Palos Verdes Blue
by John Shannon
Published by Pegasus Books
336 pages, 2009
Palos Verdes Blue is the 11th novel to feature Jack Liffey, an aerospace technician turned “finder of lost children,” whose investigations send him deep into Los Angeles’ racial and class divides.
In this new story, Liffey is hired by his ex-wife’s best friend to find her missing 17-year-old daughter, Blaine (aka “Blue”). The case puts him in the middle of a turf war on the posh Palos Verdes peninsula, one that pits affluent teenage surfers (“Bayboys”) against the Mexican day-laborers who make their crude homes in ravines between mansions where they’re employed as gardeners and servants. It’s a volatile situation, finally ignited by a stubborn young Hispanic man who’s determined to ride the waves dominated by the Bayboys. As things turn violent, drawing in irate bikers, arsonists, and racist vigilantes, the life of Liffey’s own teenage daughter, Maeve, is put at risk as she tries to help her father.
Author John Shannon grew up in the L.A. harbor town of San Pedro. After publishing four non-Liffey books, he introduced his serial sleuth in The Concrete River (1996). Over the 13 years since, the decent and compassionate Liffey has attracted critical acclaim, though he still has not become a famous figure in the genre. Novelist Dick Lochte opined in the Los Angeles Times that Liffey represents “a remarkable update on the Chandler knight-errant. Shannon matches the master in location, characterization and dialogue.” Booklist calls Liffey “a walking conscience, a bruised crusader who remains an unerring advocate of doing things the hard way on behalf of the little guy” and adds that “Fans of thinking-man’s detective fiction will find much to ponder” in these books.
Shannon’s publisher, Pegasus, has recently begun bringing out the early Liffey novels in trade paperback format, and a 12th installment in the series -- On the Nickel -- is due on shelves in 2010.
Author photo by David MacDougall
The Wrong Currency
A small boy stood in front of the pickup holding a plastic machine gun that flashed its red transparent barrel as it clacked away gruesomely. Die, motherfucker, the boy mouthed clearly at Jack Liffey through the windshield, bracing his short little legs for the imaginary recoil, like some TV he-man of death. Then he ran off, squealing. The mock-attack didn’t upset him. Because of his job, he dealt regularly with the excesses of childhood.
What did unsettle him was returning to the neighborhood where he’d lived long ago, had actually owned a house. He guessed it was some root phenomenon of consciousness stirring. Inside himself, he sensed a whisking up of inner confusion about who he really was. For instance, Joe Wells, who’d lived in the ranch house directly across the street -- now repainted a nameless beigy earth-tone -- would never have let anyone park a boat on the block, let alone right in front of his own home. He’d have gone ballistic, called the cops, probably even torched it late at night.
Meanwhile, on this side of the street, the Shelling house was just plain gone, now denuded land ready for something new. A scrape, in the realtors’ lingo. Even though this area of Redondo was over the crest and inland from any ocean view, values still had risen astronomically. Down the block there was already one three-story McMansion. You couldn’t take your eyes off the poor botched structure, lost between two incompatible waves of banal suburban longing -- stylistically somewhere between Taos and Normandy. Parabolic window in front, pseudo-vegas jutting out above, diamond-shaped medieval mullions on the upper windows and a red tile roof so steep it would just have to go on waiting vainly a very long time for the snows. The thing was beyond critique, like a madman’s tiny fanatical runes on a cramped sheet of paper.
And where his then-best friend, Dale Nichols, had once parked a well-loved MG-TD, a young man with Buddy Holly glasses could be seen spraying water on a new concrete driveway. Was he expecting it to grow? The neighborhood had become a checkerboard of astonishing tax deductions, he thought. Every one of them nudging a million dollars from one side or the other -- probably even Kathy’s. “His.”
At least his ex-wife’s simple frame bungalow was unchanged, except for the creep of entropy. It obviously needed paint and a reroof, but it still looked comfortable. Once his dark tower of retreat ... but no more.
