The Merchant of Death (Playing the Fool, #2)
This title is #2 of the Playing the Fool series.
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All’s fair in love and war.
There’s something rotten in the state of Indiana. When con man Henry Page takes it upon himself to investigate the death of an elderly patient at a care facility, he does so in true Shakespearean tradition: dressed as a girl.
FBI Agent Ryan “Mac” McGuinness has more to worry about than Henry’s latest crazy idea. Someone is trying to send him a message—via a corpse with a couple of bullets in it. He needs to figure out who’s trying to set him up before he gets arrested, and he really doesn’t have time for Henry’s shenanigans. Then again, he’d probably be able to focus better if Henry didn’t look so damn distracting in a babydoll dress and a wig.
But when Mac discovers that Henry has been keeping a secret that connects the cases, he has to find a way to live on the right side of the law when he just might be in love with the wrong sort of man.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Henry Page took the bus up 65 toward Zionsville. All around him, people stared ahead or out the window or at the floor. Never at each other. While Henry preferred cars—not always his own, and not always legally obtained—he liked the anonymity of public transport. All these people crowded together, heading in the same direction, and they spent most of the journey trying not to notice anyone else.
That was also one reason buses and subways were great places to pickpocket—so many people looking the other way. A crowd, but no witnesses.
Not that he was here to pick any pockets.
Unless . . .
He didn’t know how long he’d be away from Indianapolis, or what he might have to do in Zionsville. And he didn’t have any cash on hand.
He tried to remember what Mac had told him. “You’re a smart guy. I’ll bet there are a lot of other things you could do to get by.”
Mac. Ryan McGuinness, FBI agent. The sort of guy who should have been on the top of Henry’s Do Not Fuck With (In Any Sense of the Word) List, but since when had Henry played by the rules? Since never. Mac had actually gotten shot saving Henry’s life. It was hard not to want the guy.
But Henry was needed elsewhere now, so he’d run out on Mac—for the third time. And practice really did make perfect, because this time he hadn’t even needed to impersonate a police officer or clog a public toilet to get away. He wasn’t sure he’d get another chance with Mac, but that was okay. He’d always known whatever flare of feeling had existed between them was temporary. Too bad we never got to fuck.
And they’d been so close too. Pants off, dinner abandoned, ready to roll.
There will be other inappropriate hookups. In places far from Indianapolis.
But at the moment he only wanted to hook up inappropriately with Mac.
The bus rolled to a stop in traffic just off the Zionsville exit. Henry drummed his thigh. He’d get out and walk if he had to.
He checked his phone. 7:35. Viola had been waiting twenty-eight minutes at this point. If she was still there. He ran through a list in his mind of possible ways she could have gotten away from St. Albinus, but it made him too sick to think about her wandering the streets alone. He’d have to get the story from her.
To her credit, Viola had picked an obscure location from which to phone him. Hadn’t gone somewhere the St. Albinus staff would have taken her before on outings, somewhere they’d think to look.
What makes you think she’s hiding from them?
“I need your help,” Viola had said on the phone.
He got off the bus in the town center. The flag with a bulldog Viola had mentioned was a Hoosiers pennant over a café on Mason Street. A solid hour’s walk from the care center. He ran all the way to the café.
When he arrived, Viola was sitting at a table outside despite the chill in the evening air. She had on jeans and a baggy, raspberry-colored T-shirt, and she was drinking hot chocolate.
“Vi,” he said, keeping his voice hushed. However she’d gotten here, he had a feeling it wasn’t with the care center’s help or permission.
“Sebby!” She set the mug down so hard it rattled on the saucer, then she stood and threw her arms around him. They held each other for a while, Henry unwilling to let her go. Right then, he felt like Sebastian Hanes—a much younger Sebastian Hanes—and not like Henry Page at all. Henry Page had been on the verge of making a mistake with an FBI agent. Sebastian Hanes knew where he belonged.
Here, with Vi.
He took a step back. She looked okay. Her face, strikingly similar to his, had gotten a little thinner and more angular in the weeks since he’d last seen her. Her hair was lighter than his, and worn long, but they were the same height and still roughly the same build. She looked like a gaunter, less happy version of Henry.
And something had her really unhappy right now. Something had her scared. She sat back down. Henry pulled up a chair beside her and took her hand. “Vi, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you at St. Albinus?”
She glanced at him, then down at the table, shaking her head. “I can’t stay there.”
“Why not? How long ago did you leave? Do they know you’re gone?” One question at a time. He took a breath. “Vi, why can’t you stay there?”
She held his gaze this time, her eyes watery, wide, as though she hadn’t slept in a while. “Something happened. Something bad.”
“There’s an angel there,” she said, in that soft, apologetic way she sometimes said things she was afraid he wouldn’t believe. “A bad angel.”
“A bad angel?”
Viola wiped under her eyes with her thumb. “Do you believe that, Sebby?”
“I think you should tell me what happened.” He kept his tone gentle and squeezed her hand. “Did you see this angel?”
Viola nodded. She opened her mouth to talk, and then stopped. Got distracted by a waiter who approached. Who stared. Viola smiled at him.
Oh yeah, and there was that look. That one that was smitten at first, because of Viola’s brilliant smile, but then slowly changed into something else. Something confused, and then pitying, the longer he stared. Henry could see the exact moment it happened. The exact moment the waiter saw that there was something wrong with Viola.
“A black coffee,” Henry said. Then said it again to get the guy’s attention. “Do you want another drink, Viola?”
