Authors: M. C. Grant
Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area
My attacker. The one I shot and left in the hands of the Good Samaritan
“If that guy had gone downstairs instead of up, he might still be alive.”
“And we might have some answers,” adds Shaw.
Frank ignores him and looks at me. “This mean anything to you?”
I shake my head. “Not a thing.”
Despite what Frank said, I can be a damn good liar.
“This didn't have anything to do with drugs,” Frank says. “The pushers and cooks downstairs were purely collateral damage. This was something else. Something personal.”
“The Red Swan has no shortage of enemies,” I add.
Shaw looks at both of us and grits his teeth. I can tell he's dying to ask Frank what the hell I'm doing here and how I know anything about the Red Swan's involvement, but to his professional credit, he keeps his mouth shut.
Unfortunately, that also drops him off my list of desirable bed partners.
I only like yes men when they say yes to
“Do you need a
ride home?” Frank asks as he escorts me down to the lobby.
“Thanks, but I have to get to the office. I'll take a cab.”
Before reentering the tent, Frank takes hold of my arm and squeezes it lightly to make sure he has my full attention.
“Be careful, OK?” he says. “When I finish here, I'm planning to have a talk with Lebed, let him know I'm watching.”
“Think he'll listen?” I ask.
Frank's mouth tightens with residual anger. “I'll make sure.”
After discarding my paper outfit and booties, I exit the building and head in the opposite direction from the bored media scrum awaiting any scrap of news to feed their chirpy breakfast-TV hosts. An enterprising coffee truck provides a convenient distraction as the skeleton crew of cameramen and wannabe broadcasters is lined up for plastic-wrapped pastries and double-doubles with extra double.
I'm not paying attention as I dart past the mouth of the alley, and a leathery palm snakes from the darkness to close over my mouth, instantly muffling my startled scream.
Dragged into the depths, I'm both terrified and pissed. My terror is obvious, but my anger is a white-hot poker as I realize that despite repeated warnings from Frank and Pinch, I've still been too cavalier.
“It's OK,” a hoarse voice whispers. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
I recognize the voice. It belongs to my Good Samaritan.
I bite down on his gloved finger, attempting to pierce the bone.
He yelps and releases me.
“Shit! Didn't you hear me? I'm noâ”
I drop to my haunches and sweep my foot in a wide arc, clipping his ankles and lifting his feet off the ground.
With another curse, he crunches onto his back on the rancid alley floor, and I'm on top of him. By the time his eyes stop rolling, I have my knife out of my boot and against his throat.
“Don't ever do that again!” I hiss.
“OK, OK.” He holds up his hands. “I surrender.”
“What the hell are you playing at?”
“You wanted to talk.”
“You scared me to death! I thought you were Lebed.”
“S-s-sorry,” he says. “I â¦ I'm not too good around outsiders anymore.”
I climb off his chest and hold out my hand to help him up. He accepts but grips my forearm rather than my hand, forcing me to do the same. He's awkward rising and I have to put some muscle into it to bring him to his feet.
“Let's walk,” he says, wiping at his dirty coat and moving deeper into the alley. “I don't like to stay in one place too long.”
“Same reason you're scared.”
“The Red Swan?”
“Is that why you killed that gunman last night even though I asked you not to? I just saw his body.”
“If I'd let him live, he would've come after both of us.” The Samaritan's eyes glisten with a feral intensity. “I know these animalsâyou don't. Not yet. They don't just hurt people because Lebed tells them to. They enjoy it.” His voice rises in anger. “It gets them fucking hard. If Lebed does grab you, you better be prepared to kill, because he won't hesitate to do a hell of a lot worse.”
I stop walking and ask, “What did he do to you?”
“I was a journalist, too,” he says. “Not in the spotlight like you. Just on the desk, but still â¦ ” He carefully removes one of his gloves and displays the blackened stumps where his fingers used to be. “This,” he says, “was for writing a cutline that Lebed didn't like.”
“I heard about that,” I say. “From Victor Hendrickson.”
“Yeah,” the Samaritan sighs. “Red Swan paid him a visit, too.”
“But that was twenty years ago,” I say. “Why are you still hanging around in Lebed's territory?”
