From THE GOD GAME: A Dan Sharp Mystery
By Jeffrey Round
When the husband of a government aide disappears, private investigator Dan Sharp is hired to track him down. But when his investigation catches the attention of a mysterious political operative known only as the “Magus,” the case gets too close to home. After a body turns up on his doorstep, Dan races to catch a killer and prove his innocence.
Prologue: Toronto, 2013
Never in his life had anything like this happened to him before. He was not the sort of man to be given the sack. And that was precisely why he’d been drinking for the past two weeks. I am not the sort of man to be given the sack, he told himself as he grabbed at his bootlace and pulled. I am John Badger Wilkens III and I was not — here the bootlace snapped — born to be subjected to public ridicule and disgrace.
He frowned and threw the lace down in disgust, glaring at the ragged ends as if they were to blame for his dismissal. John Wilkens, you are hereby suspended from your duties for suspected inappropriate conduct. He remembered every word. That was exactly what they had said when they came to remove him from his office.
He sat there, one boot on and one boot off, staring at the empty bourbon bottle sitting beside the empty tumbler on the otherwise empty table. What a dismal thing to be turned out for suggesting that all was not well behind the scenes at Queen’s Park. A pack of lying thugs had taken over, besmirching his name in the process. And at Christmas, of all times!
He stared at the rebellious boot. If he simply bypassed the top eyeholes and tied the laces shorter — if he could just reach them — he leaned down and grasped. There!
He needed to clear his head and think. What could he do to fight the forces marshalled against him? He’d raised his voice above the crowd and dared to suggest that things were not all they seemed. And no sooner had he spoken those words than he’d found himself facing allegations of misconduct and improper use of public funds. Absurd!
He tugged at the other boot till he had them both on, one lace shorter than the other but secure at last. He tramped to the hallway. The closet swung open with surprising ease, clipping his nose in the process. He didn’t know his own strength!
With a tug, he pulled the trench coat from its hanger and slung it over his shoulders, inserting his arms into the sleeves with difficulty. The garment resisted his efforts. When had he last worn it? The belt barely made it around his waist.
The vestibule opened onto an unseasonably mild December evening. A warm front had come in, creating a dense fog. Streetlamps gleamed like distant fireflies before vanishing around the corner. The whole world was murky.
He patted his pockets for keys. Both sets were there, house and car, but he wasn’t about to get into the driver’s seat. That was all he needed on top of everything, to be stopped for driving while intoxicated. A taxi was also out of the question. Leave no trail. He’d been warned to come alone.
He was halfway down the street before he realized that the insistent tugging at his waist was because he’d mistakenly taken his wife’s overcoat instead of his own. It crossed his mind how ridiculous he must look, but it didn’t seem to matter. Then he saw he’d also left with two mismatched gloves: one leather and the other Thinsulate. One pair for good and the other for shovelling. For pity’s sakes! he thought. Whom the gods would humiliate … !
If he’d taken a proper look before leaving, he might have noticed another small incongruity: the garage door left slightly ajar, a coil of yellow nylon rope missing from its interior. He might have, but his thoughts were elsewhere.
Staggering along, it came to him with a flash of drunken clarity: they were going to gang up and pin this on him. With the election coming, that egregious minister and his mob of supporters were cooking things up to besmirch his party. And they thought there was nothing he could do to stop them.
They were wrong! He had a secret weapon. He’d peeked behind the curtain and discovered a thing or two in the process. But he wasn’t the only one who knew. He thought of the mysterious emails he’d recently received. We both know what’s going on here. I can help you, their sender had offered, but whether they came from friend or foe he couldn’t tell. He’d left the first unanswered. The second was more straightforward: You’re running out of time. Talk to me.
Whatever the sender knew, it meant he wasn’t the only one sitting on such explosive information. Someone besides him realized what was going on. Someone outside the inner circle of ministers and flunkies in the government, maybe even someone with a vested interest in bringing the government down.
From the start he’d tried to stay out of the rabble-rousing and keep his hands clean. But the dirt had come to him. It was impossible to avoid. And, once he began to dig, it was inevitable he would find something.
Nothing could have stopped him from looking once he had the idea. Because he had to know! How could he not? Nine hundred and fifty million! All that public funding down the drain! It still seemed impossible to believe even when he’d seen the proof.
The final message came the afternoon he was suspended. It’s you or them. Deal with me or I go public, his secret sharer had warned.
None of the notes had been signed, but he had his suspicions. They’d all heard rumours of a mysterious, behind-the-scenes manipulator who could make or break you. A Magus. He hadn’t believed in the Magus, but that had been naïve of him. It just made things that much easier to do the dirty work if the world refused to believe in you.
When the problems surfaced, he’d thought of resigning to save face for the party, but it was too late. They wanted a scapegoat. A martyr.
