Authors: M. C. Grant
Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area
Returning to the apartment,
the atmosphere has a vein of electricity running through it. It's not enough to burn or make my don't-give-a-damn hair stand on end, but its presence prickles the skin and creates uneasy goosebumps.
“You girls hungry?” I ask.
“I could eat,” says Bailey.
“Roxanne?” I ask. “What do you feel like?”
“You don't have much,” she answers. “I already looked.”
I laugh, which breaks the tension and allows both sisters to share a smile.
“I'm not much of a cook, granted, but I think I have all the ingredients for a giant plate of cheesy nachos.”
“Dinner of champions,” says Bailey, smiling.
“Wanna help?” I ask. “Roxanne can open the beers and you can chop.”
From the fridge, I pull out two bell peppersâone red, one yellowâa block of aged white cheddar, a chunk of blue cheese that looks a little under the weather, two wrinkled jalape
os, and a jar of pickled banana peppers. From the freezer, I retrieve two spicy Chorizo sausages that I vaguely remember cooking sometime recently.
While the oven warms, I defrost the sausages in the microwave and open a bag of tortilla chips.
Roxanne hands everyone a bottle of Anchor Steam and we clink glass as if we're just three fun-loving girls planning a night in without all of life's excess baggage weighing us down.
I layer the chips in a large pan, shred and crumble the cheese, and add the chopped bell peppers. Bailey discovers a small can of black olives in the cupboard and excitedly adds them to the mix. We make two layers, adding sliced sausage, jalape
os, and banana peppers to both.
With some more rummaging, I unearth half a jar of salsa that's only a little crusty around the edge, and a container of sour cream. Unfortunately, the sour cream has expired; the nose test tells me it's not worth the risk.
After sliding the nachos into the oven to melt, I open my second beer and collapse onto the couch. Prince Marmalade immediately rises from his spot on the other cushion and strolls over to curl on my lap. Aw. Despite all the womanly attention lately, he still loves me best. I scratch his ears and feel his purr rumble through me like a massage for my soul.
Bailey keeps an eye on the baking nachos and brings them over to the coffee table when the cheese is bubbling and the sausage is warmed through.
The three of us eat with our fingers and sip our beers.
I wish we could laugh and talk about boys, but the night ahead weighs heavily on us all. Instead, we talk about little except how the blue cheese complements the jalape
o and what a pity it is that the sour cream was expired.
When the phone rings, we all jumpâeven Prince.
Wiping my hands and mouth on a paper towel, I head back to the kitchen and pick up the phone.
“Dixie here,” I say.
“Do you know my voice?” asks my Good Samaritan.
“I do, but you never told me your name.”
“I'm sure you could find it if you wanted.”
“True, but I'd rather hear it from you.”
“Tim Collins, but my friends call me Stubs.”
He chuckles. “Shows they're comfortable enough around me to joke. It took me years to get there myself.”
“Is Joe Brown in town?”
Bailey makes a noise, and I turn to see both women sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes locked on my lips as though they need to see the words being formed.
“When can we meet?”
“There's an auto wreckers off Rankin Street below 280. Do you know it?”
“I can find it.”
“It's owned by a friend. The front gate will be unlocked. If Lebed's men are following or you decide to involve the cops, we won't be there.”
“I understand the risks. Let Joe know his daughters are anxious to see him.”
There's a pause before Tim says, “I've never seen him so nervous. He looks terrified, but in a good way, you know?”
“He shouldn't get his hopes too high,” I say. “These girls have been hurt. Healing will take time.”
“Yeah.” My Samaritan sighs.
I hang up and look over at the sisters. “We meet at ten,” I say.
In unison, the sisters exhale and recline back in their seats.
“Anyone else need a fresh beer?” I ask, my hands shaking with nervous energy as I reach into the fridge.
When I call Mo's Cabs, Mo coughs in my ear.
“How do you keep customers when you sound like a plague farm?” I ask.
plague farm,” he corrects in his guttural Bronx accent. “I've been told that I drive women crazy.”
“But I don't think your wife meant that in a good way.”
Mo laughs and coughs in my ear again. “What can I do you for, Dix?”
“I need to get somewhere tonight, but I need to make sure that I'm not followed.”
“See, that's why I love you. It's never just âTake me to the liquor store and wait while I spend my pension check on dirty mags, cheap booze, and those tasty little peanuts coated in crushed potato chips'
“That's awfully specific, Mo, but you're right, I don't usually ask for that. At least not when sober.”