The Samaritan starts walking again. “I've been avoiding him for a long time,” he says, “but a friend asked me to be his eyes.”
“His eyes?” I ask.
“Things are changing,” he explains. “My friend can't stay in the shadows any longer, but he needed me to look out for â¦ ” He hesitates. “That's why I was outside the tea house when that Russian pig attacked you. I thought that maybeâ”
“Maybe I was someone else,” I finish.
He nods sheepishly.
“Who?” I ask, already sensing the answer.
“His daughter,” says the Samaritan. “My friend's daughter.”
“Joseph Brown's daughter,” I say. “Bailey Brown.”
The Samaritan nods. “She was never supposed to come back here, to get involved again. Now everything is changing.”
“For better or worse?” I ask.
“That remains to be seen.”
We continue to walk, sticking to the shadows and alleys, scaring the occasional rat and suspicious cat. My Samaritan knows most of the disheveled castaways and junkies who are rising to scrounge breakfast from a bottle, needle, or street kitchen, and he nods to them as we pass.
“How long have you been living on the streets?” I ask.
“I don't.” He smiles. “These are my work clothes. After Lebed's men butchered my hands, I went a little crazy. Booze, pills â¦ lots and lots of pills. Thought about joining the thousands who've swan dived off the Golden Gate, but I was saved by a smile.”
“A smile?” I ask.
“She's a redhead, like you, sent from heaven itself. She convinced me I still had value, and we started a street mission together. Then her father died and we used the inheritance to buy a piece of land outside the city. We're building a community there for those who don't have a community. Families who've fallen on hard times, you know? You'd be shocked how many car windows I knock on to find a family inside with nowhere else to live. This whole country is built on a foundation of broken promises, and we've forgotten that we'll be judged not on how we treat our wealthiest citizens but on how we treat our poorest.”
“And Joe Brown is with you?” I ask.
“I call him Radar.” My Samaritan chuckles. “You know, from that TV show
? If you need something, anything, Radar will find it. I don't know how he does it.” He winks. “And I don't pry too closely either. Some things are best kept a mystery.”
“But your mission is religious?” I ask.
“There but for the grace of God,” says my Samaritan.
“And yet you killed that man last night.”
He stops walking and turns to meet my gaze. “I did kill him,” he says matter-of-factly. “I didn't know I was still holding onto that much anger, but when his throat was in my hands, not even the devil could have pried my fingers loose.” He breaks off eye contact. “Obviously that's a metaphor; I haven't had actual fingers for a very long time.”
“And what about Joe?” I ask. “Why did he leave his daughters at the mercy of Lebed?”
He starts walking again. “You'll need to ask him.”
“I'd like to. So would his daughters. They're both safe by the way, no thanks to him. Can you arrange a meeting?”
“He's coming to town.”
“Will he meet with us?”
My Samaritan points to the mouth of an alley where a stand of cabs is lined up waiting for passengers.
“We'll be in touch,” he says.
“You better be,” I snap back. “It's time everyone got some answers.”
Before climbing into the
taxi, I try to calculate if I have enough time to rush back to the apartment and let Bailey and Roxanne know their father is definitely alive before my eleven o'clock meeting at the office.
It would be the generous thing to do, but my grumbling stomach argues that if I head toward the office now, I'll still have time to get something to eat before the meeting starts.
Bailey and Roxanne have waited twenty years for this news
, my coffee-deprived brain argues,
what's another two hours?
Selfishness, mental fatigue, and caffeine-withdrawal win.
The taxi drops me at Mario's Deli, where my nose and salivary glands lead me inside.
Mario beams when he sees me. “Dixie, you so skinny and pale. I have a wonderful breakfast special this morning to put color back in your cheeks: local sage sausage, organic egg, and melted Gruy
re with just a dab of my special spicy ketchup. I serve it on a fresh, butter-kissed bun kneaded and baked with my own hands.”
“Does it come with coffee?” I ask.
Mario beams wider. “Take a seat.”
Eddie, on the other hand, doesn't appear quite as thrilled.
“You want me to sit elsewhere?” I ask.
