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Authors: M. C. Grant

Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area

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BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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Others are letters from rageaholics who need to tell the world who pissed them off by humming too loud on the bus or picking their nose in public.

Lulu points to one with a bold header that reads:
Father In Name.

“This one caught my eye,” says Lulu, “and I wanted to know more. Could make for an interesting piece.”

The notice is only five lines. It reads:

Twenty years, you disappeared.

No word, no sign. Alive or dead?

Did you ever think of us? Even love us?

Mother tried, but the mess …

I can never forgive.

“What do you think?” asks Lulu.

“Can you find out who submitted it?”

“Can a badger brush its teeth?”

“I have no idea,” I admit.

Lulu laughs. “I'll get the name.”

Three

Mario's Deli is a
hole in the wall that native San Franciscans don't like to tell tourists about. But if you walk down the right street, your nose will lead you directly to it.

The owner kneads and boils his own bagels before baking them in a wood-fired brick oven. He also smokes his own meat and ships in giant jars of the tastiest dill pickles from New York. His cream cheese comes from a local farm where no calories are left behind, and he blends it by hand with such wonderful ingredients as fresh scallions, local steamed crab, roasted elephant garlic, heirloom tomatoes, and a variety of Napa Valley wines.

Mario's food is an enemy to every woman's hips and the greatest lover to her lips. His business partner, Eddie the Wolf, occupies the red vinyl booth farthest from the front door, where he sips coffee and practices frowning beneath an abused plaid woolen cap.

It would be easy to dismiss Eddie as a cranky old-timer until you notice the way his fingers dance across the keyboard of a modern aluminum laptop and the smooth juggle he does between four constantly vibrating cellphones. The man's a maestro in a wolf's jacket.

He frowns when I approach, but it's not full on, so I know he's actually pleased to see me.

“Come to rob an old man?” he asks.

I slide into the booth across from him and flash one of my golden smiles.

Behind Eddie is a door that leads to a back room. I've heard stories about what goes on behind that door, but so far I've never been invited through. One of the stories says that Eddie doesn't travel anywhere without his minder—a bull-headed guard who is so loyal he wouldn't hesitate to take a bullet, spit it out, and then break your neck if you dared attack his boss.

The story continues that the minder is always just behind the door, watching on a monitor, ready to react at the first sign of trouble. If true, it's no wonder Eddie always seems at ease.

“How old are you anyway?” I ask.

“Twenty-six.”

I laugh. “Is that in dog years?”

“Live fast, die young.”

“You never leave this booth.”

“Give me a reason.”

“There's a big, beautiful world out there,” I say.

“You can keep it. I got everything I need right here. You want a sandwich? Onion bagel with lox is today's special. Not sure what Mario did to the onion, but man it's spectacular.”

I look to my right and see Mario beaming at me with delight.

“It's true.” Mario kisses the tips of his fingers. “Spectacular.”

My mouth is watering so much I have to swallow the drool. “I'll take one to go.”

Mario winks at me. “
Eccellente
.”

When I turn back to Eddie, he's holding an envelope out to me. I reach to take it, but he continues to hold one end.

“Double or nothing?” he asks.

“On what?”

“Name it.”

I grin. “You just can't help yourself can you?”

“I'm a generous man. What can I say?”

I shake my head. “Generous men don't play on people's weakness.”

“Of course we do. The only difference between rich and poor is that rich people don't rely on luck. We seize opportunity. I offer people the opportunity to be lucky.”

I tug the envelope out of his hand and slide it into my pocket.

“If I start placing five-hundred-dollar bets, I hope you'll have the decency to tell me I've lost my goddamn mind.”

Eddie shrugs. “Who am I to tell you not to take a flutter? But tell you what, I'll take fifty that you make such a bet before the end of the year.”

“And if I don't?”

“You make another five bills.”

I hesitate for just a moment—10:1 odds are a beautiful and rare thing—before pulling the envelope back out of my pocket and removing a $50. I slide it across the table and watch it vanish with barely a flicker of his hand, like a magic trick.

“Anything else I can do for you today? Horses, dogs, baseball, soccer, boxing, reality shows—”

“Reality shows?” I ask.

“Sure. People place bets on who'll be voted off
American Idol
or
Survivor
, even the number of times Sheldon will say ‘Bazinga' on
The Big Bang Theory
.”

“Do you even know what those shows are?” I ask.

Eddie shrugs. “I have people who do. Odds are odds.”

“And poor people want to be lucky,” I add.

He nods. “The great American dream: get famous, sue somebody, or win the lottery.”

“I don't think that's quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind.”