“I want another marshmallow. I want a pink marshmallow this time.”
“We don’t have pink,” the waiter said. “Just white.”
“I want a pink one.” Viola’s voice rose, insistent.
The waiter looked between them. “We just have, um, white.”
“Then bring a fucking white one,” Henry snapped, and the guy scuttled away.
Viola’s eyes widened in shock. “‘Fuck’ is a rude word.”
“I know it is.” Henry tried not to remember how she was the one who had taught it to him in the first place. “Sorry.”
God, he was so fucking sorry. He’d been sorry for nine years now, because it was all his fault.
“Fuck, and shit, and dick, and—”
“Okay.” Henry reached forward to take her hand before she could go through the entire list. “Tell me why you left St. Albinus, Vi. Tell me about the bad angel.”
Her expression was very serious. “The angel took Mr. Crowley.”
Henry let go of her hand and leaned back. “You mean Mr. Crowley died?”
Henry had been grateful these last few years for Viola’s friendship with Mr. Crowley, an old man with mild schizophrenia who’d outlived most of his family. Vi and Mr. Crowley were in the same hall at the St. Albinus Care Center, where Viola had spent the last seven years. The bond between them had made Henry nervous at first. Mr. Crowley in midepisode could be frightening—and Henry would have thought his sudden changes in mood and behavior would be confusing to Vi. But he wasn’t violent, and Vi seemed to understand and accept that her friend wasn’t always himself. Or that he was always himself, but that self was complicated and sometimes difficult to be around.
To tell the truth, Henry was a little jealous of the friendship. Of the fact that Viola had someone else when it had always just been the two of them. Not that Henry begrudged her any friends she might make, especially now that he couldn’t be around much.
He could worm his way into a high-paying job in the city. Stay in one place, make enough to cover his expenses and put the rest toward Viola’s care. He wanted to be there for her, wanted to at least try to make up for what he’d done that had left her this way. But the guilt was thick and he couldn’t breathe around it. It hit him the same way every time, knocking him back, away from Viola.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.
Amazing to him, sometimes, that he still recalled so many Shakespeare quotes—and that he still heard them all in his mother’s voice, low and rich and somehow big enough to fill their apartment even when she whispered. Viola had always loved Julius Caesar for the blood and betrayal. Henry had preferred As You Like It: disguises, bondage and freedom, gender fluidity, and a happy ending.
He looked at his sister and tried to picture the girl she’d been—laughing along with their mother as Henry strutted across the living room, pretending to be Rosalind. He and Viola had taken some ribbing in school for their names. Having a name like Sebastian hadn’t won him many friends; “My mother really loves Shakespeare” as an explanation had won him even fewer. But he was charming enough—and Vi was kind, funny, and a good athlete—that by the time they got to high school, most people could overlook the name thing. And the fact that, unlike many siblings who attended their school, they didn’t pretend not to know each other when they passed in the halls. They ate lunch together, waited for each other after school and walked to the bus.
But their sophomore year, their mother had gotten worse. It was Vi who first discovered that not only was the money gone, but their mother owed the landlord, her rehab clinic, the power company, Vi’s orthodontist . . .
Henry would never pretend to think what he’d done was a good idea. At the time, it had seemed preferable to losing their home. Except he’d ended up losing something a lot more valuable.
A breeze sent dried-out fall leaves spiraling down the sidewalk. Across the street, a cheer went up from a sports bar.
“No.” Viola shook her head. “The angel took him.”
“I don’t understand. Who’s the angel?”
“I don’t know.”
The waiter brought the marshmallows in a small dish, along with Henry’s coffee.
Viola smiled at him again. “Thank you.” She plopped one marshmallow in her cup.
“Vi, you’re not making too much sense right now.”
“The angel took him!” When she looked up, that fear was in her eyes again. “The angel’s bad. If I go back there, I’ll get taken too!”
“Aw, Vi, no.” Henry leaned forward again. “You’re young and you’re healthy. Mr. Crowley was your friend, but he was really old. It might have been his time.”
Viola stared at him, not looking fearful now but betrayed. It suddenly hit Henry how condescending he sounded. Since when did he treat Viola like a child? She’d always been better in the role of comforter than he was—even after her injury. “It wasn’t his time.” Viola’s voice was low. “Someone hurt him. Someone killed him.”
“Okay. Okay, I’m sorry.” Henry showed her his palms. “Do you have any idea who?”
“I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to go!”
“All right. Shh. You don’t have to go back, okay? Not until we get this sorted out.” Henry wasn’t sure how, exactly, this was going to get sorted out, but he could worry about that later. “When did you leave?”
She bit her thumbnail. “This morning. Nobody saw.”
How the hell did you manage that?
Henry could have used the pointers.
“This morning? Vi, what did you do all day?” He felt sick again.
“I took a taxi to the library. It was nice in there.”
God. Now all Henry could think about was the hours they’d spent in libraries as kids. Because libraries were warm and safe and free. Because escaping into books was better than going home. When their mom was good, she was great, but when she was on smack . . . Well, the good times were harder and harder to remember. And at the end there had been none at all.
“I read picture books,” Viola said. “Then I went and had cake for dinner.”
“Cake?” Henry smiled, and thought suddenly of Mac and his health kick, and the way his eyes narrowed when Henry said provocative things like cake, and caffeine, and sugar.
Viola ate a marshmallow. “A man talked to me.”
Fuck. “Who was he?”
“His name was David. He bought me a drink, but I didn’t like the taste of it. Then he went away.”