But now it was his turn. He was going to tell his mysterious contact everything he knew in return for clearing his reputation. One thing was sure, he wasn’t going to have this pinned on him like some apparatchik run afoul of the Kremlin.
“Information for information,” he said aloud to the fog as he stumbled along. “You want to know what I know, then you tell me what you know and how you know it.”
His breath swirled, joining the wisps and curlicues of a diaphanous curtain. He stopped and looked back. His home had disappeared in the whiteness. Thank goodness he’d sent Anne away. His cheeks burned with the memory of having to tell her he’d done nothing wrong, but that it might look otherwise until he could reveal a few simple truths. I will clear my name if it’s the last thing I do, he’d told her. Because the whole fucking mess would come out in the wash sooner or later. And then he would be vindicated.
He stumbled along, wondering who he was about to meet. He had his suspicions: it was likely to be one of those beastly reporters hanging around the assembly, sifting the dirt, looking for a juicy story. Whoever it was had found a good one and locked onto the likeliest target: John Badger Wilkens III. To his everlasting shame.
Why do you want to go into politics, Badger? his father had asked years ago. It’s a dirty business. Don’t you know that? John simply shook his head, thinking of ambition. Thinking of righting a few wrongs in the world. But to do that, you had to stay clean yourself. You’re too good for the rabble, Badger. Don’t besmirch yourself.
In his father’s day, politics meant that the big boys came in and assessed the scene then hired the companies to mine for ore and, once that ore was found, they let the corporations bid on the right to extract it. Corporations owned by friends. Next they set hiring standards and got other friends to implement those standards into law and pay the workers, men so desperate for work and so ignorant of what safety meant ever to refuse a job. They came from all over the country, with their wives and children trailing behind. There were always accidents as they stripped the earth and polluted the environment till the vegetation died and the rivers ran rust and someone cried foul, then safety standards were enacted and environmental laws set up to counteract the destruction until the day the ore itself ran out and the workers went elsewhere to start all over again, leaving behind ravaged landscapes and empty pockets for most but swollen bank accounts for a privileged few, the company executives, who simply waited for the next big strike-it-rich opportunity.
And always there were secrets to be kept, names to be protected. Then more laws were enacted to shield those same men from legal repercussions as the whole thing went round and round again. It was never the men you saw, but the men you didn’t see, who made the wheels turn in their tortured, squeaking revolutions.
That was what his father had warned him about, those men you didn’t see coming. The ones John had vowed never to be like or outsmarted by. It was a relief to know his father had died before finding out how true his words were.
John staggered to a corner to read the sign: Heath Street. How on earth … ? In the fog and in his drunken state he’d ended up on one of those little cul-de-sacs backing onto the ravine. The signs had been warning him: No Exit.
A private place, the voice on the phone said. Somewhere close to your home. And then the promise for discretion: Come alone. It’s just a talk. There’ll be no witnesses.
A pile of refuse loomed off to the right. His father had been right: politics was dirt, filth. And there was no one he could turn to except a mysterious emailer intent on discovering what he knew. Well then. Let me tell you what I know, he would say.
He reached the end of the alleyway. The moon suddenly snapped into view, a bone-luminous light coming through the fog. Beyond lay the immensity of the galaxy, the universe spreading on forever. In that moment of illumination, he saw stairs off to his left leading down to the ravine. He was saved!
Then just as suddenly the light was gone again. Eclipsed. It dawned on him that it was nothing more than a streetlamp with a rickety connection. So much for the grandeur of it all. He stopped and laughed at the absurdity. They had him exactly where they wanted him.
It might have been the only moment of true perspective he’d had all week. We are nothing, he thought, peering into the swirling fog. We live and die in the blink of an eye. A brief space between two eternities. All the while, he wondered if it was the alcohol talking. Babble, babble, babble. Just like those fools in the legislature.
Without warning he was convulsed with shame at the memory of his dismissal. The tears came quickly, clouding his vision. In his grief he sat heavily on the pavement, groping with blind hands to feel the earth beneath him.
From a distance, footsteps headed his way. He jerked his head around, wiping his eyes and stumbling to stand, not wanting to be caught in this forlorn posture. Someone was coming toward him silhouetted by the light, monstrous and grotesque, like a giant alien enlarged and projected against a screen of fog.
Suddenly he felt stone-cold sober from fear.
It was a little past seven when the fog began to lift. An early-morning jogger looked up to see the figure suspended from the bridge, an outline coming in and out of the mist. It was a man in dishevelled garb — a woman’s overcoat, mismatched gloves, and boots tied with broken laces — suspended by a yellow nylon cord.
At first the police thought it was a vagabond living in the gully, until they emptied his pockets and took a look at the ID he carried. This was no ordinary man who’d hanged himself. This was a man who’d recently been publicly disgraced. And soon the awakening city would know why.
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