she couldn’t reach him. She aimed a kick, but he hoisted her into the air with an effortless jerk. Her foot grazed him harmlessly. The big man was pissed, and she was helpless.

“Tommy!” she yelped.

He lowered her to her feet, and his scowl softened into sadness. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Really, I’m sorry.” He shrugged his peacoat from his shoulders and wrapped it quickly around her. The warm coat swallowed her almost to her ankles. He slipped into the jacket he had dropped.

Johnson had a recently acquired rust-eaten classic Challenger and some unfulfilled plans for restoration. Some of the original red paint was visible. The old car’s throaty engine provided the only conversation during the drive downtown, then rattled like firecrackers when Johnson peeled out after dropping her off on Henry Street.

Vasquez kept his peacoat without a twinge of guilt. In her closet, she had a growing collection of clothes adopted from her boys—jackets, ties, and oversized shirts. She never gave them a second thought. She stripped to sleep, then dragged Johnson’s peacoat to her bed. It was as wide as a blanket, and it smelled like pernil y pastele, exactly what Mamì cooked on holidays. Vasquez smiled as she drifted to sleep beneath it.

*   *   *

Since then, the Thursday night misadventure demanded Vasquez’s attention at offhand moments, another item on a list of things that she thought about when she should be doing something else. That wasn’t what she wanted. She liked her job as a private detective, at least when she was holding her paycheck or firing her pistols at the range. Her thoughts wandered when they wanted, then returned unexpectedly to leave her holding the bag.

On Monday morning, her boss received a phone call from George Livingston asking him to protect a woman from a stalker. The detectives drove down to Ruger’s, a Twenty-fifth Street art gallery, for an interview, but Vasquez couldn’t focus. She could see that Stephanie Morgan was scared; the heiress’s fear interrupted the symphony of aesthetic in the art gallery like a repetitive discord of screaming. Vasquez drifted, sparing puzzled glances for the bright paintings surrounding them. A clerestory topped the gallery’s soaring quadrangle of light cream walls, and a handful of freestanding dividers broke the space into bays and a court. A few silent customers paid the mismatched detectives the sort of inattention due ballboys at the U.S. Open.

“I really do hate bothering anyone with this,” Stephanie Morgan said in a hushed voice. She darted glances at the customers, and sighed unhappily when she noticed a clerk watching them with a pinched face of disdain. “I expect I’m probably making too much of nothing.”

“Stephanie, a stalker is a serious matter.” Morgan’s husband, Peter Ludlow, briefly wrapped her slender shoulders with a protective arm. She answered him with an anxious smile.

Clayton Guthrie nodded in agreement. “That sort of thing can build up from a slow beginning,” the little detective said, shaping the brim of his brown fedora with his hands as he spoke.

The customers in the gallery carried their coats and wraps over their arms, revealing patterned dresses and sharp-edged Italian suits—except for one hipster in a Nehru jacket pointedly examining a framed street scene assembled from bold colors like a pane of stained glass. By stepping away from the detectives, the Morgans could’ve blended with the sparse crowd. Ludlow, a tall lean man with a too-even tan, wore a navy suit and a crisp red tie. He gestured with the practiced care of a courtroom lawyer. Stephanie Morgan’s creamy skin and honey-blond hair glowed against an umber silk sheath dress. A gold link belt tightened the dark silk around her slender waist.

The detectives looked like AA members searching for a meeting at the wrong address. Guthrie’s rumpled navy suit needed some dry-cleaning and replacement buttons, and maybe a dye job to match colors with his sun-bleached brown fedora. The little old man’s grizzled fade had more shine than his shoes. Despite that, the clerk’s disdain was squarely aimed at Rachel Vasquez; a trail of scuffs led across the shiny white tile floor, directly from the entrance toward her dusty jungle boots, like fingers of accusation. The young Puerto Rican detective wore a yellow windbreaker, a tilted Yankees cap, paint-stained blue jeans, and an angry scowl that didn’t disguise sharp-featured good looks.

“George Livingston mentioned that a guy was following you,” Guthrie said, “but he didn’t spend time on details. What I need is for you to explain what’s happening. Start at the beginning, and I’ll put it together from that.”

