Authors: M. C. Grant
Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area
“This is amazing,” I say.
! I'm pleased.”
We eat and drink a bit more until I feel comfortable enough to say, “I want to ask you some questions about a missing person.”
Lebed dabs his mouth with a cloth napkin and takes another sip of tea.
“A Russian?” he asks.
“No, but I think he worked for you.”
“I am not missing anyone.”
“This was twenty years ago.”
“Maybe, but I have a feeling you possess a very good memory.”
“Flattery,” he says. “Only a woman can wield such a simple tool.”
“I doubt that,” I say with a smile, struggling to make it appear genuine. “I'm sure you charm the birds out of the trees.”
“A man's skill. More complex.”
I feel I've wandered onto thin ice, but nothing ventured â¦ “His name is Joseph Brown.”
Lebed glances over his left shoulder at the two redheaded twins, who haven't stopped pointing and clicking on their computers since I entered.
“That name is not familiar to me.”
“Twenty years ago, you went to Joe Brown's apartment in the middle of the night and recruited him for a job. His family hasn't seen him since.”
A shadow crosses Lebed's face to reveal the thug beneath the gentleman's veneer. “How do you come upon this information?”
“Does it matter? I'm not interested in whatever the job was. I only want to find out what happened to Mr. Brown.”
“Why do you care?”
“So you do remember him?”
“Then why do you care why I care?”
Lebed flashes his teeth, but he's not smiling. “Because you are in my restaurant and I asked you a direct question.”
“His family wants answers,” I say. “So do I.”
“The wife is dead and the daughter is a whore,” he snaps angrily. “The past is the past.”
I shudder and feel my own anger rise. “I'll take that as an admission then. So what happened to Joe?”
Lebed pushes away from the table and stands up. I notice his hands are clenching into fists and releasing, clenching and releasing. I'm suddenly, frighteningly aware that the only person who knows where I am at this moment is a small-time bookie with no reason to care what happens to me.
Lebed's voice becomes a hiss. “Do you know why Russian women get so fat?” Before I can answer, he continues. “Because they need to be able to absorb the blows of their husbands' fists. My mother was very fat, but my wife is fatter still. You are skinny; you would not survive.”
I take this as my cue to stand up, too, and control the quiver in my voice. “I might surprise you.”
“You would not.”
“So I take it you're not going to help me find Joe Brown?”
“I told you before, I do not know who that is.”
I swallow and look around the room. Neither of the guards has moved.
“Thanks for the caviar,” I say.
Nobody attempts to stop me as I push through the door to the main dining room. It's still deserted of customers and I hold my breath all the way to the street.
Outside the tea house,
I turn right and walk at a quick pace to put some distance between Lebed and myself.
Sweat trickles down my neck and an emotional tremor vibrates through my shoulders, but I'm determined not to cry. I tell myself the vicious little prick wouldn't be so frightening if he didn't have a muscle-bound golem standing in each corner, but I know I'm lying.
It's apparent, from reputation and demeanor, that Lebed has the granite heart of a killer and the itchy hands of a butcher who still needs to sink his fingers into bloody offal on occasion in order to feel alive.
I shake off the disturbing thoughts and look up from my feet too late to avoid running head first into an immobile iceberg wrapped in a beige trench coat and woolen cap.
“Sorry,” I blurt as the man's hands grab me by the shoulders to steady my rebound.
Kto vas poslal
?” asks the man.
Confused, I look up to see a cruel visage with twisted lips. Before I can react, his grip tightens painfully and I'm jerked off my feet. My body is twisted in mid-air as though I weigh little more than an empty potato sack and I'm shoved hard against the red brick wall of a closed storefront.
Upon contact, the back of my head cracks the bricks, sending an explosion of pain to the front of my eyes, where stars are already dancing. I open my mouth to scream for help, but the man's a step ahead. He slaps one callused palm across my mouth, his fingernails black and smelling of rot, while his other hand pushes up on my breastbone to deflate my lungs and keep me glued to the wall. My feet dangle inches off the ground, making me feel as helpless as a child.
Kto vas poslal
?” he repeats.