The Wolf glances once at the partially open door behind him and the looming shadow contained within before shrugging and indicating that I'm welcome.
As soon as I slide into the booth, Mario brings over a large mug of piping hot coffee with a small container of cream on the side, just the way I like it. I savor the aroma for a moment before adding a splash of cream and taking a large swallow. Every nerve ending in my body sighs with relief.
Is this how Roxanne feels when she shoots up?
“Rough night?” Eddie asks.
“What have you heard?” I ask back.
“Enough that I wasn't expecting to see your face again.”
“Red Swan is pissed.”
“Then he shouldn't kidnap my friends,” I snap.
Eddie's lips twitch. “I woulda placed odds that there was no way you were getting that gal out of there alive. Where'd you get the firepower?”
I shrug. “That was coincidence.”
“Coincidence?” Eddie actually laughs. “Man, you have a set of balls on you that makes me feel like a eunuch.”
Mario delivers my breakfast sandwich with a side of seasoned chunky hashbrowns and a fresh top-up of coffee.
“She a growing girl,” he says to Eddie.
“Yeah,” Eddie snorts. “Her ball sack gets any bigger and she won't be able to fit through the goddamn door. I'm surprised she's not wearing clown pants.”
I take a bite of my sandwich and almost collapse into a puddle of writhing ecstasy. “Mario,” I say in all seriousness despite the golden egg yolk running down my chin, “will you marry me?”
Mario winks at Eddie. “Three's a crowd, Dix, but I'll consider it.” He laughs as he returns behind the counter.
I take another bite. It's just as good as the first, which makes me think polyandry might not be so bad.
“So are we still cool?” I ask Eddie.
“For now. Lebed is taking this personal, but he hasn't issued a contract on you yet. At least not that I've heard.”
“A contract?” I sputter, spraying food. “Seriously?”
Eddie shrugs. “That's how these things are done. But you've got certain friends that Lebed doesn't want to rile up. Still, I'd be careful crossing the streetâaccidents do happen.”
“You running a book on me?” I ask.
Eddie nearly grins. “You're not that famous, Dix. Nobody really cares.”
“Flatterer.” I take another bite of sandwich.
“It is what it is,” says Eddie.
Walking into the
newsroom, people turn and stare, which makes me wonder if I've forgotten to wipe the yolk and sausage grease off my chin. I make a sharp right and duck into the morgue.
“Hey, sweetie,” says Lulu as I enter. “You get those blueprints I left for you last night?”
“I did, thanks, came in handy.” I swivel the desk mirror on Lulu's desk toward me and study my face. All clean.
“Problem?” Lulu asks. “You try to pluck your eyebrows with pliers again?”
I jab my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the newsroom. “Everyone was looking at me.”
“Oh, honey. You work the strangest hours of anyone here. Some of those young folk probably think you're a myth. Plus this new publisher has started cracking the whip in some weird ways.” She stands up to lean over the counter and look me up and down. “On the other hand, you didn't hear about the new dress code, did you?”
I shake my head.
“Issued this week,” she explains, “along with a ban on chewing gum in the office and smoking in public view where it might reflect badly on the paper. The memos will be in your mail slot.”
I look down at myself. “Am I not dressed OK?”
Lulu sighs. “Jeans are banned.”
“He wants everyone looking more professional.”
“Do we get a wardrobe allowance?”
“Nope. Dress better; same pay. That's why everyone was staring.”
'Cause I know how to rock a pair of jeans?”
“Because you're breaking the rules.”
“Crap indeed, sweetie. Crap indeed.”
When I re-enter the newsroom, everyone is making his or her way to the editorial boardroom. I join the end of the line. Mary Jane Clooneyâdressed in her usual look-at-me-I-have-boobs, far-too-young-for-her-age sluttireâspots me and flashes a bright smile. The twinkle in her eye is the same as that reflected in a Roman general's when a Christian is fed to the lions.
I shuffle to stand at the back of the boardroom as Stoogan makes a few introductory words before passing the floor over to Kenji Kobayashi, our publisher. Oddly, I find that if I passed him in the hallway on the way to the bathroom, I wouldn't have actually recognized him.