The heiress sighed. “I’m sorry. I suppose this might take some time, but I can’t leave right now. I need to meet some of these people.”

The little detective glanced around the gallery. “Someone’s coming?”

“I’m afraid so. Several, in fact. We’re having an opening for Werner’s new paintings, but I suppose that’s less important at the moment.”

“Tell him about the festival, Stephanie,” Ludlow said.

She nodded unhappily. “That’s where this started. I thought I’d only had a New York moment.” She sighed, and crossed her arms with a shiver. “I follow the trends in art. Being current, is, well, current. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t apologize for packaging charity with art. I’m an artist—not a talent, I’m too representational…”

Ludlow took her hand for a brief squeeze, and smiled gently.

“I’m sorry,” Morgan repeated. “I really do know I’m babbling. I must be reminding myself why it’s so necessary that I do what I do.”

Guthrie nodded. Vasquez watched him wait through the moments of silence, reminded of something the little detective told her before. “Sometimes you gotta let them talk. If you ask questions, a witness works on answering. If they’re talking, maybe they say something you didn’t know to ask about.” She watched Ludlow attend carefully to his wife’s mood, and flashed alongside it an image of the casual insult of indifference from a boy at Skinny’s, too far drunk to care.

“A great deal of the DUMBO festival features sculpture,” Morgan said, and smiled. “Some buyers prefer a good price by the pound. My primary interest is painting, but when so many serious artists open their studios, I can’t be finicky. I visit, listen, take notes …

“The new park is changing the feel of the festival, I think. More of the traffic is ordinary. I mean, they don’t come specifically for the festival. They happen to be caught in the whirlpool, and maybe decide to take a look out of curiosity. A few years ago, I never saw anyone at DUMBO who wasn’t connected with art: artists or dealers, critics, buyers, suppliers, advertisers, scholars and students. Now, the festival has a holiday feel.” Morgan blushed. “This year I had a few glasses of wine while I visited. There are vendors right on the street, if you can imagine.

“At the beginning of October I visited Prudel’s studio. He’s sculpting lions in marble, and he has some young men there with him making wrought-iron vines and foliage. The old man is full of ideas. He’s very rude to these young men, but it’s funny. Afterward, I sat outside for a while. The morning wasn’t chilly. I scanned my notes, looked out across the river, and thought about lions. All completely ordinary.”

She paused, uncrossing her arms to reach up with one hand as if to check her upswept golden hair, then stopped. “I had my hair down, in a loose tail.” She shuddered. “That’s how he caught my attention. He ran his fingers through my hair. For a moment, I thought Peter was surprising me.

He seemed startled when I turned and saw him,” she said. “I don’t know … maybe he thought no one could see him, a sort of invisible crazy man. I ran away. I was definitely more startled than he was. I ran away, and he stayed. From that morning, I mostly remember that he seemed ugly and large, massively oversized like a statue. I kept my notebook, because I was holding it in my hand, but I left everything else. I ran all the way down to the park, then spent a few minutes recovering my courage, and I realized I couldn’t even call the police. My phone was in my bag. I walked back carefully, looking for him, and outside Prudel’s studio it was as if nothing had happened.”

Morgan shrugged. “My bag was gone. As the day went on, I convinced myself that that was all that had happened. I’d had a New York moment: an encounter with a strange person.

“Several days passed before I saw him again,” she continued, frowning anxiously. “Outside City Hall, the restaurant in TriBeCa. That was only a moment, and he disappeared before I could point him out to Peter. Seeing him from across the street, I realized how large he truly was. Even stooped over he seemed as large as two or three ordinary men.”

Guthrie grunted. The little detective eyed Peter Ludlow, an ordinary man larger than both detectives. Vasquez and Guthrie each stood five and half feet, and weighed less than a hundred and fifty pounds. Stephanie Morgan shook her head.

“No, much larger—twice Peter’s size.” She sighed. “He wasn’t outside after we ate, but for a few days after that, I saw him irregularly, always employing a vanishing act before I could show him to anyone.”

“Then I did see him,” Ludlow said.

“Peter finally saw him across from our town house. He noticed immediately that the man was carrying a camera. I must’ve always been so frightened that I couldn’t notice.”

“That did give you an idea, though,” her husband offered.

