New Sophie!

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Here are a few pages of my next Sophie book: CHAOS, DECEIT AND A KICK-ASS CUPCAKE

 

Chapter 1

“I have a tendency to self-medicate. If I don’t I suffer from extended periods of debilitating sanity.”

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

“Well?” Anatoly asked, as I stood in the middle of his new office, absorbing the room.

I turned, lifting my chin, seeing a shadowy reflection of myself in his dark brown eyes. He hadn’t shaved that morning. There were strands of grey mixed in with the course black hair dotting his chin. It made him look more rugged than old. His arms were crossed against his black t-shirt and his legs crossed at the ankles as he leaned back against his new, but used, desk. Even when relaxed he looked a little dangerous. He served in both the Russian and Israeli army before moving here. I learned not long ago that he had also done some work for the Russian mafia during the years of his reckless youth, although he assured me he wasn’t truly part of the organization. More of a 1099 employee. He never killed for them which is not the same thing as saying he never killed.

You’d think that last part would be a problem for my family but my sister, Leah, thought someone as temperamental and incautious as me should be grateful to be able to hold onto any man and my mother was so happy I was finally sharing my bed with a fellow Jew she was willing to overlook a few unreported felonies. People are always surprised to hear of her biases since my African American father wasn’t Jewish, but then he did change his name from Christianson to Katz just to appeal to my mother’s sense of cultural identity. As nuns change their names when they take a vow to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience my father changed his name when he vowed to live a life defined by matrimony, family and general insanity. He died eighteen years ago yet the wound still stings whenever I allow my mind to touch it.

The muffled sound of a honking horn from the street below brought me back to the moment. Anatoly was waiting for my response and as patient as he was, he didn’t actually like to wait.

The mass of an unopened bottle of Fiji water weighed down my hobo bag and I readjusted it on my shoulder. “Do you really want to hear this?” My fingers moved from my bag to my black and white eternity scarf.

His jaw tightened ever so slightly. “Stop the games,” he demanded, his Russian accent becoming a bit more pronounced.

I nodded and took a deep breath. “It’s…cute.”

The aggressiveness of the silence that followed was a little frightening.

“Cute,” he eventually repeated, drawing out the word, making it sound like the venomous insult he perceived it to be.

I hesitated a moment before blurting out, “Oh my God, Anatoly, it’s more than cute. It’s fucking adorable. You’re office is adorable.”

“It’s not adorable,” he snapped. “It’s conveniently located, it gets natural light, it has its own attached bathroom, it’s a sophisticated space–”

“Weeeellll,” I hedged as my eyes moved from the light yellow walls to the white painted trim of the paned windows. “It’s sophisticated in a Simply Hello Kitty kind of way. But I do like it. The way they integrated the seashells and daisies into the crown molding…it’s really…”

“Don’t say it.”

“It’s so cute!”

He slammed his hand down on the desk and turned his glare to the window. “I’m getting a new office.”

“You just signed a lease. Did it come with these furnishings?” I gestured to the only furniture in the room, a desk, a brown, tufted leather office chair and two cushioned, wicker armchairs. “They absolutely fit the space. Totally charming.”

“I’ll paint the walls black.”

“Then it’ll just be adorably goth.” I opened the door to what I assumed was a closet. It was a half bath with an old fashioned, pedestal sink that looked like it was plucked right out of a Victorian doll house. I got my smile in check before turning and walking over and perching myself on the edge of his desk, dangling my legs in his direction. “You know,” I said in my most soothing tone, “you can be a pretty intimidating guy.”

Anatoly made a noise that sounded like a halfhearted growl. He was nowhere near mollified.

“You can be,” I insisted. “You have a mean glare when you’re mad. You’re like a hot James Bond villain.” I sighed and shook my head. “It can be a problem.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you hire a P.I. you have to share a few secrets with him,” I pointed out. “Open up the door to some of the more private areas of your life. It’s hard to do that with an intimidating, tough guy. You need to take it down a notch. And you know how you do that?”

“I think I know where you’re going with this.”

“You need a super cute office,” I continued with a nod. “When prospective clients come through that door they’ll say, okay, so he looks like he could kill me but those crown moldings of his are simply delightful!”

He let his chin drop to his chest, his neck bent from the burden of my indictment.

“Who’s the first client who gets to be enchanted by this place?” I asked.

“It’s a new one,” he grumbled. “He wants me to help him track down his stalker.”

“A stalker case? You haven’t had one of those in a while. Is the stalker a woman or a man?”

“He doesn’t actually know.” I tried not to giggle as I watched Anatoly’s eyes wander up to the crown moldings and then dart away in shame. “He says someone put a miniature tracking device on his car. A very high-tech piece.”

“Really?” Not many people would have the capability to do something like that. “Does he think the person who planted it is dangerous?”

“Very.”

I let that sink in as I pushed myself to my feet and walked over to the window. The office was on the second floor of a classic three story San Francisco Edwardian. It had been converted to accommodate ground floor boutiques fitting of the recently gentrified little shopping area. From where I stood I could see the pedestrians wandering in and out of an organic, twelve-dollar-a-drink juice bar, an art gallery selling $5000 sculptures made of recycled paint cans and a jewelry store that advertised conflict-free diamonds. Excess and apology all neatly wrapped up in one pretty little bow. Two years ago I had turned in a manuscript; Dying to Laugh, the final installment of my Alicia Bright murder mystery series, set on these very streets. My publisher packaged it, slapped a virtual bow on it and I sat back and watched as it ascended to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. It was the sixth time an Alicia Bright mystery had reached the number one spot.

I had loved writing the series but it was time to move on. I needed to challenge myself, write new characters, prove to the world I could do more.

Except I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t written a word in seventeen months. There was something wrong with me.

From the corner of my eye I noted a figure standing a little too still, maybe looking up in my direction, but when I turned my head I saw that it was just a man in a black baseball cap, looking down at his phone, not up. He quickly turned and walked away, head still bent toward his device. Why were all these tech guys bothering to move to such a beautiful city if they were incapable of dragging their attention away from their screens?

“Does he have any idea who would want to stalk him?” I asked Anatoly, keeping us on a less depressing subject. “Or what they might hope to gain from it?”

“I think he does, but he didn’t want to talk about it on the phone.”

“Oh?” I ran my finger over the white painted wood that supported the squares of glass. “Because he thought someone might be listening in on the call?”

“That was the impression I got, yes.”

I turned back to Anatoly. “That’s a very interesting case.”

“Yes,” he said, finally breaking into a smile. “It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those.”

It had been. Over the last few years Anatoly has been offered an increasingly steady stream of cases dealing with insurance fraud, identity theft and wayward spouses. Well paying, low risk cases. There was nothing to complain about. He was doing great.

We were doing great too, despite my writer’s block (which I had purposely kept him in the dark about). From the moment we became a couple Anatoly and I had either been on the precipice of a breakup or basking in the postcoital glow of reconciliation. His flaws have always scratched against mine in just the right way, igniting the most beautiful firework displays our city had ever seen. It all sort of came to a head in a chaotic, messy weekend in Vegas about two and a half years ago. We almost killed each other on that trip. But then some cartel chick named Margarita tried to kill me. Then a grudge baring Russian dude named Alex Kinsky helped Anatoly save me from Margarita but also threatened to kill Anatoly and, well…it was just really complicated. After a rapid succession of near-death experiences Anatoly and I decided that peacefully loving each other was better than strangling one another.

