HAZARD BROKE DOWN ANOTHER BOX and carried it to the landing, where he had a growing pile. Moving into the office for his private investigation agency had actually been a fairly straightforward affair. Once Hazard had learned that Somers had rented the place without asking him, and once Hazard had learned that Somers would dump his dumb ass if he didn’t really get serious about opening the agency, everything had been pretty clear.
Divorce, not dump, a little voice in his brain reminded. Somers had said divorce, not dump. And then Somers had said the M word. The fucking M word.
Right now, the suite of rooms above an empty storefront on Market Street didn’t look like much, but it did look better. Some of Hazard’s efforts were paying off. The large, front room, where Somers kept talking about hiring an assistant and having him handle the administrative side of things, currently sported several tubular chairs, a fern that slumped against the cracked front window, and a painting that Somers had hung, crookedly, of the Grand Rivere. Hazard’s office held his desk, a beautifully crafted piece that Somers had stolen, literally, from his parents, and a pair of chairs. Over the last few weeks, Hazard had been moving various professional books—both ones that he had owned as a police officer and, now, ones that he had acquired as part of his new career—from home to office. Hence, the cardboard box.
Hazard crossed the room, adjusted the painting so that it was level, and went to his private office. He powered up the laptop Somers had picked out, dropped into the chair Somers had wanted him to have, and navigated the advertising website where Somers had dropped an obscene amount of money and told Hazard, when the fight about how much to spend had escalated, something to the effect of: It’s already fucking spent, so you can either use it or not.
Studying the website, Hazard tried to figure out how to use the money that Somers had spent on him. The money Hazard hadn’t earned. The money Hazard didn’t deserve. The money that might be a very poor investment, judging by how well Hazard had done with his last client, who had been abducted and tortured and almost killed. Hazard had seen Mitchell Martin in the Savers just a few weeks before, from a distance, for an instant before Hazard ran away—ran and hid. The young man was still on crutches, and he looked like he’d been partially rubbed out with an eraser.
Flyers. People still looked at flyers, right? The internet hadn’t completely obliterated flyers, had it? Hazard’s fingers hovered over the keyboard. He sat there for maybe five minutes. Thinking.
Then he closed the browser tab. Maybe he’d better start with a business card first. That would make sense, right? The business cards he had, the ones he’d bought before he was even really sure he wanted to do this, just said, Emery Hazard, Private Investigator. So Hazard looked at linen cards. Then he looked at squishy cards that turned into sponges when you put them in water. Then he went cheap, the bare bones.
And after maybe fifteen minutes, he closed the tab.
Maybe a website first. Maybe that was most important.
But the problem, the real problem, was that Hazard needed a name for the business. And a logo. He was fairly sure that he needed a logo. Something that would communicate, visually, what his business was going to stand for.
So, he told himself, quit being such a pansy about the whole thing. Quit dancing around it. Quit rearranging the three pieces of furniture, quit watering the fern, quit phoning the landlord about the cracked glass, quit playing with your dick and get down to business.
Ok. A name.
That was easy. Hazard opened a blank document, fingers flying across the keyboard. He considered what he’d written, revised. A little shorter. A little punchier. Perfect. Now he just needed a logo. He pulled up a stock images site and browsed for twenty seconds before he found exactly what he wanted. After buying the image, he pasted it onto the document. There. He was grinning, aware of the flush in his face, the ridiculously exaggerated sense of satisfaction at having accomplished even this much. But at least he had something to show Somers tonight, a mock-up for the flyers and business card and website and, fuck, LLC filing.
His printer hummed and chugged just as a knock came at the office door.
Hazard reached for his gun, the Ruger Blackhawk chambered for .45 Colt, six-cylinder, resting in the top, right-hand drawer.
For a moment, Hazard was still reacting, his hand wrapping around the Blackhawk’s checkered rubber grip, his whole world narrowing down to the need to run or shoot or both. Then, by inches, he clawed his way back to control. It had been like this for him—he couldn’t think about it more than that, couldn’t face it head-on yet—since July, when he had walked into the ruined hallways of the Haverford to face Mikey Grames.
He was getting better, he told himself.
Pulse stuttering in his neck, he hid his hand, still holding the gun, in the drawer. He worked moisture into his mouth. “Yeah?”
The doorknob turned; the door opened slowly. Walter Hoffmeister poked his head into the room like he was doing some kind of shtick.
“For fuck’s sake,” Hazard said, releasing the Blackhawk and shutting the drawer with his elbow. “Come in.”
The thing about Hoffmeister, Hazard decided as the man took a seat, was that there was nothing to love. Hoffmeister was an asshole. The whole universe was one big fire hydrant for Hoffmeister to piss on. He was tall, thin, and sallow; he looked like a foam cup yellowing in the sun.
“Aren’t you supposed to have some sort of secretary?” he asked, jerking his thumb at the empty front room.
“What do you want?”
“Kind of fucking stupid for you to be back here, hiding in a closet, with that big room empty out there.”
Hazard leaned back; the chair creaked under his weight.
Hoffmeister crossed his legs, ankle bouncing on his knee. “Place is a fucking dump.”
Hazard’s fingertips curled around the leather armrests.
“You see the front window is cracked?” Hoffmeister whistled. “You’re going to pay a fucking fortune this winter. And next summer? Jesus, you’ll have mosquitos in here the size of poodles.”
For a moment, Hazard visualized a Mack truck, a runaway, coming down Market Street with its brake lines cut. And Hazard and Hoffmeister, both of them, standing there on the curb. And Hazard’s hand on Hoffmeister’s shoulder. Like they were buddies.