“I carried the camera on my phone ready in my hand until I caught him,” she said. She pulled her phone from her clutch, and browsed the archive for a photo. Her face twisted with distaste and fear, studying the photo for a moment before she handed it to the detectives.

The stalker looked startled, caught with his own unaimed camera in his hand. His broad, pasty face was striped with dark slashes from bushy eyebrows above dark, hollow eyes and an overgrown mustache above brown teeth; a misshapen lump bulged from one side of his towering forehead. A brickred muffler collared his thick throat. He wore a black greatcoat and heavy boots. Half-hidden by his body, a blue United States mailbox on a pedestal didn’t reach his waist.

Guthrie let out a hiss of surprise, and Vasquez said, “That’s walking around in the city?”

Stephanie Morgan nodded unhappily. “I took the picture before he began leaving the roses in my Saab. I keep the car in a garage. Somehow he found the car. He unlocks it, leaves a yellow rose on the driver’s seat, and relocks it.”

“He’s done that four times,” Ludlow interjected.

“You showed the picture to the police?” Guthrie asked.

“I did. I can’t prove he left the roses. They said that might be trespass, but he isn’t communicating with me. He can’t be charged with stalking unless he does something overt.”

“After the felony, they mean,” Ludlow said. “They’re worthless.”

“Peter, please don’t be angry—” She stopped when her husband deflated with an angry sigh. “When I went to the police station, I discovered that the man really hasn’t committed a provable crime. They were very nice about being unable to help me … Then, as I was leaving, a detective spoke with me. Mr. Walls recommended that a private investigator might be able to gather evidence that could prove stalking.”

“That was the precinct on East Fifty-first?”

Morgan nodded.

“The One-Seven. Walls is an old guy that never took the exam for sergeant. I’m afraid he’s right. Stalking is a crime, but it ain’t something the police can solve. It’s a crime for a prosecutor to use after something else happens.”

“I said that from the beginning,” Ludlow said. “Stephanie, I can call someone to warn him away—”

“Peter, you mustn’t.” Morgan’s glance was sharper than her tone.

The tall man deflated again, but quickly smiled at Guthrie. “Perhaps that’s something Mr. Guthrie would be prepared to do,” he said.

Guthrie studied Ludlow, noting his unscarred face and manicured hands, then shrugged. “This world ain’t as simple as it used to be, Mr. Ludlow. Having a look at that man’s picture don’t convince me he’s dull. I won’t be warning him. I’m gonna trap him like a rat. You ought not to do anything yourself you wouldn’t want to see on YouTube, right?”

Stephanie Morgan sighed. “Thank you, Mr. Guthrie,” she said. “I see that we’ve been sent to a capable man.”

The little detective nodded. “George Livingston said to take care of you,” he said. The Whitneys and Morgans shared social and business connections that disappeared into the past of the city. H. P. Whitridge was the family fixer for the Whitneys; he paid Guthrie a hefty retainer and kept his pocket full of expense money. Livingston was his hatchetman.

“I’m gonna start this by putting a man in your pocket around the clock. That rat won’t get near enough to touch you again. I’ll look around to see what else I can do. I’ll need a copy of that picture, and some addresses, door keys, that sort of thing. Are you gonna be here for a while?”

“Werner’s opening won’t end until four o’clock,” she said.

“I’ll have a man here before then,” Guthrie said. He stepped away, and took a picture of Stephanie Morgan with his phone. “He’ll recognize you.”

 

Chapter Two

“That rat’s three hundred, maybe four hundred pounds,” Guthrie said as he started his old blue Ford.

He glanced at Vasquez, in the passenger seat, before he pulled out onto West Twenty-fourth Street. Traffic was light. Distantly, the Empire State Building held aloft a gray lid of clouds above the city.

“We’re gonna need a nose tackle to deal with him,” Guthrie said.

He glanced at Vasquez again, and she repeated her silence. He shrugged, pulled his phone, and dialed. He turned on the speaker, then clipped the phone to the dashboard. The little detective used a speaker for his calls, saving himself from repeating conversations to Vasquez.

“Hello?” a heavy voice demanded, as Guthrie worked his way into the right-hand lane of Eighth Avenue. Vasquez watched bundled pedestrians hurry along in the chilly November mid-morning.