He shrugs. “They owned mansions and slaves—what the hell do they know about microwave dinners for one or selling your ass to pay the rent?”

My eyes grow wide. “Jeez, Eddie. You sound like you're about to rush out and join the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

“Me?” Eddie nearly grins. “Nah. I may not like people who run a rigged game, but you gotta admire the gumption.”

“I'll take your word for it.”

I slide out of the booth and cross to the counter to pick up my bagel. Warmth oozes from within its waxed-paper wrapper.

When I turn back to say bye to Eddie, he's busy chatting on one of his cellphones. His frown has deepened and his voice is gruff, which makes me think the schmuck on the other end of the line has bet too big and come up short.

I hit the street, unwrapping the bagel as I go. Eddie's right; whatever Mario did to the onion, it's spectacular.

Finding a pay phone in San Francisco can be tricky, but I've been resisting the cellphone trend for so long that I have the inside track on most of them.

Stoogan has warned me the company is planning to make it mandatory that all reporters carry a cell—especially since the cameras have improved so much that they now shoot print-quality stills and web-ready video—so I told him to let me know when they have an app that tells me where all the pay phones are, then I might consider it.

I wipe my greasy hands on a napkin and dial the
NOW
morgue.

Lulu answers with, “What you eating, Dix?”

“What makes you think I'm eating something?”

“You're not in the office.”

“Yeah.”

“So you're eating. You're always eating.”

“I am not.”

“What was it?”

I sigh and tell her about the bagel.

“That's my girl, one nostril for news and another for grub. I just don't know where you put it all. If I ate like you, I'd be the size of a horse.”

“They're vegetarians,” I say. “That's why I'm not.”

Lulu laughs. “Good point. Who knew hay and apples could be so bad for you?”

“Don't tell Kellogg's.” After she finishes snickering, I ask, “Did you get a name and number on that ad?”

“Yep, no sweat. She paid by credit card. Name is Bailey Brown. I called the number on file and her roommate told me she works days at Scissors & Sizzle on California Street, you know it?”

“I'll find it. Thanks.”

“Anytime, sweets.”

My next call is to Mo, who runs my favorite independent cab company. We chat about the rigors of the chemo he's undergoing for throat cancer, while he dispatches a cab. As someone who's never known how to relax, Mo hates how tired the treatment leaves him, but he's also discovered some interesting people.

“We talk to pass the time, you know,” he says in a guttural Bronx accent that's been sandblasted into a perverse whisper. “And some of these guys have
done
things with their lives. This one, I swear to God, he's Indiana Jones. He's discovered mummies and real buried treasure. Imagine? The only mummy I ever seen was in an old Abbott and Costello movie. But this guy—Wilfred is his name—this guy dug one up. Crazy.”

“Sounds cool,” I say.

“Yeah, you should talk to him. He donated a bunch of archeological stuff to the museums here. Interesting guy.”

“I'll keep it in mind.”

I can hear phones ringing mercilessly in the background.

“Gotta go. You keep safe, Dix.”

“Always.”

Mo snickers. “Yeah.”

When the cab arrives, the driver already knows where to drop me.

Four

Scissors & Sizzle is
a small and cozy salon with sun-bleached posters in the front window that have been ripped out of fashion magazines. Each page shows a sensual woman with cold eyes and perfect hair that, in reality, only looks good if you spend all day avoiding the weather—preferably without moving your head.

I keep my natural copper curls in a don't-give-a-damn cut that some say reflects the chaos of my life and others say makes it look like I simply don't give a damn. I like to tell the curious that it goes with my tattoo, which makes them curious (since it's not visible) about just exactly where and what it is.

I enter the salon and ask for Bailey Brown.

“Do you have an appointment?” asks the young receptionist. Her eye shadow is the color of a day-old bruise, and I wonder what she's trying to hide.

I shake my head. “Sorry, no, but I was hoping—”

“That's OK,” she interrupts. “We're not busy today.” She pauses and wrinkles her nose as she points at my hair. “She didn't do that to you, did she?”

“No,” I say curtly, suddenly understanding why bruise-colored eye shadow may be an appropriate choice.

“Oh, good, I was worried.” She exhales. “Take a seat and I'll get Bails to fix you up.”

I take a seat by the window and study the room. There's not much to it: four cutting stations with thin partitions offering a modicum of privacy, a bank of three sinks, a lone nail technician, and four padded chairs with chrome-accented, helmet-style hair­dryers. It's the type of place that depends on local repeat business rather than flashy advertising and designer prices.

My mother ran a similar salon in the town where I grew up, and I remember an argument she had when I was about twelve and working summers sweeping hair. A strong-willed feminist, who was visiting our town to promote her self-help book and generally cause a ruckus, accused her of being a traitor to womankind by glamorizing beauty over substance.

