Rachel had started pouncing on the office phone in a way that reminded Richard of the nature docs he'd seen of alligators snatching feral pigs off riverbanks. Parenting non-lethal neuroses was optional after happy hour and he was busy with his own mental alligators, so he let her deal with whatever hog was in her craw as he swam through fan mail on his desk. "You should call some of these people back," Rachel sighed, hanging up to scribble on the memo pad. She'd erased the boobs he'd drawn on there earlier because he hadn't raised her to appreciate highbrow art apparently. "You know satisfied clients are part of what make that fan mail pile bigger, right?"
"Don't you have somewhere to be?"
"Why, do you have a problem? You never used to mind me hanging out in the office with you."
"Yeah, when you were seven and adorable. Now you're an overgrown butt-boil that finished its homework and needs to find another butt to grow on. Are all your butt-boil friends busy or something?"
"I have human friends, am still adorable, and I have a famous dad who runs a busy agency all by himself." Rachel jammed the pencil into the spiral binding. She had her mother's bracelet on today. "Some people might interpret what I'm doing as being a good helper, not… not butt-boilish."
"Good helpers don't complain about helping." He propped an unlit cigarette in the pucker between his upper lip and nose and balanced it, swaying and sleepy, sifting around the letters like an only slightly drunk unicorn. "Go away, Pumpkin. You're killing Daddy's buzz."
"I think you've rested enough from the last big case, don't you? Some of these sound pretty serious. Shouldn't you be shaping up by now, maybe thinking about doing a little work?"
"If they were actually serious they'd come in and complain to my face."
Rachel thrust the memo pad at his nose to simulate, then yanked it back just as quickly when Richard lazily tried to lick it or whatever. "I give up, why are you sniffing absolutely everything in that pile," she said. "I've been watching you do it for an hour."
Richard leaned forward, tongue still outstretched, to expertly twirl the cigarette back into his mouth as it fell. He scanned a lilac envelope against the light before thumbing it open and waving the scent over at her. "Sniff."
"C'mon, live a little."
"No. You're being weird."
"Poison Dior," Richard informed her with relish. "Brazilion rosewood, plum, coriander. Middle notes tuberose, white honey, cinnamon. Nothing gets a woman going faster than being able to recognize her perfume. I studied that shit harder than I studied Biology. There was this corner boutique where I used to earn some spending money as a kid – got a quick after-school gig sweeping up hair after each client. I can pick out a perfume brand across the room and when a woman put it on just on base notes and how it reacts to skin chemistry."
Rachel was looking recently pruned of her soul and in a lot of pain from the trimming. "Don't give me that," Richard said. "You really can't grasp how impressive that is? "
"What, that my married father sniffs women across the room so he can pick them up better?"
"No, that your detective father cultivated the ability to sniff out chemical components in an aerosol, twit. Seriously, what's with you and the phone, what gives."
"I don't have a thing with the phone," Rachel said tersely. Teenagers never liked being called out on the fact they had things with things. "I just happen to think you should be taking more of these calls to make sure we stay out of the red."
"The red that forced me to watch you skip meals when I was growing up just to put food on my plate."
"Oh, that red, you're so right," Richard The Goddamn Moore said. "Forgive me, I didn't realize how traumatized you were that I never missed a tuition payment, bought you three different school uniforms, sent you on school trips, gave you money to go out with friends, and sent you to bed with a full stomach every night. If only I'd just made it look easier instead of teaching you life lessons that nothing in life is free! Go away, gosh."
"While you're in here gorging yourself on fan mail and... and women's perfume, there are people out there with real problems who need your help. Did you ever consider that maybe they're too scared to come into the office because they have a dangerous stalker or can't risk the stigma of being seen in a PI agency? These people might really be in trouble."
"So I think you should do your job and maybe care a little more!"
"I never said I didn't care."
"Then answer the phone!"
"I never said I cared that much."
Rachel noisily flooded herself with 20.9% oxygen. "Okay, now I know for sure you're smelling that Dior," Richard said. "You getting the cinnamon underpinnings? Did you know women wore it to the gym so they could smell good bouncing around? Poison Dior was famous for activating with sweat and funk. See, science can be cool. Go study it."
"Clean up your mail, Dad," she said softly.
"So is your problem with my work ethic, the phone messages, my fan mail, or how good everything smells right now?"
"My problem is clearly you."
"Which is why I'm hanging out with Anne and Jessica and Allen and Martin and Lizzy here instead of you and your problem." Richard fanned the letters. "You starting to connect the dots or should I call up a reputable detective agency to help you out?"
Rachel snatched up her jacket and book bag from the corner and slammed the door on her way out.
Richard waited until the pernicious butt-boiling was safely above him before unlocking the bottom drawer and sliding out the real prize. He'd faithfully written one letter a month to Yoko Okino for the past three years but only in the past two months had she started responding with personal stationary, and this was how Richard measured success and it was also why he was a PI and not a firefighter. If multiple fires were burning and he had the hose, there was a full risk he'd prioritize the hot twenty-something who'd just skinned a knee tripping over her Pomeranian at the hydrant.
He dispatched himself over the letter with a shot of bourbon as the sun did unimportant scheduled things behind him. His fixation on her compliments was so perfect that he didn't hear Rachel come back down the stairs until she'd already plucked the letter out of his hands and was scooping his other mail into a canvas grocery tote. "Butthole," he yelped, broken and scrambling.
"This is actually kind of nostalgic." Rachel's tone didn't match the rest of her. She was abusive but conscientious as she packed, slapping his hands away but taking care not to bend the corners of the letters. "Jimmy used to get this kind of deluge of fan mail right after he'd solve a big case. It'd usually come to his house, but one time it found its way to the school and caused a huge mess."
"Stop reminiscing about stuff I don't care about and give me back my drugs!"
"I cooked dinner before my project group meetings these past two days and your leftovers are still in the fridge. When did you last eat? A real meal, not cigarettes and hangnails?"
Richard's middle finger had great communication skills. Rachel pivoted with inhuman dexterity, bending enough to grab a granola bar upside-down from the healthy snack drawer in the coffee stand. Richard didn't bother dodging projectiles because even bullets refused to commit to him long-term. "Eat or I fax every perfumed letter in this pile to Mom," Rachel said. "I should be able to step out of the agency in the evening and know you're taking care of yourself. You have the rest of the afternoon to be productive. Use it."
"Does it sound like I'm asking?"
Richard maintained vengeful caprine eye contact as he bit through the paper covering his granola bar. "I'm going to let you do that to yourself," Rachel said, still calm. "Anything else preventing you from doing your job?"
"No! Go away!"
She narc'd the fan mail payload under the potted ficus, the handful under the couch cushions, on stack atop the floor lamp, and the collection in the movable ceiling tile in the bathroom where he liked to store his emergency detox cigarettes. She had to drag over the stepladder to get the ones in the cold air exchange over their hutch cabinet. "You're being weird about this," Richard said. "Meguire would've at least let me keep one so the desk drawer smells good."
"Inspector Meguire is weak and dotes on you. I know better." She gave a last check in his liquor cabinet before disappearing back upstairs.
He chewed on paper and nuts. Rachel came back dressed down five minutes later, lined winter leggings under shorts and a cut-off sweatshirt that grazed the tops of her belt loops. She tugged her hair away from her face to braid it; Richard caught a flash of painted nails as her fingers flew. "So now what," he said, humoring her.
Rachel capped off her braid with a red scrunchie and reached for the memo pad. Richard hockey-pucked it across the desk. She instinctively grabbed for it again and Richard flicked her knuckles hard enough to make her hiss with surprise. He sent it flying again and Rachel lunged, and in that split second between the phone ringing and Rachel changing course, Richard's instincts caught the tailwind of something genuinely dangerous. A splash of corrosive saltwater.
He plopped his hand down on the receiver an instant before she snatched it up, grabbing her wrist with his other hand with enough force for her to have to resort to actual violence if she wanted to escape. Refusing to hand over the last scraps of her dignity, Rachel stood there reddening with frustration, trembling in his grip, free fist opening and closing at her side.
The phone stopped ringing. "I'm not even mad at this point, I just want to know what you took," Richard said.
Rachel couldn't look at him.
The man on voicemail explained that his wife was cheating on him. That made a full fourteen cheating cases on the memo pad he was ignoring. Springtime was a season of restless crotches.
Rachel whispered, humiliated, "Please spar with me, Dad."
Her nail polish was red. It matched her scrunchie. She'd worn red for the past three days. "What's with the phone."
"Nothing and you want to hit me."
"I don't want to hit you, I just want to spar."
Richard focused on that lethal little hand. She'd laughed like it was the silliest thing in the world the first time he'd helped her make a fist with it. She'd never picked flowers up in bunches like other girls her age. It'd always been delicately between two clumsy fingers like she'd already understood the importance of the exchange, like it needed to be done with intentionality. Violence hadn't come naturally to her and feeding that instinct until it'd gotten big enough to keep her safe had felt like a betrayal. Eva had been less sentimental. If you don't teach her to kill the man attacking her on the street, I will.
"You're afraid of me," Rachel said. She sounded incredulous.
"I'd be stupid not to be."
"You can't seriously think I'd hurt you."
The knuckles on her right hand were flatter than the ones on her left. There were scars on her thumbs.
Rachel held her breath a moment above him. When she moved it was to gently work his thumb back against the grain. His grip caved easily. She slid right across the desk, ignoring the pens the action scraped onto the floor, and gathered his head and shoulders in a birds-eye cling. "I'm sorry." Rachel buried her face in his hair. She sounded stricken. "I didn't realize you were being serious."
Maybe only mostly serious. Alcohol made demands of him and his moods fluctuated to fit the need. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk about the mail," Rachel said. "You're right, it's really not my business. And we're… we're doing okay with money right now, so I'm not sure why I reacted so strongly to it. I don't know. I guess I'm wound up and I think I was just looking for an excuse to… to…"
Hurt me. He didn't bother putting points on it. They emotionally tossed each other around like beanbags. "Listen, you're not little anymore," he said instead. "You have crap you need to work out, take a walk, run a kata, grab a smoke break, whatever, I won't tell your mother. But it's not on others to be a punching bag for you when you get lit up about something. You can't think of yourself as a little girl when you can vault onto rooftops and punch through car windows."
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"And if whatever's going on is serious, hitting the snot out of somebody isn't going to solve your problem. It's just going to push it all down the road for you to deal with later. You know that, right?"
"So where do you want to rumble?"
She snotted a startlingly gross laugh into his hair. She'd gotten gross in truly record time. "We can push the furniture aside but there still won't be a lot of room," Richard said. "Can you keep it close-quarter?"
"Dad, you don't have to spar with me. It's okay."
"If I don't assert dominance now you're going to think you outrank me in the pack. I'm not settling for sloppy leftovers at the zebra carcass. Move the furniture and we'll be square."
She hesitated but he'd taught her better than to pass up handouts. She let go of him and scrambled off the desk, wiping her face clean.
Resigned, Richard grabbed some coffee and watched his extremely petite daughter move the couches and shelves like she was made out of carbide and diesel fuel. There were a lot of inconvenient places on his body she could relocate his face with that kinetic energy. He was still thinking about how much he liked his teeth in their assigned sockets when Rachel finally squared off in front of him, killing arena clear of collateral damage. "You're not going to change?" she inquired, slapping her hands free of dust, eyeing his suit jacket doubtfully.
"You know I'll use what you give me, Dad. No fair using it as an excuse if I come out on top."
"You think crooks on the street are going to wait for me to change out of my three-piece when they attack me?"
"At least set down the coffee."
He set down the coffee and then swept up a palm to deflect her rising strike to his blind-side temple. It was a bitchy place to try to hit him but historically speaking he was bitchier. He turned the full circle of his forearm to trap hers, jerked his chin out of the way when she used her free hand to try to smush a bug on it or whatever excuse he'd use to explain his bruises to clients in the morning, and pulled her along into a series of ground-eating L-stance spins so that they were away from the desk. "No aerials," he grunted, yelping as a spear grazed the sensitive skin above his ear. "And no tripping me down the stairs."
"No stooge pokes or hair pulling." She got a piece of his knee but a nice one. It was a demonstration of restraint. "And no locking me out the door or in the bathroom."
There wasn't a whole lot of Judo he could use here without collateral damage but luckily it wasn't the only language he spoke. He let her trapped forearm go and squared off and gave her a kumite signal and she was on him. She fought like a cat-o-nine. Every strike was controlled but stung like motherfuck wherever they landed, bruising and stinging just barely under the umbrella of superficial injury, and honestly this was what Richard had been afraid of. As many delusions that he'd broken for her both intentionally and unintentionally, this was the one still intact in her head for whatever reason: that she was still seven years old and he was still the tall indestructible pillar she could tire herself out against before going to bed. It was hard to impress on her that he was porous and maybe part of that was him just not wanting to take another certainty in life from her. She was already circling the drain of her sanity when it came to his safety. As much as he hated to do it, he really had to show some teeth here while he figured out what was actually in her grill. "You're distracted," Rachel warned. An instant later stars split behind his lids and he sat down hard from a palm strike to the forehead. "You better start taking this seriously or I'm really going to hand it to you."
She really was. Richard gave her a ceasefire signal and rolled away, standing up a safe distance from her to shuck his jacket and roll his sleeves up to his elbow. He ignored her smug look. "We're probably scaring people downstairs," Rachel said.
"Then shut up and move me upstairs, twig."
Her eyes flashed with delight. It was rare he trash talked during fights. Richard's inflexible hip flexors didn't want to do stance work and his weak butt muscles wanted to do whatever his hip flexors wanted to do. He weathered her attempts to herd him, letting her efforts break over him, let heel-palms and shuto strikes splash him like dock water, let knife-strikes find his knees and rock his boat. He redirected a wayward elbow and snapped it straight, supporting it so it didn't dislocate her shoulder, pivoting her back towards his desk and letting go at the last second so she stumbled. She laughed breathlessly and murderously. He tucked himself into a hidden foot and spun her out again when she tried a rotating heel thrust, a revolving door, and sacrificed his chin to her spear instead of letting her go to actually tumble. She rewarded his kindness by reversing the spear and yanking down on his suprasternal fucking notch, which was again a great testament to good parenting and terrible parenting. He could have steered her into dollhouses and instead he'd taught her to outfight an excavator.