Henry was relieved. God, it was bad enough when Viola went wandering from the care center—she’d done it before, a few times—but the last thing he wanted was for her to hook up with some guy. Because there were some things she couldn’t have, because of her condition. Some things they both couldn’t have.
Once, she’d seen a woman in the street holding a baby, and she’d looked so suddenly, achingly wistful that he could have cried. Those moments, when a part of her remembered what she’d lost, were hellish. Because the realization was usually followed with an angry outburst, and with tears.
“Then I called you.” Viola put her purse on the table. It was a small denim purse with a kitten on it. She opened it and pulled out a piece of paper. Henry’s number. He always made sure he told her when he changed phones, but was never sure if she wrote it down or not.
“Then St. Albinus is going to be looking for you.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. It’s okay. You called me. You did the right thing.” Henry sipped his coffee. “What if . . . what if I go to St. Albinus and make sure the angel’s gone?” He didn’t even know what he was promising, not really. He didn’t know how to vanquish imaginary monsters. Maybe by shining a flashlight under the bed the way Viola had done for him when they were kids. Or by putting on their mom’s shoes and stomping around, because monsters hated stomping. For as long as he could remember, she had been full of fierce protectiveness and courage.
“Hold my hand and stomp, Sebby!”
Stomping and yelling had made the monsters go away. It had made the neighbors pretty angry though. And their mom. It was the sort of memory Henry felt he should have been able to laugh at, now that twenty years had passed over it. But he couldn’t. He didn’t have a single memory of his childhood that wasn’t tainted by what had happened to Viola. By what he’d done.
Viola nodded, eyes huge. “I think I could go back if the angel was gone.”
Henry swallowed. “I’ll go there and try to figure out what’s going on. But first, I’m gonna take you somewhere safe.”
Safe was a relative term. He was going to take her to the only place he knew no one would find her. The only place Henry himself had felt remotely safe in years. It wasn’t an ideal location, especially for Viola. But it was all Henry could offer.
He’d take her to the Court of Miracles.
Ryan McGuinness walked into the Indianapolis field office of the FBI wearing his usual frown and feeling as though he had more reasons than usual for wearing it. Not just because he’d recently been shot and was still trying to figure out a way of moving without pain. And not just because he’d had quinoa for breakfast, which wasn’t the culinary experience the girl at the health food shop had suggested it would be. No, that was shit Mac could have handled with his usual cranky equanimity. What really rankled today, what really hurt, was that Henry Page had run out on him.
And Mac had been dumb enough to think there was something there. That somehow he’d dug through enough layers of bullshit and found something real underneath. He wanted to believe that, wanted to think Henry had been genuinely sorry to leave, but how the hell could he? It wouldn’t be the first time Henry had played him for a fool. Or even the second.
He’d stopped in at Henry’s hotel before work. The hotel that Henry was charging to the FBI, thanks to his status as a witness. He’d expected it to be cleaned out, but Henry’s stuff was still there. A bag, some clothes, and a dog-eared Pocket Shakespeare. A pair of glasses with a bent frame.
So maybe he hadn’t lied. Maybe he was coming back. And maybe Mac should stop obsessing about how much he was hurt personally, and concentrate on how much losing his witness—again—would cost them when Dean Maxfield went to trial.
“Hi, Mac,” Paula said when the elevator doors opened. She was doing something to the plant on her desk that involved a tiny pair of scissors and a spray bottle. “Is Henry with you?”
Her face fell. “He was going to help me feng shui my workstation.”
“Two things.” Mac tried not to grind his teeth. “First, feng shui is bullshit. Second, Henry doesn’t work here.”
Paula huffed and hugged her spray bottle to her chest.
Mac rubbed his forehead. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Paula said primly. “You just got shot, so it’s understandable.”
Mac held her gaze for a moment. No, it wasn’t understandable, and he’d been a cranky son of a bitch long before he’d gotten shot. They were both thinking it. “If I see him, I’ll tell him to come and see you.”
She brightened, and Mac continued on to his office.
Valerie Kimura knocked a few minutes later and didn’t wait for a response before coming in. “Where’s Henry?”
Mac turned to her, wincing suddenly. He maybe should have taken another pain pill, but he hated how sluggish they made him. “Did he promise to feng shui your office too?”
“What are you talking about?”
Mac toyed with the idea of trying to keep Henry’s absence a secret from Val and waiting to see if he came back before anyone found out he’d been gone. But he didn’t keep secrets from Val. “I don’t know where Henry is.”
He was impressed by how little her expression changed. “Explain.”
“I was with Henry last night,” he started.
Now her expression did change, and he couldn’t tell if she was disgusted or impressed. Disguspressed—Henry’s word. And Mac shouldn’t have felt regret, sharp and quick, at that memory. Shouldn’t be nostalgic for the good times he’d spent in the company of a con man. Maybe Val was neither disgusted nor impressed. Maybe she was just pissed off.
Mac ought to have been pissed at himself too, because he’d come this close to sleeping with a witness. Eight years of an almost compulsive professionalism—give or take a time or two—plus a determination to go down, not as a nice guy, but as an efficient one. All of that had snapped after less than a week with Henry.
“I know.” Mac drew a deep breath. “We didn’t— It wasn’t like that.” It should have been. It almost was. “We were having dinner. Henry got a call. Something that upset him a lot. He was asking where someone was, and he told them he’d be right there. He left.”
“And you let him go?”
“He’s not our prisoner.”
“No, but he’s got a history of disappearing. On your watch.”
