Hangman

CHAPTER 1

The more of me you take, the more you leave behind. What am I?

The blood is sticky and sour between my teeth.

‘You can’t be here, sir,’ the FBI agent says, blocking the doorway. ‘Move on.’

I chew on my fingertip, tearing out another chunk of the nail. ‘I work for you,’ I say. ‘I’m a civilian consultant.’

The agent looks at my sneakers from Walmart, my stained jeans, my tattered sweater. ‘You got ID?’ she asks.

I left my credentials at home, expecting to know the agent on the door. Around here, people get shot just for saying the word ‘cop’.

The house has green patches where the graffiti couldn’t be scrubbed away. The letterbox is mangled from a baseball bat. A coyote-wolf hybrid—coywolves, they’re called—limps around an overturned trash can up the street. His chewed-off foot would be in a bear trap somewhere. Some white teenagers in hoodies sip cheap beer nearby. Grinning like a jack-o’-lantern, one boy crushes his empty can and hurls it at the coywolf, which leaps back. The kids cackle, but keep their distance as the creature hobbles away between two crumbling fence palings.

Footsteps from within the house. Raised voices. I need to be in there.

‘Please,’ I say. ‘The field office—’

‘Unless you have ID,’ the agent says, ‘you gotta leave.’

‘The field office director called me.’

A few strands of hair come loose from her cap and fall into her eyes. She determinedly ignores them. She’s black, about five foot eight—same height as me—with no make-up and no wedding ring. Attractive in a tough, unsmiling sort of way. Her lanyard reads Agent R. Thistle, Houston Field Office.

‘What’s his name?’ she asks. ‘The field office director.’

‘Peter Luzhin,’ I say.

She looks me up and down again, reassessing.

‘You want his Social Security number too?’ I ask.

‘You shouldn’t know the director’s Social Security number.’

I shouldn’t, but I do. I broke into his house and found it on his water bill. The trick to memorising long numbers is to convert each digit into a consonant, and then fill in the vowels with whatever makes a memorable image. The director’s Social Security number-4o4 62 5283—becomes RZR BN FNHS, which becomes RaZoR BoNe FuNHouSe. I remember it by picturing Peter Luzhin shaving his cheeks with a straight razor until all his flesh is gone and the bone is exposed, and then calmly examining his handiwork in a funhouse mirror.

‘I was kidding,’ I tell the FBI agent.

There’s no more nail or loose skin to chew on this finger. I start on my thumb. This compulsion permanently damages my cuticles and teeth, and puts parasites in my mouth. But I can’t stop.

Another agent appears at the top of the stairs. He’s a white, skinny smoker with the mashed-up ears people get from wrestling or boxing. His jacket is faded on the left side from hours of driving in the Texan sun. He’s not wearing a lanyard, but I’ve met him before. His name is Gary Ruciani. The other agents call him ‘Pope’, because he’s Italian.

‘Hey, Pope,’ I say. ‘Let me in.’

The woman steps forwards to obscure my view. ‘Sir—’

‘Oh,’ Ruciani says as he trots down the stairs. ‘It’s you.’

Being remembered isn’t usually a relief.

‘Collins and Richmond are upstairs in the bedroom,’ he tells me. To Thistle, he says, ‘Let him through. Luzhin must have given up.’

I get a faint whiff of Thistle’s perfume as I push past. She shrinks away. There’s a Greek myth about a guy who wanted to marry a Spartan princess but was exiled to an island because his wounded foot got infected and started to stink. Eventually the army came back for him because they realised they needed his poisoned arrows. He helped win the war—he was with them inside the wooden horse—but everyone still hated him. The way Ruciani avoids my gaze makes me feel like that guy.

The floorboards squeak as I enter the kitchen, passing a leaning tower of grimy dishes. Oswald Collins vanished eight days ago. His wife, Billie, apparently hasn’t done any washing-up since then. In the fridge are three half-loaves of supermarket bread and two open cartons of milk. They don’t put photos of missing children on the cartons anymore, but it’s not because kids have stopped disappearing. If they had, I’d be out of a job.