Kathy had left a message on his machine across town in East L.A., where he lived now with Gloria, a Latina cop. Her words conveyed an ambiguous SOS, and he had to assume it was about their daughter, Maeve. Maeve had just had an abortion after beating herself up for weeks about making the decision. He was in fact relieved that she’d done it, though he’d never let on to her which way he would have voted. She was just finishing up at Redondo High, and she’d already been admitted to three colleges, and what parent wants to see a child turn her back on all that to pin diapers on the kid of a 30-year-old gangbanger who’d briefly infatuated her and then dumped her?
Kathy peered out the front window and noticed him, so he had to pretend he’d just driven up, yanking again on the parking brake and waving casually to her. She did not look happy. She looked instead like someone who’d been kicked as a puppy and had slowly grown ill-tempered.
I will endure, he thought.
She opened the door for him as if he’d never been away and he smelled it right away. Frying fish sticks, probably the cheapest generic brand, Captain Pegleg or something similar. It was her secret food vice that she ate whenever she was alone or in need of comfort, dunked bite by bite into sweet tartar sauce. By deduction, it meant Maeve was away or locked in her bedroom. I guess I really am a detective, he thought.
“How could she already be in trouble?” he asked after their perfunctory greetings, imagining some complication of Maeve’s surgery or more likely a calamitous depression. Even an attempted suicide. Stop it, he told himself.
Kathy’s forehead wrinkled for a moment before she realized what his question meant. “Oh. I’m sorry, Jack. It’s only natural you’d think it was about Maeve. She’s still pretty sad but she’ll work through it.”
“Can I see her?” He followed her out of the entranceway into the living room, radically rearranged now, unable to stop himself from looking for signs of a man -- whatever that would be. A leather box, a pipe, a pair of athletic socks casually discarded, Esquire? He wanted it for her, really. He honestly did wish her well. Just not that creep Brad she’d lived with, then married and eventually had to chase away. The man had slapped Maeve once, and Jack Liffey still wanted to frogmarch him out a very long dock and strangle him over open sea.
“The princess is not receiving today,” Kathy said. “Not even her beloved dad, so she told me. She said she needs a few days off from normal life to meditate and heal. I started by leaving trays of food outside her door, but she never picked them up, so I’ve been feeding her flat foods I can get under the door. Swiss cheese. Cooked Pop Tarts -- you know how she loves them. Unfortunately, baloney won’t work since she’s still in her veggie period and you can’t really get tofu to hold together.”
“She likes Ry-Vita with peanut butter,” he said, and they both laughed a little. It was good to see Kathy lighten up some. “Think of it as a whole new flat cuisine,” he suggested. “You can write it up for other moms with stubborn girls. Hey, hadn’t you better go save the fish fingers?”
She blushed. “You still know my secrets.”
“If you find them not within this month, you shall nose them as you pass the kitchen.”
“Hamlet?” she asked.
“Bad Hamlet. Get them off the stove before they burn. And let me try to have a word with Maeve.”
“Don’t be discouraged. She’s clinging to her hurt.”
He made as much noise as he could going down the hardwood floor of the hallway, hoping that way to announce himself. Jack Liffey knocked softly at the door where a hand-lettered sign warned, If you don’t sprout, stay out.
“Hon, it’s me. I’m not here on a rescue mission, I promise. I came over because your mom has something else to talk about -- nothing to do with you. But I’d love to say hello as long as I’m here.”
“Hi, Dad.” The voice came softly through the door, causing his legs to go all rubbery with affection. The yearning to protect was powerful and had its own etiology.
“Are you okay? I know I can trust your word.”
“That’s some kind of reverse blackmail, isn’t it? I’m not crazy, Dad. I just need to be alone for a while. Can you do that?”
“Of course I can, hon, but your mom is running out of flat food, and she’s worried. Do you think you could put in an order and then whisk a tray of something nourishing into the room if we stay out of the way? Just for my peace of mind?”
“There’re some cooked edamame beans in the big brown bowl in the fridge. Could you nuke them a little and sprinkle Tabasco on them?”
“You mean soy beans?”
“Uh-huh. They’re great for phosphorous and vitamin A. Protein, of course.”
“Sort of pre-tofu,” he said.
“Don’t joke right now, okay?”
“Sorry. You know I’ll talk about anything you want when you’re ready. I love you very much, honey.”