“So where do you need to end up and when?”
I'm about to tell him when a stab of doubt makes my neck ache. Last night, Lebed showed up outside the Dog House directly after Roxanne was told that Bailey and I were there. And despite the lies I've been telling all day, I'm not a big fan of coincidence.
“Hold on a sec.”
Turning to Bailey and Roxanne, who are nursing their beers on the couch, I say, “You should pick out some of my clothes to wear. It'll be cold tonight. Dress in layers.”
I wait until both women are in my bedroom and out of earshot before I return to Mo and quietly give him the address.
“Keep this on a need-to-know basis,” I add. “Only the last driver should have the final destination.”
Mo chuckles. “Man, you sound like a character out of one of those early Ken Follett novels.
Eye of the Needle
, something like that?”
“I'm not quite a spy yet, but the stakes could be just as high tonight,” I say. “There are some pretty nasty people who want to put a bullet in the man I'm meant to meet. I'd really prefer it if that didn't happen.”
Mo stops chuckling. “Well, I won't tell the driver that. He'll want danger pay.”
“Do you have drivers you can trust?”
“Not many, but enough. Plus, nobody knows this city's slippery entrails like ol' Mo. We'll shake any tail you got.”
“These guys could be good,” I warn.
“I'll be better.”
I slide Lily over
an oiled whetstone to bring her edge back to razor sharpness before guiding her polished pearl hilt into the moleskin sheath sewn inside my boot. I next check the rechargeable batteries on my compact camera and digital voice recorder. Fully charged. I drop them both into a pocket of my green trenchcoat.
Still feeling underdressed and apprehensive, I pace the room before crossing to the couch and extracting the blue case nestled u
Bailey and Roxanne are in the bedroom, out of sight and busy getting dressed, when I open the case and study the Governor. My current license is only valid for transporting an unloaded firearm from home to the range and back. Getting caught with a loaded gun on my person is a federal offense that even Frank would have difficulty squashing.
After a moment of hesitation, I double-check the safety and slip the gun into the small of my back, hidden beneath the trenchcoat. I'd rather face Frank's wrath than have Red Swan's men chop off my fingersâ
When the sisters are ready, we head downstairs and climb into the waiting taxi.
After the first block, I ask, “Are we being followed?”
The driver, a bulbous-nosed man with one disturbingly lazy eye, snaps his gums. “Two cars. Both black. Best y'all hold onto something.”
Bailey squeals as the driver suddenly accelerates through a red light to the blare of a half-dozen car horns. The horns continue to protest as I glance behind and see a lone black car snaking through the same intersection in hot pursuit.
Our driver whips the car to the left and down an alley before taking a sharp right into a second, narrower alley that I didn't know was there until we're inside it. Metal trash cans tumble into the air in our wake and several late-night rummagers are forced to leap behind dumpsters to keep from being mowed down.
“Dixie!” Bailey screams. “Tell him toâ”
All three of our heads bonk the roof in unison as the taxi exits the alley like a Mexican jumping bean on steroids to bump and lurch across the next main road. Another blare of a horn makes us clutch our chests to keep our hearts in place as the car's shocks screech indignantly and try to climb through the floor.
We careen into the mouth of a third alley and I lose all sense of direction as the driver takes increasingly sharper lefts and rights with barely a kiss of brake.
Bailey, Roxanne, and I are bruised from shoulder to elbow from smashing against each other, but Big Nose Lazy Eye is enjoying himself. What few teeth he has are exposed and glistening with manic glee.
After a few more twisted miles, he pulls in front of a twenty-four-hour convenience store and tells us to get out, walk through the store, and exit into the alley where another taxi is waiting.
We do as we're told, mostly to get away from his suicide run, but we immediately have more regrets about the gassy and greasy meal we consumed earlier as this driver proves just as reckless as the first.
“Are we still being followed?” I ask, while holding onto the door handle for dear life.
The driver, who sports an impressive Seventies-era Burt Reynolds moustache, grins. “Not seen hide nor hair, ma'am.”
The road whizzes by until finally, with a screech of tire, he pulls to the curb behind a third taxi. As soon as we scramble out, Moustache pulls an illegal U-turn and races back in the direction we've just come.
