Chapter 1

 

I KNEW he was trouble the moment he walked in the door.

A tall, sexy glass of water, he had the body of Michelangelo’s David, packed into a pair of blue jeans and a Tool T-shirt so tight you could see what he had for breakfast: a shot glass full of orange juice, and a grape. His hair was silky black, a fall of shadow crowning a ruggedly handsome face, with eyes as brown as chocolate kisses and skin the color of caramels. I could have eaten him with a spoon.

“Are you Jake Falconer?” he asked, his voice a smooth baritone coming out of pouty lips that probably had made many men dream of what he could do with them.

“That’s what it says on my business cards,” I replied, leaning back casually in my chair, pretending he didn’t just give me a semi. “Who might you be?”

“Sloane, Sloane Granger,” he replied, surprising me. I was expecting something exotic. “I was told you were the man to see. My twin brother is missing, and I’m afraid something terrible has happened to him.”

“You have a twin?” My mind went to a very dirty place, and I enjoyed the thought of being double teamed by the hunky Granger twins for a second, before snapping back to the here and now. I gestured to the chair in front of my desk, and he had a seat.

Sloane, unaware of my brief sojourn into the gutter, nodded politely. “Yeah, Sander Granger. He’s two minutes older.”

“Sander?” I wondered what kind of sick parents they had. Sloane and Sander? They sounded like a law firm. “Hell of a name. So when did he go missing? Why do you think something terrible happened to him?”

Sloane settled into the chair in a way that made me jealous of the seat. He ran a hand—a big hand—through his hair, messing it up in a way that made it even more irresistibly sexy. “It was last week. He told me he was going to that new club, Heat. You know the one?”

I nodded. “It rings a bell.” Actually, it set off the fire alarm. Every “alternative” gay publication in the city had run at least one full-page ad for the joint. I didn’t go in for gay clubs, mainly because they were too noisy and overloaded on twinks, who weren’t my thing at all, but I’d read the ads anyway. Heat promised “foam parties” (whatever those were), swimsuit contests, and more. It sounded like another cheesy nightclub desperate for business in the recession-wracked downtown corridor.

“Anyways, he left at eight and called me around ten to tell me he was going to this party with Nick… and that was the last I heard from him. I thought maybe he spent the night at some trick’s place, that he’d come home the next afternoon, but he never did.”

“You talk to Nick?”

“Yeah, but he said Sander got picked up at the party by this silver fox, and that was the last he saw of him. He didn’t know the guy, didn’t know where they went.”

I scratched my head, made a show of thinking, when all I really wanted to do was take a slug of whiskey from the flask in my top desk drawer. Whiskey helped me think, even though Spencer, my old partner, claimed I just said that so I could openly drink on the job. “I assume you’ve been to the police.”

“Of course! But they didn’t seem to care. The guy I talked to told me my brother was an adult, and most likely he’d just run off without telling me, that I’d get a postcard from him in a few months or something.”

That wasn’t a surprise. Adult men rarely disappeared involuntarily, although when they did, the reasons weren’t pretty. “Was the cop’s name Hickey?”

He looked adorably confused and after a moment’s thought shook his head. “I dunno. Can’t remember his name.”

“Sounds like him.” There were a lot of dicks at the cop shop—not the good kind—but Hickey was the King Dong of the place. “So why do you think something bad’s happened to him? Not to give credence to the boys in blue, but Sander could have run off.”

Sloane sighed heavily, looking at me with those softly moistening doe eyes. This guy was a hot piece of ass, and he knew it. “He was getting threatening e-mails, and he got a final one the night of the party. I hacked into his e-mail and read it. It said, ‘Tonight’s the last night you’ll ever have’.”

“You let the cops know, I take it.”

“Yeah, but since Sander himself never took them seriously—he thought they were from some troll he encountered on a message board—they didn’t take them seriously either.”

There was a lot in his story that didn’t make sense, but I was still intrigued. Okay, mainly by those rock-hard pecs barely constrained by the taut fabric of his T-shirt and the noticeable bulge in the crotch of his jeans like he was trying to smuggle a salami through customs. But hey, I’m only human.