“I know that, Dad. Thank you.”
“Don’t go on living with pain for too long, that’s all. Proust said a little pain is good for the soul but too much starts closing off paths you may need.”
“Wow, I’ll have to think about that. That’s profound. But go away now, please.”
He headed back to the kitchen. As far as he knew, Proust hadn’t ever said anything of the sort, but a little extra authority never hurt with Maeve.
* * *
At the table he declined a share of the fish sticks. He had a secret food, too, but it had nothing to do with the ugly bug-eyed crap left over in the bottom of commercial fishing nets. He could barely look at the kitchen table, green Formica with little flying kidney shapes, the perimeter wrapped with three-ribbed aluminum. It had been his mother’s and it screamed of the early 1950s.
Kathy held a small portion of fish up on her fork, liberally daubed with lumpy white sauce, as if she were just coming awake to what she was eating. “I’ll tell you a secret, Jack. You were always the strong one. Even in the bad days.”
The bad days meant all the drugs and booze right after he’d lost his secure aerospace job, and she’d had to go back to work as a substitute teacher. That was over a dozen years ago now, and he wasn’t proud of any of it. However, he knew better than to reply.
“You know how I’ve always said I disliked your newfound ... profession. Well, hell. You’ve turned out to have a talent for it. And Gloria’s a good woman -- I admit that, too -- unlike some you’ve been with."
This ticked him off a bit. Especially after Brad the asshole had all but insisted she get a breast job and have her pussy stitched tighter. Jesus Christ. But all in all, she seemed pretty mellow now, for Kathy. Somehow she intuited that he was thinking about doing Brad harm.
“I wanted to hurt him, too,” she told him. “You know he left a lot of his stuff in the closet. A few months ago I took all his eBay-ready baseball cards up the cliffs in P.V., and sailed them into the ocean, one by one. Until it got boring, and then I just dumped what was left. I had help, actually. It was a kind of coming-aboard ritual to a divorce club I go to up in P.V. every two weeks. A book club, really, but with an edge.”
“Edge -- yeah, I get it. Kill the scrotum, the head dies.”
She smiled. “Thanks for that. My best friend up there is Helen Hostetler.” She took another forkful of Captain Pegleg, dipped it, nibbled and sighed. “Her daughter’s missing, Jack. It’s right up your alley.”
“Which town?” San Pedro, where he’d grown up, was the far eastern flank of the peninsula, down at sea level around the port, a working class town to the core. All the rest of what, back then, they’d basically either hated or ignored -- but called “the hill,” when they had to call it anything -- was made up of five interlocking horsey ’burbs of an ever increasing wealth that oozed uphill toward the crown of Rolling Hills at the top. This was a gated town he’d never set foot in, one where local jokes had it that even the maids were rich.
“Helen lives just west of Lunada Bay. I guess that’s Palos Verdes Estates.”
All he remembered about Lunada Bay was that the Greek freighter the Dominator had gone aground near there when he’d been in high school, and they’d all delighted in hustling around P.V. Drive every few weeks in their beat-up jalopies to watch as the grounded freighter broke up and began rusting away on the rocks. He wondered if anything was left of it now. Then he remembered that Lunada Bay was also where the spoiled rich surfers who lived nearby had tried to drive away all outsiders, slashing tires and beating up what they called flatlanders, until even the sheriff had had to intervene. Bayboys -- that was what they’d called themselves. An angry whiteboy gang. He smiled to himself. Like hamsters with ostentatiously evil tattoos.
“What can you tell me about the girl?” he asked.
“I’d rather let Helen brief you.”
“Okay, what can you tell me about Helen?”
Kathy thought for a moment. “Remember, this is a good friend I’m describing so you’ll have to consider the source. Hel was a junior tennis champion once, really very very good, but she broke her ankle in about six places coming off the back of a boyfriend’s motorbike and that was that. She was already at Loyola-Marymount on a tennis scholarship, and she switched from whatever she was studying to French. After she graduated, she was a secretary for some import-export company down in the harbor where she met Freddy. He was a broker or expediter, no, a freight forwarder -- one of those strange-sounding jobs. I never met him. They got married and moved up to where he thought they belonged, among all the fancy folks. Don’t make a face. Her place really isn’t that pretentious. Biggish, but, basically, just your standard upscale L.A. ranch house.”
