“The truth is that you upset me when you said there is a connection between the two dead girls. I had not considered that. So I have been reading the files for two years back. I found these.” Encino tapped the stack of folders. “I can’t permit you to read them. But”—he sighed eloquently—“I must leave the office for a short time. How can I know what happens behind my back? Please use my desk.”
Five seconds later, he was gone, and I was alone with his files. There were seven folders. Carol Christie’s was on the top, and I took it first. By the time I finished, I was dripping sweat on his blotter. My shirt was soaked and sticking to my back, along with most of my jacket. I didn’t ask Encino’s permission to use his phone—I just grabbed it and dialed Ginny as well as I could with my hands shaking like cowards.
“Brew,” she started, “what’s wrong?”
I brushed past her anxiety. “I’m at Missing Persons. You’ve got to get down here.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“There are seven of them,” I said. “I don’t care what the cops say, this is no accident.”
“Make sense, Brew! Seven what?”
“Seven thirteen-year-olds. No, five. Two of them were twelve.” I knew I wasn’t getting through to her, but I couldn’t help myself. I was too upset to pull it together.
“What the bloody hell are you talking about?”
I pushed the phone against the side of my head as hard as I could, trying to make that damn inanimate plastic steady me. I wanted to howl, but I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. “Carol Christie didn’t drown because she couldn’t swim. She drowned because she OD’ed on heroin. And that’s not all. Before she drowned, she—” But I couldn’t say it over the phone. Carol was only thirteen. There are some things you can hardly say out loud at all.
“I’m on my way,” Ginny told me. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Then the line went dead, leaving me with nothing but an empty phone to hang on to.
was sitting at the bar of the Hegira that night when Ginny came in. The barkeep, an ancient sad-eyed patriarch named José, had just poured me another drink, and I was having one of those rare moments any serious drunk can tell you about. A piece of real quiet. José’s cheeks bristled because he didn’t shave very often, and his apron was dingy because it didn’t get washed very often, and his fingernails had little crescents of grime under them. The glass he poured for me wasn’t all that clean. But the stuff he poured was golden-amber and beautiful, like distilled sunlight, and it made the whole place soothing as sleep—which drunks know how to value because they don’t get much of it.
It made the dull old fly-brown
against the wall behind the bottles look like the saints knew what they were doing and it made the drinkers at the tables look peaceful and happy. It made the men playing pool in the back of the room look like they were moving in slow motion, flowing through the air as if it were syrup. It made José look wise and patient behind his stubble and his groggy eyes. It was one of those rare moments when everything is in the right place, and there’s a soft gold light shining on it, and you feel like you’re being healed. It never lasts—but you always think it will, if you just stay where you are and don’t stop drinking.
By the curious logic of the drunk, I felt I’d earned it. After all, I’d been drinking most of the time for several days now, just trying to create that amber glow for myself. So when Ginny walked in the door—when every head in the bar turned to stare at her—I didn’t know which to feel first, surprise or resentment. There wasn’t any doubt she was looking for me.
I had the right to be surprised. For one thing, she had no business walking into the Hegira like that—especially at night. The Hegira is down in the old part of Puerta del Sol, on Eighth Street between Oak and Maple. Cities are like that: The old parts—where the descendants and countrymen of the founders live—have street names like “Eighth” and “Oak.” The rich suburbs—half of them built in the last ten years—have flashier names like “Tenochtitlán” and “Montezuma.” And in the old part of town women don’t go into bars at all. When the Chicano and Mestizo and Indian women want their men to come out, they stand on the sidewalk and send in their children.
As Ginny pushed her way through the door, scanned the room, and came striding over toward me, the quiet buzz of voices stopped. José’s eyes went blank and empty—you could tell if she spoke to him he was going to say he didn’t speak English. The men with the pool cues stood very still, as if they were waiting to start a different kind of game.
But I also had another reason to be surprised. This wasn’t the way Ginny was supposed to come looking for me. She came looking for me often enough—I would’ve probably drunk myself to death by now if she hadn’t been so faithful about it—but this wasn’t the way. We had a system worked out, and she was breaking it.
What the system did was let me get ready. She didn’t bother me in the morning, when I was taking those first stiff drinks, trying to push the sickness back down my throat where it belonged. She didn’t bother me during the day, when I was drinking slow and steady to control the shakes. She didn’t bother me in the afternoon, when I started to hit the bottle harder because the stuff didn’t seem to be having any effect. She didn’t bother me in the evening, when I went to places like the Hegira looking for amber and comfort. She didn’t bother me when I left whatever bar it was and bought a bottle and wandered away into the night to pay the price.
No, we had a system.
When I was ready for her, I knew where to go at night with my bottle. One of the benches in a cheap little park
down on Tin Street. It was still in the old part of town, which meant the city didn’t water the grass and the cops didn’t roust drunks who spent the night there. And when the sun came up I’d be sitting on that bench, waiting—just waiting because I was too sick to hope. And then I’d see her walking over to me. She always came from the east—the sun was always behind her, so I couldn’t see her face. She always said, “Brew.” (My name is Mick Axbrewder, but not even my enemies call me Mick.) I always said, “Ginny.” And then she always said, “I need you.”
That’s when I knew I was going to get sober and go back to work.
Sometimes I said, “What do you need me for? I’m a drunk.” But that was just a variation. She never gave me a straight answer. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a straight answer.