Even if I understood Russian, which I don't, I can barely breathe behind his rough hand, never mind talk. Beneath the nail rot, his skin smells of shoe polish, leather, and engine oil, while his face has all the charm of a circuit gambler's pitbull. Livid burn scars crisscross his face; the worst is the left half of his upper lip, which is completely melted away. If he was a dog, he would be a shortsighted one who's had to survive by stealing steaks and chicken off lit neighborhood barbecues.
Instinctively, I plant one foot against the wall as an anchor and propel my other knee into his groin. It's a good plan, but I can't get enough force behind the strike to be taken seriously. The Russian grins through his ruined mouth, exposing the cigarette stubs of four teeth, laughing at my pathetic effort to break free.
, I tell myself in forced bravado,
I have him just where I need him.
Pushing a vision of
into my head, I stab my teeth forward to latch onto the weathered flesh of his palm, scraping for purchase. At the same time, I swing my knee up againâbut this time it has a passenger. The Russian releases a surprised grunt when my hitchhiking fingers grab hold of one withered testicle and clamp around it.
I don't waste time as my thumb seals the vise, and I use my remaining strength to viciously twist and squeeze. Blood squirts across my lips as he jerks his nipped hand away from my mouth.
A shriek of pain escapes his lips as his other hand slips from my chest and dives down to grab my wrist. In his panic to break my grip, he's forgotten about my other hand. Now that my feet are back on the ground, my free hand dives down, too, finds his testicular companion and applies eighty-plus pounds of pissed-off-female pressure.
The man roars and his face turns the color of borscht. As his knees start to tremble, I stab my face forward to make sure he's paying attention.
“If you understand English, tell your boss that I don't appreciate threats and I have friends who will appreciate it even less.”
!” he groans. “
“That doesn't sound nice,” I say and twist my wrists to emphasize the point.
The man bellows and spits in my face. His own face is contorted by pain, but suddenly his hands release themselves from my wrists and find their way to my throat. I gasp as he finds the strength to squeeze my windpipe, his dirty nails digging into tender flesh.
Choking, I dig my own chewed-up nails into his balls and squeeze even harder, but it's as if I've taken him over the brink of pain so that he no longer feels it.
When my vision begins to blur from lack of oxygen, I make the decision to release my grip on his manhood and throw my hands skyward into the pressure points of his elbows. As I do, I also allow my body to become dead weight. The maneuver catches him off guard, and I break free of his chokehold to land on my ass.
He reaches for me again as I scramble on all fours to break away, but just as I'm getting to my feet, his fingers lock onto my suddenly-I-give-a-damn hair. Before he can slam my face into the wall and take all the fight out of me, I spin to face him and launch a palm strike to the base of his nose.
My hand connects instead with empty air as the large Russian unexpectedly tumbles sideways to collapse face first onto the sidewalk with a nasty crack of bone and squelch of flesh that makes me wince.
Gasping for air, my sight blurry from pain and exhaustion, I stare at the new arrival who has taken the Russian's place. This man is shorter than the Russian and skinnier, too. He's bald and unshaven and in his black-gloved hands is a short length of wood that still holds a splatter of blood and patch of hair from where it connected with my attacker's head.
I'm about to reach down for my boot knife when the man says, “You should get the hell out of here. It's not safe.”
“You have a cellphone?” My voice is raspy from the bruised swelling on my throat where the Russian's thumbs had been trying to perform a tracheotomy on my windpipe.
When he shakes his head, his ears flap as if they have no cartilage.
“Where's the nearest pay phone then?” I ask.
The man jabs a bandaged thumb over his shoulder. “Two blocks. Same corner as Trusty's Pawn.”
He says it as though everyone should know the local pawnshop.
“Do you know this guy?” I ask.
His ears flap again in the negative. “He was asking who sent you.”
I touch my aching neck. “He could have asked nicerâand in English.”
“Would it have made a difference?”
I snort. “No. None of his damn business.”
I glance back down at the unmoving Russian. Inert, he resembles an old bear-skin rug that's molted and been tossed out with the trash.
“Thanks for the help,” I say without looking up. “But you should make yourself scarce. This guy might have friends who are even uglier than he is.”
When I don't receive a response, I lift my head to discover that I'm talking to myself. My Good Samaritan has vanished.
I reach the pay phone without further assault and call for a taxi. I tell Mo that I'm outside Trusty's Pawn.
“You short of cash?” Mo asks. “I've heard that Russian Tea House can be expensive.”