“I remember P.V. It’s the zoning covenants up there that keep them from building those horrid pretentious sugar cubes. I guess that’s one of the perks of old money.”
“Well, it’s all relative in L.A., isn’t it? I guess I just mean before color TV.”
He saw she wasn’t really registering anything but her own worry. “Hel’s a good woman, Jack, who never really got her due in the world. She kept the household together and raised her kids as well as she could after he ran off with some young cunt. She worked part time back at her old company and volunteered a lot at the library. I met her at the Divorcee Book Club. We had very similar tastes. We both hated Snow Falling on Cedars and we voted down The Bridges of Madison County."
“Okay, what’s in the other column?”
Kathy made a face. She took her time before answering. “All right, I get it, but you didn’t hear this from me. Antidepressants, for one thing, but then, that’s everybody on the hill, really. They may as well put them in the water. Prozac, Zoloft -- it’s a shifting reality. And since the world gets awful cold and lonely after a while, she had an affair with a married neighbor. It happens. Right now I think I’d even have a fling with you.”
He avoided her eyes. “Man, that is desperate,” he said as neutrally as he could.
* * *
Behind Aztec Market
This is Jaime and I do not know if I will ever be able to post this letter. It may be better for people in the poblano to think I am gone off the face of the earth. I am trying to make my English better but I am going to write in Spanish for now because we will both be more comfortable that way. On that terrible day when I knew I had to leave, I also knew the events of that day would transform my fate completely. Maybe if we were not such a dry country of poor farms there would not now be just a few large industrial farms owned by rich men or by powerful Norteamericano companies. No matter what you heard, on that day the patrón of the chicken farm, Don Ignacio himself, came to me and asked me to procure you, yes you, to work as a maid in his home. I knew what he wanted and so do you because he is famous for abusing women whom he employs. I told him to his face he was a gran pendejo [It just means a big jerk, I am trying to preserve some of the flavor of Jaime’s Spanish -- ML]. He said I was fired at that moment, and he had his bodyguards rush me off the farm. As you know, there would be no other work for me in Huépac after that. I realized I would have to go to el norte. I could have feared this, but I have studied hard and I speak English well, as you know. Mari, I am trying to look upon my fate as a great adventure now. Please remember me fondly.
With all my fraternal love, Jaime
* These letters translated from the Spanish by Maeve Liffey.
* * *
Since he knew it was Gloria’s early day home, and that there was already some trouble on that front, too, he drove his old pickup straight back to Boyle Heights after he’d grabbed a fast-food lunch in Redondo. He’d catch up with Kathy’s friend Helen Hostetler in the evening. You weren’t supposed to say it, but the comings and goings of divorced housewives were pretty easy to predict. And so were those of cops -- sometimes.
Gloria Ramirez was in her favorite reclining chair with a beer and a mail-order catalogue open on her lap. Her feet were up on an ottoman and her eyes were closed. He glanced at her thick legs and felt an ache for her. She must have heard him come in the front door. “Love can be a kind of loss,” she said without opening her eyes. “You know what I mean?”
Her .40-caliber Glock in its clip-on holster was on the sideboard not far away, and there were a lot of things you didn’t say to someone within reach of a gun that powerful. The LAPD had carried 9mm Berettas until they found out you had to shoot a drugged-up attacker as many as twenty-six times with a 9mm to make him go down. It was then the police union started calling the old weapon a poodle-stopper.
“Maybe you could tell me.”
“I don’t mean you taught loss to me, Jackie. No, not that. It just happens.”
His aging dog Loco, allegedly half coyote, wandered in and sniffed at him in a way that made him wonder if the animal was going a bit blind. Don’t you dare, he thought. He sat opposite Gloria, and Loco collapsed across his feet.
He nudged the dog off, heading into the kitchen for a ginger ale, which he sipped at. He’d fought his way by himself out of a bad drinking period and been sober ever since, over ten years now -- but he knew a lot of folks would call him a dry drunk and not trust the change. There still wasn’t a day he didn’t want one of those nice cold beers. Especially when Gloria was in a mood like this.
