Aug 22 2011 2:40pm
Please enjoy this excerpt from Awakenings, a debut novel by Edward Lazellari, out August 30 from Tor Books.
Cal MacDonnell is a happily married New York City cop with a loving family. Seth Raincrest is a washed-up photographer who has alienated even his closest friends. The two have nothing in common—except that they both suffer from retrograde amnesia. It’s as if they just appeared out of thin air thirteen years ago, and nothing has been able to restore their memories. Now their forgotten past has caught up to them with a vengeance.
THE BAD GUYS
Two Days Ago
Colby Dretch cleaned out the empties from his office wet bar. Only half a bottle of vodka and a bottle of peach schnapps remained. He threw the clinking bag, along with a valise full of his laundry, into the bathroom and hoped the new clients had good bladders. Once he had folded the bed and threw the pillows into the closet, the place looked almost ready for business. It would be a no-frills meeting.
Carla would be bringing the new clients in any minute. Colby put on a fresh shirt and tie. He tied his knot using the reflection in his office window and surveyed the bustling masses on Third Avenue. An image of dressing up a pig popped into his head; he had to chuckle. While it might hide his varicose veins, no shirt and tie could detract from his dark puffy eyes, thinning hair, gaunt cheeks, pasty pallor, and hawkish nose. He looked like Ichabod Crane on that ill-fated night, and he was only fifty-two. But it was all part of the game.
Carla led an odd crew of three men into the room. One man had to crouch to get through the door frame. He looked almost deformed—his jaw was thick as an anvil, his fedora was too small for his head, and cigarette smoke wafting from his lips caused a cloud that partly obscured his face. His stylish suit barely contained him, and dandruff lay on his jacket collar and breast. The other two looked like fashion models. Same height and build, they both wore their hair slicked back in ponytails and could have passed for twins, except for their coloring. One was lightskinned and blond, the other swarthy and dark. Carla rolled her eyes as if to say, Who let these guys out of the sideshow? She tossed him a wink and sashayed out of the room. Colby smiled; she would have made a great gangster’s moll.
A cold chill went through the detective. He checked the radiator dial to his right and saw it was already in the on position. Fine time for the heater to go on the fritz, he thought. He rubbed his hands for warmth before offering one to the blond man Carla had pegged as the ringleader.
“Hi. I’m Colby Dretch. Take a chair, please.”
“Dorn,” the blond man said, waiting a moment before accepting the detective’s hand and taking the seat on the other side of the desk. He failed to introduce his silent colleagues.
Colby noticed a trace of an accent, but couldn’t place it. Dorn exuded confidence, like someone raised in an exclusive Northeastern boarding school; the kind with crested jackets and ties, where teachers lived in fear of their students. He took his seat behind the desk. The others in the room chose to remain standing. Colby lit a cigarette and offered one to Dorn. Dorn politely declined.
“What does someone with your kind of money want with a broken-down detective like me?” Colby asked. “Did Pinkerton go under?”
Dorn studied the autographed celebrity photos around the room; Colby knew they looked impressive, even through the dust. Dorn picked up a framed photo of the detective and his boy. “Your son?” he asked.
In happier days, Colby thought. He was unimpressed with Dorn’s forward style. “His name’s Tory.” He waited for Dorn to put the photo down before continuing. “I should tell you, I’m suspended from practicing for the time being. A small disagreement with the district attorney’s office.”
“Your abilities are still intact?” Dorn inquired.
“Yeah. As long as we keep things on the down low, keep it strictly cash, it shouldn’t be a problem.” Carla was right. These guys were oddballs. Anyone with common sense would have walked out already.
Dorn pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Colby. It was a long list of names with short descriptions of age and race, some of them various versions of the same name spelled different ways: Cal MacDonnell/McDonnell, Callum MacDonnell/ McDonnell . . . et cetera.
“Could you locate the people on this list?” Dorn asked.
“Assuming how accurate the names are . . . probably in two days.”
Dorn looked to his swarthy colleague, who offered an ambiguous, yet approving, shrug. The giant just kept blowing smoke.
“Are you boasting?” Dorn asked.
“I can cross-reference multiple government databases.”
“We tried other agencies with similar resources,” Dorn said.
“I’ve got access to deep systems that are normally off limits to private firms. The fringe benefits of twenty years in the NYPD.” Colby also had a network of strategically placed bribed informants. He wondered why he tried to impress clients that, as far as they knew, needed him more than he needed them. Old habits die hard, he thought.
Colby waved the paper with the names in front of Dorn. “Is this it? The job?”