When her strikes grew reckless and her lungs started to drag, he clicked over to phase two. He had the advantage close-quarter and he pressed that now, liquidizing his stance and absorbing her next gut blow instead of deflecting it. She instantly knew what was coming and was already hissing with protest as he trapped her wrist with a ridge hand, thumbed a clockwork motion around her forearm and rolled his shoulder, appropriating her physics. A palm behind her elbow and an ankle in front of hers finally took her down. Richard kept her in a headlock and cheerfully endured her elbow-torpedoes until she finally gave up to slump against him. "Uncle," she panted.
"Yeah, no shit." She hadn't made it easy so Richard felt justified in a little out of breath gloating. He would coo at his reflection later and tell it how cool and badass and young it was later. "What's with the phone."
Rachel gulped air a minute longer. Her fingers curled up over his forearms, her hair prickling the underside of his chin. "I won," Richard reminded her.
She nodded miserably. He gave her another minute to consider his terms of surrender, loosening his arm a little only when he felt her shift for her pocket. She handed a folded paper up to him. Not willing to give up his citizen's arrest just yet, Richard transferred her skinny neck from one inner elbow to the other as he unfolded the paper one-handed. "I got that letter a few days ago," Rachel murmured. "It came out of the blue and I guess I… haven't maybe been dealing as well with it as I'd thought."
Typewriter text spilled into an illegible blue-inked signature. "Who sent this?"
The shock soured his victory. Broadsided, Richard blanked out over the page a moment. "I've been trying to figure out if it's real," Rachel blurted, misinterpreting his silence. "I don't know how I know, but something tells me it is. It sounds like him, but I keep second-guessing myself because it's typed, you know? I know, but I don't know, and that's what's been tormenting me. Usually I can trust my intuition, but I've been wanting this so badly that I feel like I'm lying to myself by hoping it's real."
To Rachel Moore. I hope this finds you well. "And you didn't think to ask the world's most famous detective to trace it?"
"You won't want it to be real and you'll lie to me to make me give up on him."
Richard considered getting offended. He was on record being petty and maybe overprotective in a specific type of way if you squinted at it, but he was also a bad liar and maybe just not all that hardassed, actually. There were limits. Maybe a month ago he would've tried to misdirect her, but after what had happened with Conan and Agasa, Richard had more or less lost his taste for rubbing salt in her festering Jimmy-wounds. "And if I said it was from him?"
"Then I'd think you were just humoring me to get me to go away."
"So no matter what answer I gave you, you'd planned to be mad at me?"
"Maybe," she said quietly.
He was bewildered by the casual teenage injustice. "It ever occur to you I might give you an actual answer?"
"Of course it did, but realistically—"
"Did you forget I do this for a living?"
"I know you do it for a living, but you're biased on this and sometimes you – stop it, Dad, you can't pout away twelve years of bad behavior and pretend like I'm somehow irrational for doubting you," Rachel snapped when his headlock mournfully tightened. "Maybe I just didn't want to involve you, okay? Maybe my mail is my business the way you say your mail is your business."
Asshole. "My mail is in a sack upstairs and you're the hypocritical sack that put it there." Richard flipped the paper up to test his asshole child's mail against the ceiling light. "What did it come in?"
"Was it delivered just like this or was it in something?"
"It was just in a plain unmarked envelope. The kind you could get at any corner store, nothing special. Dad, please just give it back, okay? I'm sorry I even asked to spar in the first place."
He took a scan of the pretentious contents before bringing the stationary to his nose. Pipe smoke but not necessarily recent: pipe scents clung for years. The giveaway was the high-end manufacturer's watermark – Frogmore judging by the swoops. The grain rasped under his thumb on one side and silk-kissed his forefinger on the other.
He realized Rachel had stilled for his verdict. "It's from him," he said, handing it back.
"How do you know?"
"That's his typewriter. He's been using it since you guys were kids."
"But …" Rachel squirmed against his hold to try to scan the paper again. "No, wait, Dad, how do you—"
"The top of the F and the bottom of the L are both messed up on that thing and for whatever reason Richy Snotpants Senior never got his kid a new machine."
"But how do you know?"
"Because on the grand two whole occasions his old man was actually in frame during his childhood, he'd brag nonstop about the mystery manuscripts Jimmy wrote up and pushed them on me during your guys' playdates," Richard said. "Check your hope chest if you don't believe me. You kept the invitations to his Sherlock birthday parties over the years. The same manufacturing defect is on those too."
"But that just proves someone was using his typewriter, right? Couldn't it still just be a prank?"
"You name one other seventeen year-old human on this planet that typewrites a letter to a friend, says 'longitudinal' twice, and caps it off with 'may you continue to not just see, but perceive', and I'll get back to you on that," Richard said. "Trust me. It's from him."
Rachel looked as cautiously happy as anyone could be in a headlock. She creased it between her thumbs and scanned it anew, gaze lingering on the damaged letters. "Says he plans to call you this week," Richard said. "That what's got you so riled up about the phone?"
"I know I shouldn't get my hopes up." Her admission was barely audible. "And he has called me before, but the conversations have never lasted for more than a minute or so. Almost like he was afraid of being traced, or overheard, or... or maybe he was afraid I'd ask questions he wouldn't be able to answer. But this letter actually makes it sound like he's ready to explain himself and is trying to work up the courage to do it."
Something thunked a fingertip down in Richard's mental map.
"Dad, if I can just…" Rachel took in a shuddering breath. "What if this is my last chance? What if it's up to me to say the right words to fix this, and they don't come out right? If I can just practice what to say – if I can just convince him I was only angry at him because I was so worried about him— maybe I can finally convince him to come home. But if I do it wrong, if I say the wrong things, I might be the one who pushes him away for good this time. And maybe this time, I don't get a second chance."
The back of the desk was digging into his shoulder blade. Beika honked at him from several blocks south. He'd set his palm down in pollen this morning leaning out over the windowsill and since then his eyes had been tingling at the corners. The sun heated his elbow.
"It's stupid," Rachel said. She sounded defeated. "I've been stupid, haven't I."
I saw him, Conan had whispered, humiliated. I'm not a good liar. It really was him.
He blinked his way back. "You're not even listening," Rachel said. "Where were you just now?"
His mouth made mouth noises under spotlight. "You know what, I realize my relationship with Jimmy is boring for you, but you don't have to sit here and act like I'm pathetic for being worried about him," Rachel snapped. "Don't you have just a little experience being pathetic in your relationships?"
"Hell no, look at me," Richard said. "You have any idea how many people were knocking down my door in high school? How many of them liked the bad boy Judo champ persona? Trust me, I settled for your mother. I had options spilling out my door."
Rachel mouthed 'people' and 'them' to herself. "So sum it up for me: you gonna stop being weird about the phone or what," Richard said.
"Just as soon as you admit you're just as pathetic with people and thems and maybe my acorn doesn't fall far from your tree."
He was just making plans to upturn her and rattle her like a bag of greasy chip crumbs when thumps ascended the stairs. Conan shouldered his way into the agency with tired eyes that immediately flared with terror at the human wreckage on the floor. "Hi, sweetie," Rachel said. "How was school today?"
"What is he doing?" Conan blurted.
"Oh, we're all done. Dad's just letting me blow off some steam."
"In a chokehold?"
"Look, she started it by backsassing me," Richard yawned. The sun on the top of his head was making him sleepy. "I'm just being a good parent and hitting her until she stops asking for it."
Conan fumbled for a projectile. "Conan." Rachel sputtered out a breathless peel of laughter. "Conan, he's joking. I begged him to spar. It's okay, don't kill him. Oh, Dad, phone! Phone phone phone, let go."
"You promised you were going to stop being so weird about the—"
"I promised literally nothing get off get off." She elbowed him this time in the center of his ancestor's ribcage and he flopped off with a groan to join them in death. "Hello," Rachel said into the receiver brightly. "Moore Detective Agency."
He kept rolling around just for the hell of it because fibrous carpet scratched his itchy chest hairs. "It's for you." Rachel held it down. "Ms. Takara."
Conan froze with a hand on the door. Richard accidentally pulled the cord too hard on his next roll and the unit came crashing down onto the floor, thankfully not hanging up or lobotomizing him in the fall. "Dick Moore."
"You sound busy," Conan's teacher said. There was some kind of fax machine spitting on her end. "Was this a bad time?"
"Any time's a good time if it's spent with you."
"I was just calling to confirm you got the announcement we handed out yesterday. It's an important calendar change that we want to make sure all parents are aware of."
Rachel had trotted across the room to his spare sets of shirts in the closet. Richard eyeballed Conan's trepidation with glee. "Announcement, you say."
Conan groaned and unslung his school bag, ripping open the zipper and fumbling through it. "Why gosh, Ms. Takara, ma'am, indeed he has not," Richard said. "What important information did he neglect to give us, his caring guardians."
"To keep a long story short, there was a small cooking fire in the economics wing – under control quickly, all students were safe and there was no structural damage, but unfortunately the sprinklers that were set off completely doused the hallway storing the sixth years' Fine Arts Festival projects. They were completely ruined."
"Peanut," Richard drawled across the room. "Munchkin. Sweet potato. Did you set a fire in the economics wing just to get out of making your art project?"
Still deep in his school bag, Conan jerked his hands out to flash him a raging double bird just before Rachel turned back out of the closet with a new dress shirt. It was the funniest and most unexpected fucking thing Richard had ever seen in his life and he was forced to squash an unexpected yelp of laughter with his palm. "You misunderstand me: I'm not accusing Conan of arson," Sumie said. "In… just quite literally any way. How did you arrive at that."
"The fire was already proven to be accidental. The long and short of it is, rather than disappoint the sixth years on their last festival, we've decided to reschedule the event four weeks from now so that they can redo their projects and repair the decorations that got waterlogged. We know parents' schedules are busy, so we wanted to give as much advance warning as possible so that plans could be changed."
Conan located the blue photocopied flyer and ripped it out from the depths. "He's withholding evidence," Richard said anyway. "Don't worry, I'll cuff and print him later. Any reason you thought to call me in particular? A personal reason?"
"How fine a point would you like me to put on it?"
"I dunno, pretty razor."
"As I mentioned, there are certain students in my class who historically have had… difficulties communicating important information to their parents. Conan is on that shortlist."
Conan was frantically flapping it over his head. "So he lies by omission and sets fires," Richard said.
"Not this week. He's exemplary as always. By far the brightest in my class as well as the most polite. Positively non-pyromanic, even."
"You sure he do anything else requiring a police investigation? Maybe something I should swing by for to get your witness statement?"
"He's a role model to his peers. I'm afraid you just don't have a cause for arrest, officer."
Well now that was an extremely pretty word to hear in her nice soft voice. Richard thought about things. There was sunlight falling in a patch by his face. He caterpillared into it and scratched his side on the carpet some more. "Sounds like a lawsuit would be dead on arrival too, then."
"Among other things here," Sumie said brightly, which only made Richard want to embarrass himself with her more. "I'll leave you to it, then. Sorry for the interruption."
He tried to hang up with his feet until Rachel took the receiver from him and did it herself. "Change out into the clean one before you get new clients," Rachel told him with a chin-nod towards the new shirt on his desk. She took the flyer off Conan and scanned it perfunctorily. Her gaze softened but this time her voice didn't. "Sweetheart, you have to get better at letting us know these things sooner. This was only a few from now and we would've gotten all ready to go for nothing."
"I still don't understand how I came home to a literal brawl and somehow I'm the one in trouble in this room," Conan said. He was still a little hot around his gills. "Why would you automatically think I started the fire?"
"Oh, Conan, nobody actually thought that. Dad was just being stupid and drunk."
"Hey, stupid and drunk just stomped you in a kumite," Richard said, standing with his desk's help and stretching his spine with a groan. "A little respect for the king of the animal kingdom. I get first dibs on the zebras tonight."
"Speaking of zebras." Rachel crouched by Conan and smoothed some of the sweat of transit off his cheek. Her smile was tired but fond for him. "I was thinking of having Dad get takeout tonight. We've had a good run of healthy home-cooked meals lately, so I'm thinking it's maybe time for a little treat, how about you? Let's save your art project for tomorrow and relax tonight with something yummy."
"So first I'm your punching bag and then I'm your wallet?" Richard demanded. "Screw you, eat a bagel."
"Dad, I'm not taking in your seams anymore just because you insist on drinking and smoking every single meal. Arteries aside, I think a good fatty meal tonight won't go amiss, and frankly Conan and I could use the morale boost. Just hand over your wallet for some Mongolian beef and admit you like it when I allow you to fill up on grease."
"How about you make me."
She immediately obliged. Conan squawked and fled for cover while she fought off Richard's guard, planting an amazing heel and sliding it down his calf with a simultaneous redirection of his elbow when he tried to duck around her. It was brilliantly done and if he were the sentimental type he might've called up a friend or whatever to brag that his daughter could steal his wallet off him on a dark street and leave him gasping for air on the ground. It was A+ father-daughter parenting. "We have enough," Rachel told his corpse, crouching by him on the floor as she thumbed through dog-eared bills. "Is it actually okay? Are we up on payments?"
"I can pitch in if not. I still have my babysitting money from last week and Mom's allowance."
"I added some dough into the vacation jar yesterday. Whatever. Don't worry about it."
Rachel's expression was conflicted in a way he couldn't translate. Sometimes her praise was honest but other times her approval felt patronizing. Like he was an art project she was trying to add finishing touches to. "This isn't the money from the blackmail photo thing from last week, is it?" she said, confirming his suspicions that she was secretly a really huge dick. "Because that was gross even by private investigator standards."
"Those are the tips pushed at me during my shift at the Skinnydrippers Club. As long as the kid doesn't mind eating something bought with thong money, we should have enough for three entrees and some dessert on top."
Having crept back out to reorder his school bag, Conan jerked his head up again in horror. "He bounces, Conan, and it's been months since he's done even that," Rachel sighed. "Why don't you go upstairs and order while I reset the furniture here? Order whatever you like for us. Just make sure it's within budget."
Conan left the room holding Richard's wallet at arm's length in front of him.
Richard wished he'd thought to install a beer dispenser on the floor. Crossing the room and going up the stairs felt a lot more formidable when he was low on reasons to live. "I'm going to go upstairs and help him with his homework while we wait for the food to be delivered," Rachel said. She'd zoned out against the opposite wall for a while, visibly reordering. "Thanks for sparring with me today, Dad. It actually really helped."
"Just feeding into my investment."
"I won't be too weird about the phone anymore. Just make sure you tell me if he calls, okay? It's really important to me."
