a HARPER collection: Volume One - PREVIEW


The following is an excerpt from the short story...


Another day, another turgid body of another formerly missing, ruthlessly murdered young woman. I found her face down, next to a tree stump in the middle of a clearing in the woods. There was a single ray of sunlight focused on her as if it knew I was coming. As if it wanted to see her get the justice she deserved.

What else is new, right?

From a tertiary glance, it appeared to me the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Upon further inspection however, it was clear to me she had her goddamn throat cut. Straight across. There was so much blood coagulated on and around her that it was hard to tell where it ended and the dirt began.

She was completely unclothed from the waist down, indicating possible sexual assault. The bruising on her inner thighs bolstered that. It also appeared as if some of the local wildlife had taken a few nibbles here and there post mortem.

Her name? Annabelle 'Belle' Warren. She'd likely been there a week or so.

Annabelle went missing nearly a month prior to the day she was found. An ex-girlfriend of hers by the name of Mattie Jones hired me to find her when it began to look like the SPD had abandoned the case in favor of, if I had to guess, donuts.

That isn't a dig at all cops, mind you. Just one particular train wreck.

Unfortunately for Annabelle and Mattie, Robert Peterson was the lead 'detective' of the SPD's missing persons unit at the time. In case you didn't know, he was about the laziest, most worthless sack of shit you were likely to ever have the distinct displeasure of meeting.

More on that idiot later.

The day Mattie Jones came into my office was about as laid back as a day for me can be before her arrival. I spent most of the morning paying my bills online, feeding and talking to my cats Pryor and Wilder, and resisting the urge to say 'fuck it' and shuffle back to bed while I waited for Elizabeth to bring lunch.

It was about a quarter to noon when I heard a knock on my office door.

"It's open. Just know that if you're here to kill me, better men have tried and failed, I assure you." I called out, thinking it was Lizzie.

There was a still silence for a moment, then the door cracked open and a timid, round face poked in.

"Are— are you Detective Harper?" the young woman asked, brushing a stand of bright, red hair behind her ear.

It was dyed. The color was too unnatural to've come from anywhere but a box.

"That I am." I replied, standing from my chair and offering her a friendly handshake. "And you are...?"

"Mattie. Mattie Jones." she replied, forcing a meek smile as she accepted my greeting. "I-I'm hopin' you can help me find someone."

Her husky voice trembled with taut anxiety as she spoke. Like he was going to snap at any moment.

"Absolutely I can." I replied, gesturing to the chair opposite my own. "Have a seat."

The young woman nodded and carefully sat down, slumping slightly. She looked like she hadn't slept in days, and her eyelids hung from her face like deflated, purple balloons, no doubt from excessive crying.

I took out my portable recorder, firing it up before setting it down in the center of the desk.

"Who do you need found and why?" I asked, adjusting the recorder ever-so-slightly. My tremor was more pronounced than usual that day, so writing simply wasn't on the cards. Needed to make sure the mic was positioned to pick up everything she said.

"Have you heard 'em talk about Annabelle Warren on the news?" Mattie asked.

"I have." I replied, crossing my arms and leaning back in my seat. "Disappeared a few weeks ago, right?"

"Yeah." Ms. Jones replied. "I think somethin' happened to her..."

"You're probably correct." I began. "What's your reasoning?"

"It's not like her to just disappear." she sniffled.

"I'll need more information than that." I insisted. "You'd be surprised how many people who 'wouldn't normally disappear' often do so of their own accord."

"She— she was fighting with her fiancé." Mattie confided, wincing slightly as she said 'fiancé' as if she'd been socked in the gut.

"I take it you don't care much for the fiancé?" I asked, certain I knew the answer, but always needing to hear the words straight from the horse's mouth. "I assume because you and Ms. Warren were an item. Am I on the right track?"

"It's— that's a complicated area..." she dismissed.

Cagey. I don't like cagey.

"I would assume so, seeing as she was engaged to someone else." I pointed out.

I wasn't necessarily trying to antagonize Ms. Jones, mind. Just feeling her out. I find that the more blunt you are with a person, be they a suspect or a client in this case, the more likely you are to find the answers you need in a satisfactory amount of time.

"Her engagement's a far—" Mattie started, cut off by my office door opening.

It was Elizabeth, arms full with books, her laptop, and lunch for the two of us.

"Don't mind me!" she pled, shrinking up as she hurried through the office and into the main apartment. She immediately rejoined us after putting her stuff down in the kitchen area.

Ms. Jones looked her over.

"Aren't you that writer?" she asked, adhering to her sad, vacant tone, but leaving me hanging. Wasting my time. Wasting Annabelle's time, more importantly.

I hate that.

"Probably." Lizzie confirmed. "I'm definitely a writer."

"I don't want this to be in a bo—"

"Try to stay focused, Ms. Jones." I butted in. "You were saying that Ms. Warren's engagement was a farce. How so?"

"Right..." she sighed, trailing off a moment. "She's just doin' it to make 'er parents happy."

"Are you speculating, o—"

"She told me. Ethan found out what she was really like and that's why they were fightin'. I think he did somethin' to her." Mattie snapped.  

Her hands were trembling worse than mine, but I couldn't tell if it was more from the rage or the anguish. Maybe even the fear.

"What'd she stand to gain from this... farcical engagement, as you put it?" I pressed.

"Her parents're really religious." Ms. Jones huffed, nearly drowning in vexation. "They raised her in it. Ruined her. Made her fight against who she is."

"Which would be... what?" Elizabeth chimed in.

"Are you really gonna make me say it?" Jones asked, now more frustrated than weepy.

"You want my help, you play by my rules." I informed her. "A good eighty percent of my time revolves around making people say things they'd rather not."

"Yeah, but I'm the one hiring y—"

"All the more reason to be thorough." I butted in. "A good investigator rules out every possibility. In my case, that often starts with the people who willingly walk through that door."

"But I— M-my family doesn't eve—"

"Well, I'm not your family, Ms. Jones, and I don't care about your sexual insecurity." I assured her, admittedly a little on the harsh side of blunt. "It's only important to me as a piece of a puzzle. As a way of getting to the truth."

"Yeah, but she—" Mattie began, motioning to Elizabeth.

"Is none of your goddamn concern." I barked. "She isn't some unscrupulous tabloid journalist out to get a scoop on everyone she sees."

I know what you're probably thinking - 'Reggie, for someone who hates bullies, you have a funny way of showing it' - right? Wrong. There's a big fucking difference between bullying and being hardnosed. Mattie Jones was telling me the truth, but she wasn't telling me the whole truth. She was being cagey, and I just don't work well with cagey. Certainly not in pleasant fucking tones.

That's Lizzie's job. She's always the good cop.


Dan Burley