“Avram! This’s Clayton Guthrie,” the little detective said.

“You’re still alive? I thought I read something in the paper—”

“Very funny. I think that was the other guy.”

“You could be right.”

Guthrie punctuated the silence with another glance at Vasquez. She was still staring from the passenger window. “I need you to do some bodyguard work for me,” the little detective said.

“I’m retired. You should know that. Did you know I have great-grandchildren? One of those is almost ready for a bar mitzvah.”

“You owe me, Avram. I don’t care if you’re a hundred and twenty. I’m not gonna forget.”

“You had to go there,” the heavy voice said. “All right, already. You’re still up there near Macy’s, that same old place? I’m near there now.”

“Sure.”

“But since you mention it, I hear from a distance that Miriam’s still not happy with you.”

The name caught at Vasquez’s ear, but she didn’t move. Miriam Weitz had worked for Guthrie until the previous November, quitting before the little detective appeared at Vasquez’s door with a job offer. Her name filled the operative box in hundreds of laconic reports in the little detective’s files. The dry twist of her words translated into unintended humor.

“So? That don’t change nothing.”

“I said already that I was coming,” the heavy voice growled.

“All right, I hear you. I’m headed that way now.”

The little detective’s office was on Thirty-fourth Street. He turned into an impromptu parade of subway crowds knotting around some street-carts selling hot food. Guthrie glanced at Vasquez again, who was busy staring from the passenger window. She pretended to not notice.

“Rachel, I’m keeping in mind that you cash the checks, and don’t seem to mind the raise.”

The young Puerto Rican woman didn’t flinch. Her nose was almost pressed to the window glass. She didn’t expect to be fired, no matter what Papì said. “I would fire you,” he said, again and again. “I guess your boss isn’t much of a man, after all. You’re late again. For what he’s paying you, you should run to reach work on time.”

“Cashing the checks means you want the job,” the little detective said. “But now I got work to do, and I won’t have a spare hand to carry you around like a piece of luggage. You understand?”

“I got you, viejo,” she muttered.

Guthrie’s face knotted with a scowl, but then he let out a breath and concentrated on the traffic. Vasquez relaxed as if a heavy hand had lifted from her neck. Guthrie owed her, but the little man had a heart to match his face—a brick.

He hired her fresh from high school in May, and before the summer ended, took a case that led to a killer. The little detective solved the puzzle, but after the showdown, Vasquez spent the second half of August recuperating in the hospital. That killer, Gagneau, shattered her face.

Somehow, she’d lasted to the middle of November. Cold whipped into the city to replace the searing heat of summer, but she still thought a lot about Gagneau. Flurries of pistol shots broke her dreams, becoming her heartbeat when she realized she was awake, but the gleam of Gagneau’s knife was what she always remembered.

During the daytime, Guthrie made her study surveillance tapes, sift résumés, write reports, and wire up electronics. When she left work, she only wanted to forget—even if that was pretending—that among other things, she had killed a man before her nineteenth birthday.

Her own failure hurt worst. Every shot she fired at Gagneau when it counted had missed. Each time the gunfire replayed in her mind, she spent a handful of minutes staring blankly, usually at her desktop blotter, then drew a heavy breath to ask Guthrie why he still wanted her to work for him—but then she would let the breath out in silence. Asking was pointless. The little old man kept a reply ready for any tough questions he wanted to dodge: “You’re a smart girl, Rachel. You’ll figure it out.”

Guthrie parked his blue Ford a half block down the street from the office. A frosted-glass panel filled the office door on the third floor, with CLAYTON GUTHRIE, DETECTIVE AGENCY painted on the glass in simple gold lettering. Two windows lit one end of the rectangular office, and two dark wooden doors opened on the other end—a bathroom and a storage room. Dark wooden wainscoting circled the walls. Two desks, two mismatched couches, a low table, and some filing cabinets cluttered a space too small for two people to avoid seeing each other except by hiding in the bathroom.

The little detective settled behind his desk with a cup of coffee left over from the morning. He transferred Morgan’s addresses and itinerary to his desktop computer, then searched for some maps to examine her town house. Vasquez made fresh coffee, after checking the view from the office windows and pausing for a break in her desk chair.