Shortly after finding our way out of danger we reached this place in our relationship that was just…different. We’ve fallen into a routine. A good routine. One that involves a lot of classic movie nights, reading the morning paper over cappuccino, the occasional ride along the beach on his Harley, glorious home-cooked meals (prepared exclusively by him) and great sex…although the latter wasn’t happening as frequently as it used to and sometimes it seemed the intensity wasn’t quite as, well, intense…but that was probably my imagination and it was still better than anything I’d had with anyone else by a lot. For the first time in over a decade I had no deadlines hanging over my head, no conflicts, no drama, no chaos. This must be what all those fairytales were talking about when they said they lived happily ever after.

But then, maybe not. I was hardly an expert on fairytales. Only the dark ones interested me.

I smiled up at Anatoly and clasped my hands behind my back, the picture of innocence. “When’s he coming?”

“In less than forty minutes and I believe you have a hair appointment in an hour. So if you’re done insulting my office–” He gallantly gestured to the door.

“That’s tomorrow.” I self consciously pulled at my hair. The fact that Anatoly remembered I had a salon appointment at all was an indication of how out of control my hair had gotten since my last one. “Today’s my lunch with Dena.”

“Great, say hello for me.”

“Can I help?”

He hesitated, his jaw tightening ever so slightly. “Help with what?”

“Can I sit in on your meeting? You could say I’m your secretary. I could take notes.”

His sigh was almost heavy enough to squash my hopes. Almost. “You’re not my secretary, so no.”

“Oh come on, I’ll keep everything confidential. And maybe I’ll have some good insights that can help you. I mean, I do have some experience with this kind of thing.”

“Experience?” He shook his head and stuck his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans. “Stumbling upon a few crime scenes doesn’t make you an investigator. It makes you unlucky and accident prone.”

I sat down in the chair behind his desk, swiveling it back and forth as I kept my eyes firmly on his. “I solved those crimes that I stumbled upon. I might just be a black Veronica Mars in the making.”

“Yes, except you haven’t solved a crime since that show was canceled. And wasn’t Veronica Mars supposed to be eighteen?”

“So I’m a little older than that,” I said, coolly.

“Yes, by almost twenty ye–”

“Don’t.” I snapped. I rested my elbows on his desk and my chin in my hands. “Come on, let me be your secretary, just for the length of one meeting. Or even your assistant! It would be fun! Every Sherlock needs a Watson.”

“You’re not my Watson. And you have other plans this afternoon.”

“I’ll text Dena and tell her I’m going to be late. Come on, it’ll be like old times.”

“Sophie–”

“Please, Anatoly.” But my tone had changed against my wishes. I had wanted to sound teasing but persuasive. I hadn’t meant for that note of desperation to sneak in there.

Anatoly heard it. I could tell by the way he shifted his weight back on his heels and tilted his head half an inch to the side. He was going to ask me one of those horribly generic questions that people ask their lovers like: What’s going on with you? Or Is everything okay?

I didn’t know what was going on with me even though I felt the weight of it. I couldn’t explain and I really, really didn’t want to try.

And then, like a reprieve from God, there was a knock on the door. A giant grin spread slowly across my face. “Think our client’s early?” Before Anatoly could respond I was out of my seat, across the room and flinging open the door.

Before me stood a fifty-something man only three inches taller than me. His blond, white streaked hair was unkempt and hung limp around his hollowed cheeked face. Everything he was wearing from his slightly-too-big Brooks Brothers chinos to his Tom Ford horned rimmed glasses implied a certain degree of wealth even as the missing shirt button and coffee stains that decorated the slightly frayed designer fabric projected something very different.

“I’m looking for Anatoly Darinsky?” He said, somewhat uncertainly.

“That would be the guy behind me. I’m Sophie Katz, his assistant.” I caught a glimpse of Anatoly’s expression over my shoulder and quickly amended. “Administrative assistant. Kind of like the Google assistant on Android? I keep track of things, take notes, make sure we get all the information we need to help you out. Please come in!”

“I’m early.” He stepped forward, hesitantly. Anatoly offered him his hand but he refused it.

“My hands are sweaty,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. “Is there somewhere I can wash them?”

“Right through here,” Anatoly opened the door to the bathroom for him and the man excused himself briefly. We both listened while the water ran. I went over to Anatoly’s desk and found a notepad and pen. Anatoly shot me a look a mouthed You’re unbelievable. To which I responded by mouthing, I know. Although to be fair, this was the first time in, like, a year that I had done anything that was even remotely unbelievable.

But this wraith of a man in Anatoly’s new, cutesy bathroom had me feeling oddly hopeful. Like I was perversely elevated by the promise of sharing in another’s turmoil. I smiled broadly at Anatoly as he frowned, knowing I was pressing his buttons. Hoping that maybe, just maybe, this would be the first step to becoming truly unbelievable again.

 

CHAPTER 2

When you hear hoofbeats it’s usually horses. Occasionally it’s zebras. But every once in a while it’s some terrifying, previously unknown creature that will completely change the way you think about hoofbeats.

–Dying to Laugh

I sat next to our guest, Aaron London, as Anatoly examined him from behind our desk. Mr. London was polite but jittery and had already requested to see our Drivers’ licenses to prove our identities. But when we handed them over he seemed to have a tough time reading the words, holding them up this way and that in order to bring them into focus. My eyes kept wandering to his lips which were chapped and scaly. A drop of blood rested behind a flap of dry skin near the corner of his mouth.

I offered him my water along with an encouraging smile. He accepted both, taking a long drink before placing the bottle on the floor by his feet. I held my pen over the notepad waiting for him to begin. “I’m sorry I’m so early,” he said for about the fifth time.

“It’s not a problem,” Anatoly said, perceptibly irritated by being forced to repeat the reassurance.

“I believe it might throw them off if I don’t show up where I’m expected, when I’m expected.”

“Who exactly are you trying to throw off?” Anatoly asked.

“The people tracking me,” he replied after an uncomfortably long pause. “There are people trying to kill me.”

Anatoly nodded as if being the target of a planned homicide was a normal and easily solvable inconvenience. “I assume you think the two are one and the same? The people who put the tracking device on your car are the ones who want you dead?”

“Of course they’re the same!” London sputtered. I made a quick note: homicidal tracking experts (bad guys).

“Tell me about them,” Anatoly requested. “Why are they going to such extreme measures?”

He shook his head, a few strands of his hair moved with him, but it was too thin to really be whipped around. “I know things,” he explained. “Things I’m not supposed to know.” His eyes locked on me again and this time the anxiety there was so intense I found myself pulling back as if it might be contagious. Yes, I sought a degree of turmoil, but there was something off about this man. “What do you know about the pharmaceutical industry?” he asked.

I looked over at Anatoly who rewarded me with a barely perceptible shrug. “It’s safe to assume neither one of us are experts,” I admitted.

“I used to be in pharmaceuticals,” London rubbed his hands against his wrinkled pants. “I know things about the way the business is run. It’s not good, not good at all.”

“I’m not sure I’m following,” Anatoly said as I wrote pharmaceutical industry: bad!

“The amount of money spent on developing a drug, you have no idea. And when you spend all that money only to discover that your drug can have dangerous side effects, well the companies don’t want to cop to that. They want to get their product to market even if it kills. And they want to kill me because I know that.”

“What pharmaceutical company are we talking about, specifically?” I asked as I furiously scribbled away.

“Nolan-Jennings is the worst of the wrong-doers, but it could be that they’ve enlisted other companies in this as well. There’s a lot of collusion with these organizations. Anti-trust laws are being broken right and left. We just keep seeing the same story play out over and over again. Rispedal prescribed off label! Thalidone! Doctors on the take! The whole medical establishment is in on it!”