I'm always a little surprised that Mo likes to keep an eye on my movements, and I suppose if I had any kind of a private life it might bother me. But as it stands, I'm grateful for his concern.
“I brought in a cow,” I say, “but all Trusty could give me was a handful of magic beans.”
Mo laughs and hacks up half a lung. “If you plant 'em, let me know. We'll go up the beanstalk together. You can distract the giant and I'll grab the golden goose.”
“Why do I always get the crappy jobs?”
“You've got more elastic in you. Last time I tried to bounce, I threw my back out.”
I chuckle through my sore throat. “Yeah, and what was her name?”
“Cab's on its way, Dix. Talk soon.”
Mo hangs up before I can press him further. Obviously, I struck a nerve.
When the cab arrives, I gratefully slide into the back seat. An overwhelming desire washes over me to curl into the fetal position and pull a blanket over my head. Heck, I may even suck my thumb.
My neck and throat are throbbing to emphasize each pressure point of the Russian's indelicate fingers; my shoulders and breastbone ache; my scalp stings from where he yanked my hair; and my wrists feel like they've been crushed between two boulders.
Funnyâbut not in a ha-ha wayâthat I've managed to ignore the extent of my injuries until I finally feel safe.
“You heading back to the
offices?” asks the driver.
I think about it but slowly shake off the suggestion.
“Drop me at home, will you?” I say. “I could use a warm bath and a cuddle.”
The driver raises an eyebrow in his rearview.
“Not from you,” I add quickly. “I have a prince waiting at home.”
The driver chuckles and weaves his way through traffic.
Climbing out of the
cab, I wave to King William sitting regally in the street-level front window of Mrs. Pennell's apartment. He rewards me with a rare wink before I climb the short flight of stairs to the small lobby.
Inside, I optimistically check my mailbox for any secret Valentines that may have been stuck in the post office sorting room for the last four months or so but come up emptyâless than empty, if you add in the bills.
The smell of Mr. French's pipe tobacco (whiskey, cherry, and chocolate Cavendish) lingers in the air, and the familiar comfort of it brings an unexpected tear to my eye. The Russian has shaken me up more than I care to admit.
I climb the stairs to the second floor, feeling every jar and bump in my muscles. A yellow note is stuck to the door of my apartment. It's in Mrs. Pennell's impeccable handwriting, and reads simply:
Please come down and see me when you get in
I leave the note where it is, so I won't forget, as Mrs. Pennell has become an important part of my handmade family. But just at this moment, I'm not in the mood for tea and gossip and anecdotes about King William's adorable behavior.
I ease into the apartment and shrug off my jacket as Prince Marmalade appears at the door to my bedroom. He yawns and stretches to make sure I know that I've interrupted his nap before padding over to wind his way around my feet, his loud purr practically vibrating the furniture in the room.
Scooping him up in my arms, I press my forehead into his fluffy face. His purr rumbles even louder as he places a paw on either side of my face and proceeds to lick my nose.
I give a half-laugh, half-exhale.
“You realize that's not soothing, don't you?” I ask. “You're not a dog and your tongue is a pumice stone.”
Prince ignores me and licks off another layer of skin.
Laughing, I carry him into the bathroom, place him on the floor, and turn on the taps to fill the tub.
Instantly, Prince leaps onto the side of the tub and strolls over to examine the gushing spout. As I undress and try not to wince, he looks over as if to ask what madness has overcome me that I would possibly want to immerse myself in water.
I drop in a purple and yellow bath bomb that I found in a going-out-of-business sale from a store I had never visited before. Its magic ingredients promise to take away stress and calm a racing mind, which makes me wonder if I'm supposed to bathe in it or smoke it.
Once the tub is full, I step in and slide down until the warm water laps at my chin. Blood pulses to my wounds, alerting me that nothing is broken or cut, just bruised and sore.
Everyone was right: it would have been smarter to stay off the Red Swan's radar. But if it was my father who had gone missing, I would desperately want to know what happened. And I would want someone like me looking into it, too; someone who was too pig-headed and stubborn to know when she was out of her depth.
I had already made progress. Lebed slipped when he admitted his knowledge of Brown's family, and I'm sure he figured that all it would take to get me off his back was to deliver a bit of a scare.
And though I admit it wasn't pleasant and my body aches from fighting back, I don't scare that easy.