Guthrie muttered some semiaudible remarks ending with “garden,” then said, “We have a few things going for us. Morgan’s got no kids. Kids make bodyguard-work complicated. Then, they have a town house—”

The office door clattered open and a large man slid through, shutting the door smoothly as he entered. He had short, dark hair, a hatchet nose, and a stern expression. A charcoal suitcoat hung from his broad shoulders like a slack flag. He paused after closing the door to rest a hand heavily on the back of the oxblood leather couch that blocked the door from the center of the office.

“That’s a lot of stairs, Guthrie,” he rumbled.

The little detective frowned when he looked at the large man. “I should’ve come to see you, Avram,” he said. “It’s been a few years, right? How’s your health?”

The large man shrugged, studying Vasquez intently as he walked gingerly around the couch. Some of the red began to drain from his face. The leather couch creaked when he settled. “I lost some weight. Now my feet don’t hurt as much.”

Guthrie grunted. “Abraham Swabe, this’s Rachel Vasquez, my new operative.” He paused to turn to Vasquez before continuing, “You might be calling him Avram if he decides he likes you.” After another look at the big old man, he finished, “I’m having some regret about calling you like that. Are you up for this?”

“I still got some moves. Did you see the door when I came in? A leaf would be jealous.” He coughed into his handkerchief. “I’m not gonna kid you. I’m fading. I want to do this, though. I want to clear everything up, you know?”

After a long pause, Guthrie said, “Let me show you the rat.” He printed pictures and handed them to the big old man. “The blonde is the client. The rat wants to be her friend—he keeps giving her yellow roses.”

“I was that size when my Ruth was alive,” Swabe muttered. “He looks like a dozen Cossacks. You need me. You have that part right.”

“Okay, then there’s an itinerary for Morgan.”

“I’m just keeping her safe, right?”

“Sure. Trapping the rat’s a separate operation.”

“You and—” Swabe glanced at Vasquez, who was pushing paper clips on her blotter like a football coach.

The little detective shrugged. “The whole operation is in three parts,” he said. “I need you to do the security while she’s active. I’ll have some guys to cover her at home. I’m running the surveillance after I look around at the situation. Her town house is over in Turtle Bay, at the end of Fifty-second Street. The laws are tricky, but at minimum I have to catch some trespass.”

The two older men watched Vasquez study paper clips while Guthrie spoke. The detective scowled briefly, then continued, “Most important is hunting the rat. He’s nesting in Brooklyn.”

“Really? Didn’t you catch this job today?”

“Sure. But he has to be in Brooklyn. He chanced across the client one morning in DUMBO, at the beginning of October. He ended up with her purse. Two weeks later, he was following her around. So the rat fell in love with her purse, but he chanced on her in DUMBO.”

“That’s thin. Maybe he happened to be there.”

“In DUMBO? The Brooklyn-Queens cuts across there—”

“And there’s no such thing as coincidence. I know.” Swabe’s voice descended to an angry, gravelly rumble.

Guthrie sighed. “Old man, one thing we can’t change is the past.” He watched Vasquez for a long moment, hidden beneath her Yankees cap, while she added a row of alternating red and yellow thumbtacks to her army of paper clips. He finished his coffee and set down his cup. “Okay, Rachel, I’ve had enough of the crap.”

“I’m listening, viejo,” she said, and rearranged a thumbtack.

“You’re not listening good enough!”

Vasquez looked up at him, startled.

“Go with Avram. Watch what he does, listen to him, and do whatever he tells you.” He walked back around his desk. “I got things to do.”

Traffic sounds from Thirty-fourth Street underlined the frosty silence in the office while Vasquez checked her pistols before she left her desk. She carried two semiautomatic Smith & Wesson Chief’s Specials in kidney holsters: a .40-caliber loaded with blue plastic bullets to discourage trouble, and a .45-caliber loaded with wadcutters to end it. Swabe watched her careful ritual with the pistols and seemed satisfied.

Following Swabe slowly down the stairs, pausing at every landing, Vasquez lost the edge from her anger. The big old man needed to pace himself. On the street, a line of step vans loading clothes was gapped around a white Dodge Ram pickup with a plumbing decal. Swabe lumbered into the street to reach the driver’s seat, and unlocked the door for Vasquez as he settled at the wheel.