That wasn’t anything more than a statement of fact, a mild reproof, maybe. But Mac felt it like a blow, as if he should lash back. “Who knows when Maxfield will go to trial? We can’t keep him on the short leash until then.” He forced his tone calmer. Val wasn’t the problem here. Henry was. “He promised me he’s coming back. I’m sure—I believe—he will be here for the trial.”
“He’d damn well better be, or so help me, Mac, we’ll have to charge him with everything.”
Not that any of them had a clue what everything was. All they knew for sure was that Henry had stolen a car and impersonated a cop. And had run from the FBI. But Mac was pretty sure there was much more to his history than that. Stolen property, forgery, crooked card games, numerous aliases . . . he’d hinted without ever confessing. And he was clever enough that Mac didn’t doubt he was capable of all of it.
But there was another side to Henry too. A little kid in grown-up clothing. He wasn’t half as bad as he pretended to be.
“He’ll be back,” Mac said weakly.
Val’s expression didn’t soften. “You know full well you should have found out exactly where he was going and when he’ll return.”
“I know. He wasn’t about to tell me, though.”
Val’s gaze traveled the mostly bare walls of Mac’s office. “When he comes back— Mac, I’m serious. You can’t carry on an affair with him.”
Carry on an affair. It made Mac sound like some sleazy politician. Carrying on an affair with his campaign manager behind his wife’s back. “I know.” Mac refused to look at her.
“I needed to talk to Henry. See if he could fill in some blanks in his statement. I couldn’t reach him at the hotel.” There was something off about her tone, something a little strained. She stood beside his desk, and he wished she’d leave. Just wished he could fucking have some time alone to feel sorry for himself.
“I went by earlier. His stuff’s there. I really don’t think he’s bailed on us. And if he has . . .” Then I’ll find him. “Then at least we’ve got Jeff.” Mac said the name with all the bitterness he could muster.
Jeff Cavill. Former analyst. He’d been working for Dean Maxfield, the mob boss the FBI had just arrested. He’d also tried to kill Mac. Jeff had been cooperative about coughing up names and details, in exchange for a greatly reduced sentence.
“Yeah.” Val sighed. “I really can’t deal with another headache right now.”
“What’s the first headache?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“I just got here.”
“Mac, Jimmy Rasnick’s dead.”
Well, Jesus Christ on stilts.
Now there was a piece of news Mac wasn’t sure how to feel about. The memories came in a surge—the years he’d spent tracking Rasnick, the unmatchable high of the day Mac and Val had caught him. The eventual realization that Mac would always be linked to Rasnick—that he wouldn’t be anyone of note if it wasn’t for that bust.
Mac couldn’t pretend to be sorry the guy was dead. Couldn’t pretend to be ecstatic either. Someone like Rasnick shouldn’t be wasting oxygen or public resources. Yet Mac would have liked him to live a long life, all of it in prison and miserable.
“Fuck. What happened?”
“They’re saying he hanged himself.”
“And you’re saying . . .?”
“I have it on good authority that Rasnick had bruises on his arms when they found him. And the bruising on his neck was not consistent with the belt he allegedly used.”
“You think he had help?”
“Rasnick was Catholic.”
“Prison changes people.”
“I’m not saying I think anyone should dig into it. I don’t miss the guy. I just want you to be aware that what’s being reported differs from the actual circumstances.”
Mac snorted. “That’s a first.”
“Right.” Val almost smiled.
“Well,” Mac said after a while, “I guess whoever strung him up did the world a favor.”
Because Jimmy Rasnick was a piece of shit, and if there was such a place as hell, Mac was sure Rasnick was rotting in it.
“Right,” Val said again, but Mac knew that neither of them really believed it. Whatever had happened in that cell might have been justice for every person Rasnick had ever gotten hooked on the drugs he sold, for every accomplice Rasnick had considered disposable once a deal was done, but it still meant a murderer was free. “I’m going to get a coffee. Want one?”
She closed the door after her.
Mac stared up at the framed newspaper article on his wall. Rasnick stared back down at him. Creepy to think of him dead. And not as satisfying as Mac would have thought. Not with all those ruined lives he’d left behind.
Somehow his death seemed to sour the memory of his arrest. Mac had won the battle with Rasnick; had held on to that victory and gloated over it. And now it was as if by dying, Rasnick had gotten the last laugh. Mac remembered so clearly the thrill of that win: he and Val and their team had finally pinned Rasnick to a house in Meridian-Kessler where he reportedly lived with his wife, Flora. But Jimmy hadn’t come by for days. The AD had wanted to bring Flora in for questioning; Mac and Val thought that would send Rasnick running. Flora seemed timid—Jimmy’s little shadow—but Mac had no doubt that if they questioned her, she’d shut up, lawyer up, and find a way to warn Jimmy.
In the end, Val had proposed the idea of using Flora. By drawing from phone conversations of Flora’s they’d tapped, the team had put together a recording in which Flora sounded like she was in trouble. She’d actually been calling a financial hotline about her debt trouble, but she’d been panicked enough, and she’d said the right things: “I’m in trouble” and “I’m scared” and “I don’t want my husband to come home to this”—which they’d edited to “Come home.”
It had been a gamble, but like Mac had told Henry, bad guys did crazy shit for love. Or for a warped idea of love. They’d placed the “call” to Jimmy. And he’d come home.
Flora had been out when he arrived, so the team had been able to storm the house before Rasnick even realized he’d been duped. He’d tried to run out the back, but Mac had grabbed him. Rasnick had fought. Mac could still feel that frenzied determination as he held Rasnick—Not gonna let you go this time, you fucker.