Climbing into the third cab, the plump and balding driver turns to us and says, “You three look a little green.”
I grimace. “What do you put in their coffee, Mo? Red Bull? Smack? Hand sanitizer?”
Mo guffaws. “Freddie spent a few years as a stunt driver in Hollywood until he was run out of town for test driving more than a director's Porsche, and Bearl picked up several blue-ribbon trophies in the smash-'em-up derbies back home. He's very proud of those ribbons.”
“It shows,” I groan. “And what about you? Didn't know you still drove.”
“Only on special occasions. Now be a pal and try not to throw up on my seats.”
Mo chuckles at his own joke as he puts the car in gear and pulls into the trickling flow of traffic.
“We'll take it slow from here,” he continues. “Just to make sure we've shaken everyone before heading to the wreckers.”
“Wreckers?” Roxanne asks.
“The meeting spot,” I explain. “Your father is a cautious man.”
Roxanne snorts. “That's one word for him.”
Mo drops us in front of the auto wreckers with two minutes to spare.
“If anyone was following, I'da spotted them,” he says. “This part of town is dead at night, so they picked a good spot to be alone.”
“Thanks for everything,” I say. “And don't go telling Frank, OK? I've got this under control.”
Mo frowns. “You be careful.”
“When am I not?”
Mo snickers. “You don't want me to answer that.”
I grin back. “Yeah, maybe not.”
I slap the roof of the car and watch Mo drive off before turning to the wreckers' yard. Taking up a whole city block, the yard is surrounded by a twelve-foot-high fence made impenetrable with ugly sheets of corrugated iron, scrap wood, and double-looped stainless-steel link. Obviously, the owner isn't going for curb appeal.
Roxanne and Bailey study the large double-wide gates that are chained in the middle and topped with razor wire.
“It looks like a prison,” says Bailey.
“Except,” I point up at the sharp wire that is angled out toward us, “this fence is designed to keep people out, not in. The price of scrap metal has been skyrocketing in this recession. People are stealing it everywhere, from spools of hydro and phone cable to whole railway tracks and church roofs.”
Roxanne pulls at the chained gate and it slides open just enough to allow us to squeeze through.
“I hope they don't have dogs,” she says with a shudder. “They can be vicious bastards, especially if they smell fear.” She glances at her sister. “If there's dogs, don't run. Wait until they get close and kick them in the face as hard as you can. Don't stop kicking until they run away or stop moving, OK?”
Bailey gasps. “Jesus, Roxanne. I don'tâ”
“Trust me,” says Roxanne. “A dog trained by an asshole is deadlier than any gun.”
Inside the compound, my first thought is that I should have packed a flashlight. Perilous piles of crushed and windowless cars loom over stacks of half-dismantled fridges, freezers, and stoves, while indiscriminate mounds of shredded aluminum, iron, and copper make the yard one giant hazard area.
Everything looks so precarious that one of my dad's roof-raising sneezing fits during pollen season could bring everything down on top of our heads. And, unfortunately, I inherited the trait.
“Where do we go?” asks Bailey.
I point straight ahead to where a dim light glows in the distance. “There's probably an office or something back there.”
As we walk and our eyes adjust to the clammy gloom, I fine-tune my focus to the deeper shadows, one hand behind my back and underneath my trenchcoat. I feel eyes upon us but don't see any movement.
The path we follow is the reverse of
The Wizard of Oz
âgleaming, orange-yellow metal surrounds us, while the road is pockmarked gray gravel and muck.
After a series of blind turns, we enter a dark pool of space that occupies roughly the center of the yard. On the opposite shore, in no better shape than the scrap it watches over, a construction trailer rests on stacked cinder blocks. Beneath the trailer, three sets of hungry eyes stare back at us.
“They must know we're here,” I say to the sisters. “No point risking a twisted ankle or tetanus shot until they turn on some goddamn lights.”
The three of us stand on the periphery of the frigid lake of darkness and wait.
Roxanne scratches at her arms and nervously kicks the ground. Every now and again she looks up as if expecting a UFO to beam her out, but none show.
“Should we call out?” Bailey asks.
“If you like,” I say, “but there's no need. We're already surrounded.”
“There are three men standing to your right, another two on the left, and two behind us.”
I raise my voice, addressing the open space. “Are you done playing? You already know we haven't been followed.”