“The whole medical establishment?” I asked, giving him the opportunity to pull back on the hyperbole. I would ask what the hell he was talking about in regards to the rest of it in a moment.

But rather than correct himself he nodded sagely and leaned forward, and urgently whispered. “The government is in on it too.”

I looked down at my notepad and considered writing government: Bad! But these days that went without saying.

“They want me dead too! Our own government!” London continued.

Anatoly shifted his head toward the window as a siren briefly disrupted the more benign background noises of the streets. “I find that unlikely, Mr. London.”

“Do you?” London retorted, sarcastically. “Why is that? You think our government doesn’t kill its own citizens? The death penalty! Covert operations! How many do you think they drove to suicide while testing LSD on unsuspecting Americans? What about eugenics? Where do you think the Nazis got that idea, huh?”

Following London’s train of thought was getting harder by the second. My notes had become a jumbled mash up of conspiracy theory catch phrases. I was seeking turmoil, not incoherence. “Maybe we can put the drugs and Nazis aside for a moment and focus on what’s going on with you in the here and now?”

He looked at me blankly and then fell back in his chair as if exhausted from his own ranting. “Of course. I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely. “I know I sound crazed. I’ve been under such stress. It’s not just that they’re following me.” With a slow purposeful movement he ran his hand through his hair, then held up his flattened palm. It was covered with dozens of strands, apparently dislodged from his scalp with only the lightest touch. “I think they’re poisoning me too,” he whispered. “I’m not thinking straight. I’m weak and…” he looked down at the loose hairs, allowing the disturbing visual to complete his sentence. “I don’t know how it’s being done. How it’s transmitted…I’ve taken to washing my hands immediately before touching another person. There could be toxins in my sweat. I don’t know how they’ve gotten to me, but they have. Putin isn’t the only government leader who poisons those who cross him. It can happen anywhere, to any of us.”

“Maybe we can start with the evidence that you’re being followed,” Anatoly suggested. “Do you still have the tracking device they put on your car?”

I could tell by the way Anatoly said the word “they,” that he was dubious of the pronoun’s accuracy.

London looked up at Anatoly, surprised. “It’s still on my car.”

Anatoly’s stare chilled me and clearly shamed London who began fiddling with his glasses, pulling them down and then pushing them back up on the bridge of his nose. “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to take the device off?” Anatoly asked. “So they can’t follow you anymore?”

“Of course it is,” London conceded. “But I can’t find it. I’ve taken it to a mechanic but they said they’d have to take apart the whole car to locate it. I took it to the police and they couldn’t find it either and they weren’t even sure if they had the legal authority to arrest anyone even if they did find it. Our legal system hasn’t caught up with our technology! There are no laws against putting GPS tracking devices on anything. The politicians are just now figuring out how to use GPS on their own damn phones! They don’t understand all the horrible ways technology can be applied! There’s no regulation, no protections, no–”

“Evidence,” Anatoly interrupted. “There is no evidence that there ever was a tracking device on your car. Maybe that’s because there isn’t one.”

“No, no, it’s there! I’ll be driving around and no one will be on my tail. And then suddenly there’s a Zipcar!”

“A Zipcar,” Anatoly repeated.

“Yes! And it will follow me at a distance. Too much of a distance for me to make out the driver. Then if I do a u-turn or pull over the Zipcar will drive off, in the opposite direction of course, so I can’t see who’s in it! And then maybe an hour later, maybe two, the Zipcar will be back! Sometimes it’s the same one. Sometimes a different one. But it will come out of nowhere! I know it wasn’t following me all that time so how did it find me? It was tracking me! You see? It knows where I’m going to be! It shows up at the most unlikely places!”

“There are a lot of Zipcars in the city.” I was doing my level best to point out the obvious without sounding patronizing. “Maybe that’s the reason they keep popping up. Especially since you’re not always seeing the same car.”

“No, you see that’s not how it works!” London said, imploringly. “The driver must have a computer with them. A laptop maybe. And they bring it from Zipcar to Zipcar–” but he wasn’t able to finish due to a coughing fit. It was a wet, ugly cough and I found myself torn between wanting to pat him on the back and desperately searching my bag for my bottle of Purell.

“Have you gone to a doctor?” Anatoly asked. “To get tested for poison or…anything else?”

“Didn’t you hear me? The medical establishment can’t be trusted! Doctors are taking bribes from drug companies, preforming needless procedures on homeless people, these are not good people!” He broke into another short coughing fit but then managed to continue. “Did you know that right now, as we speak, people are forming a New World Order? Oligarchs and their bought and paid for politicians are going to try to take over everything!”

“Wait,” I asked, “are you talking about Super Pacs?”

“No! Or yes, but no! It’s going to get so much worse than it is now! We can’t trust anyone. No one has our interests at heart. Not the little guy, not blacks!” He jabbed his finger at me with an almost desperate zeal. “They don’t care about what happens to the blacks!”

“Fucking Zipcar driving racists,” I replied, managing to keep a straight face.

“Mr. London, I think maybe we have to start again,” Anatoly suggested. “Do you, or do you not, have the names of any individuals who might want to do you harm and do you have any concrete evidence that someone is actively trying to?”

“They’re poisoning me,” he said, weakly. “Look at me. Use your eyes and see me dying. You’re witnessing my murder.”

Anatoly studied him for a moment and I could see the cocktail of pity and disappointment pouring out of him. “I’m afraid I can’t take your case.”

“But I’ve nowhere else to go,” London whispered. “You’re the only P.I. of good repute who would agree to even see me.”

“I’m sure others would take a meeting.”

London blushed. The little bit of color actually made him seem less crazed and more, well, vulnerable. I felt shame creep down my throat, into my gut. I had been attracted to the idea of a nefarious stalker that could be tracked down and held accountable. I had loved this stranger for the turbulence I assumed surrounded him. But the turbulence was within him. The demons stalking him could never be caught. This wasn’t an adventure, it was a tragedy.

“All right it’s true,” London said after a long pause, “there are others. You’re the fourth detective I’ve met with.”

“I see,” Anatoly said, stiffly.

“I don’t know how to do this,” London pleaded. “Didn’t know where to start. But the others they…laughed at me. They kicked me out of their office before I was even able to settle into my seat. You’ve been the most attentive. You’ve listened. Now all you have to do is see.”

Anatoly had listened but with thinly veiled impatience. To be fair, that was the best this man could ever realistically hope for given the insanity of his story. And yet he had hoped for more.

Quietly I put the pad and pen on Anatoly’s desk. There was no longer a need for note taking.

“I can’t take your case,” Anatoly repeated, his voice kind but firm.

“What will I do?” London moaned.

“I strongly recommend you speak with a doctor,” Anatoly suggested and rose from his chair. “But that’s up to you. Regardless, we should wrap things up here. I don’t want to waste your time.”

“No,” London agreed. “After all, I may not have much left to waste.”

There was an awkward silence as we all remained in our places, Anatoly and I both waiting for London to get up. But London seemed to be unaware that this was the logical next step. Sullenly meditative, he picked idly at loose hairs on his pant leg. Most looked like they were his, but I noted that others were short and black.

“Maybe I could walk you to your car?” I offered.

He looked at me blankly for what seemed like an eternity.

“It wouldn’t be an inconvenience,” I added. “I have to head out to make a lunch thing anyway.”

Again nothing and then finally a nod. I mouthed call you later to Anatoly as London got to his feet. When he walked with me toward the door his movements seemed labored, like every step was a small challenge. Was he moving like that when he came into the office or was it just the mass of disillusionment that he was struggling under?

