Newly promoted Detective Inspector Stewart White starts off his career in Leeds with a seemingly random assortment of crimes. A rest area murder. A pub brawl. A missing person.
As the deadly crime spree escalates, White receives a chilling call from a Florida sheriff. A psychotic Special Forces veteran, Robert Cleghorn, has murdered his brother, assumed his identity—and is believed to be looking for his brother’s vacationing wife in England.
Expertly trained to eliminate potential threats to his mission while covering his tracks, Cleghorn quickly proves to be just as elusive as his sister-in-law. Can D.I. White and his newly assigned police team find Stephanie Cleghorn before Robert does?
“The sharpest murder weapons in Damaged Goods are the author’s words, which slice through deftly-built tension with such precision that the reader is left gasping as if a true crime had materialized beyond the pages.” — Jennifer Leeper, author, Padre: The Narrowing Path
“Everett and Coles weave a fascinating crime thriller that spans between the U.S to the U.K. Never predictable, the twists and turns leads to a surprising and satisfying end. A real page turner!” — Steve Bellinger, author, The Chronocar
“An action-packed novel that murder-mystery lovers will enjoy.” — Literary R&R
“Wonderful thriller that is hard to put down, with the action moving at a fast pace. Good characters and a good story make for a great read!” —Mysteries, Etc.
For the better part of three weeks, Robert had battled against the wilderness that had been his brother’s backyard. Now only selected specimens of saw palmetto and wild magnolia were left among the scarred but proud southern oaks that would form a cool canopy over the lanai. Where the ground dipped below the water table, clear pools had formed and water hyacinth flourished. At least some shape, some form, was materializing from the five-acre lot on which Alan had built his dream house.
The house was sited so that the front door opened onto the eleventh green of the Pelicans Dream Golf Club and the back windows looked out over Lake Kissimmee. The house represented the aspiration of many successful men: golf, fishing and boating; a millionaire’s lifestyle without necessarily having to be a millionaire.
Alan, thought Robert as he carried dried up cabbage palm fronds to the shredder, you’re a very lucky man. A beautiful home, three cars and a golf cart in the garage and a pile of money in the bank. Then he thought of Stephanie, his one-time girlfriend. Alan had poisoned her mind against him while he’d been off in Iraq, stolen her while Robert’s back had been turned. At least she was away when he’d arrived: it had made things easier. Off on a holiday in England, his brother had told him.
Robert ground his teeth and managed to bark his shin against the wheelbarrow, he cursed and his thoughts collapsed. A few of the right connections, that’s all it took, he thought, an ounce of luck and it could have been Alan cleaning up my backyard. Another two hours passed while Robert played the if-only game as he worked with the spade. The Florida sun burned his back to a deep mahogany color and the smell of hot earth filled his nostrils. He could feel the soreness beginning and reveled in it the same way he did down at the gym when his muscles struggled with the last few reps.
He closed the valve; the water, almost level with the edges of the pit, started to soak away the moment he turned off the hose. Robert went back to the ten-year-old oak to be transplanted and squinted up at its twenty-foot height, little more than a black silhouette against the bright pale blue sky. The ring trench around it was already three feet deep and all that remained was to cut the deep tap root which still anchored the tree. Choosing the side with the most shade, Robert started the final excavation leaving a ball of damp earth clinging to the roots. The sharp blade of his spade connected with the last root and he sank the edge into the gnarled wood again and again until, suddenly, with a small pop, it parted.
Robert stood back and eased his aching muscles, looking up at the big tree which swayed a little. It swayed a little more and all at once began to lean. Suddenly galvanized, Robert dashed around the tree and put his shoulder to the trunk. He pushed with all his might, but he might as well have tried to stop a moving truck in its tracks. Slowly, inexorably, the tree pushed him out of the way and continued to fall towards the house until the upper branches crashed through the picture window of Alan’s study, spraying glass everywhere.
Robert could hardly believe it. He simply stood and watched as the oak settled itself a little and broke yet more wood off the sill. He closed his eyes and shuddered. When he opened them again, his brother was already striding across the scorched grass and his expression was thunderous.
“You bloody fool,” he said, struggling to find suitable words but palpably failing.
The two brothers shared the same red hair and hard features, differing only in the twenty pounds of extra weight the five-years-older Alan carried and maybe two, three inches more in height. He looked from the damaged window to Robert and back again.
“Why did I ever let Connie talk me into giving you a job? Eh? You’re a foul-up, Rob, a total foul-up. You know that?”
