Family Skeleton, continued…
“Don’t think of it that way. I’m very grateful for your efforts. But Dad thinks we need to regroup.” He still wouldn’t look at me. “It might be good to call a halt while Mildred and I assess where we are on this.”
My face felt hot. I stood up. “What the hell did your father tell you?”
“I…well, it’s just his recommendation. And I’m taking it. Now I think you can find your own way out. Send me your bill right away. I don’t want you to be out of pocket because of this.”
He didn’t think I was going to let it go at that, and neither did I. But occasionally I surprise myself. I turned and went. I didn’t even slam the door.
Just like that, I was unemployed.
Now I had the leisure to kill a couple of hours at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, waiting for them to release my Baja. They weren’t ready to give back my .38; the cop on duty cited some legal mumbo jumbo, but seemed to take pleasure in it. I decided not to make an issue, with the case file still open.
The receiver hitch and towbar were in my truck’s camper shell. I rigged the Baja for towing and grabbed some junk food to eat on the slow pull north. I dropped the Baja at a West Seattle glass shop for a window estimate, my salt-stiffened brogans at the local cobbler’s for some TLC, and was home before Seattle’s daily afternoon gridlock.
My apartment that year was out on Alki Point, with a pretty good view of the shipping lanes. It looked like November out there. A strong breeze pushed the rain sideways and kicked up whitecaps. A rusty old freighter dropped anchor offshore for the night. The big car ferries made their appointed rounds. A floatplane labored aloft, probably carrying salmon fishermen bound for upper British Columbia. I wished I was going with them.
The Oregon phone number on Michelle’s Post-it note got me a synthetic voice reciting the number back to me: leave a message at the tone. I hung up. Somebody was being cagy; no name given, no voice to recognize. I didn’t know what to do with the e-mail address.
Back in my newspaper reporting days, you could always count on Ma Bell: I once whiled away a whole Sunday with a D.C. long-distance supervisor, sorting through every James Brown in the nation’s capitol for the home number of a senior bureaucrat at a particular agency. Found him, too, before my Monday morning deadline. In these deregulated and roboticized days, it’s not so simple. I finally found an AT&T human who told me the number on the Post-it was in Seaside. She was willing to give me Dr. Rosen’s office number, which turned out to have the same prefix, but unwilling to tell me who the other number belonged to, since it was unpublished.
I did a load of laundry, checked my mail, got rid of a carton of milk that was going sour. Then I sat on my couch to watch the ships pass while I field-stripped and cleaned my .45 and wondered what the hell happened to my case. After that, I worked on my accounting. My client was into me for more than his retainer on hours alone, not counting outstanding expenses for gas, lodging and the like. I FAXed my bill to his office from my little work cubicle off the living room.
My old-fashioned human-staffed answering service said not even Julie had called. If she went more than twenty-four hours without leaving a message for me, they worried we were on the outs. I hoped they were wrong. I reached her at the hospital where she had climbed the promotion ladder to records supervisor.
“You remember Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke?” she asked me.
“Amanda Blake,” I said. “Hell, yes. I thought Matt Dillon was crazy, always riding all over Kansas when he could have been snuggling upstairs at the Long Branch.”
“So of course you grow up and emulate your role model,” she said in a neutral tone.
Uh oh. “Julie…”
“Of course Miss Kitty didn’t have to contend with daily newspapers, or radio, or TV, to learn whether the big lug survived those weekly gunfights,” she said. “I could begin to envy Miss Kitty her lack of access to the mass media.”
“I left a message on your machine…”
“Yeah. ‘Julie: don’t worry what the newspapers say, I’m all right.’ Were you trying to make Matt Dillon loquacious by comparison?”
“You heard me, podnuh.”
I knew when I was whipped. “Julie, I’m sorry. It was just a gone-girl case. I barely started on it when this goon stepped out of the shadows and tried to dust me.”
She was silent for a moment. Then, “When you start trying to talk like a paperback private eye, I know you were really scared. That really scares me, too. You mean you were looking for a missing teenager?”
“Actually, a missing 20-year-old coed.”
“This man who tr — tried to kill you. Was he really a serial killer? Is the girl dead?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t know. Ask me just about any question you care to, and that’s my answer on this one so far. Plus, I’ve just been fired.”
“Where are you?”
“At home. I was hoping…”
“Stay right there! Don’t you dare leave, you big lug. Why didn’t you say you were back in town? Don’t bother to ask how I knew you’ve been gone. You’d certainly be the last one to tell me when you go anywhere! Don’t leave! You hear me?”
She came through the door in twenty minutes flat. Given city traffic, she must have left a terrorized wake across the city from Pill Hill. I stood up. She stopped just inside the door, hands on her hips, breasts heaving under the old raincoat. Her tousled hair was jeweled with rain drops, and her green eyes were large and glistening.
“You sure are a sight for sore eyes, Miss Kitty.”
“Fuck you, buster.”
“Yes, please,” I said.
Then she was in my arms, half-laughing and half-crying, hammering on my clavicles with clenched fists.
“Goddamn you, don’t you ever go get killed on me, don’t you ever!”
I squeezed her tight, fists and all, and buried my face in her rain-fresh hair. A large peace seemed to open in my brain, flooding away tangled notions of a war bride’s bones in an unmarked desert grave. We stood like that for a while before she mumbled something against my chest.
She slipped a strong thigh between my legs and pressed — not quite hard enough to hurt.