We left the office and took the stairs slowly. When he seemed to falter I linked my arm through his, offering him support but masking it in companionship to spare whatever remained of his pride. The gesture stopped him in his tracks.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of touching me. Even people who don’t believe me, they don’t want to touch me, or be close to me. They see something’s wrong with me and it scares them.”

My mind automatically traveled back to my childhood when everyone was afraid to so much as shake hands with all the people in this city who were diagnosed with AIDS. We isolated them, made them feel like pariahs doomed to die alone. “I’m not afraid,” I said, definitively.

I thought I saw the glimmer of a tear in his eye and I looked away, urging him forward. “Anatoly just moved into that office space today,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“It’s cute,” London replied, absently.

Right? I think there are apartments on the third floor. I’m sure they’re lovely but I don’t know if I’d want to live directly over a shopping district.”

“You live in Ashbury Heights,” he noted as I pushed open the heavy glass door that brought us to the street.

I turned and stared at him. “How?”

“Your drivers license.”

The cool air touched my face and I found myself smiling at London as the shoppers streamed around us. “You’re an observant man.”

“Observant, yes,” he started to lead me down the sidewalk, “but I’m beginning to question if I can still confidently call myself a man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, lightly. “You’re just going through a rough patch, that’s all.”

He went quiet for a few minutes as we continued to walk past a parallel-parked line-up of Prius’ and Teslas’. I was about to ask him exactly where he parked his car when he piped up again. “Have you ever convinced yourself of something? Something that was unlikely?”

I exhaled in relief. I’m not sure it’s such a horrible thing to occasionally be delusional but if your delusions are as dark as London’s it’s much better to come back to more mundane realities. “We all do that,” I assured him. “Human nature.”

“That’s true,” he agreed, thoughtfully. “After all, what is God but something we’ve convinced ourselves of with no evidence to support? What is the American dream but a fallacy to give the poor false hope? We’re all convinced that we’re going to be the exception to the rule.”

Okay, so not exactly the direction I was hoping for. “What unlikely thing have you convinced yourself of specifically?”

He sighed as we walked by San Francisco’s latest farm-to-table restaurant. “I convinced myself that you would help me.”

Now it was me who abruptly stopped walking, pulling him to a stop with me before removing my arm from his. “I want to,” I said, sincerely. “But I think the kind of help you need is different than the kind of help you think you need.”

“You mean–” but before he could finish he started coughing. He lurched forward as the spasms violently wrenched away his physical control, causing the tip of his shoe to catch on a piece of uneven pavement. As he fell, his hands found the sidewalk in time to keep him from cracking open his skull. People around us stopped, as I kneeled next to him, helpless as I watched his body shake and his face contort.

“Is he okay?” I heard a woman ask. Now on his hands and knees, London’s coughs were getting worse. His glasses slipped from his face and dropped uselessly to the ground. He couldn’t seem to stop. Whopping cough maybe?

“London? Should I call a doctor?” I asked. It was a stupid question. The man couldn’t even talk. He looked up at me, his eyes fearful and milky, the convulsions racking through his delicate frame. “Call 911!” I cried out to the gathering crowd. But before I could fully get the words out he had fallen into unconsciousness, his glasses cracking beneath him. The coughs were now just gasps for breath and the time between each gasp kept getting a little longer. I looked up to see about five people on their cell phones, all calling for help. I reached into the pockets of London’s jacket to see if there was anything useful there. An inhaler maybe? Could he have asthma? Maybe an EpiPen? But all I found was a crumpled up failed-payment notification from his car insurance provider and his phone in a camouflage patterned case. The phone was displaying one new text message from a number apparently not in his contacts.

 

Confusion hath now made his masterpiece

That was the whole text. No explanation, no laughing emoji to imply it was a joke. The damp wind must have been working its way through the cloth of my sweater because my skin suddenly felt cold.

I looked up at the street just as a Zipcar passed us by.

 

Chapter 3

“When I said I’d just go with the flow I didn’t realize the flow was created by the flushing of a toilet.”

Dying To Laugh

 

 

It was complete madness. The paramedics arrived as I was attempting to administer CPR. They were quick to load London into the ambulance and while they found his car keys and wallet in his pants pocket, presumably with his ID and insurance info, they had somehow left me holding his coat, phone and that stupid payment notice. I drove to the hospital as quickly as possible. I dictated a text to Dena to tell her I had to cancel lunch and would explain why later. Anatoly called but I had accidently turned my Bluetooth off and couldn’t deal with my phone at the same time as I was racing to the hospital. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to say to him. I had no clue what was going on. Maybe I’d get to the hospital and discover that London did have asthma and they had fixed everything in the ambulance. Or maybe he had cancer or some other disease that he hadn’t told us about.

Or maybe he had been poisoned by a person who was following him around in a Zipcar.

As soon as I got to the hospital, before I even got out of my parked Audi, I tried calling the number the Confusion text had come from. I was greeted by an automated message telling me it wasn’t a valid number. I dialed again, carefully entering each digit as it appeared on London’s screen. But I got the same automated message. I tried calling from London’s phone. It made no difference.

But you can’t send a text from an invalid number, can you?

It was a question that kept running through my mind as I walked through the hospital entrance, clutching London’s cell and jacket. The lobby was populated with people carrying Get-Well-Soon bouquets in their hands and brave smiles on their faces. The four women behind the sprawling reception desk seemed relaxed though, completely accustom to being surrounded by the earth shattering events of human life.

“Hi,” I said to the grey haired, sixty-something women sitting behind one of the desk’s computers. “I’m here about Aaron London? He was just brought in through the emergency room.”

The woman gave me a quick, sympathetic look as her fingers flew over her keyboard. “Relation?”

I blinked. I had no relation to London. I couldn’t even truthfully call myself a friend. “I’m his girlfriend.”

As soon as the lie left my mouth I wanted to take it back. Girlfriend is not a relation. There was no value in girlfriend.

Besides, it made me look bad. If I had said wife it could have been assumed that we initially hooked up when he was still hot…or at least presentable. Now the doctors would think London was the best I could do.

Why am I this shallow?

“You can wait for him in the emergency room reception area,” she said, gesturing to the left. “Go down that hallway and take a left at the very end of it. Sign in at the reception area there. If they move him to surgery they’ll have someone let you know Miss…?”

“Katz, Sophie Katz,” I said, although why I was suddenly channeling the speaking patterns of James Bond was a mystery. She gave me a visitor’s pass to stick on my shirt and I followed her directions.

The emergency room waiting area was like all emergency room waiting areas: awful. Regardless of how well cleaned, they always stunk of sickness and distress. It was hard not to be envious of the ward’s receptionists behind the glass, physically separated from the upheaval in their sterilized little bubble.

After signing in I found two empty chairs a little ways away from anyone else, one for me and one for London’s things.

Why didn’t a guy as paranoid as London have his phone password protected? I would have thought he’d have one of those fingerprint things on it or maybe even new facial recognition technology. And aren’t iPhones supposed to be harder to hack than Droids? What good was paranoia if it didn’t at least make you security savvy?

I looked around the room as if I expected any of the people in there with me to have answers. The black man in the corner with the neatly clipped, short hair and downward turned mouth, frantically texting some presumably bad news, or the redhead chewing on her nails as she watched the doors that led to the exam rooms as if the strength of her will was enough to get a doctor to burst through with better news. Nothing here was reassuring.