And hey, it was an infinite universe. Anything could happen.
“Let’s go outside and get some fresh air,” Hazard said.
“Nah, this stretch of Market smells like fish, you know? Jesus Christ. Did you pick this place? What a fucking mess. How much are you paying? Jesus Christ, if you tell me you’re paying more than, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty bucks a month, you’re getting hosed.”
“A hundred and fifty bucks a month won’t rent you a storage unit.”
“Oh man,” Hoffmeister said, laughing, stretching out now that he’d pissed on everything, hands behind his head. But his ankle was still bouncing on top of his knee. “Oh man, you are getting dicked up the ass. I knew it. But I guess you kind of like that, right?”
“What do you want?”
Instead of answering, Hoffmeister leaned forward, brushing something invisible off the desk. He ran his thumb all the way to the end of the wood. Then, twisting back and forth, he slouched in his seat.
“You ever feel fucked?” Hoffmeister said, the words bursting out. “You ever feel like the whole universe is just out to get you? I mean, you’ve got to understand, right? You were a cop. And now you’re in this shithole. You know what I mean?”
“I know you’re really fucking lousy at asking for help.”
For the first time since coming into the office—maybe for the first time since Hazard had met him—Hoffmeister smiled. “Yeah, I guess I am. How much do you charge?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. I’m not just saying that. I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m fucked, ok? You heard that psycho bitch at the tree lighting yesterday, right?”
“The one who said, ‘Officer Hoffmeister must die’? Yeah, I heard her.”
“It’s bullshit. It’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to wear a target on my back because some rainbow-sprinkles snowflake is upset that I did my job.”
“You know that woman?”
“But you know what she’s upset about.”
“They’re all pissing their panties about the same thing, Hazard. The same fucking thing: I did my job.”
“This is all wrapped up with the lawsuit, is that it? Assault and battery—is that what it is?”
“Fucking bullshit.” Waving a hand, Hoffmeister added, “Union rep says it’s just a dustup. You know, everybody’s hot under the collar about police. My job, you know what it is? Keeping order. Keeping this town safe. And now I do my job, and what happens? My ass gets slapped with fucking criminal charges.”
“I heard that Ozark Volunteer guy, the one pressing charges, I heard he got hurt pretty bad.”
“Jesus, I knocked him to the ground. That’s it. And he was in the middle of felony assault, for whatever the fuck it’s worth.”
“It’s all just a dustup.”
“Sure, but shit, you know how it goes. This drags on and on, and I’m at a desk like an asshole. And then, when this finally clears, that son of a bitch is going to come after me for money.”
“Do you have money?”
“Fuck no, but that won’t stop him. Just hiring a lawyer is going to cost me a fortune.”
“So hiring me probably isn’t a good idea.”
“Money’s no good to me if I’m dead, dumbfuck. That’s why I’m here.” He leaned forward and drilled a finger into the desk. “Me. Alive. That’s how I want to stay.”
“You think that woman at the tree lighting is really a threat?”
Hoffmeister contracted, slouching in the seat again, chewing a thumbnail. He stared past Hazard, fixated on something Hazard couldn’t see.
“What?” Hazard said. “What happened?”
“Fuck it. This was a stupid fucking idea.”
“No, sit down. Instead of giving me the opening lines from your defense, tell me what’s going on.”
“Why? So you and Somers can have a laugh tonight? Fuck off.”
“You’re here because, for some reason, you don’t think you can take this to the police. Is that right?”
Hoffmeister didn’t answer.
“Fifty dollars an hour. A thousand-dollar retainer. I itemize expenses, and I send a report at the end of every week.”
“You can keep me alive?”
“Tell me what’s going on, and I’ll tell you what I think I can do. Then you can decide if you want to hire me.”
Still chewing a nail, Hoffmeister seemed to consider this. Then he shrugged. “I’m fucked, man. Universe has me fucked.”
“Let’s see if we can un-fuck your life.”
“You ever worked for someone? Jesus, I don’t want to be your first. Probably end up in the funny pages, one big fucking punch line.”
Hazard thought of Mitchell Martin, crutching through the Savers.
“You weren’t worried about that when you walked in here,” was all he said.
Tearing his nail from between his teeth, Hoffmeister blew out a breath. “Screw it,” he said, and then he started to talk.
For the first time in a long while, Emery Hazard’s life is good. His new business as a private detective is taking off. Things are good at home. He loves his boyfriend, John-Henry Somerset; he loves their daughter. He might even love the new friends they’ve found. There’s only one problem: Somers has been talking about marriage.
When a former colleague, Walter Hoffmeister, comes to Hazard and hires him to look into a series of anonymous death threats, Hazard eagerly jumps on the distraction. Hoffmeister might be a jerk, but he’s a paying jerk, and Hazard isn’t convinced the threats are serious.
Until, that is, Hoffmeister is almost gunned down on Hazard’s doorstep. As Hazard investigates more deeply, he learns that more than one person in Wahredua has a reason to wish Hoffmeister dead. His search takes him to the Ozark Volunteers, reincarnated as the Bright Lights movement, but it also leads him into a sanctuary of radical Christianity. Meanwhile, an antifa activist has arrived in town, calling for Hoffmeister’s death and threatening total war with the Bright Lights.
As Hazard continues to look for answers, he becomes a target too—and not just because he’s helping Hoffmeister. The Keeper of Bees is still at large, and the killer hasn’t lost interest in Emery Hazard. Not yet. Not, Hazard begins to suspect, until the Keeper has taken everything Hazard holds dear.
About the Author
Learn more about Gregory Ashe and forthcoming works at www.gregoryashe.com.
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