Rachel breathed in and held it a second.
She concluded in a rush, "And I just wanted to remind you that this week has a Mom visitation day so I'm going to need you to—"
Richard inchwormed around his desk to burrow under it. "Oh, grow up!" Rachel exploded somewhere beyond his cocoon of desolation. "Why does it have to be a production literally every single time I remind you of the arrangement you helped set up when I was in elementary school?"
"Why do you beat me and hate me!"
"I shouldn't have to be afraid of reminding you that I want to see my—"
Richard slammed the underside of the desk with his heel. "Mother!" Rachel snatched his lamp off the top and speared the light in the slit between the front of his desk and the floor. He hissed and writhed in the beam like a cold one. "Moth. Er. Eva. Eva Moore."
"You know what? Congratulations, Dad, you made me angrier than I am anxious, which means you officially got one thing accomplished today. Write it on your calendar next to 'booze' and 'strip club' and maybe it'll inspire you to do some actual work tomorrow."
"You're welcome!" he yelled at her as she stormed towards the door and up the stairs. "Tell your butt-boil friend that if he ever decides he wants to start serial killing and sending taunts to the police, spring for a new typewriter that doesn't rat him out on the first day."
"I won't have the chance because I'm going to ask him to start with me!"
He took a nap under his desk and woke up extraordinarily gross and still drunk in a stale shirt hours later. "I can't even begin to describe to you how weird it is that a grown man does what you're doing," Conan said somewhere on the other end of the desk's continental divide. "I have no explanation. I've literally never seen any other adult do this."
"Why didn't you bring me the food when it came earlier?" His neck wasn't responding right. The last time he'd slept this awkwardly there'd been a long bar crawl involved and a quarter hour of unhinged yelling when Meguire had finally located him behind a bakery's dumpster. "I was hungry."
"Good for you. I was busy."
"I paid for it!"
"What are you even whining about? It's here now on the desk. Come out and get it."
Conan's sneakers were visible in the slit under the desk. Richard grabbed Conan's ankle and Conan reflexively kicked his wrist with his free foot, which hurt atomically. "Got a question for you," Richard said.
"I'm not saying anything about Jimmy."
"I didn't ask about Jimmy."
"I know you planned to grill me about it. I'm just telling you in advance that I don't know anything."
Richard towed with controlled force. Conan sighed and plopped onto his butt atop the agency's carpet. He was wearing red socks today. "Your teacher is hot," Richard told the red-socked foot. "I want to flirt with her. That involves you either getting really shitty grades or really good grades so we have something to discuss. I want to see what you have so far on the art project."
"It's so weird how you lay all your intentions out like that right at the gate," Conan said. "Can't you at least pretend to be interested in my grades for altruistic purposes?"
"I'm altruistic when it benefits me, and I'm not even going to give you a speech about seven year-olds not saying those words because I'm that serious about your teacher being hot. Tomorrow after school I want something art projecty on the table or in the living room on some newspaper. I want you to show me you're working on it. I'm siccing the big dogs on you."
"Look, I know you're not actually down here because you're thinking about my teacher or are mad about Rachel visiting her mom this week or want to stick it to me for arson. You only get this weird when something's bothering you and I'm trying to head it off before it stresses out Rachel. More.."
"Pissant, don't you try to corner me—"
"You latched onto my ankle, so if anything, you're the one cornering me."
Richard felt the carpet fibers tickle his cheek. He'd been hanging with the brown house spider above his head for so long and at this point he felt sisterhood. He'd relocate her to the bathroom light fixture and put a sticky note there telling Rachel he'd adopted it. Rachel was forgiving of unauthorized adoptions.
"You completely forgot why you pulled me down here, didn't you," Conan said.
"Shut up. I'm thinking."
"Well can you think while I go to the bathroom? I have to pee."
He let go. Conan bumper-carred around in the bathroom for a while, audibly replacing the toilet paper roll and swearing as he barked his leg twice against the lower cabinets. The afternoon in the agency felt abstract in a way a lot of things had become lately. Something was worming into his neurochemistry and had been for weeks. Spring was restless but the itch in him had become suffocating.
Conan returned seemingly resolved. "So I've decided it's really weird you're under there and I'm getting you out now."
Richard had no intention of doing jack or shit for twenty-four hours. He passively listened to the rummaging above him until the intimately familiar sound of aluminum on a wooden desktop turned his ear. Conan had fixed a rubber band over the can of beer and shucked a shoelace to use as a fishing line: he now dangled the can in Richard's sight through the slit, yanking it away from Richard's grabby flaily hand that shot out from under the desk. He continued towing it across the room in increments until Richard flopped his way back out into the open to rescue the bribe. He propped himself against his desk with hips that ached and watched Beika watch him back, tapping the rim against his teeth as beer fizzed in his nose.
"What's wrong with you," Conan said.
"I got invited to a talk show interview tomorrow and I don't know how to tell Rachel." Ambulance sirens floated in on an eastbound breeze and someone nearby was smoking a different brand. The bakery had cleaned its windows today. "It's an interactive murder mystery on a daily show. She derailed me today with the phone and the Jimmy crap and now that she's mad I'm not sure how to bring it up."
Conan was immediately rifling through the memo pad from the top of Richard's desk. Richard hadn't given him permission to do that. "What interview."
"Channel 9. It's in the morning. I think it's easier to just go when she's still asleep, kill time at the station instead."
"I want to go."
He caught Conan's genuine surprise in his peripherals. "If you want us to go, what's the problem?" Conan said slowly. "Just invite her and let her decide if she's too mad to go."
"Because I don't mind you going. I mind her going."
Richard lifted a shoulder. "You hate TV interviews," Conan said. "Why the sudden change? What made you start taking the offers seriously?"
"The interviewer chick is cute."
"Rachel has been begging you to do more interviews since the beginning. Did something happen that made you change your mind about them?"
"I just told you the interviewer chick is cute."
"So you don't want Rachel to go because you plan on flirting with the interviewer?"
Impulses traveled from his gut and up his sinuses and hitched a ride back out with the smoke.
Conan tossed the memo pad onto the desktop and followed it up. "I need you as an accomplice," Richard decided. It was the only thing his eight brawling cat brains agreed on in the past six minutes. "I could tell her I'm on a tail, but if she catches me live she's going to have a fit. I have to think of something else."
Conan sighed and scrubbed his face. It was such an uncanny echo of Meguire that Richard had to grab a double-take as he snuffed the remains of his cigarette. "Get her to call her rich friend," Richard said. "I'll make it worth your while. Actually, hey, I know: how about I let you stay here for free and we'll call it even. Maybe I'll even throw in a melted smoothie if you're not really mean to me like you usually are."
"No," Conan said shortly.
"Why the hell not."
"Because I'm tired of doing things that make her sad. Sorry, but you just bet on the wrong horse. TV station security is really lax and I don't want to have to worry about being the only one in there to protect you."
"Since when do you protect—"
"Plus I've seen you when you get stage fright. You completely lock up. If we're not there, you're going to get in trouble, and then it'll be my fault for hiding things from her. Again."
Richard slowly pushed ash off his thumb and looked at Conan over his beer can. "Cut it out," Conan said irritably. "It makes sense."
"It doesn't, though," Richard said, almost reverently.
"I'm telling Rachel."
"You and which special ops task force."
For the second time that day, Conan did something Richard honestly didn't think he was capable of doing. He reached out with a palm and popped Richard's beer can up against his teeth, sending beer sloshing up his face. It was straight out of middle school and if Richard weren't so suddenly invested in committing an unsolvable murder he would've admired Conan's escape strategy. Rachel flew down the stairs a minute later, beaming, crushing him in a thrilled hug. "I think things are really settling down for us, Dad," she murmured. "Don't you? It feels like maybe we're really all finally getting used to this."
He smoked three more cigarettes on his midnight walk and idled in the saffron shadows of an Indian eatery on the way home. There were no messages on the agency's phone. When he thudded upstairs near 0100, he found the hallway phone pilfered from the stand with the cord evidence straining around the corner into Rachel's closed room. Conan was sound asleep in his bedroll. Richard sat on his bed in the semi-darkness with an unlaced tie and an unlit cigarette and tried to hold off whatever his subconscious was trying to fuck him over with.
He went back downstairs and sat for an hour with the agency's phone drifting in and out of the cradle. When the moonlight disappeared enough for him to feel like nobody's eye was on him, he hid behind a can of beer and completed the call.
The check they handed him afterwards would cover Conan's upcoming dental visit and Rachel's class trip to a newspaper production press. He celebrated by vomiting his nerves out very gently in a combination trash can/ashtray. "You looked so cool up there, Dad," Rachel beamed, rubbing his back. "I didn't know you knew so much about cell phones. I thought you hated them."
"Why did you lie to them about being bad with guns?" Conan asked. "Is that something you're supposed to keep secret when you're a cop?"
"Serena has a cell phone and so do her parents." Rachel's mind had a single gravel back-road track in it. "Dad, wouldn't it be neat if we all got them? I bet there's a good deal on them somewhere. That way we could all stay in touch all day long and wouldn't have to rely on the phones in my guidance office. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Richard vomited harder with shared delight. "Conan, get him a milk, would you?" Rachel parceled out the fee. "There, those vending machines. Chocolate if they have it."
Conan jogged off. "I'm proud of you," Rachel murmured to Richard, returning a hand to Richard's forehead as he continued to yawp. Her failure to be grossed out by his grossness was an alcoholic parenting failure Eva made sure to mention often. "You really did look cool."
He bit off a string of bile. "Detective Moore," Miguel beamed, jogging up from behind with labored puffs. "That was outstanding. I'm sorry I missed your exit, but I'm glad I caught you!"
Rachel stifled a yelp and jerked her head out of concussion range when Richard straightened without warning. "Any time," Richard beamed with a thumbs-up. "Sorry, I was just examining the integrity of your public structures. You can never be too careful when it comes to these trashcan/ashtray hybrids."
"Your frankness really saved the day." Miguel made a noise of bemusement when Conan hustled back around his legs with the milk bottle in tow. Richard took a deep swig and swished it between his teeth. "Sometimes that program can get a little stale," Miguel confessed, winking at Conan. Conan's answering grin was guileless. "How about you, son? Did you enjoy the mystery?"
"Oh, it was way too hard for a little kid like me," Conan said. "I sure am glad a great detective like Richard Moore was there to keep everybody safe."
"Conan." There was a tremor of laughter in Rachel's voice. She took his hand and jostled it bracingly. "Now, you know it was make-believe, right? Nobody actually got hurt in there, I promise."
"Is that true? Because it seemed like some of the adults felt like it was. I even saw people holding their stomachs and sweating and everything. It looked like everybody was super tense."
"That's showbiz." Miguel laughed it off. "Believe it or not, despite our nerves, Tate and I have been doing this a long time. Practically right out of college. But back to you, Detective : that murder mystery you wrote on top of your real world experience – not to mention your tips for cellular phone safety – were a real breath of fresh air. I'm so glad I convinced Tate to have you on."
"You have a good thing going in there," Richard said. "Do you happen to have your co-host's number on you by any chance? In case she has any detective emergencies that need detecting?"
Rachel stepped on every little delicate bone in his foot. "It was really fun from the audience side of it too," she beamed. "I'm just glad little Conan got to have the experience. Can you tell him thank you, Conan?"
Conan didn't thank him. He was looking over his shoulder at a disturbance through the studio's open garage door.
Richard held another chocolately swig in his mouth and followed his gaze. There was a furor in the corner by a bank of monitors. A man tripped over a phone line and cursed; footsteps clanged on the staircases and there were shouts from upstairs. The technician pushed the man out of the tangle of wires and picked up the receiver in his stead. An instant later he began yelling about blood.
"Who murdered what and why," Meguire groaned immediately upon picking up Richard's call.
"I don't know yet!" Richard chewed on a packet of airline peanuts. Tate the co-producer was hideously dead against a control panel. Rachel was coping by doodling magical girls in his memo pad down in the lobby. "Want to come and find out?"
This time he woke up shivering in a frigid storage room with a monitor screaming at him and Conan pacing in front of him with a squirt gun filled with goop, and honestly he was fairly unfussed about this despite the ruckus he kicked up. He had plans to wring the truth out of Conan like swamp water but it also wasn't the worst position he'd woken up in recently. The high of getting to see Yoko at the studio powered him through a shower and a post-shower beer, and by the time he got to Rachel's room he had mostly forgotten why he'd been so angry at Conan in the first place. "I'm fine, Dad," Rachel said when he popped his head in to check on her. She was on her stomach flipping through a catalogue. "How are you feeling."
"Like I made money."
"It's a shame someone had to die today. It was really going well up until then."
"Honestly, I think it would've been weird if somebody hadn't died."
"Oh, don't say that," she sighed, but her disapproval was rote. "We shouldn't get used to this sort of thing. At least not around Conan."
He kept scrubbing the back of his head with his towel. The hallway phone still sat by her bed, her plush bunny standing guard with a red ribbon on its left ear. "I'm not being weird about the phone, Dad," Rachel said. "Good night."
"You're still proud of me, right?"
She finally looked up from her catalogue. Her eyes were pained. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, unless you killed him, I don't see any reason why that would affect my opinion of you. I am proud of you, Dad. You did a great job in the interview and you caught a murderer afterwards. If anything, you just proved to everyone what a great detective you are."
"If you were really proud you wouldn't be ditching me to go hang out with the gorgon."
"I'm not engaging with that," Rachel said. "That reminds me, we really need to work on Conan's project with him tomorrow. You'll be available, right? Even for just an hour or two?"
"Why? Kid's got an extension. I say let him take his mind off it for a while, see if anything creative bubbles up."
"Conan's like Jimmy. They can think outside the box to solve a logistics problem, but the instant you put a paintbrush or a tub of clay in front of them they shut down. We have to push him if we want him to grow."
"It sounds like if you were really invested you wouldn't be ditching him to go hang out with the gorgon," Richard said.
Rachel returned her attention to the catalogue of expensive shit only gorgons could afford to buy their kids.
He used the agency's phone to take notes as Meguire debriefed him over the murder he apparently solved at the studio. Conan lay on his floor atop his bedroll and was flipping through a chapter book when Richard towed himself back upstairs for the night. Spring knocked on the eastern window with branch taps and then rain.