And then he’d slammed Rasnick’s head against the wall.
Left a dent.
In both the wall and Rasnick’s head.
He wouldn’t have given have given any more thought to “excessive use of force,” except that Flora had started making noise a couple of months into Jimmy’s prison sentence. “Police brutality,” “abuse of power,” that kind of shit. Someone must have told her to shut her mouth before she got arrested, and she’d quieted down.
He opened his email. His attention was caught by an item about halfway down the list. It was from Dom Wolman at the BCA. Subject: Request: Sebastian Hanes. Henry’s juvenile record, routed to Mac’s email at last.
Mac had told Henry he wasn’t going to look at the record. That he’d be satisfied with whatever Henry chose to reveal about his past. At the time he’d said that, he hadn’t actually had the record in his possession, but now . . . It was tempting to read the report now that he was face-to-face with it. Besides, he might be breaking his promise to Henry, but Henry had broken his promise to Mac to stick around.
Mac opened it.
He didn’t know what he expected. Something more horrible than what he found, or something less horrible? Maybe he just wanted what Jeff would have been looking for: an address. A background. A family.
There was only one entry on the record: Sebastian Hanes, sixteen years old. Prostitution.
Mac wasn’t surprised. Henry had admitted as much when they’d been sheltering at the cabin outside Altona. Admitted it only because he’d thought Mac already knew. After Mac had asked him when he’d realized he could make money from conning.
“When do you realize? Shit, I don’t know. The first time you spin some fucking john a sob story about your poor, sick baby brother who hasn’t eaten in days, and he’s so hungry, mister . . . And they get so guilty they suddenly don’t want their cock sucked anymore, and they’re shoving more money in your hands than you asked for in the first place.”
Yeah. There were no surprises in the report, except for Mac’s visceral reaction to it. He felt sick. Henry had been sixteen. Just a kid. And logically he knew that kids that age, and kids much younger, worked the streets every day. But now he was imagining every one of them with Henry’s face.
Dom was nothing if not efficient. He’d attached the arresting officer’s report as well. Mac didn’t read that. Wasn’t sure that he wanted to know which street corner Henry had been hanging around on, whose car he had climbed into. Wasn’t sure he wanted to know the name and address of the asshole who’d paid a kid for sex. He felt a hot rage well up in his gut. The sort of rage that didn’t need a fucking target, not if he wanted to keep his job.
He scrolled through the report looking for something else. Henry’s next of kin.
Brenda Louise Hanes. An Indianapolis address at the time of Henry’s arrest.
He entered the name in the database and tapped his fingers impatiently on the edge of the keyboard while he waited for a result.
Brenda Louise Hanes: deceased, a year later at a Kansas City address. Drug overdose.
There was nothing in the file that would help him locate Henry now.
Mac closed his eyes. What had Henry mentioned about his past? That his mom had been an actress. That she’d been the one who inspired his love for Shakespeare. And that, like Mac, he was from Altona.
He hadn’t believed that. He still didn’t, not really. But he picked up his desk phone and dialed anyway.
Three rings, and then: “Hello?”
“Mom, it’s Ryan.”
“Are you okay, honey?” His mom’s voice rose. “Do you need us to come back to the city?”
“I’m fine.” His parents had only just gone home after dropping everything to be there for him after he’d gotten shot. “Listen, can I ask you something?”
“This is kind of a long shot, but do you remember anyone called Brenda Hanes?”
“Brenda Hanes . . .” She exhaled slowly. “Gee, I’m not sure. Someone from town, do you mean?”
“Yeah.” He twirled the phone cord. “She would have had a son, maybe about five or six years younger than me. Sebastian.”
“Oh, you mean Louise Hanes,” his mom said. “She worked at the market one summer. Oh, that’s going back a ways now. Such a pretty girl. She didn’t stay in town very long though. She had these gorgeous kids. Just beautiful. A boy and a girl. Twins.”
“Twins,” he said. Fuck. Of course.
Henry on the phone the night before: “Don’t go anywhere, Vi.”
It all conspired to tickle something in Mac’s memory that a quick Google search confirmed. Twelfth Night. Sebastian and Viola.
“They were such cute kids,” his mom said. “I wonder whatever happened to them.”
He stared at his computer screen. Sebastian Hanes. Sixteen. Prostitution. “Do you know where she moved to?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone really knew her that well. Did you just call me to take a trip down memory lane?”
“No!” He made a face when he realized how defensive he sounded. “I wanted to thank you for coming to look after me.”
“Uh-huh,” his mom said. “You’re just like your father. You can’t stand it when people make a fuss. But too bad. If my baby gets shot, you can bet I’ll be there being embarrassing and mom-like.”
“Summer camp all over again.”
“That was one time, and you forgot your underwear.”
“You didn’t need to come running through the camp waving it around like a flag. I was fourteen. Do you have any idea how mortifying that is when you’re fourteen?”
“Oh, please. What else were the girls and I gonna have to laugh about at book club?”
“I knew you did it on purpose.”
“Is this line recorded? Because I’ll deny it otherwise.”
“Yeah, it’s recorded.” Mac smiled.
“Damn.” She hesitated. “Honey?”
“Don’t you ever get shot again, okay?” Her voice wavered somewhere between laughter and despair, as though it had started out as a joke but she’d lost her way somewhere in the delivery.
His heart clenched. “I’ll try not to, Mom.”