I know it’s all a cliché: the hard-drinking detective with the run-down office and a lifetime of regrets and bad luck propping up his spine, but far be it from me to bust a cliché.

Sloane didn’t kiss me or tickle my balls, but obviously those possibilities were still on the table, pending the outcome of the case. His credit card was nice and shiny, and I felt like I was taking its virginity, but that just made me want to run it again and again until it begged for mercy.

Yeah, it probably had been too long since I got laid. If only Sloane would help me with that problem.

I watched him leave, his ass so incredibly edible in those tight jeans of his it was all I could do not to lunge out from my desk and bite it. Although the door of my office had a window, it was opaque, so I could only see his shadow once he closed it. Still, it was a sexy silhouette.

I slumped back in my seat and pulled the flask out of the drawer. I had to fulfill the cliché, so it was a silver flask filled with cheap rotgut, which I swigged with abandon even while wincing at the taste.

So yeah, I’m the cliché, a private dick with a cheap office and a dead partner and more debt than I could possibly pay off in a month of Sundays. Not that you could tell from my door. Used to be there was a name painted on the window, but that wasn’t true anymore. The hail of bullets that killed Spencer, my partner in snooping, destroyed the original door, so this was the replacement. I was supposed to hire painters to replace the name, but what was I going to replace it with? Was I really gonna go from Spencer & Falconer, Private Detectives to Falconer, Private Detective? I had no choice, I’d hafta, or I’d hafta find a new partner. Yeah, right. Maybe I’d just hafta retire, find a real job, one that didn’t cut your life span in half and leave you with more trouble than a nun with a grudge in hell’s half acre. The problem was I couldn’t do much else, and frankly I didn’t want to. As much as I hated it sometimes, I was born to be a private dick. I couldn’t change that any more than a zebra could change its stripes.

Sloane had left me his brother’s e-mail and the header of the threatening mail, so I got out my laptop and had a look for myself. Phone calls might taper off, but spam was eternal, sure to continue on long after the world had imploded and was a scarred, barren shell.

The e-mail was a dead end. There was no name, and the e-mail address was one of those that hid your IP address and was just a random series of letters and numbers that ended with a domain name that seemed to indicate the e-mail was sent from somewhere in Eastern Europe, from one of those former Soviet countries that ended in -ia. There was no way I could track that, and while I was sure I could eventually find someone to ask about tracing the e-mail, I’d be an old man with a prostate the size of a grapefruit by the time they got back to me. That wasn’t worth pursuing.

I looked through Sander’s e-mail, though, but that was the funny thing. There was nothing in any of the files save the inbox and the junk mail folder. Even the trash had been emptied. Not that that meant anything—some people just never bothered to save e-mails—but it made me wonder if Sloane had gone through it, sweeping away anything that his brother might have gotten into that was the least bit hinkey. It was something to chew on.

I drained my flask and then realized there was only one thing left to do. Well, two things: the first was refill my flask. The second was go to Heat, see if I could retrace Sander’s steps the night he disappeared. I downloaded a hot picture of Sander from his Facebook page, although it could have been Sloane instead, since they were both hot in the same way.

I didn’t do the gay club scene, or any club scene, mainly because I wasn’t the type. Even if it wasn’t a cliché, I don’t care for people much. It seems like all they do is betray you, either in the form of a venereal disease or in the form of a sexy guy who lets you take him home and then comes back later and fills your business partner full of lead. Even a misanthrope like me can think with his dick, but I paid for it. Or should I say Spencer paid for it¬—I lived to fuck again. Except I haven’t gotten laid since then. If you’re thinking it’s guilt, you’re giving me too much credit. It’s having to find a way to pay all the bills that’s been keeping me from seeing anything besides my own surly mug in the morning.

As it was, the city’s club scene, gay and straight, was dying. Everything in this city was dying, some of it slower than others, but in the end it was all bones and ashes. The gay clubs were doing slightly better, but only because some of the guys needed the scene¬—they hadn’t quite mastered Manhunt or Craigslist or didn’t want to—or were younger guys tired of Internet trolls. But I had the vague conception that they were sad places if you were over twenty-five, and at thirty-four I was entering “circling the drain” territory.