I picked up London’s jacket again and started searching the pockets one more time, as if something meaningful might have magically appeared in there since the last time I searched. But of course the pockets were now empty. Except…

I reached deeper into the inside pocket, something was there, halfway through a hole in the silk lining, making it easy to miss.

I pulled out two copper colored keys. House keys? Office keys? I shrugged and zipped them into the small pocket of my purse so I wouldn’t lose them. Next I started skimming through the phone.

But there was nothing on it. Like, nothing-nothing. Not a single photo, the Facebook app had not been activated and if he had ever gotten a text from anyone else it had been erased. But maybe there would be something telling in his emails…

“Miss Katz?” I looked up to see the grey haired woman from the front desk. Her hands were clasped together in a worried fashion. Next to her was another woman in her early-forties, a blonde wind-blown bob hung around her long face as her cowl necked sweater drew attention to a small strand of pearls that lay slightly askew across her collarbone. Hanging back behind them stood a curvy teenage girl. Her thick mane of blonde hair fell all the way down her back, adding a hefty dose of femininity to her grey-stripped hoodie and jeans ensemble.

The woman with the bob pointed a slender finger toward the chair next to mine. “I believe that’s my husband’s coat.”

Husband? But this woman looked so…normal!

Well, maybe they hooked up while he was still hot. I stared at the coat and then the phone in my hand. “Maybe I should explain.”

But the woman clearly had no interest in explanations. She crossed over and grabbed his jacket and then held out her hand toward me expectantly. “His phone?”

My own phone started ringing in my bag but I didn’t reach for it. “I’m not his girlfriend,” I croaked. “I was with him when he collapsed and–”

“I just want his phone.” Her voice was restrained although I thought I detected a slight tremor. “I know that case, don’t try to tell me it’s not his. And I don’t want or need an explanation.”

I hesitated a moment and then carefully placed it in her palm. “He got a text–”

“Stop talking!” Her voice had lowered to a whispered yell. I shrank back, unnerved.

“Mrs. London?”

We all turned at the name. A doctor in a lab coat was standing by the doors.

“Anita,” she said with a sigh. “Call me Anita.” She glanced down at me one more time and then nodded at the teenage girl who approached the doctor with her. The three of them formed a small huddle, excluding everyone else in the room from the conversation. The woman from the front desk was now glaring at me and when I tried to meet her eyes she just gave a quick shake of her head, turned and left. Fantastic. If I ever had a medical emergency I’d have to tell the paramedics to take me to a different hospital.

I stood up and looked over at Anita as she put her arm gently around the teenager’s shoulders, protectively pulling her close. She gave the doctor a curt nod and he turned to leave as she went to the window where the receptionists and administrators were. She quietly accepted a clipboard full of forms before crossing to the nearest chair to start filling them out. Tentatively, I approached, stopping several feet in front of them. They both ignored me, and I watched as she checked off the “Ms.” Box and wrote her name, Anita J. London.

“I was just the person who happened to be standing with him when he collapsed,” I tried again. “I gave him CPR but…I’m not really trained in it. I don’t know if it helped.”

Mrs. London refused to look up. But the teenager did. She observed me through bloodshot eyes. “He has fluid around his heart and lungs,” she explained. “A lot of it.”

“You don’t need to talk to her,” Anita said, crisply.

“My father has to have emergency surgery.” She looked over at the double doors where they kept the patients. “It’s dangerous. They don’t know how it will go.”

Anita finally looked up although she gave her entire focus to the girl. “Catherine Jane London, you do not share family business with strangers!”

“It isn’t family business, mom!” Catherine said, her voice rising. “It’s life or death!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, people don’t die of pneumonia.”

“We don’t know that’s what it is and they do if it’s left untreated! You heard what the doctor said!” Catherine looked up at me again. “Why didn’t you tell him to go to the doctor sooner? Why did you wait until he collapsed? Are you stupid? Or are you just crazy like he is?”

“I…” but my mind wasn’t working fast enough to come up with an appropriate response.

“Life and death is a family matter,” Anita growled, more to me than to her daughter. “He’s our family. You are not. You should leave.”

“He got a weird text,” I blurted out. Anita London was going to get this information whether she wanted it or not. “Confusion hath now made his masterpiece.”

A rueful smile played on Anita’s lips. “Now I see why he liked you, you’re crazy too.”

“I’m not his girlfriend,” I said again. “I just met your husband today!”

“I don’t care.” Suddenly, she was on her feet again. “I don’t care who you are. The father of my child is about to get emergency surgery. His pulse is…well I can’t remember the numbers, but it’s not what it should be. Not even in the vicinity! So I don’t care if you met my husband today or if you’ve been fucking him for years. What I care about is filling out this paperwork so they can stick a scalpel in him and save his life. Will you let me do that now?”

“Sure, yes, of course.” I backed up and then slowly sat down in the row of chairs across from her. My phone started to go off again and I began to reach for it but Anita’s voice stopped me.

“Leave!” she yelled and this time everyone in the waiting room, including those administrators behind their protective little window, were staring at us openly. Anita, Catherine and I were the train wreck and I was the one who had taken us off the rails.

I swallowed, hard, and adjusted the strap of my handbag on my shoulder. “I’m sorry you’re going through all this,” I said, quietly. I reached into my bag and pulled out a pen and a crumpled receipt I didn’t need. On the back I wrote my name and number. “When you’re ready, I really think we should talk.”

Anita started filling out the forms again, pointedly ignoring the paper still in my hand. Quietly I put it on the seat next to her daughter. “When you’re ready,” I said again.

And then I left. Because there was nothing else to do.

 

Chapter 4

“I want a man who will pour me champagne and distract me from my problems and girlfriends who will buy me shots while I wallow in them.”

–Dying to Laugh

Dena’s text came in while I was sitting at a stoplight contemplating how all those poems and songs about the heart are completely off base. Whether it’s the excited butterflies of love or the cramps of anxiety it’s clear that all our emotions live in or around our intestinal tract. It was going to take a bottle of Tums to deal with all the emotions currently swirling around down there. Nothing about my exchange with Anita or her husband before her was sitting well.

I picked up my phone and read the text noting for the first time the three missed calls from Anatoly. Dena’s text read:

Is everything okay?

I texted back: sort of yes, sort of no.

 

As the light turned green Dena called. “Are you okay or not?” she asked, skipping the hellos and filling my car with her Kathleen-Turneresque voice.

“I’m fine,” I reassured her. “Sorry I stood you up. But I mean, you will not believe what went down this afternoon!”

“You really think you can still surprise me with the messes you get yourself into?”

“It’s been some time since I’ve been in a mess.”

She paused for half a second before conceding in a more conciliatory tone, “Fair enough. Lunch might have been hard anyway. A new shipment came in a day early and one of my salespeople called in sick. But Mary Ann’s stopping by at six. We’re going to try to catch one of the Happy Hours around here. Join us. You can test the limits of my belief.

The invitation sounded extraordinarily appealing. I had known Dena and her younger cousin, Mary Ann since high school. Mary Ann never failed to make me smile and Dena…well, I could always count on Dena to give it to me straight without ever judging me. I needed that because at the moment I wasn’t thinking straight and I was feeling a little judgmental of myself.

“Or do you have to smooth things over with Anatoly tonight?” she asked before I had even given her an answer to the last question.

“Smooth things over?” I repeated. “We’re fine.” I braked for a bicyclist who was trying to use the entire street as a bike lane. “We’re totally and completely, disconcertingly fine.”

“Oookay,” Dena replied. “Sounds—“

But her next few words were cut off with the beep of another incoming call. Anatoly.