“Large agencies have too many eyes and ears, Mr. Dretch. I value discretion. I also want someone desperate. Are you . . . desperate, Mr. Dretch?”
“Hardly,” Colby lied. He started rubbing his hands again to keep them warm, and regretted that it looked like an act of weakness. He turned up the thermostat in the heater behind his chair.
“Don’t be offended,” Dorn said. “I insist that people who work for me make my interests their only priority. There’s a refreshing lack of activity at this firm due to your dubious practices.” Dorn’s smile was shark white. He pulled out a recent copy of the New York Post and scanned an article. “ ‘Colby Dretch . . . under government indictment for nine counts of embezzlement and blackmail of his rich, deeply troubled, and well-connected clientele . . . infidelities, pedophilia, domestic abuse,’ et cetera. And, you never reported your ‘moonlighting’ income to the government. Why, they have you on tax evasion alone.” Dorn moved to the second half of the article on a different page. “Eight civil suits, resulting in your property and finances being placed in escrow. Suspended operating license, at least until the verdict, after which it will be fully revoked. A bit redundant,” Dorn said turning his attention back to Colby. “Not really much use in prison. The vultures are circling.”
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Colby said, calmly. He was losing patience with this lot, but he wouldn’t let them see him break.
Dorn’s cohorts made a poor attempt to suppress chuckling. “Mr. Dretch, you’re not just a thief—you’re an accessory after the fact in your clients’ illicit affairs. You’d be lucky to get out in thirty years.”
“I think you ought to leave,” the detective said in a steady voice.
Dorn reclined in his chair and smiled as warmly as his features would allow. “Colby, you misunderstand. I’m interested in doing business with you because you’re guilty. Putting the screws to anyone naïve enough to trust you with their deepest secrets is an admirable trait. That’s a sign of intelligence where I come from.”
Colby had never before been complimented for being a complete bastard. His crimes were many—far more than the indictments that had been handed down already. Friendless and penniless, his passport revoked by the courts, the future looked bleak, and now he was taking crap from some rich boy with an agenda.
Colby tossed the list of names on the desk in front of Dorn. “Many agencies can find these people for you,” he said. “You don’t need me.”
“That’s not why I’m here, detective. The real job is for a name not on this list—a young man. His name could be anything by now; even one of these,” Dorn added, picking up the list.
“Not interested,” Colby said.
“You cannot find him?”
“I can find anyone. But as you just pointed out, I have many problems.”
“Name your price.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It really is.”
“Fine. A million dollars as a retainer, ten thousand a day plus expenses, twenty-five thousand for each name on the list that I locate, and another million when I find the boy with no name.”
The two men stared each other down; Colby waited for Dorn to leave.
“Done,” Dorn said.
Colby almost did a double take straight out of the movies. “What?”
“I agree to your terms.”
Colby shifted in his chair to find a more comfortable position. It was his worst tell when playing high-stakes poker and had lost him a lot of money through the years. What cards does Dorn hold?
“Those fees are unreasonable,” Colby said, cautiously.
“Are you that good?”
“Yeah, I’m that good, but . . .”
“Others have failed. I need results.”
With two million dollars cash, Colby could buy his way off the continent without a passport. He could start life over in a country without an extradition treaty. He could even set up a trust fund for Tory, try to make up for being a lousy father. He had just been handed a way out of the mess that was his life.
“You can wire these funds internationally?” Colby asked.
“Even to Antarctica,” Dorn said, smiling.
“Tell me more about the kid.”
“I have never seen the child. His last known location was Dutchess County, New York, thirteen years ago. He bears a red birthmark above his left scapula. Symian will provide a detailed file.”
“Our colleague. He is taking care of business with your woman.”
Colby grinned. “Ms. Hernandez is engaged to be married to a Marine. He’s back from Afghanistan next week.”
“Symian is adept at winning women’s hearts,” said the swarthy twin in the corner, with an amused expression.
“This boy,” Colby started, getting back to the job that would save his life, “are you his biological father?”
“Relative,” Dorn said.
“You’re a relative, but you’ve never seen him, you’re not sure of his name, and you believe he was somewhere in Dutchess County about thirteen years ago.”
“You’re on top of the situation already.”
A heavily swathed man Colby assumed was Symian walked in from the reception area and gave Dorn a nod. “Just them,” he said, in a raspy whisper. He wore gloves, his hat was too big and his raincoat collar and a scarf hid much of his face. Colby noticed that under the brim’s shadow, where the whites of the man’s eyes should be, they were egg-yolk yellow.
“The file,” Dorn ordered.