Curiously enough, being called a foul-up did not upset Robert. He knew he had been stupid or rather, that he’d had a hell of a bad break just there and Alan was justifiably mad. What made Robert mad just then was being called Rob. He’d hated the diminutive ever since he’d been a toddler and… Alan should have Goddamn well known that!
“You’ve never amounted to anything,” Alan continued, getting into his stride, “and you never will. Twenty-five jobs in five years—half of…”
How many? wondered Robert. There’d been one or two certainly, maybe three and that accident he’d had that played havoc with his memory… “Hogwash!”
“…and five of them Dad got you. What?”
“Twenty-five jobs. That’s bullshit. How’d you expect anyone to listen to you when you talk bullshit like that?”
“Twenty goddamn five. Dad ran out of friends willing to do him a favor trying to find you work. You broke the poor old man’s heart, you know that? And our mother’s, too.”
Alan’s eyes fixed on the smashed window where about half the oak tree’s canopy had managed to force its way into his study. His tone had become level, almost a monotone as he recited what he had obviously rehearsed in his mind over the years.
“Never the same after that car crash you had with Old Billy’s Chevy. Watched mom and dad go downhill all through the court case, lie after freaking lie you’d told them Rob, and when it all came out, they just started fading away. You were away for five years and it took them all that time to die…”
“Three years. And it’s Robert.”
“Dead they were when you came back, dead and buried. You wouldn’t even come to the funeral, would you?” Alan turned away as he looked back at the damage.
“Hell, Alan, you want to lay the sins of the world on me? Think hard now, anything else you can dredge up and blame on me? They died of pneumonia. Was a bad winter and I didn’t know they’d died. I was… was away working and didn’t have time to call them, is all.”
Alan turned at last and seized his brother by the arms. “You killed them, Rob. You and nothing else.” He increased the pressure and pushed his face closer. “You’re a murderer, Rob. You should never have come back from New Mexico or wherever it was you said you were. They’d still be alive if you’d stayed away.”
“Let go of my arms, you asshole.”
“Why? Hurting you, am I? Pathetic weakling. Always was, Rob.”
Robert sucked in a great breath of warm air. He could feel the tingling beginning, deep down around his stomach. “Just let go, Alan. I don’t want to get mad at you, you’re family. I’m trying to keep that in mind.”
Alan laughed and his grip slackened a little. “Keeping it in your tiny mind?” And he squeezed his fingers tightly again, emphasizing how he was the senior and in his own mind, the stronger. “Rob, the Incredible Hulk, eh?”
The tingle in his nerves had spread to the whole of Robert’s chest now. He was hyperventilating; his eyes would not focus properly. Somewhere at the back of his brain, Robert—the real Robert—had withdrawn, hiding from what he knew was coming.
Clasping his hands together into a wedge, Robert struck upwards, breaking free of Alan’s grip as though it had been a child’s. He brought his locked fists down, striking viciously at the bridge of Alan’s nose, filling his eyes with stinging tears so he never saw the third blow. Using the side of his right hand, Robert delivered the blow his unarmed combat instructor in the forces had called the meat cleaver. It smashed Alan’s larynx to pieces, filling his throat with blood and pulverized tissue. Alan was already dead from massive shock, otherwise the blood and debris in his paralyzed airways would have asphyxiated him very quickly.
Robert’s attack had lasted one-point-three seconds. Long enough for him to extinguish a life, not long enough to analyze his actions or to change them. The moment had been too brief even to think in terms of regret; it had happened at an almost cellular level, an instinct for killing drummed into him in training and one he’d used during the heady days of fighting in Iraq—and since, working for his shadowy organization.
Bodies though. That was the difference back here. Getting rid of bodies. He glanced about furtively, his eyes sliding over the newly dug pit, the garden shredder, and then to the gleaming expanse of water across the yard.
Alligators. Robert remembered the ‘gators, swimming or sitting on their tails or whatever they did out there in the lake. Take a leg off. Take your arm off. He had heard it said in the local bars a dozen times. Take a whole damn body if it was left for them. Robert nodded to himself. Yep, stands to reason, no one—nothing—objects to a free meal.
Robert went through Alan’s pockets, removed his watch, wedding ring, and checked the back pants pocket for a billfold. Instead of weighting the body, he laced a few dead branches together and heaved his brother’s body onto them. He waded out into the shallow margins of the lake and pushed the makeshift raft ahead of him. Looking back, he saw that he was out of sight of the golf course, and the shore was pretty overgrown at this end of the lake. It was unlikely that anyone would spot dearly beloved Alan’s remains from there, so he shoved the branches out toward a dense patch of weeds some thirty feet or so from the bank. His luck held. Just short of the weed patch, the branches came apart, and the body drifted onward, partly submerged and almost unnoticeable.