“That’s him. I’ll be at Guilty Pleasures at 6.” I switched over as I maneuvered up one of San Francisco’s ninety-degree hills. “Anatoly? Oh my God, you’ll never believe this but London might actually have a stalker!”

Silence.

“Anatoly?” I asked, a little more tentatively this time. “Is that you?”

“I called you three times,” he finally replied, his voice even lower than normal.

“Oh, I saw that, sorry. But I mean, I’m talking about a really evil stalker,” I clarified. “The kind that poisons someone and then sends him cryptically poetic texts. Of course it’s possible…maybe even probable that it was coincidence, but still, it was all so weird! Am I making sense?”

“No,” Anatoly said coolly. “Would you like to start now?”

“I was just walking London to his car and he collapsed into a coughing fit. Now the doctors are saying there’s fluid around his heart and lungs. It’s a mess.” As I reached the top of the hill I decided to turn on my headlights for extra visibility. The fog was so low and thick it was like driving through a cloud.

“Sounds like pneumonia,” Anatoly noted.

“Oh don’t be so mundane,” I retorted. “I told you, he got a text. It said, Confusion hath made its masterpiece.”

“Crazy people get crazy texts. I’m sorry the man is sick, but that was obvious the minute he walked into my office. And you should have called me back.”

“I told you, things got out of control.”

“None of this was yours to control to begin with,” he replied, more forcefully now. “You’re my lover and my girlfriend but you are not my business partner.”

I blanched, stopping a second too long at the stop sign. “You said you didn’t mind my assisting you on this case.”

“When exactly did I say that?”

“You implied it.” I looked to my left to see one of Google’s driverless cars.

“How?”

“By raising your eyebrows!” It was disturbingly tempting to try to run the car and its passenger off the road just to see what it would do.

“My eyebrows don’t speak for me,” Anatoly said, slowly, “And I don’t insert myself into your work.”

“Don’t you?” I snapped. “I have missed infinite number of deadlines because of you.”

“You’ve missed two deadlines because of me,” Anatoly growled.

“People have tried to kill me because of you!” I continued. “That has interfered with my work.”

“I was shot because of you.

“Please. It was a flesh wound.” I waved at a pedestrian, signaling that it was okay to cross in front of me.

You didn’t pick up your phone!” he said again, raising his voice. Anatoly never raised his voice.

I tilted my head to the side. “Are you okay?”

“You walked out of my office arm in arm with a very troubled man and when I called you three times it went to voicemail. I called Dena but you didn’t tell her where you were going. You didn’t tell me where you were going. If you had been in my shoes what conclusion would you have jumped to?”

“You were worried about me?”

“Of course I was worried about you!”

“That’s so sweet!”

“Sophie,” he said, warningly.

“I’m sorry,” I added, quickly. “I got distracted, but I should have picked up.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “You’re apologizing,” he said, carefully.

“I am,” I confirmed. “I know I haven’t done that in a while but if you think about it, we haven’t argued in a long time either.”

“That’s true.”

“Now, can we get back to the stalker?”

“London doesn’t have a stalker.” The edge crept back into his voice. “He’s obviously suffering from some untreated psychiatric condition and possibly from substance abuse.”

I chewed gently on my lower lip. I could tell Anatoly that I saw a Zipcar but he’d only point out that there are Zipcars all over the city. And he would be right about that. I could tell him about London’s wife and daughter but he would tell me his personal relationships weren’t any of my business and certainly didn’t support any suspicions that London’s health issues were brought on purposely by another. He’d be right about that too. Anatoly was being infuriatingly logical. “I may visit him in the hospital,” I said instead.

“Don’t. He might take your presence as validation of the merit of his convoluted story. The best case scenario would be for him to spend a few months in a psychiatric facility.”

“I think you have to attempt an assassination before the insurance companies will agree to keep you in one of those places for more than two weeks,” I pointed out. And yet maybe Anatoly was right. That might be the best outcome.

But it didn’t feel right.

“I still think I might visit him,” I pushed.

“It’s a bad plan, Sophie,” Anatoly sighed. “But if you have to, it should only be to give him back his wedding ring.”

“Excuse me?”

“When he washed his hands it must have slipped off his finger. I just found it in the sink, halfway under the drain stopper. Since his wife is at the hospital maybe you can just give it to her and be done with it.”

I told the hospital I was his girlfriend and when his wife goes to his bedside he won’t be wearing his wedding ring. Fuck!

“Are you still at the office?” I asked, hopefully.

“Yes, but only for another hour. I have a potentially cheating husband I need to be tailing. I’m afraid I won’t be done until at least nine so you’ll have to get dinner without me.”

“No worries, I’m meeting Dena and Mary Ann for drinks tonight anyway. But I’m coming over right now for the ring, okay?”

“Fine. If you over do it on the drinks give me a call and I’ll pick you up.”

“Oh, well in that case I’m doing shots,” I joked.

“Well in that case I’m doing shots,” I joked.

“Don’t get so drunk I’ll feel guilty about taking advantage of you later.”

I laughed and agreed to stay sober enough for consensual sex before ending the call and turning the car around. I had no idea how I was going to get that ring back to London, but I would figure out a way, a subtle way, so as not to make things worse for him. “I am going to help you, London,” I whispered as I drove down the narrow streets. “This time, for real.”

 

Chapter 5

“You can reject Robert Frost’s advice and choose the road most traveled, but it’s still going to lead you to some unexpected and dangerously rugged detours. No one gets to stay on the paved road for the whole trip.”

Dying To Laugh

 

It says something about my friendship with Dena that I was unsurprised to find her absently doing bicep curls with giant dildos at the end of a work day, one black, one pinkish. She was standing in the middle of her store, Guilty Pleasure, studying a collection of colorful ball-gags hanging from hooks in the wall, her thick, Sicilian eyebrows scrunched together adding drama to her otherwise kittenish features.

“Ready for dinner?” I asked as I maneuvered around two giggling twenty-somethings hunched over the edible panties display.

Dena looked up, my voice pulling her out of her thoughts and then glanced at her wind-up watch, a subtle form of rebellion against the technification of the city. “Since when do you arrive anywhere early? That’s Mary Ann’s thing.” She glanced back up at the wall. “I’m thinking about moving these further back and doing a vibrator display here instead.” She held out the giant mechanical penises for my inspection. “I have these in eight different skin-tones now. Diversity.”

I nodded and tapped the black one. “You should put the darker ones up front in honor of Black History Month.”

Dena blinked down at the vibrators. “That’s fucking brilliant.”

“Do you have any black, Jewish dildos?” I asked. “To celebrate both sides of my racial and cultural identity?”

Dena held up the phallic device so it was eyelevel with me. “It’s circumcised, isn’t it? But if you’re asking if I have any black dildos that will fuck you while playing Hava Nagila the answer is no.”

“The limits of technology,” I sighed as my eyes wandered over to a shelf holding a smiling, silicon creature with antennas. Its packaging read, Flexi Felix for Anal Fun Days! I thought about the ring now sitting in the small pocket of my purse. “Do you know if Mary Ann is still friends with that nurse who works at St. Dominique’s Hospital?”

“Jenna?” Dena asked, following my gaze “What about Flexi made you think of her? Oh, is it because she’s a tight ass?”

“What? No, I…okay, first off, ew. I was just thinking she might be able to help me with something.”

Before I could continue, the chime of the front entrance alerted us to Mary Ann’s arrival. She was half walking, half skipping in our direction, her chestnut curls bouncing enthusiastically around her shoulders giving her the look of a model from a shampoo commercial.