“Shit happens, they say,” she said.
A month earlier, she’d driven up to Bakersfield to help him out on a case, and he knew that up there she’d met a man that she’d fancied quite a lot. But he didn’t think she’d done anything much about it, and he wasn’t even supposed to know the whole flirtation had taken place. He guessed it was a dry affair.
“You upset?” he asked, sensing that anything he said was destined to be a bit idiotic.
She traced her finger around something on the catalogue page. Outside he heard one of the Gomez kids across the street banging hard on a part of the engine under the hood of their family’s old Chevy Biscayne as banda music played faintly, pumping out its polka beat. These noises had become the ordinary consoling sounds of the neighborhood.
“I feel a little detached,” she said. “Like that woman who gets dressed every morning and then puts on her weapon and goes down to the Harbor Police Station isn’t me at all. But cops aren’t supposed to have weird feelings like that. Everything’s meant to be dialed in for us, hard-ass only, 24-7. If you ever want to make L.T., that’s for sure for sure.”
I wonder what we’re talking about, he thought.
“It’s rough,” he said. “You’re not a hard-ass inside.”
Her eyes came up as if just noticing him.
“How do you know that?”
There was no answer to a question like that, but he felt certain he’d better not joke. “I just do. I know you’re a good woman.”
“That’s a real trick, Jackie, if you can know that. Uh-huh. You’re full of real tricks.” She took a long pull of beer, finishing off the bottle.
There was a louder clang outside on the car and then an angry complaint in Spanish. A helicopter pounded noisily over, though it seemed a bit early for that. The police buzzed their neighborhood off and on all night, occasionally flicking on their godawful Nightsun searchlight.
Gloria set her empty bottle down on the table and ran it idly in little circles. She never came to rest, he thought. Even several beers in, her hands fidgeted and her attention was clamorous, her black eyes fierce as lasers when they came to focus. At night, she turned over fast in her sleep every few minutes like someone hit by a cattle prod, each time tightening quickly into a new defensive pose. She even yelped once in a while and talked out loud, but too fast to follow. She always woke up fuming.
Loving her was a workout, but he did, and he meant to make a stand on it.
“Can I bring you another one?” He leaned forward.
“Freeze, motherfucker!” she snapped. He couldn’t help but flinch as Gloria stuck out a finger to make a pistol aimed at him. She laughed. How funny was it? It was a private laugh, containing more layers of irony than he could access. “Sorry, Jackie. Go ahead, I’d like another one.” She shook her head. “You’re so nice to me, your balls should fall off.”
“Only women get to be nice?”
Her grim smile softened. “I remember when I first wanted to be your girlfriend. On Terminal Island, remember? All that danger but you stayed nice to Steelyard even when he was being an asshole to you. I thought, hey, that’s the way a wife’s supposed to act. I want a wife. Why shouldn’t I have a wife?” She laughed again. “Now I’m being an asshole, and you’re still nice. I don’t get it, and I’m not gonna try.”
As he extracted his feet from Loco and got up, she added, “You looked a whole lot younger back then, boyfriend. It’s only been a couple years. Is it being with me makes you look so old now?”
“This is just what I look like now. Sometimes it happens fast.” He knew he’d gone mostly gray and his neck was starting to wrinkle up and he had ugly white keloids on his arms but it wasn’t what she was really talking about.
She grabbed his sleeve as he walked past. “You up for a matinee?”
“We didn’t use to ask,” he said. “We’d just start kissing.”
“Last one undressed’s a chickenshit,” she said.
* * *
In a cheap gas station that evening, a panhandler who looked as if goats had been eating his hair, tried to pump Jack Liffey’s fuel for him under the glary light. He gave the old man a dollar and sent him on his wobbly way. He probably needs it more than me, was his automatic thought, but he was really still thinking about Gloria.