Richard sat on his bed and looked down at his notes and all in all there were fewer ways for a person to disappear than there'd been a couple of years ago. He'd counted on those as a kid. "You're thinking too loud," Conan complained, not looking up from his book. "If you're tired, why not just go to sleep? It's not like anything's good on."
He burrowed his frigid feet under the covers, turned his back to the lamp, and found a dry spot on the pillow to settle his cheek.
The ceaseless page-turning froze. He could feel Conan's eyes on the back of his head. After a long minute Conan's book cautiously thumped shut around a bookmark; the bedside chair peeped on wobbly legs as Conan climbed up it to click the lamp off.
Richard didn't sleep. When it came time for the shower beer and stale marshmallows to come up in the toilet an hour later, Conan had turned the light back on, fetched some more water, and had tossed Richard's pillows back up on the mattress. Richard hamstered his way back down in the nest of sheets and was only half-surprised to feel Conan climbing up on the foot of the bed. When he rolled back over, Conan had his back to him, bare feet thumping the side of the mattress, restless hands flipping the pages of Richard's memo pad back and forth on the spirals.
Richard said, because Conan's quiet lack of judgment was bullying him, "The killer used the cell phone to get the killer to come to the window by saying he was going to commit suicide by jumping."
Conan made a humming noise.
"If cases keep going this way, things everywhere are going to get a lot harder to solve."
"Is this what's really bothering you?"
The end of the week was tomorrow. It was lucky the interview had fallen on a school break but it wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't. Rachel would have made her own holiday.
Conan abandoned the memo pad a moment. He reached up to smooth his fingertips along the temples of his glasses, thumbs resting on the nose piece. "Uncle, we can't stop technology from evolving. You said it yourself: people will always find new ways to kill each other. The trick is to learn with them and stay ahead. Right? Just like you did. A couple of years ago you didn't know anything about mobile phones, and now you know enough to teach people things about them in talk shows. Just because things are changing doesn't mean you can't change with them."
Richard said nothing.
Conan gave it another minute. After a while he scooted across the bed and clicked the lamp, letting the shadows back in. Richard waited for Conan to drop back down, but Conan remained on the edge of the bed, feet still making barely-there swishes against the mattress cover.
Conan murmured into the darkness, "Who were you on the phone with downstairs last night?"
Richard listened to rain. His brain was peat and anxieties shot through its decay like weeds. The other day Meguire had said, apropos of nothing at the end of the debriefing and much more achingly quiet than Richard would've liked, a lot of people in the broadcasting area probably saw Conan out in that audience when the camera panned over it today, didn't they, Richard.
Conan sighed out very slowly. Richard could feel the vibrations as his heels kept batting the side of the mattress.
He said, "Can I tell you some really cool stuff about emus?"
"You did it this way so you were between me and the exit, didn't you," Richard said.
"Either be verbal and use your words to tell me what's really wrong or be all catatonic and traumatized for the night. You don't get to be both."
Richard closed his eyes and was traumatized. "That documentary I watched last month had a lot more facts than what I told you," Conan said. "Their eyes are super adaptive. You know how we only have one eyelid? Emus have two. It blinks with one and it keeps environmental particles out of its eyes with the other. Like sand and dirt. Also, if you plucked an emu and wore their feathers, you wouldn't need any sunscreen at all. It blocks out radiation pretty much perfectly if they're clean and the coverage is even. I wonder what a sun umbrella would look like covered with emu feathers?"
When Richard woke up at 0431 to pee out the rest of what his kidneys were done pulping up, Conan had once again tossed Richard's fallen pillows back up onto his bed. He was back on the floor between him and the exit. He was also in the way of Richard getting back in, come to think of it.
Of course Eva called him about the goddamn interview with nothing useful whatsoever to say. She also gave him an update on Craig he didn't want and reminded him she was abducting his daughter for lunch soon at some cheap diner where Rachel would pick up soda and ptomaine to bring home to him. "Why does everyone hate me," Richard marveled as he slammed down the receiver. "Even that serial murder I took off the streets last month made a huge splash in prison. Everybody has friends but me."
"Dad, please stop stalling." Rachel swapped out a smooth sanding sheet for a fresh one. A ball of hyperfixation next to her, Conan perfectly split his mutant attention between cans and a documentary detailing the most common ways to die in 19th century England. "I know you don't want to do this right now, but we did promise we'd help."
"You promised you would help. I have a busy agency to run and mouths to feed."
"You already flipped the sign for the day and admitted that to me over the breakfast I made. Who in this room of intelligent people are you trying to fool right now?"
"I can do it on my own." Conan was unbothered. He'd been mouthing facts to himself about pestilent pox in time with the narrator for several minutes. "If Uncle has things to do, he should do them. I'll be fine."
"Part of becoming an adult is learning to honor commitments. That's supposed to be the example he's setting. He's just fine helping out for a while. Aren't you. Father."
Father piled himself down onto the sofa without answering and snatched a sanding sheet up from the box to shut her up. Controlled chaos lay around them in brushes, sanding supplies, pliers and scissors, a still-sealed can of primer on a stained tarp. "You still haven't told us what you're making," he said, recognizing most of his alcoholic detritus and feeling weirdly proprietary about it. "Why are you being cloak and dagger about this? Are you going to start another fire in the economics wing?"
"He hasn't told us because he doesn't have to, and Conan didn't start a fire," Rachel said repressively. "It's his vision and he wants to keep it to himself right now. Right, Conan?"
"Uh huh." Conan's eyes didn't leave the television.
Richard thumbed an unlit cigarette into his mouth and examined the task in his hands. There were a few dents around the body of the can from his rough handling, a scrape from being barked off concrete, but for the most part the shape was intact and the film was still shiny. He experimentally dragged the fresh sanding sheet across it and immediately felt his teeth itch at the excruciating whine of grit against aluminum. "We gonna get any particle pollution from this?" he muttered, disgruntled.
"Aluminum beverage cans have a polymer plastic lining on the inside that—"
"No, Dad. I asked my science teacher." Rachel spared them all a three hour seminar. "He said sensitive lungs might be irritated, but as long as we kept a good airflow in the room we should be fine. We're just scuffing, not actually sanding."
Richard spent an hour scuffing cans and thinking about ways to sneak himself back to the Victorian era for a nice peaceful flammable clothing-death. It took a couple of beats too long to realize that Rachel had hissed with pain and that Conan had scrambled over to jam a wad of paper towels against her hand. "Edge got me." Rachel was breathless. Blood was already spotting through the white. "Really didn't budget time for my clumsiness today."
"I'm sorry." Conan was frantic. He gripped her wrist to hold it still and pressed in harder. "I should have been more careful with the cans I gave you. Maybe we should go to the emergency room. You might need stitches. Richard, can you call the—"
"Let me see." Richard sleepily slid off the sofa to plop himself by her on the floor. "Fork it over, girl."
"I don't want to take pressure off it," Conan snapped when Rachel moved to obey. "We need the med kit from the bathroom."
"Then go get it." He shoveled Conan away with his knee and lifted the wad of paper towels to see it. He stood up with her and held her hand over a stream of cold water from the kitchen faucet until the flow slowed. "I'm not sure I can save your fingers, ma'am," he said, squinting at it. Conan had returned from the bathroom at a run, metal case slamming into the back of his calf. He plopped it on the coffee table in the living room and unlatched it with clumsy hands. "Sorry. Wish there was more I could do."
"It shall have to be amputated." Rachel turned watery eyes up at him and god he loved this kid. She was hilarious when she wasn't up his ass with a bullhorn. "If I cannot make waffles, what use is there of me? Leave me behind, Father, it's best you go on without me."
He rewarded her thespian moxie with a piggyback ride to the living room. "Conan, would you quit griping and get the gauze out already?" he said impatiently when Conan tried to help her down and nearly got legitimately medically crushed. "She'll live, back off."
Conan stood by with strained patience as Richard made quick work of disinfecting the gash, which honestly was pretty ugly, but made sure it didn't actually require something along the line of a butterfly suture or stitches before slapping two plasters on it. He wound it with gauze to keep it comfortable and had Rachel flex her fingers a few times for him. "I'm happy to tell you that you're keeping your waffle-making hands," Richard informed her. "Celebrate tomorrow by making an extra batch."
"Well, now that that drama is over with." Rachel stretched and pushed her faucet-damp cuff up her arm. "Okay, Conan, sorry for that interruption. What next. Are we still on chafing duty?"
"I'd actually… rather us take a break," Conan said. Richard caught his knuckles whitening over the arm of the couch. "Just in general. You know."
"Why? It's not hard work, we're just sitting here scuffing some cans."
"He's freaked out by your blood," Richard said. "Brat, you see a murder twice a week. Since when does a little blood put you off your feed? I've watched you palpate a dead man's neck for spinal fractures."
Conan opened his mouth. "Dad, don't bully him." Rachel shut it down immediately. "Conan, I'm fine, I promise. It was just me being clumsy. I barely feel it."
"I know!" Conan's face flew up. His smile was broad and bright. "That reminds me! I totally forgot. Serena called you earlier this morning when you were still asleep. Since you'll already be putting the kit away and the phone is by the bathroom, would you mind calling her back? I don't want her to be mad at me that I forgot to tell you."
"Really?" Rachel's eyebrows lifted. "I wonder what she wanted."
"She didn't say. Just said it was super important you call her back."
"I hope she doesn't want…" Rachel trailed. She stood with a sigh, waiting until Richard had tossed in the last of the supplies before scooping up the kit. "Watch out for that can," she called over her shoulder en route. "I think the little lip is still inside. That's what got me."
Conan picked up the tiny pair of pliers. A minute later there was already muffled laughter coming from Rachel's room.
Richard watched Conan over his beer can. Conan absolutely refused to look at anything but the murder weapon in his hands. He pried out the guilty metal tab, hurled it, and picked the sandpaper back up. It made infuriating micro squeaks against the metal.
Richard said, "You—"
"I don't want to talk about it!"
Richard contemplatively finished his beer, cracked another, and watched artist renderings of Victorians dying of tuberculosis on the screen. A bit later when his beer was done, he watched artist renderings of Victorians falling down uneven staircases as he dug the scotch out from his flask between the couch cushions.
A half an hour later Rachel emerged, shaking her hair out of its braid. "Conan, I'm so sorry, but I think I will take a little break after all," she said sleepily. "I have some plans this afternoon and I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Do you want to call it for now so – oh my god, Dad, you're wasted. How did you get wasted so quickly."
"I had to work really hard at it." Richard was giddy with pride as she muscled him up off the floor. "You always say I never work hard at anything. Look, I did! Noo, I want to go to the agency, stop. I'm a detective."
"You're not a detective, you're a selfish drunk who decided to get wasted during a child's art project," she seethed, dragging him down the hall. He dug in his heels and mewled. "Dad, you're not going to the office like this. You'll fall out the window."
It was an understandable mistake to make. He put a finger to his lips. "I'm not Dad. I'm undercover as Dad."
Rachel changed course when he began bodily dragging her towards the fancy undercover dad peanuts in the kitchen and instead held his arm with pitbull ferocity as she navigated the stairs with him. She kept him from breaking his femur and collarbone when he tried demonstrate that not only was he an undercover dad, he was also a national synchronized diving champion. "Do I or do I not need to stay down here and prevent you from dying out the window," she said as she dumped him in his office chair.
He placed his finger on his lips again to remind her he was too deeply under his cover to dive out a window. "If you die out the window I will resuscitate you and kill you again," Rachel said, then slammed her way back upstairs to take the world's loudest and most vengeful nap.
He slept surrounded by cigarette butts and coffee mugs and beer cans while his heart decided whether or not it'd had enough of his bullshit. Hours later he forgot he owned a bathroom downstairs and crawled upstairs to pee, checking reflexively in Rachel's room when he couldn't find evidence of Conan. The television was off, the stillness of late morning settling deeply over the living room and hallway. Rachel wasn't in her room. He'd half-expected some silent treatment from her, but a dutiful note taped to her door told him that Conan had headed out before her and that she'd decided to cut her nap short to squeeze in an errand before her scheduled afternoon plans. Richard had to read it four times for the letters to not turn into duck shapes that waddled away from him.
He was in the process of moving the telephone back into the hallway with feet and hands that also wobbled like ducks when it rang in his grip. It took a very long moment to realize where the sound was originating from. Richard fumbled with extremely basic body mechanics as he tried to set the unit down or whatever with one hand and pick it up with the other or something.
The phone continued to ring. He solved his unsolvable problem by sliding to the floor with it, bracing himself against the wall and fumbling up the receiver with both hands.
At first he only heard a tinny sound distorted by distance. He examined his whole terrestrial arrangement and realized the receiver was upside down. He corrected it and pressed it back to his ear.
"Rachel, it's me," Jimmy Kudo said.
Clarity was frigid. Richard blinked, hand flexing a little over the receiver as prickles swept up his neck. He heard something shift on the other end. Fabric, maybe a bed. The line lacked the hollow tenor of a payphone call.
Richard strained but couldn't hear any evidence of traffic undercutting the silence. "All right, you… probably don't want to talk to me," Jimmy said. It sounded a little rushed and rehearsed. "I completely understand. I wouldn't want to talk to me either, at least not before an explanation. That's okay. All I ask is that you don't hang up. Please just give me a chance to explain."
Richard Moore had a panic of ethics. If he'd been sober he would've already given himself away by yelling. Deeply stupidly and painfully drunk, his empathy tripped him up more than anything. Just hanging up without revealing himself would cause a lot of damage that might close off access to Jimmy for good.
He froze as utterly as he had in front of the gun in the alley. "I know you've been wondering where I've been," Jimmy said. "And I'm sorry I couldn't give you information before now. I think you likely already guessed it, but I've been on a sensitive case and I haven't been able to divulge details, even to my own parents. When I call you, I'm actually compromising the integrity of that investigation, so it's a bigger deal than it seems when I get in contact with you. I have to put in a lot of safeguards to make this happen today."
The wall clock above him clicked. The apartment smelled like aluminum and last night's garlic toast.
"I want you to know that I'm not avoiding you because I don't care about you, or school," Jimmy said. "It really is just about the case. It's the biggest one I've ever been on, and it's very personal to me. I'm not sure why the school still has me enrolled, because I couldn't contact them either, but I suspect money probably has something to do with it. I already completed a lot of the coursework in advance and my test scores were in the ninety-ninth percentile, so I think they're just not worried about my attendance as long as it's kept quiet. My attendance has been poor my entire life, so I think they just see this as more of the same."
Richard kept his eyes on the front door.
