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James Harper


James Harper

Copyright © 2015


All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

This is a work of fiction. All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Chapter 1

The patrón finished his cigarette and flicked the butt away. He watched dispassionately, bored now, as one of the hired hands buried his heavy boot deep into the boy's midsection, lifting him an inch or two off the ground. He couldn't think when he'd last been so disappointed. And he'd had such high hopes when they'd set out that morning. How long had it lasted? Twenty seconds? Thirty, at most. Not long enough to smoke a cigarette, that was for sure; barely half a cigarette. He thought these peasants were supposed to be tough. The one grunting and gasping and flapping around on the ground in front of him, like a hitherto undiscovered species of fish with vocal chords, blood and snot dripping from his nose into the dust, looked tough enough in a wiry, under-fed sort of way; slim muscular arms with ropey veins that would have looked blue if it wasn't for his dirty, sun-darkened skin.

Perhaps his embellishment of the original idea had been a mistake, after all. He tried to bring a little something extra—a certain je ne sais quoi—to everything he did, but maybe he'd gone too far this time. He knew that the man who was at this very moment taking his turn at trying to eviscerate the boy—and he had to stop thinking of him like that; he was a grown man after all—with the pointed tip of his boot had thought so. He'd seen it in his face, an almost imperceptible widening of the eyes, an is he serious? look, although the man would never dare to say so. They'd all nodded so enthusiastically when the patrón had suggested it, broad smiles displaying bad teeth, eagerly breaking their beer bottles in their rush to do his bidding. Sycophants, all of them.

And would it really have made that much difference? He doubted it. Sometimes movies pissed him off so much. If he was in charge—and, who knows, one day he might be if his luck held—he would pass a law that required them to be as accurate and factual as possible at all times. You watched them in good faith and ought to be able to rely on the veracity of what you saw. It was a contract of sorts; you paid your money; you didn't expect to be misled. As far as the practicalities of imposing such a law on films produced in Hollywood were concerned . . . he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

He watched the old man swinging gently in the breeze, blood and tar dripping from his bare feet and pooling in the dirt below him. Urine too. He was really quite fat for a peasant. But then he would be, wouldn't he, stuffed to the gills with stolen pig like he was. The patrón wouldn't have been surprised to see the shape of a pig's trotter poking through the grubby shirt that covered his distended belly. The man's furious thrashing had quickly subsided into a spasmic twitching and had then stopped altogether, the obscene (and irritating) gurgling sound in his throat stopping too, thank God. Which one of the idiots had forgotten to put a rag in his mouth? The patrón had been tempted to shoot him but that would have defeated the object of the exercise as well as disappointing his men. They liked their fun.

He lifted his face to the sky, closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping some of his irritation would ease away. It was quiet now, almost peaceful, apart from a rhythmic thumping as four pairs of booted feet did their worst. He opened his eyes again and watched the men, fascinated, as they crowded around the semi-conscious boy, legs swinging relentlessly in and out, in and out. It was as if they were choreographed. A couple of them, the older ones, were grunting with the exertion, sweat flicking from their hair, but the boy wasn't making a sound now and the patrón could see a dark stain spreading out from his crotch. Like father, like son.

He took a step closer. The men stopped as one and stepped away, glad of the temporary respite. One of them pushed his hat back on his head and scratched his scalp, another spat noisily into the dust and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Disgusting. The patrón tried to imagine the thoughts of men like these. They'd already consumed a number of cold beers. No doubt, more of the same was right up there as a good idea after a successful morning's work. He snorted. Successful for them maybe, but, as he'd already said, he was extremely dissatisfied with his own morning. He turned the boy's head with his boot, careful to avoid the worst of the blood. The flesh was spongy, like a steak that had been tenderized for too long; it made his skin crawl. Jesus Christ, the boy's own mother wouldn't recognize him now.

He glanced briefly at his wristwatch and did a double take; how had it got so late? He had to get going. His wife would kill him if he was late for lunch again. He'd have preferred to stay a while longer but he'd been married long enough for him to know what was good for him. He turned and headed back towards the new '68 Chevy C-20 pickup sitting at the top of the rise, next to the old heap that the hired help were driving. Its previously gleaming paintwork was already covered by a thick coating of dust. He ran his finger through it and shook his head. It was a constant battle. He hated this country some times.

But then a brighter thought bubbled up and made him smile: I wonder what's showing at the movie theater next week, he thought as he climbed in. Hopefully something else with Charles Bronson.

Chapter 2

Evan had just taken a mouthful of beer when he felt the soft touch of a woman's hand on his arm.

'Evan?' a voice he vaguely recognized from the past said.

He turned to look at the woman standing next to him at the bar and just about managed to stop himself from spitting the beer all over her. It went up his nose instead and set him off on a coughing fit. She waited patiently, a hint of a smile on her cushiony lips, as the other drinkers at the bar looked on. It had been a quiet night so far.

'Jesus Christ,' he said, giving her an awkward, mismatched hug, 'Ellie?'

She smiled properly and sat down next to him as the other drinkers shifted along and made room for her. He sat and stared at her a few beats. She didn't look as good as she used to, that was for sure, but still good enough for some of the drinkers to look her up and down as if she were hanging naked in a butcher’s window. He remembered she always liked to think she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer—which she did in a way—except her nose was longer, but you knew what she meant, although it wasn't as if people stopped her in the street and clicked their fingers and said: Hey, you look like . . . Haggard was probably the best way to describe how she looked now, but, then again, he didn't suppose he looked as happy and carefree as he had the last time he saw her.

Ellie Martin had been best friends with his wife, Sarah, ever since high school—until Sarah disappeared five years ago, of course. Ellie had been the first person he'd talked to when Sarah disappeared but she'd been as mystified as he was. He hadn't heard from her since. Just another one of the many people who'd faded away, like Evan wasn't a person in his own right, just half of Sarah and Evan. The lesser half, apparently.

'What are you doing here?' he asked. 'How did you know I'd be here?'