Maybe I should have changed clothes, looked less like me, but I wasn’t fishing for a trick, I had a job to do. So I stayed in my slightly baggy black suit and blue shirt, with my black duster on top of it all, and my tie so thin and black it looked like someone had erased a vertical line into my chest. I liked dressing black and blue, ’cause most of the time I was matching my bruises.

Heat was just what I expected: noisy, hot, filled with wannabes and never-weres, posers who thought all they needed were designer jeans and too-tight shirts to make up for their fatal lack of personality. I should have asked if it worked, ’cause I could use all the help I could get.

The bartender was a hot guy in that frat-boy sort of way, with a mop of curly blond hair and a shaved and gym-carved chest, on display because the bartenders at Heat rarely wore shirts. Although he wasn’t my type, I could appreciate his aesthetic appeal. I showed him Sander’s picture and said I was looking for him, which elicited a small laugh, and the admission he was looking for a guy that hot as well. The other bartender, a Latino twink, was no help either, so I figured I’d start my search with Nick.

On my way out, only one guy hit on me. Made me feel really pathetic. I’m not hideous, but I’m probably not gonna win any beauty contests either. My nose has a small bump, the visible remnant of a break, and there is a pale scar on my chin from the Spencer shooting, but otherwise I have two functioning eyes, a mouth that occasionally doesn’t cuss, and all features arranged in their general correct order. My hair is a brownish black and not thinning yet, although it’s not cut fashionably, mainly because I have no idea what a fashionable cut is. I’d never had a gift for spotting trends, and I was too old to start now.

The guy who hit on me was forty-trying-to-be-twenty, a sad combination of overtanned gym bunny and someone’s dad, so it was easy to brush him off. But I found myself thinking about that Latino bartender, even though I didn’t usually go for twinks.

Traffic kind of sucked, but traffic always kind of sucked, except at two in the morning. According to what I got from Sloane, Nick was Nick Giardi, and he lived up in the hills. Not that he was wealthy; he just rented one half of a duplex that a friend also lived in, so they could turn it into a “party house.” Nothing sounded sadder to me than something like that.

As I drove up into the hills, I had time to wonder if a case as open-ended and potentially unsolvable as this one would pay even a month of bills. The problem with missing persons cases is they’re often left open. People sometimes just disappeared, and if you really wanted not to be found, you could sink without a trace. But on the plus side, if you could keep stringing the client out on hope, you could make a good chunk of change. Maybe it would be worth it after all.

Nick’s duplex was a yellow-painted house down at the end of a road so cracked it might as well have been dirt instead of asphalt. The yard was a patch of burned grass and a few sad plants that looked like they may have committed suicide. There was no car in the oil-stained driveway and no lights on in the squat little house. But for some reason, I wasn’t completely convinced the place was empty.

I knew why when I approached the front porch. The door of Nick’s place was ajar.

Not wide open, but I was close enough I could see that the door wasn’t precisely shut. “Hello?” I asked, reaching for my gun. I had a Glock G19 pistol that I had only used once, too late to do much good since Spencer was already dead by that point, his blood splattered on my face and trickling into my eyes. Since then I’d added a shotgun to the office. Not as many shots, but much more stopping power.

There was no sound inside the house, but by itself that meant nothing. I pulled the Glock and held it out in front of me as I nudged the door all the way open with my foot, expecting the worst. You can’t go wrong by expecting the worst. If things turn out better, it’s always a pleasant surprise.

I let my eyes adjust to the dark before I went forward into the house. What I could make out were just shapes approximating furniture, nothing out of place until I stepped inside the living room. I almost tripped over something hard, and I wondered if it was an end table or a booby trap when my eyes fell on something on the carpet beyond it. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It was amorphous and notable only for being darker than everything else around it, and then I smelled it. Blood.

Nick was home all right, but he was a little too dead to ask any questions. Just my luck.