"When I told you all those weeks ago that I'd be back soon, I didn't mean to lie to you. I really did think this would be solved much earlier than it has. I will solve it," Jimmy added stiffly, probably unable to resist, "but it has a lot more layers than I previously suspected. It takes time to follow leads, get intel, work my way into the heart of the corruption. But while it might be a little slower than I've solved things in the past, it all comes down to the same strategies. There might be several points of view, but in the end, there is only one truth. And I plan to find it, no matter how long it takes."
He listened to Jimmy take a deep breath. It shook on the way out. Maybe nerves or irritation or… what. He'd known this kid for years and suddenly he felt he'd never met this kid. "It stings," Jimmy admitted. "I'm not used to protracted field work like this. I can usually solve mysteries the same day I find them. So it's been a change for me too. It's taught me that there's still a lot I have to learn about being a good detective. So I was hoping that even though you're angry with me, you might be willing to wait for me a while longer. Even if I can't always check in, I don't want you to ever think I'm not thinking about you. I do every day. It's just that this is in my way and it's not a situation I can ignore. I hope you can understand."
He counted the seconds in the silence.
Fabric shifted again. "Anyway, that's all," Jimmy said. "You can… you can hang up if you want. I wouldn't blame you. Thanks for listening."
"So here's where we start, dipshit," Richard said, and heard Jimmy curse and fumble the receiver. "My drunk observations in no particular order because I'm fucking drunk. You rile her up with a pretentious letter, you don't specify in it when you're going to call and leave her on tenterhooks all week, you brag about your test scores, you tell her you're prioritizing a case adults should be handling instead of coming back to school and getting your diploma like kids should be doing, and then have the balls to ask her to 'wait for you' like you're the romantic lead in the season finale of Torrential Hearts instead of the smoldering shitshow that's been torturing my kid for almost two months. You know she hits me when she's mad at you? Did you know it hurts?"
"—you doing?" Jimmy had been yelling throughout the diatribe. "Why didn't you speak up earlier?"
"How the hell was I supposed to speak up when you didn't even give her room to breathe before you started backwashing that toilet water onto her—"
"That message was meant for her, you could have at least had the decency to hang up!"
"And then what, 'she' breaks your heart and you punish my kid by never trying again? You have any idea how drunk I am right now? I see half your words floating from the phone like a geometry test, don't ask me for tact."
"I explained everything in my means to explain."
"Future generations will canonize me for having the patience to break this down for you," Richard said. "You give her the broad strokes like you just gave me and guaranteed she's going to be climbing in and out of my grill for the next two weeks leaving slug trails of concentrated snot. Where are you."
"I can't divulge, obviously, or I would have already. You think I like being so circumspect? Don't you think I'd tell her more if I could?"
"No, I don't, because you're an butthole and you've been a butthole since your butthole was still in diapers," Richard said. "You've always lorded information over her to make yourself feel superior to her. I've watched you do it. Whether you are or are not doing that now doesn't matter, because you've got a track record of it and now you're working uphill to regain ground. You want to protect her? You really care about her feelings? How about you ask how she feels first, you think about that? Say hello. Pretend it's an actual conversation instead of a briefing up at the precinct."
"I want to give her the information right away in case she hangs up on me."
"She's not going to hang up on you. She's been slobbering on the phone all week. Get over yourself and talk to her like a human. Trust me, I will hear about it if you don't. And next time the advice won't be advice."
He heard Jimmy's angry breathing on the other end. "I am going to hang up on you soon, just in case you were fussed about that too," Richard said. "She's not even here, she stepped out for errands after Conan left. Try back later."
"She…" Jimmy made an untranslatable noise. He got distant a moment like he'd leaned away from the receiver and forgot Richard still had functioning cochleae. "She stepped outside. Of course she stepped outside."
"Women, am I right?" Richard said. "Get over yourself. I'm hanging up."
Richard brought the receiver back. "Why aren't you saying anything else to me?" Jimmy said. "I figured you'd be sticking it to me too for disappearing."
There was something intimately familiar about the pissy tone but Richard had too many sheets to the wind to decode how or why. "Rachel's not a detective. She doesn't get what you're about. I may not like it, but I get your angles. If your position is compromised it's going to be trouble, so you're not compromising it. It's not that hard to understand."
"Then why did you just rip me a new one about Rachel if you understand why I'm doing this?"
"I'm not required to be rational when you hurt my kid. And to be clear: you are hurting my kid," Richard said. "Do I care about our pissing contest? Yep, because you're still a punk and you triple the work for my partner whenever you stick your nose into his precinct's business. Do I care right now? No. I'm so drunk. I want to get off the phone and make myself a chips and sardine sandwich on the moldy tortilla shell I found in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator."
"Don't eat the—" Jimmy abruptly cut off the outburst and again Richard's instincts flared. It ultimately slipped off his broadsides and fell back into his sea. "You know what, I'm hanging up. Thanks for the advice, I guess."
"You're not welcome. I mean that literally. You're an asshole," Richard said. "Call my kid later. Say hello. Act like a human."
It happened in the seconds between the receiver leaving his ear and touching back down on the cradle. The steps shuddered outside and the key turned in the lock; in that instant Richard saw the entire afternoon flicker in front of him between blinks. The receiver tapped down and he hastily snatched it back up, fumbling, barking at Jimmy to wait. Rachel eased her way inside the door just as the click and the dial tone started humming in his ear.
Rachel froze on the mat as she saw him and the phone across the room.
Richard was caught for the second time that afternoon, receiver still pressed to the side of his head. Rachel's eyes flickered over his face and body language. He watched her entire body sag, her eyes blinking rapidly over a forced smile. "Just missed him, huh," she whispered.
He was honestly too drunk to think on his feet or off his feet. He continued to stare at her with wavering consternation.
Rachel set the grocery tote down, took off her shoes, and crossed the room to kneel beside him. She plucked the receiver from him and settled it gently on the cradle. "You're still wasted," she said. "You shouldn't have gone up the stairs without me. It's dangerous."
"You said you'd kill me if I fell out the window, so I used the stairs."
"Fair enough." She nested her fingers together, folding them atop her thighs. Cool air clung to her from her trip outdoors, tinged with exhaust and the faint spice of the 24-hour mart down the street. Her cheeks were pink. "Is he okay?"
"Did he… sound okay? Like actually okay?"
Richard carded through stimuli. The last few calls Rachel had told him had been from a payphone, but this call Jimmy had clearly planned with privacy in mind. "He sounds safe wherever he is. He says he'll call back later."
Her jacket was too heavy for this weather: the red fleece one she'd picked up two years ago. It tickled his arm as she leaned in to help him up. "Agency," he grumbled when she tried to coax him into his room. She wordlessly changed course. There were two unopened cans under his desk and he grabbed one now as he sat, grunting and popping the top. Rachel's eyes flickered but for once she said nothing. "It'll be fine." Richard mouthed a hiccup into the can. "He sounds like he really wants to call back. I wouldn't worry about it."
"Figures the one time I'm not manning the phone on my day off. I hope you weren't too hard on him."
Richard shrugged. "I'm going upstairs to change," Rachel said. "I'll let you have those two that are left, but after that… I really think you've hit your limit. Can I trust you that you'll stop for a while? Because at this point I think you'll be in danger if you don't."
The beer felt like water. He was bottomless. His liver strained and he wondered why she was letting him have the next two cans if she was actually worried enough about his intake to say something. It seemed like weird arbitrary liver science. "Don't trust me."
Rachel nodded to herself. She beckoned for the key to his liquor cabinet and he fished it out from the tape envelope under the desk. She unlocked the door, loaded his remaining liquor bottles in the crook of her elbow, and disappeared with them.
Richard drank the two cans and passed out again at his desk. At some point he heard quiet voices and the sound of feet in the agency, the static murmurs of the old TV. He sank and came back up again when fingertips pressed against his pulse and tapped his face to rouse him. Someone made him drink water and then pushed his chair closer to the desk so his head was resting more securely in the crook of his arms. The day blissfully moved on with no more art projects or gushing emotional injuries. An indeterminate amount of time later he heard Rachel opening the door to the agency to check in on him, followed by hasty little feet dropping down from the sofa to run after her.
The afternoon heated the agency to a honey glaze before cooling into shadow. Richard had a sensation that his blood alcohol level was a lot less whimsical than his brain was telling him. It wasn't often he blew this far past his limits and if he were honest with himself, he could admit that this crash had been in the works for several days. If he slipped off his desk chair and onto the floor, there was a decent chance he'd aspirate and never wake up again.
It took titanium effort, but he roused himself enough to fumble off his tie. He wrapped it around the back of the chair and knotted it over his midsection, then squiggled his way as close to the desk as possible before passing out again. The next time he woke up he had the coordination to lurch to the side and purge in the trashcan. It sucked. It sucked and he was never drinking again. His muscles flopped like lasagna noodles and his joints clamped like bear traps. He was a disgrace and it was no wonder everybody left him to pursue worthwhile things like law careers and after-school activities and international murder cases that kept them out of the country.
By the time the phone rang in his office, the sun had set and he was performing new rituals with the toilet that weren't polite in any society. He flushed and crawled and spluttered like liquid catshit onto the carpet in the agency. He lacked the coordination to get off the floor so he covered his ears and curled into a ball to stop the phone from ringing. The carousel kept moving without him.
Rachel let herself into the agency that evening. She didn't yell at him. She quietly clicked on the floor lamps, bathed his face clean with his own handkerchief, then half-sat him up against her to enfold him. Her hair tickled his face.
It hurt to have atoms. "Where were you," he mumbled.
"With Mom. The meeting was today, not tomorrow."
"You lied to me."
"Yes. You would've made it harder for me to leave today if you knew."
That was the reason she'd let him have those last two beers. It hurt so much more critically than he thought it would and he couldn't even blame her. He'd taught her to work around him, not with him. "I shouldn't have done it that way," Rachel said. "I felt bad about it all afternoon. Your drinking is on you, and that's not my fault, but I knew what I was doing when I left. I won't manipulate you like that again. I promise."
It was the first time she'd worn anything but red all week. Eva had definitely bawled her out for the length of her skirt. Richard smelled secondhand lilacs and restaurant grease and department store perfume.
Rachel tightened her grip on him, tried to speak, and had to restart several times. He felt her work his hair back from his face with chilly fingertips as she sorted her thoughts.
She choked out, "Some thing happened at the diner."
"Detective." Eva leaned herself against the threshold in the crux of warm interior lights and cold parking lot lights. The lobby behind her was vacant, a bank of vending machines lining ghostly shadows along the western wall. The scent of seawater prickled Richard's nose. "To what do I owe your sobriety for the evening."
"You mind if I step in for a minute?"
"I don't recall us having any scheduled business."
"Rachel told me what happened at lunch yesterday," Richard said. "I called Meguire to confirm. Why didn't you contact me from the diner when the body was found?"
"Contact you." Eva's eyebrows lifted a little. "I contacted the police. That's the usual protocol for those situations."
"Screw protocol and screw the police, you know your first call should've been to me. I shouldn't have had to hear it from our kid."
"You doubt your partner's ability to manage a crime scene without you?"
Richard swallowed down something unhelpful. She'd spent a lot of money going to school for misdirection. "It was my business to know."
"And see, I happen to think it wasn't," Eva Kadan said. "How many times now have I been made to learn about your near-fatal experiences secondhand from the evening news or a front page headline? You rarely inform me of your business even once a crime scene is wrapped, let alone mid-investigation. You don't get to demand more courtesy than you're willing to give."
"I've never once sent Rachel to you fresh off a crime scene with no heads-up. She came home crying yesterday and I had to bounce two separate children's accounts off each other to figure out what happened while coming down off a bender. You want to keep me in the dark about your own crap, that's up to you, but I've never set you up that way."
Eva shifted a bit, angora sweater whispering against the metal frame as she adjusted her stance. Warm and cool air exchanged whispers that prickled the nape of Richard's neck. "I didn't realize she was rattled," Eva conceded. "She acted so normal afterwards. I'd thought since I'd managed to prevent her from seeing the body or the blood with her own eyes, the incident wouldn't affect her as strongly. Evidently I miscalculated."
"You had to fight down an assailant twice your size and were a suspect in a murder investigation. Of course it rattled her."
"And of course she ran right home to tell you."
"You know what, yeah, she did, hardass," Richard said. "She also fessed up to lying to me about your visitation date and even if she hadn't, I already knew something was weird with her before she left the agency. Maybe if you got to know her a little better you'd stop being fooled by her playacting too."
"There it is." Eva's tight voice loosened to a drawl. "Thank goodness established patterns have reasserted themselves, I was beginning to worry this would stay civil."
"The only reason you were able to blow her feelings off yesterday was because you let her lie to you. She protects you from things she thinks will upset you because she's afraid being honest with you will run you off. Even that outfit she wore was a lie. She dresses up like she's going to a job interview when she's out with you because you peck at her otherwise."
"Yes, I'm fully aware you let our daughter wear miniskirts and crop tops and overalls no matter what the social situation calls for. Don't you dare boast to me about your parenting or your communication skills, Richard. Your temerity, I swear to god. You have no self-awareness at all."
"Crime scenes are my jurisdiction, not yours." It was like trying to win against a storm surge and he was rattling with hydrostatics. She was infuriating perfumed isotropic pressure on every inch of his goddamn nerves. "You think I don't know you better than that? It could've been Rachel in that bathroom discovering that body—or worse, could've been that body. It was dumb luck your positions weren't reversed. You know it bothered you."
"The killer's target was never Rachel. She may have been traumatized, but she wouldn't have been physically harmed."
"And what about you?"
"What about me," Eva snapped, and he was darkly satisfied to have punctured the first leak in her sea wall. "I'm a criminal defense lawyer. I've seen all manner of crime scene evidence, not the least of which being countless photographs of murder victims. This didn't traumatize me any more than it would've traumatized you. Don't talk down to me. Unlike certain other people, I know how to compartmentalize in healthy ways without taking my stress out on others."
Richard drew back. He wasn't cliché enough to drag a hand through his hair but he did adjust his tie to give himself something to hang on to. He caught her unwilling eyes flicker to the column of his throat, to the faint forever-mark of Maya's wire just under his collar's highest tide. "It's stupid to air this out here," Richard said. "Can I just come in already? I won't stay long. I just don't want to air any more of this out here where people can rubberneck."