“And you shouldn’t be back at work already,” she said. “You should be on leave. You need to rest and recover. Come home for a while. It’s been too long since you were in town.”
“What?” Her tone was immediately suspicious.
“You and Dad haven’t been to the cabin this week, have you?”
“No. Why would we? Why are you asking that?”
“Um . . . It happened at the cabin. That’s where I got shot. Sorry, I thought we’d already had this talk.”
He distinctly remembered discussing this with his parents, right about the time the talking dog was in the room, and Shakespeare kept interrupting to ask if there was really spanking in Kiss Me, Kate, and how kinky it got. Mac had been on a shitload of morphine.
“You got shot in our cabin?”
“Well, outside.” He winced, recalling the damage. “But it’s cleared up now. I mean, as far as I know all the crime scene guys are done. And I’ll replace the bedroom rug.”
Shit shit shit.
“Why? What happened to the bedroom rug? Ryan?”
He rubbed his hand across his forehead and tried his very best to explain in a way that would not cause his mom to freak out entirely. Half an hour later, chalking that up to a failure, he finally disconnected the call and turned back to his computer.
This time he typed in a different name.
He got an address in Zionsville.
A dog’s low, rough bark made Viola jump beside Henry.
“Don’t worry.” Henry guided her around to the side of the house, to a scuffed white door. “That’s just Doorbell.”
He saw Viola look in the direction of the neighbor’s yard, where a red and white pit bull stood behind chain-link. The dog lifted its head and barked again.
“Hey buddy,” Henry said.
Doorbell kept barking, but he was wagging his tail.
“He always does that when someone new comes around.”
“Can I pet him?” Viola started toward the fence.
“Maybe later, okay Vi? We should go inside.”
The Court of Miracles was a basement apartment outside Indianapolis. Home to Stacy, Henry’s friend and fellow con artist. Stacy had been in the game a lot longer than Henry had. She was fifty-six but had the energy of a woman half that age. There was a whole gang that hung out at Stacy’s: cardsharps and con artists, hackers and forgers. They’d dubbed the apartment the Court of Miracles last year in homage to the gypsy lair in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. People came and went, and they all had their own projects they were working on, but it was nice to have a central location. Crime was a lonely business, Stacy always said.
Henry was nervous about bringing Viola here. The Court was a strange place at the best of times, but with Remy using, and Carson taking advantage of Remy’s desperation for money, and Gerald back in town . . .
He would definitely have to rely on Stacy to keep Vi safe.
There was the added problem that he didn’t want Viola exposed to these people and their world. Bad people, he couldn’t help thinking, even though he was one of them. Viola was an adult, but her injury had left her as impressionable as a child. Doctors had estimated her mental capacity to be around that of an eight-year-old. Henry wasn’t so sure. He still saw flashes of the adult Vi. Those flashes had given him false hope: surely there was a way to unlock whatever part of her brain had been shuttered off. He’d thought if he could just get enough money together, he could get Vi out of St. Albinus and somewhere they could offer her state-of-the-art treatment.
It had taken him a long time to accept that Viola wasn’t going to be fixed. That the best thing he could do was accept who she was now—still his sister, still beautiful and amazing and smart as hell. Still his best friend.
For so many years, they’d taken pride in the way they thought alike. In their shared interests and ability to read each other. And yet Henry had always valued their differences as well, the things that identified them as individuals. Viola scorned romantic comedies, while Henry steered clear of anything that didn’t have a happy ending. Vi was athletic, while Henry preferred art. Copying images and signatures. Designing costumes. Mimicking people’s body language.
They weren’t the same person; never had been and never wanted to be. Yet their closeness was what he’d clung to when everything else was going to shit. He couldn’t shake the guilt, the feeling that he was responsible not only for damaging Viola, but for severing the connection between the two of them.
She should hate him. But he’d robbed her even of the ability to understand what an asshole he was.
“Don’t be nervous, Vi,” Henry whispered as he shut the door behind them and led the way down the stairs to the basement. “Some of my friends are a little weird, but they’re all right.”
Viola giggled. “You have weird friends?”
He turned to her and grinned. “I do.”
“So do I.”
He thought about Mr. Crowley. Fair enough.
He opened the door at the bottom of the stairs and led Viola into the Court. It was surprisingly clean. Mismatched furniture, a dartboard on the wall with an FBI recruiting poster taped over it—the poster was new—and a couple of Gerald’s impressive art forgeries on the other walls. “Paintings,” Gerald insisted. “They’re only forgeries if you try to sell them as the real thing.” Which Gerald would do one day, no doubt.
Viola gazed around. “Is this where you live?”
Henry happened to glance down and saw that she was barefoot. He looked back toward the door. She’d slipped her shoes off when they’d come in.
Their mother had always tried to get them to take their shoes off before coming inside when they were kids. And ninety percent of the time they’d been too excited, too full of energy, too eager for the next stage in whatever game they were playing, to bother.
“This is where I stay sometimes.”
Viola looked at him. “But where do you live?”
He hesitated. “I travel around a lot. You know that. I don’t really live anywhere.”
“I have to stay at St. Albinus.” Viola didn’t say it like an accusation, but Henry flinched all the same. “But not while the angel’s there. Maybe now I could live somewhere else. Like here!” She hit his shoulder, then laughed.
He smiled and rubbed his shoulder. Didn’t say anything about what a sad thought that was—Viola living here.
“About the angel,” he said, leading her toward the kitchen. “Does Ms. Eiling think anything funny’s going on?”
“Ms. Eiling doesn’t work there anymore.”