No wilting daisy, my mother unleashed a tirade on how beauty salons were the original foundation stones feminism was built upon. Her argument was based on her own mother's story—one I hadn't heard until that day.

At a time when women were second-class citizens to their hard-working husbands, my grandmother had grown bored of being a housewife and mother. Starting small, she opened a home business for the neighbors, offering cuts and perms and colors at a very reasonable cost.

After paying for her supplies, she saved every cent, until one day she had enough to lease a small storefront on Main Street. Her salon was the very first business in town not owned and operated by a man. By the time the Sixties rolled around and feminists began burning their bras and shouting louder about equality, my grandma had already proven that women were more than a man's equal when it came to business. And although time and gravity had made it too uncomfortable to burn her own bra, my grandma saw nothing wrong with looking one's best while rattling cages.

“You're smiling,” says a woman's voice. “Happy memory?”

I look up into a face that's lean, taut, and overly angular. Her cheekbones are sharp with deep-set eyes more almond-shaped than round. Thin-lipped and blunt-chinned, the young woman has the face of someone who finds her calories in cigarettes, cocaine, or vodka rather than onion bagels.

With a shorter haircut, she would be fierce, almost scary, but her hair is the tri-tone color of honey and falls in soft curls to her shoulders. And yet, there's something off. But I can't put my finger on it, so I dismiss the thought.

“I was thinking of my grandma,” I say. “Are you Bailey?”

The woman nods and holds out her hand. It's an unusual gesture and slightly awkward, more something one expects of men when they're trying hard to be grown-ups. I put her in her mid-twenties. I stand and shake. Her skin is rougher than it should be and on the colder side of room temperature. I can feel small bones move beneath my thumb.

“Do you want to follow me to the sink?” she asks.

“Actually, I'm not looking for a haircut. I was hoping we could talk.”

I dig in my pocket for a business card and hand it over.

Her forehead wrinkles as she reads the card.

“I recognize your name from the paper.” Her gaze lifts to study my face, comparing it to the grinning picture on my card. “I liked that piece you did awhile back on the dead artist. Tragic.”

“Thanks.”

“It read like you really knew him.”

“I did. Kind of. Part of him anyway.”

Her lips tighten into a thin line. “Yeah, guys can be like that. What do you want to talk to me about?”

“You placed a Classified ad in our paper recently. It intrigued me.”

“Really? You read it?”

“This morning.”

“Huh. Well, I don't know what else to say about it.”

“It was written for your father?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you hoping he'll read it?” I ask.

She looks away and reaches up to touch her eye. I can't tell if she's attempting to stop a tear or just flicking away a loose eyelash.

“I never really thought that far,” she says. “I just had to let it out, you know?”

I nod. “I find writing cathartic, too.”

“And you want to talk to me?”

“If you'll let me. Maybe we can go somewhere, grab a coffee, see where it takes us.”

She looks away again in contemplation before bringing her eyes back to mine. Her gaze is deep as if she wants to pull back the curtains of my mind to see what's going on inside. I worry she'll frighten the imaginary clockmaker—who, oddly enough, looks a lot like Geppetto from the Disney version of
Pinocchio
—who keeps all my gears oiled and rolling.

“Give me a minute,” she says and heads to the back room.

I sit down again and shuffle through the magazines to see which Hollywood stars have lost too much weight and which have ballooned to the size of a normal person. Pity the poor starlet who's feeling bloated and gets snapped by the paparazzi as she's dashing into the drug store to buy tampons. The damning photographic evidence will obviously appear in one tabloid as a pregnancy scare, while another will quote an unnamed “close friend” as saying she's now addicted to OxyContin or Percocet.

I worked with an old-timer once who had spent a few years with the
National Enquirer
in Florida at the same time Hunter S. Thompson was causing havoc over at
Rolling Stone
. His name was Ray—a very short, very stout, flush-faced man who reminded me of a whiskery weasel from
Wind in the Willows
:
cunning, smart, and better to have on your side than your opponent's. Once Ray started drinking, the stories he told of journalism on the tabloid beat kept me in stitches for hours.

“You're smiling again,” Bailey says.

I look up to see that she's wearing her coat.

“Bad habit,” I say as I rise to my feet.

“There's a new bakery up the block that I've heard good things about if you'd like to go there.”

“They don't sell penises, do they?”

Bailey blinks rapidly, not sure how to respond.

The bakery doesn't sell penises (or any other body parts), but it does make a fabulous dark roast, which looks lonely and sad until I add a saucer-sized oatmeal cookie half dunked in milk chocolate and sprinkled with toasted coconut.