Eva folded her arms slowly. He saw her rally her composure within several deep breaths, and again he was satisfied to have at least given as good as he'd received in that exchange. There weren't many who could push her to this point. "Fine," she said, shoving herself off without warning. He had to catch the door before it swung home and latched behind her. "Be mindful of the cat."
The luxury beachside complex was made up of a ladder of suites that took up entire floors. Eva and her enormous goddamn salary led him through the immaculate lobby and over the patterned maroon carpet to the elevator. Seven floors up, the doors opened to a brightly lit foyer where Eva pressed in an additional code to open the door to her apartment. He had been there a handful of times before, but for as understated as she tried to make it, it was very clear Eva had come from a family of money and was extremely good at managing her own. The residence sprawled from east to west with an enormous kitchen and two hallways tucked north and south, one leading to the master suite and the other leading to the guest bedroom and office. Tasteful overstuffed furniture, crystal floor lamps, custom light fixtures overhead with sliders to adjust their output. She'd gained a few new art pieces from the last time he'd visited – an ugly steatopygous figure on a small display table, several felted birds, an enormous framed photograph of a garden smothering the wall above her sofa.
Richard toed off his shoes at the mat and dropped to a knee to receive her cat. It snuffed and then nose-greased his knee. "Tea or coffee," Eva said, already shucked and into her hallway cabinet. She removed guest slippers and set them down in front of him. "I don't have cream at the moment, so you'd have to take it black."
She paused a moment in transit. "Rachel has been rubbing off on you," she murmured, almost smiling. She thumbed the cat's forehead in greeting, making it arch with a pleased note. "Hang your jacket up on the rack."
The burgundy drapes on the opposite end of the room were flung open despite the hour, revealing panoramic windows. Richard peeled off his jacket, bypassing the sofa and coffee table to refamiliarize himself with the view. Money spoke loud: light pollution was much lower here than it was in central Beika, the moon one of the only sources of light on the whitecapped waves beneath them. Sand winked with star-bright silica.
Richie the cat leapt up onto the chair beside him to present a regal arched cat butt. Richard, a dog person, obliged to scratch it because he was human and humans had a hard time not petting regal arched cat butts. "Have a seat." Eva arrived with the teacups and set them on the coffee table. The seat she took was pointedly perpendicular, leaving him the breadth of the sofa while she took the armchair.
Richard's own regal butt tried not to appreciate the softness of unsmoky non-agency cushions. The cup was too hot to cradle, so he tentatively settled for hooking his finger in the handle and rotating it on the saucer to occupy his fidgeting hands. Normally he'd pull out a cigarette but he made do with the toothpick she'd provided him with on the saucer. "The tea is jasmine and vanilla," Eva said. She already had her boiling tea to her lips because she was a dragon-eating sea creature. "Hopefully it's not too strong."
"It smells good. Thanks."
Eva drew her legs up onto the seat with the rest of her. She was as slender as she was in high school, the athletic planes of her swallowed under the folds of her sweater. Her bun was messy enough to tell him that she'd probably piled it on her head right before answering the door. He'd caught her relaxing. "Not to rush the pleasantries along, but I'd like to know why you felt you had to visit tonight in person," Eva said. "And while we're at it, I'd like to remind you that when I did the same to you a few weeks ago, you started a brawl in front of Rachel and chased me down an alley to yell about your boundaries. A pity I have more restraint, it seemed cathartic."
"This isn't a social call, and you don't have the same boundaries I do."
"How convenient for you."
"I respect your boundaries."
"Then for both of our sakes, would you mind if we simply cut to the chase? I'd like some time to decompress before bed."
"Why are we like this," Richard said, tired.
Eva dropped her chin. She took up her cup in her other hand to cradle its heat.
Richard watched his reflection darken in the steeping water. "I don't know what you want me to say," Eva said. The edge in her tone was gone, leaving something equally tired and soft. "Of course it occurred to me to call you when the body was found, but it's easier to represent a case when the proper chain of command is followed. I always want that initial emergency call available for legal teams to use in court later. As for afterwards, there simply wasn't time. I had to make sure none of the suspects left the building until the police could arrive to lock it down. Once Conan had identified the only possible culprits, we were taken into the bathroom where I was officially confirmed a suspect. At that point it would have been suspicious to try to break away for a call."
"Does Conan know who you are now?"
"Yes, unfortunately. Rachel called me 'mother' while we were all together on the sidewalk. The ruse is up, I'm afraid. No more anonymous welfare checks."
"You didn't need those in the first place."
"You needed those," Eva said. "And so did I, because in the event this all goes sour and I have to defend you in court, I want a record that that child you're harboring is there willingly – unharmed, fed, healthy, and happy. You don't know how to protect yourself. I have always had to step in and spare you from your worst impulses. It's exhausting."
"Yeah, I'm sure your ten year break from us really tired you out," Richard said. "Don't talk to me like that. I'm not Rachel. You don't get to lecture me about my short skirts."
"It wouldn't make a difference if I did. No matter how many worst impulses I saved you from, you always found more. You will always find a way to hurt yourself. You're determined to be in pain."
Richard sat his cup down on the saucer with a harsh click. "Stay," Eva said quietly. She still wasn't looking at him. "That was out of line. I apologize."
He was storm and water. He gulped down whitecaps, dizzy. In the sliver of his peripherals Eva's posture had eased slightly. She knew she'd gone too far. "If it helps," Eva said into the taut silence that followed, "like I said, I didn't purposefully avoid calling you. Conan identified all the suspects right from the start, and with that witness statement, it was relatively simple to narrow down the culprit with a bit of field evidence. The killer wasn't particularly clever nor was he a good actor. He caved quickly."
It took him a few tries to speak. He tremored a little against the hot ceramic in his palm. "So Conan told the truth about helping."
"Yes. He was key. He is terrifyingly bright. I can't imagine he's at all challenged in school. I have no idea how you keep track of him."
"Rachel does most of it."
"She loves that little boy." Eva's gaze went distant a moment. "She clings to him the way she clings to you. She's going to be devastated when he leaves. I hope you've prepared her."
"The kid's not leaving yet."
"Richard, this can't go on. It's been nearly two months. It's time."
His wedding band clinked off the ceramic. He repeated the noise and it soothed him even as the sheen of the metal distracted him. His switch had turned on without him noticing and every quark in him was straining to bypass his filters. He hummed with the refrigerator and clicked on with the floral incense plug-in and buzzed with the bulbs in her floor lamps. There was an antique record player in the corner from her grandfather. He knew from late night phone calls that she liked to put on soft jazz after work. The collar of her sweater brushed the underside of her chin and he knew without feeling it how soft it was.
"You're hungover," Eva said.
"I need you to stop digging for him." He didn't engage. "I've been meaning to call you about it. I don't want any more questions being asked right now until some other things play out first. I'm calling Benoit off the scent too."
"Are you speaking of Conan or Jimmy?"
His brain glitched a moment. "What about Jimmy."
"You had me digging for him too. Unless you've forgotten there are two missing children in your jurisdiction, not one."
Had he set her on Jimmy's trail? He honestly couldn't recall. He'd had so many head injuries over the past several weeks that it would be amazing if he remembered which hole to pee out of by his forties. "Both of them. Jimmy and Conan. I don't want to draw attention to them for a while."
"And why is that."
"I intercepted a call meant for Rachel. Jimmy's alive, but it sounds like he's undercover. I have no idea if his parents know. His school doesn't, and as far as I know he doesn't have many friends outside of Rachel and Serena. Agasa might know, but I haven't been able to crack that nut."
"That nut is already long cracked." But Eva was only slightly dry. "That doesn't explain why you want to call us off the scent."
"Because if he's in the kind of trouble I think he is, blowing his cover could mean putting him in a more dangerous position than he's in now. He's obviously alive and able to place calls and write letters. Beyond that… just think we should leave it for now. See if things change on their own."
"And Conan? Is he undercover too?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Then perhaps you shouldn't have taken him to a talk show the regularly pans out over the audience," Eva said. "Did you think I wouldn't notice that little stunt? You speak of me toning down my investigation, but you meant for him to be visible in that audience. You want someone to come forward and recognize him without having to pull that trigger yourself. I'm willing to go as far as to bet that that was the primary reason you took that interview."
Richard thumbed the sides of the cup. "It was clever," Eva said. "And very duplicitous. He likely saw right through you, you know."
"That's the thing – I don't think he did. He didn't seem to think it was strange I wanted only him to go. Just got mad I was trying to exclude Rachel. It was stupid," Richard said. "I don't know what I was thinking. I regret it now. I just get this sense I'm running out of time and so is he. He's running from something and it's catching up to him. Every case I solve that has him on the front lines just moves that deadline closer to him."
Eva's breath stilled. He knew he'd surprised her. "I did call Jimmy's parents," Richard said. "Left a message at their mansion. Jimmy's a kid, but he's a seventeen year-old kid. The precinct doesn't waste a lot of resources going after him, especially with his history of disappearing for weeks at a time with his parents. Unless Booker or Vivian file a missing persons report—"
"We can file that."
"It'd be different if we hadn't heard from him at all, but he's already called in multiple times to confirm he's alive and doesn't want to be found. He's truant, but otherwise as far as the police are concerned, the rest is good enough for them to call off a manhunt. They're understaffed and he'll be a legal adult soon. They've got more pressing things on their plate. As for Conan, all that matters right now is that he's in a place where someone can keep an eye on him."
"Richard, just for a minute, let's pretend that I've met you more than once and know you extremely well," Eva said. "Look at where you are right now. You're willingly in my stronghold with no defenses. You're at your wit's end waiting for the other shoe to drop. You wouldn't be here if you weren't afraid. Something has to give."
"I just want to leave it alone."
Eva's silence was delicate. He could feel her picking her spidery way along everything he'd said so far, probing for inconsistencies, plucking at holes. She knew how to put him off the side of a bridge in under a minute of diatribe and sometimes when it was extremely dark outside and he was alone with his malice, he wondered if his words had the same power over her. "I see," Eva murmured at last. It wasn't the tone he'd expected from her. "So. We're ceasing the investigation, we're letting matters evolve whichever way they may, and you continue to live on edge drinking yourself into a stupor to cope. For now."
"You've changed," she said. "I thought I saw it the last time we spoke, but this conversation has really brought it into frame. That boy has done the impossible, Richard. He's actually softened you."
"No he fucking hasn't, would you get off me?" Richard said. "Stop poking at everything. I didn't ask for this."
"No." She closed her eyes, leaning her head back. Hair from her bun had begun to overflow down to the nape of her neck. "You just ask for everything else and expect me to oblige at a moment's notice."
The cat walked over his lap and tail-swiped his chin. Richard let it butt its nose against the back of his hand, smear its whiskers on his cuffs. Hair and perfume would cling to his jacket for days. "I miss Rachel." Eva was barely a murmur. "I've missed so much. Time just flew. I blinked too long."
"She's a lot like you." He couldn't look at her. Flecks of jasmine escaped from the tea ball and floated to the top. "The way she organizes things, the way she moves around the kitchen. The way she scolds Conan. I see you when she pulls her hair back. It tricks my eyes."
"I wish she was more of me, but I lost my chance for that," Eva said. "Rachel is every inch of you. Your eyes, your hair, your smile, your fire. She heals everything she touches. I have no idea how our two temperaments created such a kind girl."
"Probably something in the genetic grab-bag."
"Don't even bring our terrible genes into this," Eva laughed. "My uncle was a vocal imperial expansionist, my grandfather was convicted of corporate embezzlement, and I wouldn't turn your father loose on my worst enemy. Thank goodness our mothers had some redeeming traits."
"They were saints, Richard. At least yours was. Mine had her faults, she just deserved someone better than my father."
"They were both terrible cooks. It's a wonder either of us survived into adulthood."
"It really is," Eva said. "Every new recipe my mother made came out burned. Only through repetition – lots of repetition – did anything become remotely palatable. Brilliant biologist. Terrible housekeeper."
"Sometimes I think Rachel takes after mine."
"She does. Her ease with children especially. I would love for her to go into teaching. Perhaps elder care. She was born to it. Such a natural caregiver, so full of patience and compassion. She's wasted on us, frankly."
"Tried talking to her about all that, but she always blows me off. She says I'm trying to get rid of her and doesn't want to think about it right now. If I push her she starts yelling that she's never going to leave 'just to spite me'."
"She very well may never," Eva sighed. "At least not without a lot of help. I'll sit down with her in a few weeks and pry some possibilities out of her, then. It might seem far ahead to her, but you and I know how fast graduation will sneak up on us all. Even if she decides to stay at the agency past that, she needs to have a plan for her future. She has to find the motivation to live life for herself, not just for us. And not just for that boy, either."
Empty rooms and halls. Doors that stayed closed. Richard felt uprooted from reality. He plucked out his toothpick and took his first swallow of tea. It warmed him dangerously.
"Where did you get those bruises, Richard," Eva said.
"Just some sparring."
"So it wasn't out on a case?"
"She and I both pulled our strikes, I just bruise easy. They'll fade in a couple of days."
Eva said nothing for a while. The radiator to the left of the windows clicked on and the cat hopped down to investigate.
Richard didn't react when she stood. He rotated his cup in contemplative hands until she came back to take it from him. She didn't lower herself to his level, perching instead on the arm of the couch and tilting his face up to her. She applied salve to the marks as efficiently as she had throughout their years in school, lips in the same unreadable line. Her glasses slid far enough down her nose to catch and hold the lamp on the other side of the couch. "I thought you said you're never traumatized," Richard said.
The last time he'd ever seen his father in person had been at their high school graduation. There'd been an argument and his father had shoved him back over a concrete wheel stop, causing Richard to clean his clock against a parking sign, and Eva had finally erupted, had finally burst inside out with all the ugliness and rancidity of an infected wound ripping its stitches. He and Eva had yelled at each other plenty both during and beyond school, but that was the first and last time he'd ever heard her truly scream. She had screamed and screamed and at one point thrown a traffic cone and her parents had been pulling her back as she fought them to keep screaming her entire diatribe at his father, and she'd been the most magnificent thing he'd ever seen. She had been every legendary dragon from his childhood brought to life on the cracked weed-strewn concrete of the parking lot.
He slid his hand onto her wrist and the light dropped from her glasses. Without breaking stride she lifted her other hand to continue her task, smoothing the last of the ointment in before joining her hands in the middle to screw the cap back on the tube. "Why are you here," Richard said.