So I was surprised when she walked into the Hegira looking for me. But I resented it, too. I was having one of those rare moments, and she took it away from me. And I wasn’t ready.
But Ginny Fistoulari isn’t the kind of woman who lets things like that stand in her way. She’s tall—about the only time she doesn’t look tall is when I’m standing beside her—and five years younger than I am, with the kind of lean and ready look about her you see in a good racehorse. Her eyes are the same color gray as the .357 Smith & Wesson she carries in her purse, but other than that you wouldn’t know she’s tough as rivets unless you look at her up close. From a few feet away she’s just an attractive blonde with a nice mouth, delicate nostrils, and a perfect chin.
Up close you can see her nose was broken once—broken the way a nose gets broken when somebody clips it with a crowbar. The clown who did it didn’t live to regret it. She shot him three times in the face. For that the commission almost took away her license. She’s tough the way you have to be tough in order to spend your time getting involved in the messy side of other people’s problems. As a result, she’s reasonably successful. Fistoulari Investigations can afford to
refuse surveillance cases and domestic problems, even if it isn’t making her rich.
Maybe she would’ve made more money if she hadn’t insisted on dragging me back to work every time one of her cases got hard. Maybe in the long run she could’ve had pricier clients if that big goon working for her (me) wasn’t always in trouble with the cops for carrying out investigations without a license. I don’t know. When I was sober, I never asked her why she put up with me. I just did the work. She didn’t have any use for my gratitude.
But this time I wasn’t grateful. I wasn’t ready. When I saw her striding straight at me as if the Hegira and all its patrons didn’t exist, I wanted to tell her to go to hell. I could see from the way the men watched her that I was never going to be welcome in the Hegira again. And I resented that—a bar where you can get amber and quiet is hard to find. The words were right there in my mind.
Go to hell
If I’d said that, she probably would’ve turned around and walked away and never come back. So it was a good thing I kept my mouth shut.
But I had to do something. I swung away from her and went back to my drink. The stuff was there waiting for me. It was the right color, even if the feeling was gone. I wrapped my fist around the glass and raised it in the direction of my face.
Ginny’s hand came down hard on my wrist, slapped the glass back to the counter so hard the stuff spilled all over my fingers. Which isn’t easy to do to me, even when I’m not expecting it.
If anyone else had done it—anyone at all—I would’ve taken their hand off. At the wrist. People don’t do that kind of thing to me—just like they don’t call me Mick.
Only this wasn’t anyone else. It was Ginny Fistoulari. I couldn’t even try to get her hand off of me. I was doing everything I was capable of when I worked up enough energy to be mad.
“God damn it, Ginny—”
She came right back at me. “God damn it, Brew”—she
had one of those voices that can do anything, melt in your mouth or tear your skin off your bones—“you’re going to come with me, or I swear to God I’ll let you have it right here.” At the moment she sounded like being pistol whipped. She didn’t shout—she didn’t have to. When she used that tone on me, there was no question about which one of us was in charge.
So much for my being mad. I’ve never been able to be mad at her at the same time she was mad at me. Which is probably a good thing. But this time I didn’t have the vaguest idea why she was mad at me.
I didn’t want to have any ideas. I wanted to drink. Without looking at her, I said, “I’m not ready.”
Her voice practically jumped at me. “I don’t give a flying fuck at the moon whether you’re ready or not. You’re going to come with me.”
That reached me. Ginny doesn’t talk that way very often. Only when she’s furious. I turned, met her eyes.
She didn’t look furious. The anger was just in her voice, not in her face. Instead, she was worried. Her nostrils were flaring and pale, and there were lines at the corners of her eyes that showed only when she’s worried. And her eyes were wet. They looked like they might overflow any second now.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her look so concerned. Concerned about me. All of a sudden my throat was dry, and I could barely scrape the words out. “What’s the matter?”
Anybody else, and the tears would’ve been running down her cheeks. But not her. She was Ginny Fistoulari, private investigator. Licensed by the state to work on other people’s misery. Human trouble and pain did a lot of different things to her, but they didn’t make her cry. She just looked straight at me through the wet and said with all the anger gone out of her voice, “Your niece is missing.”
I heard her, but something about it didn’t penetrate. “Alathea?” Of course I had a niece, my dead brother’s daughter. Her mother hated me. Alathea was another one of those people I was responsible for without being able to do anything
about it. And on top of that I liked her. But I couldn’t seem to remember what she looked like. “Missing?”
I couldn’t call up an image. All I got was her name—and a blank wall of dread. “What’re you talking about?”
Ginny didn’t flinch. “Lona called me today. I’ve been looking for you ever since. Alathea has been missing for a week.”
I went on staring at her. Then it got through to me. Alathea was missing. Her mother had called Ginny. Ginny had come looking for me. We had work to do.
There were things about it that didn’t make sense. But right then they didn’t matter. Not with Alathea missing, and Ginny looking at me like that. I fumbled some money onto the bar, got off my stool and started for the door. I didn’t know how much I owed because I didn’t know how much I had to drink, but José didn’t even blink at me so I must’ve paid him enough—or else he was just glad to get a woman out of his bar without trouble. I stumbled once, then Ginny took my arm. I didn’t say good-bye to the Hegira. Together we went out into the night.