After the late afternoon sex, for dinner they’d had a supermarket-cooked chicken, and he’d made a big salad and some garlic toast, and she’d finally become more cheerful. Yet he sensed that, underneath, there was still something more than her normal disaffection eating at her. Gloria was three-quarters -- maybe more -- Paiute Indian, and she’d been raised by foster parents to think Hispanics were the bees’ knees and indios were dirty and hateful, and she’d never really recovered from all that toxic rancor, not to mention her years as a rebellious delinquent. It was amazing, he thought, that the police and their natural enemies were so genetically similar that she could have crossed that bridge to become one of the keepers of order with so little difficulty. He’d seen her work and she was a very good cop; she remained in charge without swagger, staying sharp and full of empathy just when it was required.
He wondered if the good-humored guy in Bakersfield whom she’d fancied still held attraction for her, if he was a lost opportunity for a little more of the loving that she needed so badly. He was sure it wouldn’t have helped for long. But he wasn’t sure whether there wasn’t even more balm he could apply to that terrible open wound in her psyche. All he could do was keep on trying.
* * *
On his way to meet Helen Hostetler, he was distracted by a platoon of men in Davy Crockett coonskins and fringed suede jackets carrying a seemingly weightless full-size log cabin across the boulevard in front of him. They had the green light and were hurrying a bit. There were two extra Crocketts carrying big signs in advance and behind the cabin that said: “Wide load” and “I would vote to plow through any gentleman’s estate with a road or a canoe.”
Jack Liffey gave them a V-sign out the window. He had no idea who they were, but, for him, any madness like that demanded unquestioning encouragement. Whoever you guys are, you’re probably going to be sorry, he thought.
* * *
Dad. This is all just so wussy! I shouldnt show you how much I miss you but I cant help it. Dad Im sixteen in a week please dont forget.
I come home today and ask if you called and mom just hands me some boring official letter I stick in my pocket. You know really heres the picture of the way it is now -- she's stuffing Oreos in her mouth with both hands and brown crumbs dropping all around her all day. Jesus. Its been like this since you left. Shes really puffing up toward that awful woman on TV.
She goes your lucky to be so thin but its just a lot of unnecessary crap. To me you know. Shes really bitter I think.
And I go its smoking dope keeps me light on my feet mom. You ought to try it. And I do a little tap dance to the fridge to show off and get me a Corona. All she drinks now are these G and Ts one after another.
So she goes if your going to drink make me a gin-mint sweetie.
I go that stuffs poison.
She goes will you play Scrabble with me later?
And I go I got to meet the Bayboys. Im important in the Bayboys dad. Its our duty to guard the bay and keep the best surfing spot in California for us. And I mean by any means necessary.
I go to mom the tides at six-o-six and theres a weak onshore so it wont blow off the waves. Itll be super surf tonight.
She goes in that baby voice just one game and what about your lessons?
You know everybody up on the hill has to have these dum lessons thats the rule we all guess. Tennis and dance and piano and all that shit. I stopped going to violin months ago but Mom doesnt know it. I can tell you tho.
And I go to her that the Surfline on the phone is announcing eight footers. I gotta represent. Ill write more later. Please send me a address to write you dad.
* * *
“You must be Jack.” The woman looked older than her age and plain in a faded print housecoat. For some reason the blond in her hair seemed to have been shot dead, leaving no highlights at all. “Helen Hostetler. Nice to meet you.” They shook hands decorously, and she beckoned him in.
He bowed his head and pointed out the bald spot. “No horns. No matter what Kathy’s been telling you about me.”
She gave a half-laugh, as if unsure what he’d meant to convey. “She doesn’t talk like that about you, Jack. You’d be surprised.”
He raised an eyebrow, but pleasantly, to keep her at ease. “Please have a seat in here. I know better than to offer you alcohol, but I have coffee.”
“That’d be great.”
The furniture was a bit beat-up for Palos Verdes, and paint was starting to peel at the baseboards. There was something about her that he liked. A little what-the-hell attitude, he decided. There was an oil portrait of what must have been her -- younger, naturally blond, with two teenage girls. No dad included. But the odd multi-part background included a Corvette and a dog and a sailboat and the house itself. All the objects the man had once possessed. It gave Jack Liffey the creeps.
