Mr. Clarinet

A Novel
By Nick Stone

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Nick Stone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060897338

Chapter One

Honesty and straightforwardness weren't always the best options, but Max chose them over bullshit as often as he could. It helped him sleep at night.

"I can't," he told Carver.

"Can't or won't?"

"I won't because I can't. I can't do it. You're asking me to look for a kid who went missing two years ago, in a country that went back to the Stone Age about the same time."

Carver managed a smile so faint it barely registered on his lips yet let Max know he was being considered unsophisticated. It also told Max what kind of rich he was dealing with. Not rich, richeold money, the worst; connections plugged in at every socket, all the lights on, everybody home—multistory bank vaults, fuck-off stockholdings, high-interest offshore accounts; first-name terms with everybody who's anybody in every walk of life, power to crush you to oblivion. These were people you never said no to, people you never failed.

"You've succeeded at far tougher assignments. You've performed—miracles," Carver said.

"I never raised the dead, Mr. Carver. I only dug 'em up."

"I'm ready for the worst."

"Not if you're talking to me," Max said. He regretted his bluntness. Prison had reformed his erstwhile tact and replaced it with coarseness. "In a way you're right. I've looked for ghosts in hellholes in my time, but they were American hellholes and there was always a bus out. I don't know your country. I've never been there and—no disrespect meant—I've never wanted to go there. Hell, they don't even speak English."

Then Carver told him about the money.

Max hadn't made a fortune as a private detective, but he'd done OK—enough to get by and have a little extra to play with. His wife, who was a qualified accountant, had managed the business side of things. She'd put a fair bit of rainy-day money away in their three savings accounts, and they had points in The L Bar, a successful yuppie joint in downtown Miami, run by Frank Nunez, a retired cop friend of Max's. They'd owned their house and two cars outright, taken three vacations every year, and eaten at fancy restaurants once a month.

He'd had few personal expenses. His clothes—suits for work and special occasions, khakis and T-shirts at all other times—were always well cut but rarely expensive. He'd learned his lesson after his second case, when he'd got arterial spray on his five-hundred-dollar suit and had to surrender it to forensics, who later handed it to the DA, who recycled it in court as Exhibit D. He sent his wife flowers every week, bought her lavish presents on her birthday and at Christmas and on their anniversary; he was also generous to his closest friends. He had no addictions. He'd quit cigarettes and reefer when he'd left the force; booze had taken a little longer but that had gone out of his life too. Music was his only real indulgence—jazz, swing, doo-wop, rock 'n' roll, soul, funk, and disco; he had five thousand CDs, vinyl albums, and singles he knew every note and lyric to. The most he'd ever spent was when he'd dropped four hundred bucks at an auction on an autographed original double ten-inch vinyl copy of Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." He'd framed it and hung it in his study, opposite his desk. When his wife asked, he lied and told her he'd picked it up cheap at a house-repo sale in Orlando.

All in all, it had been a comfortable life, the sort that made you happy and fat and gradually more and more conservative.

And then he'd gone and killed three people in the Bronx, and the wheels had come off and everything had skidded to a loud, ungainly stop.

Postprison, Max still had the house and his car in Miami, plus $9,000 in a savings account. He could live on that for another four or five months tops, then he'd have to sell the house and find a job. That would be hard. Who would employ him? Ex-cop, ex-PI, ex-con—three crosses, no ticks. He was forty-six: too old to learn anything new and too young to give in. What the fuck would he do? Bar work? Kitchen work? Pack shopping bags? Construction? Mall security?

True, he had some friends and people who owed him, but he'd never called in a favor in his life, and he wasn't about to start now that he was on his knees. It would be tantamount to begging, and that went up against his every rule. He'd helped people out because he could at the time, not for what they could do for him later, not for points in the karma bank. His wife had called him naïve, marshmallow-soft under the concrete-and-razor-wire carapace he showed the world. Maybe she'd been right. Maybe he should have put self-interest before others. Would his life have been any different now? Probably, yes.

He saw his future, clearly, a year or two from now. He'd be living in one of those one-room apartments with stained wallpaper, tribes of warring roaches, and a set of dos and don'ts on the door, handwritten in semiliterate Spanish. He'd hear his neighbors arguing, fucking, talking, fighting; upstairs, downstairs, left and right. His life would be one chipped plate, a knife, a fork, and a spoon. He'd play the lotto and watch the results go against him on a portable TV with a shaky picture. Slow death, gradual extinction, one cell at a time.

Take Carver's job or take his chances in the postcon world. He had no other choice.

Max had first spoken to Allain Carver over the phone in prison. They didn't get off to a good start. Max had told him to fuck off as soon as he'd introduced himself.

Carver had been pestering him pretty much every day of the last eight months of his sentence.


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