A crumple of aluminium foil holds five cocktail weenies. I eat one and drop the rest into my pocket for later.

The bedroom door is open. Billie Collins sits on the bare mattress, her head in her hands. Her hair has gone grey at the roots, and her legs look prickly. Her shorts are unravelling where she has tugged at the seams. Her mother has been missing for as long as her husband.

Agent Richmond looks up as I walk in. He has a spork in one hand and a cup of noodles in the other, almost empty. Droplets of soup cling to the stubble around his chin.

‘Blake,’ he says. ‘Where have you been?’

I’m a civilian, so I’m not supposed to visit crime scenes or talk to witnesses without supervision. Richmond is my babysitter. Fortunately lie’s lazy, and he doesn’t know me as well as he thinks he does.

‘Agent Thistle wouldn’t let me in,’ I say. ‘Where were you?’

He waves a fat-knuckled hand towards Billie, who flinches and stares at me uneasily. Richmond wants us both to think that he stayed here to comfort her, but ‘comfort’ isn’t the right word. He suspects Oswald Collins is dead. He’s hoping to catch Billie on the rebound.

‘Mrs Collins,’ I say, ‘I’m Timothy Blake. We met last week.’

She nods. Her red-rimmed eyes focus on my mouth. ‘You’re bleeding.’

The blood is from my fingernails. I lick my lips. ‘I’ve been looking for your husband and your mom for six days. There’s no sign of them.’

She doesn’t look surprised. ‘Warner wouldn’t want them found.’

Oswald Collins is a drinker with a habit of gambling away other people’s money. He borrowed eight thousand dollars from Charlie Warner, who bankrolls most of the crime in Houston. Then he disappeared. Billie is talking as though Oswald is dead, but her body language is all wrong. Grief and relief both slacken the shoulders and the neck. Billie is all tensed up, gripping the mattress as though bracing herself for a plane crash. She’s scared.

‘Warner would want him found,’ I say. ‘With his head cut off, or his eyes ripped out. To send a message: This is what happens to people who don’t pay me what they owe.’

Richmond winces. Cops are taught to be gentle with the families of victims. But I’m not a cop.

‘So I thought Oswald might have escaped,’ I continue. But then his car would be missing. Or there’d be a record of him buying a ticket out of town. Even if lie paid cash, lie would’ve showed up on the CCTV at the bus station.’ There are ways to travel off the grid. But Oswald wouldn’t know them.

‘Warner took him,’ Billie says, louder.

‘I talked to Warner’s enforcers,’ I say. ‘They’re as keen to find Oswald as you are. Keener, in fact.’

‘Whoa.’ Richmond raises his palms, begging me to stop. He turns to Billie. ‘What Mr Blake is saying…’

‘They’re lying,’ Billie says to me.

‘No, ma’am. I can tell when I’m being lied to.’ I hold her gaze until she looks away.

‘Gangs don’t kidnap the person who owes them,’ I continue. ‘They don’t take the mother-in-law, either. They take a child, or a spouse.’

‘You’re saying I’m in danger?’

‘Is your husband violent?’

‘No.’ Billie shifts on the mattress. ‘No, of course not.’

Even if I hadn’t seen her shrink back when Richmond raised his hand, I would still know she wasn’t telling the truth. Oswald Collins has priors for aggravated assault and armed robbery.

‘But he doesn’t plan very far ahead, right?’ I say. She says nothing. ‘He’s the kind who will bet his pay cheque, lose, and borrow more to chase the loss. He’ll start a loaf of bread before the last one is finished, and he won’t throw the old one out. He won’t wash his dirty dishes, even when he’s supposed to be hiding.’

‘I’d like you to leave,’ Billie says. Richmond is staring at me, unsure why I’m antagonising her.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Because you’re not gonna find him sitting here talking!’ As she says find him, she points at her bedroom door…

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