In the living room, there were two bookcases that he gave the once-over. The first held a lot of women writers, and some damn good ones -- Nadine Gordimer, Marilynn Robinson, Katherine Dunn, Muriel Spark. Classics, too. And not a single cozy mystery about a great aunt who let her Chihuahua solve the crimes. The second bookcase was all non-fiction, which he never much read, on principle -- he just wasn’t sure of the principle.
She soon brought them coffee with all the trimmings, and he took a cup untrimmed. It was damn good, some kind of intense French Roast.
“I guess Kathy’s already told you something,” she said.
“Let’s say she hasn’t.”
So, laying out her story in a straightforward enough manner, she explained to Jack Liffey her seventeen-year-old daughter, Blaine -- named for a grandmother -- had gone missing two weeks earlier. There’d been no insinuation at all that anything like that was coming. No drugs, only a few innocuous boyfriends, no acting out at home or school, as far as she knew. Blaine was nothing but utterly wholesome, fresh-baked whole-grain bread.
“Tell me more about her.”
“She’s been working with a group that’s trying to save an endangered butterfly, the famous Palos Verdes Blue. I mean, how can a girl trying to save a butterfly be into anything disreputable?”
There was no point telling her about the other innocent girls whom he’d eventually found banging the whole high school football team out of some unspoken need, or mainlining heroin, or burning brands into their arms with kitchen forks. Teenagers had psyches stranger and more convoluted than most adults could imagine.
Carefully edging away from the subject at hand, he nudged her toward taking about herself, which he often found a lot more relevant.
“Do we have to talk about me?”
“If you don’t trust me, I can get you somebody else.”
“Okay, sorry. I’m an anxious person,” she said flatly. “I don’t understand why. I used to ride a gutless Solex all over France, no worries at all, and now I can’t help feeling apprehensive that I might not be able to pay next month’s mortgage or even find a parking place at the supermarket. That’s a caricature of myself, but little things have begun to worry me more than they should. And if you’re that nosy -- recently, I’ve become horny as hell.”
“Which anti-depressant are you on?” he asked.
“Kathy told you that?”
“No. Everybody is. Some of them are better against anxiety. Paxil, I think. Ask your doc. Do you self-medicate with alcohol? I ask because I once knew all about that.”
“I’m not on anything but Prozac.”
“Does your daughter know you have affairs?”
“I beg your pardon!”
“You mentioned the horniness, Mrs. Hostetler.”
“It’s not like I’m hanging out at one of the cougar bars.” She sipped her coffee decorously. “I’ve been discreet. No, I don’t think she knows. And, by the way, it’s in single digits.”
“Single digits could be nine boyfriends,” he said.
“It’s three. In the twelve years since Freddy left me. None very recently. Can we move on?” This was all imparted in a tone that seemed a bit beyond her natural range. Ease of manner was apparently unavailable to her now.
“I’m sorry. I have to ask things I’d rather not know. The other daughter?”
“Beatrice. She’s three years younger than Blaine and into engineering. It’s like she has something masculine to prove.”
“Girls aren’t supposed to be engineers?”
“How many have you known?” she asked sharply.
She was right. “A few, and they were mostly stuck in ancillary jobs.”
“See.” A placid black Labrador strolled out of the back of the house, demanding attention, and Helen scratched between its ears.
“What was Blaine’s major?”
“Biology. I don’t know where that goes. Medicine? Teaching biology to other kids?”
“Can I see her room?” he asked.
“Is it important?”
“Yes, it’s important. I’m sure you can see that.”
“Well, I’ve poked around in there but it didn’t get me anywhere.”
The dog looked up at him quizzically and sniffed, as if detecting Loco.
“Not to have a look at her room would be odd, wouldn’t it, Mrs. Hostetler? If I’m really a detective. And I’m going to have to ask you for money in advance. A retainer.”
“Fine,” she said. “I think you can call me Helen. I’m not your mother. And I can pay you in cash. Real dollars.”
That was good, he thought. Most of his life had always seemed to be spent in the wrong currency. | May 2009
Copyright © 2009 John Shannon
John Shannon is one of America’s leading writers of neo-noir. His Jack Liffey series of novels is one of the most critically praised mystery series in the genre. Shannon lives in Los Angeles.