Bailey doesn't mind that her coffee is lonesome, but I restrain myself from calling her selfish.

We find a quiet table and sit.

“Your father's been missing for twenty years?” I begin.

Bailey sips her coffee and nods.

“What's the last thing you remember about him?”

Bailey tells me about a night when she was five years old. Her father and a stranger stood in her room, believing that she was asleep. She still recalls the scent of gun oil and the strange conversation where her father said she wasn't for sale.

“I haven't seen him since,” she says. “Leslie—that's my mom—and I were left to fend for ourselves, which was like expecting a toaster to make omelets. She was barely out of her teens, no skills or education, pregnant with my sister, Roxanne. Dad always told her he would take care of us, and the stupid bitch believed him.”

“You're not close with your mom, then?” I ask in reaction to her harsh tone.

Bailey takes another sip of coffee, and I watch her fingers quiver as though desperate to hold a cigarette.

“She's dead. Five years now.”

“Sorry.”

“No need. She dived head first down a path that sliced and diced her from head to toe. The only miracle is that I'm not lying beside her.”

She scratches nervously at her shoulder. Beneath the fabric of her top, I notice the outline of a nicotine patch.

“And your sister?” I ask.

“She's around, but she's walking the same damn path. You'd think with what we saw—” She breaks off and stares into her coffee cup. From this angle, the overhead fluorescents dig beneath the carefully applied makeup, picking up pocks and scars that she's worked hard to hide.

When she looks up again, her face has re-formed into a mask of resolve: the hairdresser who has to work at being pleasant and normal because the anger and betrayal she feels inside never stops gnawing.

“Sorry,” she says and attempts a smile. “I don't usually share that much with perfect strangers. Did you spike my coffee or something?”

“No,” I answer with a chuckle, “but great idea. I'll keep that in mind for next time I'm interviewing the mayor. Get the real scoop on where the bodies are buried at city hall.”

This time her smile has a touch of genuineness to it.

“Do you have any idea who this stranger in your bedroom was?” I ask.

Surprisingly, she answers, “Yeah.”

Bailey lifts her purse off the floor and digs around inside. Removing a fake crocodile-leather wallet, she opens the compartment designed to hold family photos. There's only one: a young girl with blond hair and an untamed fringe that nearly covers her large blue eyes. She can't be more than five, but her face is softer and more oval than Bailey's.

“That Roxanne?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Bailey says dismissively.

From one of the plastic sleeves, she slides out a decade-old newspaper clipping, unfolds it, and hands it over.

The newsprint is yellowed with age, but it's still clear enough to read the article. Printed beneath a one-column, head-and-shoulders mugshot of a dapper-looking gentleman with an Errol Flynn moustache and distinguished gray temples, the headline reads:
Crime Boss Cleared of All Charges.

I point at the mugshot. “This is him? You're sure?”

Bailey nods.

“Did you ever talk to him?”

“I tried once, after Leslie died, but I couldn't get close. From what I was told, he isn't interested in girls after they hit puberty.”

“Charming,” I say.

“That's not the word I'd use.”

At another time, I would have high-fived her in agreement, but I can tell she isn't receptive to female bonding. I lean back and scan the story. The facts are bare, but between the lines is everything I need to know.

I exhale quietly and lean forward. “Would you mind if I looked into what happened to your dad?”

Bailey's eyes lock onto mine; she's probing again, digging deep.

“Why?” she asks.

“The honest answer is I'm looking for a Father's Day story to appease my publisher, but that's only part of it. The other part is I'm curious, and I believe that finding out what happened will help bring you some closure. We don't know each other, but I'd like to do this.”

I gauge her response and continue. “I don't know where I would be today without the love and support of my own father. He isn't perfect, but I've never felt safer or more secure in my life than when I'm in his arms.”

I reach down my leg and pull a small, pearl-handled switchblade out of my boot. I show it to Bailey.

“Her name's Lily. This may seem odd,” I say. “But when I'm feeling scared or lonely or just in a damn foul mood, I like to hold this knife. Smell the oil he used to lubricate its hinge and know that part of my dad is in here and that he gave me this not just because he loves me and worries about me, but because he wants to be close to me at all times.” I smile. “Silly thing to say about a knife, huh?”

Bailey's eyes are moist as she shakes her head. “I don't even know if he's alive or dead.”

“Let me find out.”

“How?”

I place my finger on the newspaper clipping. “With the person who walked him out of your life. Krasnyi Lebed,” I read.

“He won't talk to you. I've tried.”

My smile is thin and sharp. “You might be surprised.”

BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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