“Oh my God, I’m so glad you could come out tonight!” Mary Ann said, as she gave me an enthusiastic hug and then Dena a more tentative one as she carefully avoided contact with the dildos in her hands. “I have news!”

“Is it something I won’t believe?” Dena asked, giving me a sidelong glance.

“Seriously guys!” Mary Ann’s porcelain complexion flushed with excitement. “I’m going to have a baby!”

Both Dena and I froze in utter shock. Dena looked down at the black dildo as if it was somehow responsible.

“You’re going to be a mom,” I whispered. Then squealed, “You’re going to be a mom!” It was enough to attract the attention of the giggling girls who looked up from the flavored lubes in their hands.

“I didn’t even know this was something you were thinking about!” Dena said, the traces of suppressed emotion bringing her voice up an octave.

“Well, Monty and I have been talking about it for a while and we’ve decided it doesn’t make sense to wait any longer. Now’s the time!”

“We have to celebrate!” I stated firmly. “What should we do?”

“We can start by not going to happy hour,” Dena gave Mary Ann a stern look. “No way in hell are you drinking during your pregnancy.”

“Oh, I’m not pregnant,” Mary Ann said, blithely. “I can have at least one cocktail. We have to toast this!”

Dena scrutinized her cousin and then looked over at me to see if I was as lost as she was.

I cleared my throat and shifted my weight from foot to foot. “Sooo…are you adopting?”

“No, what makes you think that?” Mary Ann looked at me, then Dena. “Oh, I see where the confusion is!” she added with a laugh. “I’m not pregnant right this second but I’m going to be pregnant. Probably by tomorrow.”

The corners of Dena’s mouth twitched “So your news,” she said, gently putting the dildos down next to the anal beads,is that you’re going to fuck your husband tonight.”

“That is so crude,” Mary Ann said, irritably. “I’m going to make a baby with my husband tonight. It will be the first time I’ve ever had sex without any contraceptives.”

Ever?” Dena and I asked in unison.

“I’ve never had sex with anyone without a condom,” Mary Ann replied, innocently. “I’ve never wanted to be pregnant before.”

“My God,” I whispered. “I’ve been friends with you for almost two decades and I never realized you were the most responsible woman on earth. Dena,” I said, a little accusatorily, “you must have known. How could you not share that?”

“Because I didn’t know!” she snapped and then gave Mary Ann a not so gentle smack on the arm. “You have never bought a condom from me! I have latex, polyisoprene, vegan-friendly condoms, condoms with cockrings, glow in the dark, extra thin, everything! It’s like a fucking condomcopia in here and you never once hit me up!”

My phone started vibrating in my bag as Dena continued to rail against her cousin’s refusal to involve her in her sex life. I didn’t recognize the number but I was more than happy to use it as an excuse to step away. “Hello?”

“Is this Sophie Katz?” a girl asked. The young voice was familiar but she spoke so quietly it was difficult to make out her words.

I moved several more feet away to better hear and to get myself out of the line of fire just in case Dena started hurling cock rings. “This is Sophie, who is this please?”

“It’s Cat, Aaron London’s daughter.”

“Oh! I’m so glad you called! Look, it was a total misunderstanding back at the hospital. I’m not dating your dad. But I was with him when he…when it happened.” I moved aside to make room for two more customers who were headed towards lingerie. “How is your dad?”

“Dead.”

Dead?

My mouth dropped open and my fingers tightened around my cell. Behind me the new customers were chuckling. In front of me Dena was still gesticulating and yet all the sound was now couched in a kind of ringing silence. I took a step forward as if movement would help. As if there was some corner of this adult toy store that would be appropriate for receiving this kind of news. “But…the surgery? Didn’t it work?” I asked, stupidly.

“I just thought you should know,” she said, opting not to humor me by stating the obvious answer.

Again, I found myself struggling to find words. London’s ring was in my purse, waiting for him to put it back on. I was sure he would put it back on. I honestly hadn’t expected he wouldn’t be able to. I hadn’t really believed that I could be talking to a man one minute and then have him just…die. Not from a gunshot or some sudden violent act but from something much quieter. A silent killer slithering through his veins.

Look at me. Use your eyes and see me dying. You’re witnessing my murder.

“Is your mother with you?” I asked, urgently. “I need to talk to her. There are some things she should know.”

“My mother is never going to talk to you.” Catherine’s voice was almost steady. “Not in a million years.”

And then the line went dead. She was gone.

London was gone.

I watched mutely as Dena turned away from Mary Ann and started walking toward her office. Dena’s limp was less severe than it used to be but still impossible to miss. Odd, seeing Dena, the petite, athletic woman I’ve known since high school, limp with each step. It was a bullet to the back that had done it, years ago. A physical manifestation of a twisted metaphor. The things that scar us are never the things we see coming.

I hadn’t seen this coming.

Mary Ann came bounding over, clearly unfazed by Dena’s rant, but when she saw my face her expression immediately changed. “What’s wrong, Sophie?” she asked.

“Someone died today,” I whispered.

Mary Ann’s hands fluttered to her face. “Who? Who died?”

“No one you know. I didn’t really know him either. But…but he asked me to help him. I refused. And now…” my voice trailed off.

Mary Ann wordlessly pulled me into a hug. She was such a slender, small-boned woman you would think that a fierce hug might break her. And yet when her arms wrapped around me they felt reassuringly strong. I rested my chin on her shoulder and squeezed my eyes closed as I tried to just absorb the comfort she offered and block out the reason I needed it. It’s like I had made it happen. I had wanted an adventure. A mystery. And now a man was dead.

Dena came back out and when she saw us in an embrace she let out an audible sigh. “Seriously, she spent her entire adult life having sex with cheap-ass condoms. It’s sad but it’s not a tragedy.” But then Dena too took a good look at my face. “Something happened.” A statement more than a question. “Come on.” She gently took my arm as Mary Ann released me. “Let’s walk and talk.”

 

CHAPTER 6

“The smart choice is almost always the cautious one. I’m proud that I’m just stupid enough for bravery.”

–Dying To Laugh

 

 

“I’m the devil.” I gripped my third Cape Cod in my hands. Dena, Mary Ann and I had found a small table in the corner of the dimly lit bar. The place was vibrating with the grating laughter of the Silicon Valley infiltrators, all decked out in the cheapest looking expensive clothes they could find. A virtual sea of white faces peering out of Nordstrom-bought hoodies. I had made a point of feeling superior to these so-called innovators for years. They were completely screwing up the vibe of my city. But as I watched them I couldn’t help but think that their analytical brains would have found a much more effective way to handle the whole London thing than I had.

Mary Ann toyed with the leaves of sage sticking out of the artisan cocktail she had been working on for the last forty minutes. “You’re not the devil, Sophie.”

“Of course not,” Dena agreed. “For one thing, Satan would have a better sense of what the fuck is going on. You were an innocent, clueless bystander. That’s all.”

“Wrong. I’m a guilty bystander. A nefarious bystander! He asked me to get involved and I rejected the idea out of hand.” I slammed the rest of my drink.

“There was nothing to get involved in!” Dena insisted. “This London guy was sick and refused to get treatment from a doctor. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there is no such thing as a nefarious bystander. You’re drunk.”

“Not yet,” I retorted signaling to our passing cocktail waitress that I wanted another.

“Perhaps if you wait a few weeks and then call the daughter back,” Mary Ann suggested, “maybe she’ll talk to you. When she’s, well, not less sad, but more calm.”

“And after she’s over the shock of finding out about your affair with her dad,” Dena added with a humorless smile.