Publishers by nature rarely descend to their newsrooms. It's the editors' job to organize the daily rabble, miscreants, and talent pool, reporting to the inner sanctum only when summoned. I also hear that since Ken took over, editors need to remove their shoes before entering his office. This rumor, mostly perpetuated by me, has yet to be proven.
But so long as they don't mess with the copy, I rarely pay much attention to that side of the newspaper game. Unfortunately, the layers of protection between a reporter and his or her publisher have been crumbling at the same rate as the economy. And when the curtain is finally pulled back, they always appear so much smaller in person.
The publisher opens his mouth, and the heart of every journalist breaks just a little more. Each word is about finance, cutbacks, economic woes, percentages of ads versus editorial space, doing more with less, rising insurance costs, elimination of profit sharing â¦ blah, blah, depressing blah â¦ until he tries to rally the troops at the end by telling them the new dress code will boost spirits by showing the city that we're professional and committed and â¦
I stop listening as my bullshit meter gets clogged by too much effluent.
At the end of the speech, I attempt to be one of the first to escape the room but am stopped in my tracks by Stoogan calling my name. And despite my burning desire to flee, he's still the best boss I've ever had; if I'm loyal to anyone, it's to him.
With a brave smile, I turn and push through the departing crowd to the front of the room. The closer I get, the more likely it appears that Stoogan is planning to introduce me to the publisher. And by the look on Mr. Kobayashi's face, it also appears likely that he's disappointed in my choice of clothing, which admittedly does smell a bit like damp smoke, burnt flesh, and fermented garbageâ
but just a bit.
“Dixie,” says Stoogan as I finally break through the final line of cowardly, departing souls. “I don't believe you've actually met our new publisher, Kenji Kobayashi, before.”
I hold out my hand. “Haven't had the pleasure.”
The man studies my hand for a second, making me wait before reaching out and giving it a light squeeze. If he uses that hand to masturbate, it's no wonder he looks so grumpy.
“Dixie is working diligently on our cover feature for this week,” explains Stoogan.
“The Father's Day piece?” Kobayashi asks.
I nod. “It's turning into quite the story.”
“Uplifting?” he asks.
“Definitely. Father missing for twenty years. Tearful reunion with two daughters, which should happen tonight. The works.”
He looks me up and down. “You didn't get the memo about the new dress code?”
I don't spit in his eye, which, I think, is very mature. “Just heard about it.”
“Why is that?” he asks.
“Dixie doesn't keep regular office hours,” Stoogan interrupts.
“She's a roving reporter,” Stoogan adds. “We find it works better for everyone when she's on the street. She brings us the stories that everyone talks about.”
“I find lack of regular hours makes people lazy,” says Kobayashi.
I disagree,” says Stoogan before I can open my mouth. “The best stories don't fall into our laps. We need to go out and find them.”
“That sounds messy,” says Kobayashi.
“It can be,” I say before Stoogan cuts me off with a stern look.
“And that's why it's not for everyone,” he adds in a firmer tone. “I run a diverse newsroom to make sure we cover all our bases. Sometimes Dixie is our scout and at other times a pinch hitter. Our award nominations year in and year out attest to that.”
Kobayashi scans me from toes to hairline, and I think I notice his nose twitchâand not in a cute
way. “Read the memo,” he says, and then leaves the room.
“What a prick,” I say when he's out of earshot.
Stoogan winces and shakes his head. To change the subject, he asks, “What's that smell?”
“Not you, I hope. You were great. Very forceful.”
“I'm serious,” he says and sniffs the air. “Is it you?”
“I was in a burned-out building this morning.”
“The one we're reporting on?”
“The one that none of my reporters can get inside of to find out what the hell happened?”
Stoogan nods. “Underwood, the rookie, thought he spotted you this morning and phoned it in. He wanted to know how you gained access.”
“I hope you told him I stole the secret to invisibility by sleeping with Criss Angel in Vegas.”
“Since he actually saw you, I don't think he would have bought that.”
“Nice fantasy, though.”
Stoogan rolls his eyes. “Help him flesh out the story with what you know before you leave. Let the publisher see you're a team player.”
“But I'm not,” I say.