He stopped and turned to her. “What?” Barbara Eiling had been the director at St. Albinus since Viola had arrived there seven years ago. He’d met her once or twice. Liked her. Trusted her, which was rare.
“A man works there now. His name is Mr. Carlisle, and he shaves his face but forgets right here.” Viola ran her index finger under her chin down to her throat.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” A mostly rhetorical question. He didn’t have an address, and it had been weeks since he’d visited St. Albinus. He’d called a couple of times to talk to Vi, but he hadn’t made himself accessible to the care center for news updates.
Viola looked puzzled. “I don’t know.”
“How long has he worked there?”
“He came on a game day.”
St. Albinus often had pizza parties in the common area on Hoosier game days. Henry knew fuck all about the football schedule though. “This month? Last month?”
“Two months. The first game day. He has a friend too.”
“Who’s his friend?”
“She’s an old lady.”
Viola nodded. Her attention had been caught by someone’s shirt on the couch. Remy’s. A couple of sizes too small for any adult, and ripped in strategic places.
“Well, what does Mr. Carlisle think of the angel, then?”
Viola didn’t have time to answer, because Carson stepped out of one of the back rooms. Of course he’d be the first person they would meet.
“Carson,” Henry said, not trying too hard to sound polite.
“Who’s this?” Carson looked Viola up and down.
Fuck. Henry had been kidding himself if he’d thought Carson wouldn’t be a problem. Just the glimpse of the guy’s hairy gut poking out from under his shirt made him sick. Reminded him of too many men he’d known as a teenager who thought they had claim to anything they wanted. Who wore their lack of grooming like a badge of pride. Who stared at you, just like Carson was staring, because they knew it made you feel small.
He figured his disgust with Carson was fueled by what Carson had done—was maybe still doing—to Remy. Remy no longer seemed capable of refusing any chance to make a few bucks. And Carson had been taking full advantage of that. “Look what this little faggot will do for twenty bucks,” Carson had said incredulously when Henry had walked in on them a few months ago. And he’d tangled a hand in Remy’s hair and pushed Remy’s head farther down.
Remy hadn’t stopped. Hadn’t even made an effort to look at Henry.
“This is my sister,” he said tersely. “You seen Stacy?”
“Taking a bath.” Carson didn’t take his gaze off Viola. “Your sister, huh? You two twins?”
“Yes,” Viola said. But she stepped a little closer to Henry, and didn’t make an effort to talk to Carson beyond that.
“Stacy?” Henry called.
“In a minute, hon,” Stacy said from the back of the apartment.
The Court was pretty big—they had the entire basement of the house, and the couple who lived upstairs traveled a lot. Stacy got reduced rent for watering the plants.
“Who else is here?” he asked Carson.
Carson grunted. “Jo.”
No Remy, then. Remy was out doing God knew what.
But at least he wasn’t doing God knew what with Carson.
Henry glanced at the poster covering the dartboard. A picture of an agent in a dim room staring out a window, the words “FBI: Justice For All” underneath. Three darts through the agent’s face. He wouldn’t have thought anything of it a couple of weeks ago. Before Mac. You had to decide which side you were on. Criminals didn’t work with feds.
Unless you fucked up, and they caught you. Unless they caught you and you were too much of a coward to tell them to go fuck themselves. Unless you made a deal—your fucking cooperation in exchange for their pathetic efforts to keep you safe from a psychotic mob boss.
Who kept you safe from the FBI? he wondered bitterly, thinking of Jeff Cavill.
And who the fuck had Mac been to tell him he could make something better of himself? To imagine Henry needed his advice on how to live his life?
Suddenly he wanted to throw darts at the poster.
He hadn’t even been caught committing a crime; he’d been caught witnessing a crime, for Christ’s sake. And he’d hung around like an idiot, and called the cops. You try to do a decent thing . . .
Stacy padded down the hall with a towel wrapped around her, leaving wet footprints on the blue carpet. Carson whistled.
“Oh, shut up.” Stacy clouted the back of his head as she passed him. “Henry, is that really you?”
“The one and only.” Henry hugged her.
“His name’s Sebastian,” Viola said.
Henry cleared his throat. “I actually have a different name with my friends, Vi. They call me Henry.”
“Like the play.”
Viola smiled suddenly. “Oh! Like King Henry.”
“Hello, Viola,” Stacy said, extending her hand. “Henry’s told me a lot about you.”
Viola shook Stacy’s hand. “H’llo.” She was studying the tattoo of some Eastern goddess on Stacy’s upper right arm. Reached out to touch it.
Henry caught her wrist. “Um, Vi?”
Viola looked at him.
“It’s all right.” Stacy held her arm out. “Check it out. It’s one of my favorites.”
Viola traced the goddess’s outline.
“Lakshmi,” Stacy said. “Hindu goddess of money and good fortune.”
“Oh.” Viola paused with her finger on Lakshmi’s crown.
Stacy glanced at Henry. What’s she doing here? What the hell are you thinking? Stacy’s face was never hard to read, unless she was playing cards.
He shifted. “Viola needs a safe place to stay for a while. Just for a little while!” he added, as Stacy opened her mouth. “Just until I can investigate something.” He lowered his voice. “I can give you money.”
Carson snorted. “You run a boarding house here, Stace?”
“Carson, could you give us a little privacy?” Stacy’s voice was cool.
Carson scratched his belly and wandered back to his room.
“Is this a good idea?” Stacy demanded as soon as Carson was gone.