“And when they find he wasn’t wearing his wedding ring they’ll think it’s more proof of that!” I moaned. “I have to straighten that out.”

“Think that’s a dilemma to ponder out tomorrow,” Dena suggested, leaning back in her chair.

“Tomorrow!” I exclaimed. “Tomorrow? Who am I? Scarlett O’Hara? Annie? Fuck tomorrow!” Okay, so maybe I was a little tipsy. They were strong drinks. “I should have dealt with things today. I should have helped him somehow! I was so thrown by all the crazy conspiracy stuff…I just screwed up!”

“Jason always gravitates to the conspiracy theories out there,” Dena noted, referencing her boyfriend and primary lover. Dena always had a secondary or two on hand. It was an arrangement Jason seemed almost grateful for. After all, Dena might be a bit much for any one man to handle. “But you know Jason,” Dena added. “He’s a little eccentric.”

I pressed my lips together and Mary Ann coughed softly as she stared pointedly into her cocktail. I had no problem with Jason. He was fun. But saying he was “a little eccentric,” was like saying Muammar el-Qaddafi had been a little erratic. There were some seriously weird stuff going on in that man’s head.

“London had all these weird theories about how hospitals were performing needless medical procedures on the homeless,” I began but was interrupted by the arrival of my drink, which required immediate drinking.

“Like Medicare pays out enough to be worth scamming,” Dena said with a scoff.

“Mm,” I put down my drink after downing a little over half of it. “London was also really concerned about a New World Order.”

“Oh yeah, Jason’s always going on about that,” Dena noted as the waitress walked off. “Oligarchs creating a secret society and taking over the world or some such bullshit.”

“Wait,” Mary Ann asked as she raised her martini glass for another sip, “What’s an oligarch? Are they, like, a kind of ogre? Like in The Hobbit and Shrek?”

Dena took in a sharp breath and I could see her fist clenching by her side. She never had a lot of patience for what we euphemistically referred to as Mary Ann’s unworldliness.

“Sort of,” I said, giving Dena a subtle kick under the table before she let loose with something biting. “But these kind have money, so more in line with the ogres in Shrek II.” I he government is trying to kill us.”

“Same with Jason,” Dena noted.

I stared down at my drink. “I like Jason,” I said slowly. “I mean he’s crazy but I don’t blow him off when he asks for my help.”

“Yeah, well that’s because he doesn’t ask for your help,” Dena said before taking a quick sip of her whiskey tonic.

“Yeah, but I mean, I wouldn’t,” I explained. “And I don’t treat him like he’s a lunatic who needs professional help.”

“Well,” Mary Ann said, delicately, “I don’t know if Jason getting a little professional help would be the worst idea…”

“I treat Jason with respect,” I continued as Dena shot Mary Ann an icy glare. “I don’t think I treated London with respect,”

“If I remember rightly, the first time you met Jason you didn’t treat him with a lot of respect. It wasn’t until you got to know him that you came to respect the man under the conspiracy theories.”

“Yeah, but I should have learned from that! We’re in San Francisco! Half the people here think our government is homicidal!” My words started picking up speed until they were practically bumping into one another. “Every time there’s a drone strike there’s a protest on some street corner railing against government sanctioned killing! We can disagree with them but that doesn’t mean they’re irrational. Or even when they are it doesn’t mean we should act like their concerns are stupid or silly. And that’s what I did with this guy! I dismiss him! Why did I do that?” I fumbled around in my purse until I found the ring. I pulled it out and held it reverently in the palm of my hand. “I screwed up. I really, really, screwed up.”

“No, you didn’t,” Dena said, definitively. “You were kind to an irrational man without encouraging his insanity. That’s responsible. You did everything right…except for the girlfriend part.”

I groaned again and made my hand a fist around the ring. “I can fix that much.”

“How?” Mary Ann asked.

“I was going to ask if your nurse friend might be able to sneak…”

Mary Ann was shaking her head before I even got through my sentence. “Jenna doesn’t sneak,” she said, firmly. “She doesn’t even jaywalk. I think it’s because she’s a really devout Christian.”

As a Jew I was hardly an expert on these things but I was pretty sure jaywalking wasn’t on Jesus’ list of concerns. But whatever. “I don’t need her to sneak anymore,” I assured her. “It’s too late for nurse sneaking. But, I mean, if it fell off his finger, and that’s got to be what happened, he probably had been losing weight. His clothes were too big and everything. And his weight loss, his family would know about it, right?”

“I would think so,” Dena agreed.

I jumped to my feet and waved my arms in the air to get the waitress’ attention.

“What are you doing?” Dena asked.

“I’m getting the check. We have to go to Aaron London’s place.”

Mary Ann and Dena looked at one another. “Um,” Mary Ann said, running her fingers nervously back and forth along the edge of the table, “I don’t think he’s home.”

“Of course he’s not home,” I replied. “But I’ve got to make it look like his ring fell off somewhere around his place! Or better yet, in his home!”

“I’m sorry, what?” Dena asked, flatly.

“I might have his house keys. I could just—“

“Yeah, no!” Dena said, cutting me off immediately. “You are not breaking into his house to return a ring!”

“Why not?” I demanded.

“For one thing, his wife and daughter are probably already there,” Dena pointed out.

“But what if they’re not? They could easily have gone to a family member’s home while they process this. That’s what my mom did when my dad died.”

“Sophie.” Dena said my name like it was a condemnation but simply ignored her as I continued to make my case.

“It would be the opposite of a burglary! I would be like Santa Claus…if Santa gave you stuff that already belonged to you.…and if he had a key instead of having to mess around with chimneys.”

“Um,” Mary Ann said again, “Dena may be right…about you’re being a little bit drunk.”

“Of course I’m drunk! You think I want to deal with any of this while sober?” I retorted. “And look!” Again, I searched through my handbag until I found London’s car insurance failed-payment notice, his name and address clearly printed in the corner. “See!” I slammed the paper down in front of my friends. “I have his address!”

The waitress came over with our check and I triumphantly put my credit card on top of it before she could even leave it on the table. “Drinks are on me,” I declared. “Mary Ann, you’ll have to drive us over there.”

Listen to me,” Dena wrapped her knuckles against the table, “this isn’t Christmas and nobody wants you busting into their living room no matter how jolly you are. We are not doing this!”

“But–”

“Do you even remember what happened the last time we tried to sneak around someone else’s home?” Dena pressed. “That was at that guy Alex Kinsky’s house in Vegas. The night ended when he held us at gunpoint and set the whole building on fire.”

“That’s really not fair,” I countered. “The fire was a total accident.”

“Sophie!”

“Fine!” I threw up my hands in mock surrender. “Then I’ll…I’ll just drop the ring by his doorstep.”

“That’s stupid!” Dena insisted.

“It’s a free country! I can be stupid if I want to be!” Mary Ann and Dena looked up at me doubtfully. Frustrated, I put my hands on my hips. “I swear to God you two, I will go on a full sobriety boycott until you agree to help me handle this! Right now, the only important thing is the ring!”

“Oh make up your mind, are you Santa or Golem?” Dena muttered.

I stared her down, letting her know I was not going to let this go.

She sighed and shook her head. “Let me just ask you this. If we drop Precious by his front door, like, by the matt or something, will you let this go?”

“Yes,” I said, without really thinking about it. “Sure.”

Dena and Mary Ann exchanged looks. As the waitress came back with a receipt for me to sign, Dena gave a little shrug. “Okay. Looks like it’s time us hobbits to go on an adventure.”