As Alan’s body disappeared, the incident faded from Robert’s mind. There were no regrets, no attacks of morals; his brother might never have existed as he waded back to the bank and across to the house.
Nothing to keep him here now.
His few possessions were in the guest room, his pickup parked out on the driveway; he could pack everything up and just go.
Robert made up his mind to do exactly that. He went into what Alan had called the great room as the screen door banged behind him. He noticed the five leather suitcases waiting by the hall door. Alan was going to England.
He stood there for several seconds as curiosity got the better of him and he shuffled over and tipped the nearest bag on its back to raise the lid. He was distracted by a small collection of leather document cases on the telephone table beside the suitcases.
Robert picked the top one up. It held a passport which, when he opened it up, held a photo taken some years before: red hair, pale blue eyes and that almost naked look the eyelids had because the lashes were so fair. The angular cheek bones and the sharp, straight nose had been overlaid in Alan’s present day appearance by a layer of soft flesh. The likeness was, Robert realized, very, very close to his own. Especially the hair and that blunt, almost square chin.
Even then, Robert didn’t realize what his subconscious was setting up for him as he checked the other wallets. There were business class air tickets from Orlando, a thousand English pounds, an Avis car rental arrangement, credit cards and Alan’s driver’s license. It was almost as if the plan emerged fully fleshed in the forefront of his brain.
Ten thousand pounds in travelers’ checks—more than fifteen thousand dollars, he realized—that was what clinched it. Some holiday his brother had been planning! His brother had been paying him a hundred bucks a week to clear the wilderness from the lot—plus room and board, of course… which wasn’t much, compared to this sort of money.
Robert put the things back on the table and went through the hallway to his room. He stripped and showered as he built mental lists of things to do. He made a call to a local builder and left instructions for the tree to be moved and the damage made good, using his brother’s name. It would not do to give the local police reason to be looking around when everyone knew Alan was going away.
Robert made himself some lunch and sat in the long kitchen on the west side of the house. Who knew he was here? He’d kept to himself when he’d been out drinking: smoky, dark bars, corner tables, discouraging conversation and watching the chicks doing their bit from the corners of his eyes. Not wanting to associate with anyone who might report him to them…
In fact, the only person who could place him here at the house was Stephanie. He’d overheard Alan talking to his wife the morning before last and telling her that he, Robert, was here. She was staying with relatives in… somewhere. He frowned, looked at the ceiling, somewhere in… in Yorkshire, England. The address would be in Alan’s documents; he had been going to see her… before.
Correction! He, Robert was going to see her. No, he mustn’t think like that: he, Alan, was going to see her. That was the way it was.
Shortly before “Alan” was due to leave for the airport, Robert, now dressed in a smart worsted suit, went outside and parked his pickup behind the left-hand door of the four-car garage. He locked the garage, carried the suitcases out in pairs to Alan’s Mercury and locked the house up. He headed for 27 North. He popped a Jerry Lee Lewis CD into the player and thumbed the volume, humming along and singing the words. Fifteen minutes later he stopped at the first Walgreens he came to and purchased four bottles of ibuprofen and on impulse, a pair of rose-tinted sunglasses, similar in every respect to the prescription glasses Alan wore for driving. He made his way onto I-4, then the 417, and resumed his drive out to Orlando International Airport.
Inside the terminal he checked his bags and glanced at the clock, sliding the glasses down his nose a moment before readjusting them. The time was 3:15, the temperature 92 degrees outside. Inside it was a pleasant air-conditioned 72. He walked through the arch leading into the departure lounge with a spring in his step, barely noticing the steel framework of the metal detector at the entrance. Smoothly, Robert brought out Alan’s passport and handed it to the female official. She took two seconds to open it to the photograph and hand it back to him. If she had glanced at his face it was so briefly that there was no chance of her seeing the tense line across his forehead or the bunched muscles at the corners of his jaw.
In fact, it was only later, when he was sitting in his seat in business class, his coat folded away in the overhead locker, that a perceptive observer would have noticed how the muscles of his forearms gradually relaxed and the white flesh on his knuckles returned to the color of tanned skin. Even then, the watcher would have put it down to takeoff nerves.
Robert would have made one hell of a poker player if he had had a tad more patience. With relaxation came the expected headache which he knew would be followed by a continual nagging feeling—a feeling he had forgotten things, important things. He grinned ruefully and swallowed two ibuprofen dry—the legacy of war, he told himself.