Symian placed a portable flash drive on the desk.
“Is this kid in witness protection?” Colby asked. “Those FBI guys are hard to crack.”
“Why would they be involved?” Dorn asked.
“Well, I assume . . . the mother took off with the kid because she didn’t want him raised in a ‘connected’ family.”
Dorn laughed. “A compliment, Mr. Dretch. Alas, I do not bear the honor of belonging to that distinguished group.”
Colby was amused. After years on the job, he knew a thug when he saw one. If Dorn hired him for his scruples as he claimed, then he’d also know working for organized crime posed no problem.
“I guess that’s not important, as long as your money is good,” Colby said.
“Shall we secure his commitment, my lord?” Symian asked.
“And your loyalty, Colby, how do we ensure that?” Dorn’s tone changed, making the previous conversation until now seem almost jovial. “Are we to trust you with our secrets?” Dorn’s voice exuded a deep severity.
For the first time, the detective wondered if he was in over his head. He wished he’d replaced the clip in the Beretta sitting in his bottom drawer.
Colby took a deep breath and convinced himself he had the upper hand. After all, if other detectives had failed before him, and they went out of their way to hire an indicted, unlicensed detective, he must be exactly what they need.
“Look, Mr. Dorn—I’m smart enough to know who not to screw with. I promise, the retainer will assure my loyalty.”
Dorn gave a nod to Symian. The bundled-up man pulled a small velvet sack out of his coat pocket.
“I disagree,” Dorn said. “Where I come from, fealty is a matter of life and death. Since your oaths mean little, you have to give us something very important to you. Something you could never live without.”
That’s a new twist. Colby had never been asked to put up collateral for a job. “I thought you read the Post article. I put up most of my money for bail. The government took my passport and froze my assets until the investigation is complete. I sleep on that fold-out couch over there. I got nothing to give you.” Colby glanced at the photo of Tory, and immediately regretted it. “My boy’s a quadriplegic. I won’t lift a damn finger if you bring him into this.”
“I do not want your son,” Dorn said. “Some creatures throw their young to the wolves if it means one more day for themselves. I have something more dear to you in mind. Hesz.”
The large man scurried behind the detective in a flash, faster than Colby thought possible for someone so big, and locked him in a full nelson.
“What the hell are you doing?” the detective shouted. “Carla! Call the cops!” The detective struggled, but Hesz’s grip was like refrigerated steel. It was only when Hesz was breathing right on top of him that Colby finally realized the mist coming out of his mouth wasn’t cigarette smoke . . . it was frost. As was the “dandruff” on the man’s suit.
“Call the cops!” Colby shouted again.
Symian walked up to him. He glanced at Dorn and said, “Bet you a purse of Krakens it bursts. He doesn’t look too healthy.”
Dorn gave Symian a fierce look and said, “If he dies, I’ll braid your liver into a rope and hang you with it.”
Symian’s grin revealed canine teeth. He turned back to Colby and put two small pills into the detective’s mouth and said, “Swallow these.”
Colby spat them out. “Fuck you! Carla!” A frightening thought occurred to Colby. Carla might be dead.
“It’s just nitroglycerine,” Symian said. “Trust me.”
Symian gripped the detective’s face, pried his mouth open, slipped two fresh pills under the detective’s tongue, and Hesz clamped the detective’s jaw shut with a massive hand.
When Symian was sure the pills had dissolved, he ripped Colby’s shirt open and drew a circle in the center of his chest with a foul-smelling, thick, cloudy liquid that he seemed to be scraping off his own forearm. Using a Sharpie marker he drew five symbols around the circle and then spread more of the goop over the symbols. Then he placed the fingers of his right hand on the circle under each symbol. He uttered an undecipherable word.
Pushing forward, Symian’s hand sunk into Colby’s chest up to his wrist. Colby’s eyes almost came out of their sockets. He anticipated the agony of such a violation, but as the seconds passed, he realized it was a numb sensation, like pins and needles.
At the door, a shocked, hysterical Carla crawled in, sobbing. Her torn blouse revealed symbols drawn around a red welt on her chest. “Give it back!” she cried at Symian. “Oh, Colby, make him give it back!”
Colby never screamed louder in his life. He could feel the gray man’s hand clamping his heart, but was too gripped with terror to realize there was little blood coming forth. Symian’s hand pulled the organ free of its attachments. Within moments, Symian held Colby’s still-beating heart in front of his face. He put it in the velvet bag, thumping like a trapped rat, and pulled the drawstring shut.
Awakenings © Edward Lazellari 2011