"Don't start." She returned the supplies to the kit and latched it one-handed. "I won't be your excuse to drink yourself into a stupor tonight."
"Then stop taking potshots at me."
"I'm content here. You know that."
"You said you missed her." She smelled incredible this close. He could feel the pulse under his grip. He soothed a thumb along the skin just beyond where her sleeve ended and felt her heartbeat accelerate, but her expression didn't reflect the uptick at all. "If you're so worried about missing more, why are you holding on to all this? Is all this really worth the trade?"
"I'm 'holding on to this' because nothing has been fixed," Eva said. "We don't go to couples therapy because you refuse. You're too proud to admit when you're wrong. You brush me off or start a fight when I tell you that your words or actions bother me. You… isolate. You stew. And what makes it worse is that when you're not stewing, you're a joy to be near. You have no middle. You lull others into with good behavior for weeks and then suddenly you'll be facedown in a department store bathroom. You're either blissful at the top of your game or suicidal in front of an open window. That's the difference between Rachel and I. She can take that whiplash: I can't. It drains the soul out of me."
"At least you always knew how I felt. I don't keep everything under lock and key like you do."
"I know how you let yourself feel until the real feelings come out. The way you splatter, Richard – the damage is catastrophic. Joseph dedicated years of his life trying to come between you and your self-destructive behavior and you wore even his patience down. Imagine dealing with that for twenty-two years."
He hated her. He didn't let go of her but he felt the helpless devotion to this specific, signature hatred tear open new papercut burns in him. "I'm not bereft by any means," Eva said. "Even if you did agree to therapy, it's no secret I've always preferred having my own space. I think we both know I'm not very good at ceding control. It's part of our problem: neither of us ever wants to give. Richie tests my patience enough, and he's a cat. I'm not looking to add humans to my plate right now. Not when the act of coming back to my daughter would make me the outsider to your status quo."
Richie was a thirsty traitor. It'd ingratiated itself in Richard's space and was kneading the fabric over Richard's knee, ignoring Eva's proximity. Animals had always liked him better. "I've known since childhood that I was just as happy alone as I was with a partner," Eva said. "I don't settle. I have one life to live and I refuse to waste any of those years feeling trapped and unappreciated."
"Then why are we doing this." Richard felt like no vowels and all punctuation. The clink of her own marriage band against her teacup had kept semi-colon distance between them the entire visit. "If you don't want this, why am I still here? Why do you keep us going on and on like this?"
Eva withdrew and he let her escape from him. He figured she'd walk away, but she merely retreated to ease back into her chair, collecting her tea again. She left the medical kit beside him. "I've got a literal bag full of letters back at the agency from women begging to be a part of my life," Richard said. "If you don't care and if you prefer to be alone, I'll take those women up and get on with it. I can call one up right now on the payphone outside. She said she'd be up for any hour I want, day or night. I'm not bereft either."
Eva's fingers tightened a bit around the ceramic, but otherwise for once she didn't outwardly react. "You act like you performed this big community service by marrying down," Richard said. "I may not be much compared to you, and yeah, maybe I'm hard to deal with, but at least I'm not sitting here telling you all the worst parts of yourself just to win debate club points. You dangle this 'arrangement' in front of me because you know I can't do anything about it. You think the courts are going to side with anything other than my hotshot lawyer ex if we split? You'll take Rachel, you'll take half my assets, and you'll get child support out of me, and don't sit there making that face pretending you wouldn't resort to it if I pushed back. You've always had me by the throat, and you know what? I think a part of you likes that. You had to fight tooth and nail as a woman to get to the top in your profession when you started out, but at home? You got to control me like nobody else in the world did. And that felt great, didn't it? So great you couldn't let it go even after you gave up everything else."
Eva's silence was perfect. There was a tendril of hair hooked into the corner of her mouth that he'd used to stroke away with his thumb and it infuriated him how close he came to doing it on reflex. "If you don't want me, let me go find someone who does," he said, and stopped there because his voice abruptly gave out.
She didn't move. There was an outline of lipstick on the rim of cup.
He stumbled around, half-blind, then turned back and grabbed the medical kit. He packed it back in the hallway linen closet where it belonged and booked it for the foyer. There were hornets in his ears and he genuinely thought he might suffocate on perfume before he could make it to the elevator. His hands trembled on his shoes. He'd gotten one on before she came into frame to jerk him back by his elbow, and that was all it took.
He spun and caught her chin. She surged in to snatch his initiative away from him. Competitive shit. It was like kissing livewire. She conquered his guard a second time with a hard knee against his thigh, propelling him backwards. His back hit the wall by the door with enough force to shudder their teeth together. "Why are we like this," he gritted, pleading, hands already moving. A tug later and her hair upturned like brandy over her shoulders. Her fingers were effortlessly unraveling his tie. "Why can't we just be normal."
Her response was dichotomously calm and collected against his chin as she yanked at the buttons of his shirt so hard two skittered onto the floor. "Tell me to stop if this isn't what you want."
He thumbed her cheeks and caught her in another kiss and she pressed up against him like he'd just realigned her gravity. Her sweater was as soft as he'd imagined and whispered off her hips like it had a mind of its own. It was so stupidly easy. This part was always easy. She melded right back into all the little vacancies she'd torn in him when she'd left. "I'm not going back," Eva warned against his mouth, his collarbone. He stroked her ribs as she caught his waistband and her skin felt almost feverishly warm under his thumbs. "This doesn't fix anything."
His spine ached against the unyielding wall behind him. Jasmine and lilac one-two punched him. "You burn those fucking letters," Eva breathed, furious, and Richard didn't have any track record of saying no to addictions. The back of his neck prickled until she seized it and drew him in, possessive and protective as she'd been in the alley and interrogating him with Craig, and that more or less ended the conversation of what he didn't want.
The taxi dropped him off at the deserted street corner just before sunrise. Richard navigated with muscle memory down each sidewalk, hands deep in his trousers to keep the chill off them. Barely any trees remained dormant now, the majority of them shivering with full heads of leaves in the pre-storm wind, but his itchy ears and eyes told him there was still mid-season pollen getting jostled off them. The mute hulking shapes of the buildings on either side of him felt alien at night and shook him off the trail twice, wrong-turning him down unfamiliar roads before his muscle memory could correct him.
The gate to the Kudo's mansion was bolted shut, a security company's logo posted on the brick pillar. When Richard touched the back of his hand to the nearly-hidden camera inside, the lens was frigid. The Rose of Sharons had already flowered for the season and had settled into their summer greens, but the mock orange was still in full bloom and effectively shielded the western backyard along with the privacy fence.
Grass spidered across his ankles as he walked out back. Richard eyeballed the top of the fence and maybe had some unkind thoughts about money and the rules it paid to go away. City ordinances mandated a maximum barrier height of nine feet. The Kudos privacy fence skyscraped clear up to the lower branches of their surrounding oaks, the back gate bolted and padlocked against intrusion. Effective against paparazzi but not alcoholics with agendas.
Richard slid an unlit cigarette into his mouth for luck. He shucked his jacket and reached for his tie only to realize that the latter had gone missing. The gap from his missing buttons let in slivers of cold air along his stomach. Devoid of climbing tools, he defaulted to athleticism and stupidity. He managed to grab the lowest hanging oak branch on his second jump, squiggling with grunts until he managed to wedge his belly and all of his six thousand delicate unpadded ribs up onto it. Once stabilized on his ass, he scooted cheek by cheek over the gorge between limb and fence until he was able to transfer his weight onto the thick slats.
Humid pre-dawn coaxed sweat out of his shoulder blades and greased his palms. He sat there a minute gauging how many ankles he was about to break. The area was secluded enough that the streetlights up front didn't help much, but the more he squinted he was able to begin making out the outlines of the lawn furnishings and ornamental bushes.
With nothing but balance and a supreme talent for ignoring pains in his butt, he worked himself the long excruciating way across the top of the privacy fence until his feet were dangling over a faded white picnic table. His night vision was thirty-seven years old and the aim matched: he landed on the end of the table instead of the middle and it immediately plunged, catapulting him into a somersault that slammed him to a stop against the base of their decorative fountain. He jerked into a ball to cover his head, but the table settled for slamming noisily back on its hooves, the intensity of its impact ricocheting into the empty streets.
Richard stayed in his huddle on the ground for several minutes. When no one came to investigate obvious break-in noises, he uncoiled and sought the deepest shadows of the building to get to the back entrance. He rolled up his sleeve and took a knee to blindly fish inside the drainpipe. The key scraped its way out in a tumble of bird slime and gutter detritus.
He knelt by the stoop and clicked on his lighter to grab a look. Thick yellow oak pollen still coated the stone where a welcome mat used to be. He'd half-suspected it but was validated when he saw it'd been disrupted in several places. He touched his finger to one of the prints, shifting the cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other as he built the map in his head. Child's size, rain-boot tread. Beika had been wet recently. Pine and oak pollen only took a few hours to coat a surface, but the presence of prints meant that whoever had been here had visited in the last two days. Had Richard come one day later, the incoming storm would've swiped this evidence too.
He lifted the flame to the door handle. Sure enough there was a streak of pollen on the underside, a brush of a small but incriminating half-handprint on the white paint of the door. If the size of the footprints hadn't already been enough proof, the height of that handprint clinched it. Some elementary school kid had snuck in here – maybe on a dare, maybe an initiation challenge, probably up and down the same tree he'd chosen but with a rope brought to lower them down. At that age Richard would've dropped twice the distance he had earlier just to prove a point. He guessed there'd be more like him now that the mansion had gained a reputation for being haunted. Considering the spare key had been packed with all that detritus undisturbed, they'd probably found a different way to get inside if they'd actually managed at all. Maybe an unlatched window or a storm cellar that led into the house from below.
He unlocked the door, replaced the key in the drainpipe and repacked the detritus behind it, and let himself in. Nostalgia hit him instantly in a cocktail of sensory data. The Kudos had two kitchens, one for their cook and another for the family's use outside of mealtimes: he stood now in staff territory, breathing in the stale scent of bread and rosemary and browned butter cookies. He could see the shadow of dried herbs still hanging on their racks alongside copper pots. An analog clock snicked with mouse feet somewhere overhead.
Richard flicked his lighter again and cupped the illumination. He'd be able to get away with an overhead light in the interior rooms of the house, but at the moment he was flanked with uncovered northern glass and he still didn't trust that his fall in the garden had gone wholly unnoticed. Something told him if the Kudos' security system was engaged he'd have been intercepted by law enforcement already, but a bored nosy neighbor was just as effective a party-crasher as a functioning security camera.
He kept his shoes on as he padded his way over the mosaic tiles, heroically not braining himself on a damn thing, then let the fire click off and very carefully felt along the side of the humming fridge. The chunky plastic emergency flashlight was still strapped on its magnet. A little squiggling and asscheek-clenching allowed him to fit it in his back pocket for later.
He opened the refrigerator door the very barest sliver he could manage in order to snake his hand inside and depress the lever, switching off the light. He stooped to peer inside. The refrigerator had been fully emptied, an open box of baking soda sitting on the top shelf. A check of the freezer did turn up a little more food storage, but only frozen bags of vegetables and fruit, no meat.
He closed it and moved on. It was clear from the moment he stepped out into the main hallway that the place had been unlived in for several weeks. The pinprick glow of carbon monoxide detectors in AC outlets told him electricity bills were still being paid, but there was a thin coating of dust on every surface he tested and the air was stale enough to tell him that the Kudos' central air exchange had been switched off a long time ago.
He slid out the flashlight and cradled the beam in his palm as he walked. He bookmarked the secondary kitchen for later and continued on until he'd reached a crossroads. To his right was a small sitting room with a staircase that led to the second story of the house. The galactically massive living room that Richard had grown to hate during his visits was on his left, the family's library in the connecting western room.
Richard was too tired and adult to share Rachel's fear of spooky places or her paranoia that something dead and translucent was staffing them, but he'd expected to feel some species of apprehension walking through the empty Kudo house. Instead he stood here in the crux of all abandoned things and felt grief rise concurrent with the storm against the windows and the elderly aching bones of the rafters. There was a hardback book tented page-down on the sitting room's tea table and a blanket draped across the arm of the armchair. The coffee table in the living room had a folded newspaper and a mug still sitting on a coaster. Time hadn't just stopped here. It had ceased to exist.
Richard moved. A check of the newspaper confirmed what he'd already suspected. Nearly two months prior, crossword half-finished in pen. The mug had evaporated over the weeks, leaving a dark film at the bottom with a dead fly to enjoy it.
He didn't linger long in the library, though he did pick up a much stronger pipe smell and several scrapes in the dust coating the table by Booker's armchair. It was impossible to tell if any books were missing in the chaos but it was clear someone had been in here. A bibliophilic spider had shacked up in a web between his armchair and his floor lamp, probably sad to miss out on the caffeinated dead fly at the bottom of Booker's coffee mug.
He knew he needed to pull the trigger and head upstairs. He instead backtracked to the interior kitchen nook and pulled the only window's shades to flick on an overhead light for the first time. The air felt almost fresh here, redolent of tea leaves and wood polish, the kitchen table clean and a pen and pencil cast off to one side. One of four chairs was visibly butt-polished when he checked the seats. Instead of coughing to life and spitting out tinted rust water after seven weeks of neglect, the faucet immediately turned out a clear stream. Someone had not only sat in this kitchen: they'd worked at the table, brewed themselves some tea, cleaned the dishware they'd used, and packed everything back in the cupboards judging by the pool of shoe-borne pollen in front of the oven and the footprints in the dust on the countertop.
Richard peeled off the list of emergency contacts taped on the side of the refrigerator and sat heavily in the butt-polished chair. There were no snacks and he didn't want to smoke in a crypt, so he settled for chewing on all of his failures as he dialed up the first number on the list. "Kudo, you irritating fuck," the man answered.
"Hi, this is Detective Richard Moore, consultant for Beika PD." Richard found a hangnail and worried it, eyes half-closed, trying not to fall asleep. "I take it you haven't heard from this number in a while."
"Wait, you're not—" There was a fumble and a rustle of sheets. This might have been a home number. Sure enough the distinct tones of an irritated wife filtered through. The man audibly made distance, probably dragging the phone to the hallway. "You're with the police department?"
"Yeah, sorry for the early hour. I lost track of time and forgot other people sleep at night. Do you have a minute?"
"Is this a prank call?" The receiver on the other end scuttled around again as caller ID was presumably checked. "How are you calling from this number?"