In fact, all Lebed has done is piss me off and make me even more determined to get to the truth.
There's a Father's Day story in there that replaces the usual cuteness factor with heartbreak, pain, and lossâpossibly even murder. My publisher may not be thrilled, but hopefully, in the end, neither will Lebed. Physically, I may not be intimidating, but with a pen in my hand, I can make the mighty and powerful quake.
Now I just have to make sure that I grow an extra pair of eyes in the back of my head before returning to work.
Prince's tongue darts out and licks some bubbles off my bare knee. I open one eye to see him making a face as he scrapes the soapy foam off his tongue with his paw.
When he notices me laughing, he immediately spins around, throws his tail high in the air, and jumps from the tub's edge to exit the room in disgust.
I close my eye again and sink under the bubbles to the warm embrace below.
There's a quiet knock before I hear my apartment door opening and a voice call out, “Hey, Dix, you home?”
“In the bath.”
I laugh. “Completely.”
The bathroom door opens wider and Kristy pops her head in.
“You okay?” she asks. “You realize you're taking a bath at three in the afternoon.”
I sit up a little straighter. “Fine,” I say. “Just needed a stress break.”
Kristy glides over to the toilet, drops the lid, and sits. She's wearing baggy sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt with a neck hole that was designed for a claustrophobic linebacker. If I wore the same outfit, I would look like a shipwrecked hobo, but Kristy manages to pull off the whole
Jennifer Beals, cute-and-sexy thing. Life, truly, isn't fair.
Kristy wrinkles her nose and sighs, which tells me that Sam has been at work all day and she's tired of being alone.
“Busy day?” I ask.
“No, just a bit dull. Computer work mostly.”
“What are you researching?”
She wrinkles her nose in the opposite direction. “Bacon.”
“That's an odd one. Which author wants that?”
Kristy is a freelance research assistant for fiction writers who want to get the facts straight but can't afford the time away from meeting deadlines. She researches everything from chicken farms and chocolate factories to handguns, sex toys, and race cars. She might seem a bit of a ditz, but when you consider her crazy research skills and insatiable curiosity, she's more like the absent-minded professor. If the
absent-minded professor were a busty, blond lesbian.
“You know that's confidential, Dix.”
“Bacon sounds like Stephen King or Stephen Hunter, maybe Karen Slaughter or even Matt Hilton. What does he or she want to know about bacon?”
Kristy rolls her eyes, knowing that I'm throwing out names to see if any of them cause a reaction. “Unusual things that are made from or contain bacon.”
“Are there a lot?”
“You'd be surprised. I've already found maple bacon doughnuts, bacon salt, bacon toffee brittle, bacon lip balm, bacon chewing gum, bacon beer, bacon sex lubeâeven a bacon coffin. I've ordered samples of most of them, except the coffin, so I can describe the taste.”
“Bacon beer sounds disgusting, but bacon brittle I could go for.”
Kristy smiles. “You can help sample. The beer is from Portland and comes in a gorgeously tacky bright pink bottle.”
“Wonder if vegetarians can drink it?”
Kristy giggles. “I'll make a note. My author will like that.”
The water is beginning to turn cold, so I ask Kristy to hand me a towel. When I reach for it, she notices the deep welts, already an ugly shade of moldy mustard with hints of cabbage and beet, on my wrists.
“Dix!” She gasps. “Is some man being rough with you?”
“It's not what you think,” I say quickly.
“Sam will kick his ass. Who is it?”
We'll bury the sucker,” Kristy continues, her face livid. “The Dixie Chicks ain't got nothing on us. If Earl's gotta die, we ain't gonna pussyfoot around.”
“It's not a boyfriend,” I interrupt, getting out of the tub with the towel wrapped around me. “It was more of a mugging.”
“You were mugged?”
“Did you call the police?”
“Not even Frank?”
I shrug. “Well, the guy kinda ended up getting the worst of it. When I left, he was unconscious on the sidewalk.”
Kristy's jaw drops before she breaks into a smile and holds up her hand for a high five. I grip my towel with one hand and high-five her with the other.
“That's the way to do it.” She beams. “Wait till I tell Sam. She'll be so proud. Girl power!”
“Yeah,” I say, remembering the Russian's hands around my throat. “Awesome.”