Swabe drove down to Twenty-fifth Street on Seventh Avenue. The ride to the art gallery crawled through traffic, but he wasn’t talkative. Vasquez’s curiosity stirred when they reached the gallery. Swabe walked through, scanning every corner, then settled by the entrance to watch. He nodded to Stephanie Morgan when she noticed him for the first time, then waited as quietly as a piece of sculpture.

“I think I have this figured out,” Vasquez said. “You stand and watch like the Secret Service.”

“That’s right. A perfect job for a big dumb Jew.”

“So,” she said, and stared blankly at him for a moment. “When you give the okay, I’m back with Guthrie?”

“I feel I got to say that he and I have a disagreement that goes back a few years. Maybe you caught some of that by accident. But I didn’t get that idea from what he said—clearing you with my okay, right?”

Vasquez let out a hiss of breath, and rotated her Yankees cap like an irritated shortstop. She took a few quick steps away, then turned back. Her black ponytail whirled around her neck.

“I make sure this schmuck doesn’t get to her,” Swabe said. He squared his charcoal suitcoat, gripping the lapels in big fists, and scowled. “See?”

“Entiendo,” Vasquez muttered. “I’m not gonna do that.”

“That’s right.”

“What’re you gonna do if he’s waiting outside?”

Swabe shrugged.

“So I should go out and spot for him?”

“I guess there is a reason you’re working for Guthrie.” A slight smile tinted his blocky face.

Vasquez drew a breath, trying to ignore the punch of embarrassment in her gut. The old bodyguard’s smile revealed a glimpse of the boxtop picture belonging to the jumbled, unassembled puzzle of things necessary to protect Stephanie Morgan. Across the gallery, a handful of buyers surrounded Morgan, enthralled by her gestures and assessments of the paintings on the walls. The young Puerto Rican detective cut Peter Ludlow from the crowd and got the location of Morgan’s Saab. Then she brushed past Swabe on her way out.

The traffic on Twenty-fifth Street looked like the last bit of bathwater draining from a tub, splashed by fresh cold from a tap that wouldn’t quite close. Tawny brick buildings dropped cold shade onto the street. Vasquez paced the block. A scattering of well-heeled New Yorkers moved with the unruffled composure of unwary pigeons. The street was peaceful. Vasquez peered into alleyways and doors, pausing briefly at big windows to scan the darkness for a glimpse of watching shapes. She caught her own reflection. Above the street, fire escapes, billboard ledges, and water towers hung like empty nests. Vasquez patrolled. After a few minutes, she was satisfied.

On the next block, the parking garage looked like a chocolate and cream torte, with dark layers made from the shapes of cars. Traffic slid and gathered in obedience to the lights. Vasquez studied the hurrying customers with hands crammed in their pockets or full of bags. The attendant shrugged and waved her into the hollow belly of the building. The crank and whoosh of cars filled the garage with a reek of exhaust that lingered into the silences.

Before Vasquez found the Saab, the shadows moving in the dim interior of the garage spooked her. She checked her pistols. Every few steps, she turned to look down each row of cars and watch for movement. She began checking car windows, to see if anyone was hiding.

“Estoy loca,” she muttered.

The four-door Saab was black and blocky, a long shape built as solidly as a tank. Vasquez stooped to look beneath it before she approached. She used a penlight to study the seats and floorboards. A raincoat and umbrella waited on the backseat. A slender tube of plastic sat propped in the driver’s seat. Vasquez cursed and pulled her phone.

“You ain’t been gone an hour,” Guthrie answered curtly.

“Viejo, we got a problem.” She studied the plastic tube with her light.

“Okay, fill me in.”

“There’s a rose on the seat of Morgan’s Saab.”

The little detective cursed.

“It’s red.”

Copyright © 2015 Alaric Hunt.

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Alaric Hunt was born in Kentucky. He received a life sentence in 1988, which he is currently serving out in South Carolina. While looking in the prison library in 2010, Hunt thumbed through a copy of Writer's Market and saw a listing for the PWA competition. He entered the next year and won. Hunt is the author of Cuts Through Bone, which was written in two longhand drafts and then typed out on a typewriter.

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