“It’s my only idea.” Henry heard Carson’s door click shut.
Stacy turned to Vi. “Viola, I would love to have you stay here and get to know you better. But the house is a little full right now.”
“I could camp outside.” Viola glanced at Henry. “Like we used to.”
He tried not to remember. “Gotta keep you inside, Vi. Make sure no one can find you.” He looked at Stacy again. “Please? I swear, I’ll be back in two days. Three max. Keep an eye on her. Don’t let Carson bother her.”
“I don’t need a babysitter!” Viola said angrily, grabbing Henry’s arm and squeezing.
“I know you don’t. I know.” He pried her fingers off. He tried not to let anxiety make him sound impatient. “But you need help with food. And you want company, right?”
Viola’s eyes watered. She pressed the heels of her hands into them. “I want to see Mr. Crowley.”
Shit. She was going to cry. And he felt awful, because for a second he was more concerned about her blowing her chance to be allowed to stay at the Court than he was about her distress. He could see Stacy warring between sympathy and the knowledge that it was completely impractical to host Viola here.
Just then, the door to the front bedroom opened, and Jo walked out wearing layer upon bustled layer of artfully tattered skirts, a black corset studded with tiny rhinestones, gray stockings with what looked like funnel clouds winding down each leg, and granny boots. Her black curly hair was done up in two long braids caged in silver, and she’d dusted her dark skin with some kind of shimmery powder.
“Henry!” she said. “I thought I heard your voice.” She twirled, the layers of her skirts flying out. “What do you think?”
“Nice. What’s the occasion?”
“Dream Con is coming up. I’m going to attend.”
“. . . Because you love nerdy trading card games?”
“Because I’m going to steal the country’s most valuable collection of first edition Dream Wars cards.”
“Ah.” Henry stepped slightly in front of Viola, as though that might somehow shield her from Jo’s casual admission. “Um, Viola, this is Jo. Jo, this is my sister, Viola. She’ll be staying here for a few days.” He glanced at Stacy, who closed her eyes briefly, but nodded.
Viola chewed her thumbnail, eyes still a bit red. But she stared at Jo’s stockings and eventually smiled. “I like your socks.”
“Thanks. They’re not quite the right size, but I like them. I’m going as Admirella Cesan. I want the costume to be good, but not so good that I attract a lot of attention.” She grinned. “And of course I went for the character who’s a cat burglar.”
Henry tried to laugh. “I don’t really follow nerd culture.” He wanted to get Jo off the subject of stealing. He’d never been ashamed of what he and the others did, exactly. He considered it a necessity, and there were a lot of times he enjoyed playing the system. But now it seemed all wrong. This place. The dartboard. The people. What they did. He wished he could have led Viola into some luxury apartment he’d bought with his own damn money and said, Here. You can live here, and you never have to go back to a care center.
He used to imagine that all the time—that one day he’d find a way to bring Viola home, to look after her himself. But it had never been possible. Any money he made had to go to St. Albinus—a top-notch care center, to be sure, but no substitute for a home. He was stuck. He couldn’t stop paying for Viola to be there, but he couldn’t afford to get her out if the bills kept sucking him dry.
Stacy nudged him. “You heard from Remy?”
Henry shook his head.
“He went off with Lonny a couple of days ago.”
Shit. Lonny Harris used to be a half-decent fence. Now he didn’t do much but shoot up. Lonny and Remy had bonded over a mutual love of heroin, and now whenever Lonny was in town, they ended up in each other’s company.
“Not here.” Henry kept his voice low. He nodded at Viola, who was still studying the pattern of Jo’s stocking. Her fingers were twitching, like she was aching to touch.
“Just thought you should know.”
Like Henry needed one more thing to worry about right now.
“Are you playing dress-up?” Viola asked Jo, looking up.
“You bet I am. I’ll have to get you to model some costumes for me while you’re here. Maybe some boy’s outfits, since you’re so tall.”
Her words jolted Henry. He still didn’t have a plan for how to investigate the bad angel. But now he wondered . . .
He was never going to get access to the St. Albinus facility as a visitor. And he’d already impersonated a doctor once this week—it would be pushing his luck to try that again. Plus he’d looked at the embroidery on his borrowed lab coat since then and seen that it said “Patricia Gordon, Makeup Artist” on it. So, you know, oops.
He also knew that as long as Viola was missing, St. Albinus would be looking for her. And as long as they were looking for her, she was in danger.
There was only one plan he could think of that would both give him inside access to the care center and end St. Albinus’s search for Viola. He’d played a lot of roles in his life, but never one like this. But if Rosalind could manage it in As You Like It, if Portia could manage it in The Merchant of Venice . . .
“Jo,” he said. “I’m gonna need you to help me with a costume.”
“Sure.” Jo straightened her skirt. “What do you need?”
“I need you to make me look like Viola.”
Jo tilted her head. “You already look like her.”
He took a deep breath. You didn’t think about failure going into something like this. You couldn’t afford to.
“I know,” he said. “But Jo? I need you to make me look exactly like her.”
Lisa Henry and J.A Rock take you on a funny, sad, touching, touch ‘o’ kinky, crime-story journey, and they do it in such style.
This is a fast-paced, edgy novel with two very interesting heroes.
JA Rock is a writer I adored long before she started co-writing with Lisa Henry and the two of them writing together produce absolute gems.
An exciting continuation of the adventures of Henry and Mac.
Merchant of Death has so many delicious twists and turns that I nearly clapped my hands in glee as I read this fast paced, gritty and sexy novel.