Halogen security lights begin to click on around the circle, forcing the darkness to retreat into the deeper recesses of the crumbling, metal cliffs.
When the lights reach their full brightness, the door to the trailer opens and three men step out. One of them is Tim, my Good Samaritan; another has an elongated face that's scared of a good wash and a razor. He's dressed in greasy blue coveralls with an indecipherable name tag on the breast, which makes me guess he's the friend who runs the yard; and the third is a man I've only ever seen in a fuzzy photograph: Joseph Brown.
Bailey glances over at me, her eyes already flooding with tears.
“It's really him,” she whispers with awe. “You actually found him.”
I want to say something cocky or profound, but the air is so thick with a confusing mixture of emotion that I find all I can do is nod. The men surrounding us are nervous; I feel them shifting from foot to foot and hear their fingers crunching into their palms â¦ crunching and releasing like the muscle memory of an addled boxer.
When the three men reach the center of the illuminated circle, Bailey can't hold herself back any longer and rushes headlong into the light. Twenty years of wondering washed away in twenty steps.
As Bailey runs, Roxanne slides back toward me.
“That's him, huh?” she says in a low voice.
“Not what you were expecting?”
“I don't know what I expected. He kept changing in my mind depending on where I was and what was being done to me. I made up so many stories about him, told myself so many fucking lies. The truth is never as clear as what you hope for, is it?”
“Truth can suck,” I agree.
“Yeah, and dreams ain't much better.”
We enter the light together and by the time we reach the middle, Bailey has wrapped herself around her father's neck and dissolved into a blubbering mess.
Joe Brown, on the other hand, stopped being a father at least two decades earlier and he looks embarrassed and confused by the attention.
When Bailey finally composes herself enough to release her grip, she steps back from the man she's spent her whole life searching for and wipes her eyes. Her mouth shifts between happy and sad as she reaches out for her sister and announces, “Dad. This is your other daughter. Roxanne.” Her eyes glisten with pride, desperate for praise.
Joe studies his youngest daughter for a moment before awkwardly holding out his hand to shake.
“It's nice to finally meetâ”
The rest of his words are splattered across the ground as Roxanne punches him smack in the mouth. She would have landed a few more blows, too, if the bearded behemoth in the blue coveralls hadn't stepped forward to pin her arms to her side.
“Nice to meet me?” Roxanne screams. “Where have you been, you son of a bitch? Call yourself a man? I don't see any men here, not a fucking one of you.”
“Roxanne!” Bailey yells. “This is our dad.”
Roxanne spits and hisses. “Maybe he was a father to you once, though I doubt it. All he ever meant to me was the hump 'n' bump that got our mother pregnantâand for the life of me I wish he hadn't. I would rather have been a dribble on his leg than given this shitty fucking life.”
Joe spits out a mouthful of blood and wipes his lips. His hands are shaking.
“I-I understand how you feelâ”
“You don't understand
,” interrupts Roxanne. “You've been living on a farmâ”
“Not always,” says Joe. “You can't begin to comprehend how difficult it's been. I've been trapped.”
Roxanne shakes herself loose from the man holding her and flashes him a warning that says if he tries to grab her again, she'll remove his testicles with her teeth. The man believes her.
“You don't know anything about being trapped,” Roxanne snarls. “Trapped is when your whore of a mother is selling her kid because she's too used up to please any man. Trapped is sucking off a retiree when you're six years old because it's all you've ever been told you're worth. The only thing
were trapped in was your own cowardly skin.”
“What?” Roxanne spits. “Fair? Don't even try to go down that road. You're a worthless piece of shit, and as far as I'm concerned, no father of mine.”
“Roxanne?” Bailey bursts into tears again. “We've been searching for so long.”
“You have,” says Roxanne. “He's always been dead to me.”
Roxanne storms away to stand with her back to us, peering into the darkness, scratching her arms and battling with her thoughts.
Bailey reaches out to touch her father's sleeve.
“I-I still want you in my life,” she says. “I know you must have had your reasons for leaving us.”
“It had something to do with the funeral of Alimzhan Izmaylovsky, right?” I say, taking a step forward.
Joe looks at me and narrows his eyes; his crow's-feet are canyons filled with coal dust and years of worry. “You're the reporter,” he says.
“I'm also the woman who rescued both your daughters from the clutches of Krasnyi Lebed. I need to know what the Red Swan doesn't want made public.”