"I wouldn't worry about it. Better to keep your nose clean, keep yourself out of this investigation as much as possible. Are you in a secure location?"
"I'm at home with my wife, who's sleeping like a normal person, and my three year old who's hard to deal with even when I get a full night of sleep," Mr. Soto said. "What's this about. Did he set you up to do this? I'm his publisher, not his mommy. I leave that handling up to his editor. I just negotiate contracts and set up gigs with his tour manager."
"What do you mean by handling?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean? The man's an irritating fuck," Mr. Soto said. "And I'm going to assume that whatever it is you're investigating either has to do with the way he handles his millions or the fact that he's been AWOL for weeks. He's blown right past three of his deadlines and refuses to pick up his mobile phone to get his comeuppance. I know he's alive because the resounding relief I'd feel at his untimely death hasn't hit me yet."
"So he hasn't sent you any sort of communications? He's gone completely dark?"
"I would have preferred he'd gone completely dark. No, that's the other proof he's alive: he keeps sending notes with his ideas to the office. Not on normal paper, like normal people. Like irritating fucks might. Scraps of newspaper. A paper towel. On the label of a laundry soap bottle. With chalk on a broken slate. They're good ideas, that's the worst part. There's just nothing I can do about them because I'm not the writer. I have a collection of his bullshit in my office in an old milk crate because that's the only acceptable container to hold all his crap. This last time he sent me a check and told me to use it and 'take the missus' out for a spa weekend. I don't have time for a spa weekend. You know why? I'm busy chasing down that irritating fuck."
"When is his next deadline?"
"You said his editor is his 'handler'," Richard said. "So even this editor can't get a hold of him?"
"Reportedly no. She's an in-house hire – I don't blame her or anyone else who has to deal with his crap. The only reason he's still employed is because when he writes, it automatically best-sells. His team is hired specifically to manage him."
"Is there any evidence he's getting your communications, even if he's not responding?"
"Go back to sleep, bunny, Daddy didn't mean to yell," Mr. Soto murmured, much softer, and there was a misty whine in tandem with shuffling little feet on carpet. In his teenage years Richard would've sworn up and down that he'd never cultivate the nonsensical Dad reflex he had right then to check up on his own kid's sleep status. "Daddy did mean to yell, just quieter and with fewer words she'll repeat at daycare," Mr. Soto told Richard. "I need to wrap this up. What is it you need from me?"
"Kudo has a list here, but the editor seems to be missing. You have a number for me?"
"If I remember the old days, Booker enjoys tormenting his editors most of all for sport. Even if he's not answering, I can guarantee you that he's reading messages from her. I need to send him a message regarding his kid."
"His kid." Mr. Soto grew alert. "What's the matter with James?"
"Vanished in tandem. Thing is, I think it's coincidental. Or at least, it's staggered enough that one isn't aware of the disappearance of the other."
"This sounds like official police business, not private detective work."
"Jimmy's kept in loose contact and you have written evidence Booker is alive, so at this point it's just a matter of wanting T's crossed and I's dotted. We're just trying to track everyone down and make sure everyone is on the same page here."
The editor was silent a moment. Richard could faintly hear the daughter call out for him in the other room. "Do you have something to write with?" Mr. Soto said.
Richard penned the number on the back of his hand and hung up. He dialed the new number and it rang six times before clicking over to the answering machine, which was a good sign the editor had sensible work/life boundaries and didn't sleep with her work phone right next to her head. Telephones often made good accidental pillows so Richard couldn't relate.
The tape started to roll. "Hey, Ms. Padgett." He was definitely falling asleep. He bit harder on his hangnail and reorganized. There were things he didn't like about Booker Kudo and even a handful he didn't enjoy about Booker's extravagantly hot wife, but father to father, Richard was just not getting the sense Booker was fully grasping the gravity of the situation. Either he'd gone dark in response to Jimmy's disappearance, which seemed unlikely, or he just genuinely hadn't had time to process it between tormenting his editor with telegrammed fart jokes and emu trivia sent via carrier pigeon.
The tape continued to roll. "Sorry to call at this hour," Richard said. "Hope this didn't wake you up. I need you to forward a message to Booker Kudo from Richard Moore. I'm a family friend who has some intel about a situation his kid might be in. I've got a hunch he's receiving your messages, so however it is you try to communicate with him, I'd appreciate it if you passed this along with those same channels."
The wind outside swept pollen away. His jacket would get soaked in the rain if it hadn't been already. If he slopped around in the mud on the way home, he could tell Rachel he got rolled by a car and that's why his tie was missing and there was a suction mark on his neck directly overtop Maya's wire scar. Car bumpers were notorious for leaving suction marks. "I'm not sure if he's aware of it, but Jimmy hasn't been to school in seven weeks," he said. "We haven't seen a hair on his head since late winter. He's called Rachel a few times and I've spoken with him too, but it seems like his safety is compromised and he's locking down his real location to protect us. If Booker's aware of this, he needs to give Meguire a call and settle what's going on. If he's not aware of it, consider this a briefing."
The darkness was starting to abate in the gap under the drapes. "Thanks in advance," Richard said, and hung up feeling rudderless abruptly. There was a greasy film of sweat on him that even the omnipresent pipe smell couldn't disguise, and he needed to shower so violently and suddenly and uncontrollably that his vision trembled. He prickled with lilac.
He did the unforgivable and took a shower in the upstairs master bathroom, leaving the light off and letting the silvery pre-sunrise in through an uncovered window as he dried off with one of their monogrammed towels. He wiped out the tub, cleaned every drop of water off the counter and floor, and carried out what he'd dirtied in the makeshift gunnysack of his shirt. Booker's base wardrobe was identical to his; Richard found matching trousers and a dress shirt in the master suite's walk-in closet and tallied up the cost of dry cleaning as he pulled them on. Booker wouldn't notice they were gone and in fact had foisted over Vivian-selected shirts in the past that he'd admitted to hating, but it was the principle probably. Richard still had ethics stored up unused crevices.
He came to a stop outside Jimmy's room and tried the door. It was locked. Devoid of shits both figuratively and literally, Richard dug his utility knife out of the pocket of his dirty trousers and slid out the metal toothpick. Thirty seconds of work later the doorknob was unlocked, and only when the door had swung open and the pale rain-wrapped dawn had reached him from Jimmy's windows did he finally run out of gas.
He let himself slip from his knees onto his ass on the threshold, propping himself up against the doorframe. Jimmy's room was a time capsule from another era. Pipe smoke had seeped in here like every other corner of the house, but more than anything this room smelled like old books and ink, an undertone of English Rose reading candles half-dissolved on their stands. Bookshelves occupied every wall not taken up by windows, dangerously overstuffed and at several points used to prop up book towers stacked from the floor. There were no photographs or childhood knickknacks on shelves, but Richard could see a number of storage trunks under Jimmy's bed that probably held everything sentimental. On the far wall next to a window-seat cushion covered with strewn manuscripts, an ancient typewriter sat center-stage on Jimmy's writing desk. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere in the room.
Richard entered the liminal space between his body and his brain and dropped the rest. He blanked out on the typewriter and behind him he heard running footsteps and laughter and Vivian shouting scripted disapproval from downstairs. Sleepovers had lasted through middle school: the Kudos seemed to think nothing of them. Take a night to yourselves, Vivian had told him fondly. Leave her here forever if you like. She's an angel. Jimmy had thrust out his hand for Richard to shake that very first time Rachel had stayed over, and Richard had watched the very difficult and meticulous process needed for Jimmy to lift his chin, to let out a breath, to raise his gaze the impossible distance up to meet Richard's. I'll protect her, Jimmy had said. She's safe with me, Officer Rachel's Dad.
"Where are you, kid," Richard breathed aloud, sick. For the very first time in two months the dam of his denial broke and he internalized the loss fully. Empty hallways, half-finished crossword puzzles. A layer of dust and pipe smoke.
"Which bar are you at," Meguire said wearily when he picked up the phone twenty minutes later.
Richard dusted off the record player and rotated Bix Beiderbecke he waited for his ride to arrive. The film and dead fly at the bottom of Booker's mug were cemented in. He used his pocketknife and carved into it, excavating the body. The fly sat in the sink and watched him exhume the rest. Dish soap and moxie won out. He placed it overhead with the rest of the clean mugs, unplugged the record player, rescued his jacket from outside, and scooped up his laundry bundle in time to meet Meguire's patrol car at the front gate. The sky spat and carded through the trees. "I should arrest you," Meguire said grimly as Richard lowered himself into the cruiser. "Family friend or not, you were breaking and entering a locked house on private property. You do anything like this again and I'm cuffing you, you understand?"
Where are you. Rachel met him at the door with tearful raging panic and not a lot else registered after that. The next time he got a hold of himself he was in his bed and the kids were both at school, and one of these days he should probably open the agency. He could find people sometimes.
He answered two of the cheating spouse requests and spent the rest of the day in a rental car, seagulling some peanuts into his mouth whenever his stomach complained. By the time the agency phone rang at his desk at 20:00 and Rachel tensed upwards from her textbook on the sofa, there weren't enough calories in him to power any more fear. "Hey," Jimmy said.
He felt the tremulous breath in and out against his ear as distinctly as if Jimmy were standing next to him. The backdrop was too quiet to be a payphone.
Richard said, "You want to talk to her?"
Rachel's hand flew to her mouth and she choked back a sob.
"I do," Jimmy said. "For real this time. I promise."
Richard held out the phone. "It's for you."
Rachel literally crawled off the sofa. It took two tries for her to take the receiver. "Butthole," she choked into it immediately, laughing through tears. "What the hell do you want, you stupid selfish butthole."
Richard smoked through a pack on the roof. By the time Rachel joined him, the sun had set and starlight was blazing through the light pollution. Rachel hugged him immediately and he obliged her, ducking his chin to rest on her head the way she liked. "Thanks, Dad," Rachel whispered. She looked and sounded haggard. "I know that was hard for you."
"You get all the answers you wanted?"
"No and yes."
"Feel any better?"
"I think so. It was just good to hear his voice for more than a minute or two. We talked about old times." Rachel swallowed with sound. "He told me how much he missed me and how sorry he was. He would have never done that before this. He hated sharing his feelings, even if they were already obvious."
"Looks like he's changed."
"I know. I know he's changed. And I wasn't there to watch. I missed it. I'm missing so much of him and it hurts, Dad."
Richard once again contemplated the relative peace of a Victorian-era spontaneous combustion death. He hugged his stupid kid and thought about empty shelves and knickknacks crammed into storage trunks out of sight. "But beyond that, I think things will actually be okay now," Rachel said. "Or at least as okay as everything can be with him still gone. I can go on like this. I just needed proof that he was out there and working to come home."
"Sounds like a call worth waiting for, then."
"Stop it." Rachel hadn't let go of him. He felt her grip tighten around him as she laughed without humor. "Stop being so mature and well-adjusted about Jimmy. It creeps me out."
"I thought you liked me being well-adjusted."
"If you're growing without me too, you won't need me around to make sure you make good decisions, and then you'll leave me behind just like he did."
"I don't want to swim through your boring nonsensical trauma tonight," Richard said. "The stars are out. I'm not going anywhere and neither are you. Grab some snacks from the kitchen and come back up here to watch stars with me."
"Okay." She didn't argue. She disappeared and reappeared with a blanket and water bottles and gross healthy snacks with reduced sodium, and see, this is why he needed to do the grocery shopping god damn it. Her ultimate plan had always been to reduce his chances of spontaneous Victorian alcohol-fueled combustion. "Let's have a contest to see who can identify the most constellations," Rachel declared, plopping herself down on the blanket next to him with finality. "Me first."
He managed to locate six before drifting off with his hand in the reduced sodium pretzel bag. When he woke he was crystallizing with frigid dew and Conan was dragging up another blanket from storage to drape over them. Rachel was asleep next to him, hair half spilled from its ponytail, sweatshirt sleeves bunched around her hands to trap in warmth. "Come here," Richard said.
Conan's face was puffy. He exhaustedly settled beside Richard just outside the blanket's periphery, skinny knees bobbing, shoes scraping the roof's grit. "It's nice out," he said. "A little chilly, but the stars are pretty. It's a good night to do this."
Richard dragged him across his body like a petulant sack of onions to sit in the middle of them. Conan didn't resist the handling, digging his lower half down into the blanket he'd brought up. Richard watched him stare uncomprehendingly out over Beika at the new height, eyes shadowed behind glass. The passing storm had rinsed away the dust and for a while everything gleamed like it was new. Richard could smell damp earth from three stories up. "You came home really late last night," Conan said.
Richard located his seventh constellation. They were stupid for doing this without more protection against the elements, but stupidity for him tended to be a repeated cycle of exposure therapy. The more stupid he was the less he was afraid of it when it happened. "Are you okay?" Conan asked.
"I can't believe that terrifying woman was Rachel's mother the whole time." Conan was barely audible. Towering reflections were in his glasses. "I feel like an idiot."
"You only met her once."
"She doesn't look much like Rachel, but the similarities are there if you pay attention. I'm an idiot."
Richard's head hurt. He settled himself back down and cushioned his head in the crook of his arm. Conan didn't move, still and straight-backed between blankets, and in the darkness Richard finally saw him as other people might see him. The truth was that if you weren't paying attention at all, there was absolutely nothing to see. Conan muted his own echoes so expertly that even looking at him from this new angle felt like meeting him for the first time. A child who could fade into the background within seconds if he needed to. A boy who could disappear and leave everything behind.
Richard lifted a hand and scuttled it on Conan's head. Beside them, murmuring in her sleep, Rachel stirred and reached out instinctively for the new source of warmth, curling her arm around Conan and pulling him closer.
Conan didn't shy away from either touch. He lifted his chin a fraction and Richard's thumb incidentally ruffled the hair on the back of his head. He watched starlight with no echoes. "I'm an idiot," Conan murmured to nobody.
Near dawn the chill roused him again. Nose packed with snot and roof dust, blanket slipping off his right arm, Richard rolled over and blinked sleep from his eyes. Rachel had turned onto her right side sometime during the night to completely engulf Conan under the blankets. When Richard took a glance inside the bastion of her arms, Conan's exhausted face was slack with sleep, his glasses neatly folded on the roof gravel beyond their blanket nest.
Richard roamed in and out of a doze until dawn evaporated the last of the starlight. Neither kid disappeared under his watch, which was an underrated accomplishment. Not everybody in Beika managed apparently.