Men Are Trouble - Chapter 2

I could’ve taken a cab, but they’re almost all driven by bots now, and bots keep nobody’s secrets. Besides, even though I had a thousand dollars in the bank, I thought I’d let it settle in for a while. Make itself at home. So I bicycled over to 12th Avenue. I started having doubts as I hit the 400 block. This part of the city had been kicked in the head and left bleeding on the sidewalk. Dark bars leaned against pawnshops. Board-ups turned their blank plywood faces to the street. There would be more bots than women in this neighborhood and more rats than bots.

The Adagio Spa squatted at 465 12th Avenue. It was a brick building with a reinforced luxar display window that was so scratched it looked like a thin slice of rainstorm. There were dusty plants behind it. The second floor windows were bricked over. I chained my bike to a dead car, set my sidekick to record and went in.

The rear wall of the little reception area was bright with pix of some Mediterranean seaside town. A clump of bad pixels made the empty beach flicker. A bot stepped through the door that led to the spa and took up a position at the front desk. “Good afternoon, Madam,” he said. “It’s most gratifying to welcome you. This one is called . . .”

“I’m looking for Kate Vermeil.” I don’t waste time on chitchat with bots. “Is she in?”

“It’s regrettable that she no longer takes work here.”

“She worked here?” I said. “I was told she lived here.”

“You was told wrong.” A granny filled the door, and then hobbled through, leaning on a metal cane. She was wearing a yellow flowered dress that was not quite as big as a circus tent and over it a blue smock with Noreen embroidered over the left breast. Her face was wide and pale as a hardboiled egg, her hair a ferment of tight gray curls. She had the biggest hands I had ever seen. “I’ll take care of this, Barry. Go see to Helen Ritzi. She gets another needle at twelve, then turn down the heat to 101.”

The bot bowed politely and left us.

“What’s this about then?” The cane wobbled and she put a hand on the desk to steady herself.

I dug the sidekick out of my slacks, opened the PI license folder and showed it to her. She read it slowly, sniffed and handed it back. “Young fluffs working at play jobs. Do something useful, why don’t you?”

“Like what?” I said. “Giving perms? Face peels?”

She was the woman of steel; sarcasm bounced off her. “If nobody does a real job, pretty soon the damn bots will replace us all.”

“Might be an improvement.” It was something to say, but as soon as I said it I wished I hadn’t. My generation was doing better than the grannies ever had. Maybe someday our kids wouldn’t need bots to survive.

Our kids. I swallowed a mouthful of ashes and called the pix Seeren had given me onto the sidekick’s screen. “I’m looking for Kate Vermeil.” I aimed it at her.

She peered at the pix and then at me. “You need a manicure.”

“The hell I do.”

“I work for a living, fluff. And my hip hurts if I stand up too long.” She pointed her cane at the doorway behind the desk. “What did you say your name was?”

The battered manicure table was in an alcove decorated with fake grapevines that didn’t quite hide the water stains in the drop ceiling. Dust covered the leaves, turning the plastic fruit from purple to gray.

Noreen rubbed a thumb over the tips of my fingers. “You bite your nails, or do you just cut them with a chainsaw?”

She wanted a laugh so I gave her one.

“So, nails square, round, or oval?” Her skin was dry and mottled with liver spots.

“Haven’t a clue.” I shrugged. “This was your idea.”

Noreen perched on an adjustable stool that was cranked low so that her face was only a foot above my hands. There were a stack of stainless steel bowls, a jar of Vaseline, a round box of salt, a bowl filled with packets of sugar stolen from McDonald’s, and a liquid soap dispenser on the table beside her. She started filing each nail from the corner to the center, going from left to right and then back. At first she worked in silence. I decided not to push her.

“Kate was my masseuse up until last week,” she said finally. “Gave her notice all of a sudden and left me in the lurch. I’ve had to pick up all her appointments and me with the bum hip. Some days I can’t hardly get out of bed. Something happen to her?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“But she’s missing.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know where she is, but that doesn’t mean she’s missing.”

Noreen poured hot water from an electric kettle into one of the stainless steel bowls, added cool water from a pitcher, squirted soap and swirled the mixture around. “You soak for five minutes.” She gestured for me to dip my hands into the bowl. “I’ll be back. I got to make sure that Barry doesn’t burn Helen Ritzi’s face off.” She stood with a grunt.

“Wait,” I said. “Did she say why she was quitting?”

Noreen reached for her cane. “Couldn’t stop talking about it. You’d think she was the first ever.”

“The first to what?”

The granny laughed. “You’re one hell of a detective, fluff. She was supposed to get married yesterday. Tell me that pix you’re flashing ain’t her doing the deed.”

She shuffled off, her white nursemate shoes scuffing against dirty linoleum. From deeper in the spa, I heard her kettle drum voice and then the bot’s snare. I was itching to take my sidekick out of my pocket, but I kept my hands in the soak. Besides, I’d looked at the pix enough times to know that she was right. A wedding. The hand with the ring would probably belong to a Christer priest. There would have been a witness and then the photographer, although maybe the photographer was the witness. Of course, I had tumbled to none of this in the two days I’d worked Rashmi Jones’s disappearance. I was one hell of a detective, all right. And Rashmi’s mom must not have known either. It didn’t make sense that she would hire me to find her daughter and hold something like that back.

“I swear,” said Noreen, leaning heavily on the cane as she creaked back to me, “that bot is scary. I sent down to City Hall for it just last week and already it knows my business left, right, up, and down. The thing is, if they’re so smart, how come they talk funny?”

“The devils designed them to drive us crazy.”

“They didn’t need no bots to do that, fluff.”

She settled back onto her stool, tore open five sugar packets and emptied their contents onto her palm. Then she reached for the salt box and poured salt onto the sugar. She squirted soap onto the pile and then rubbed her hands together. “I could buy some fancy exfoliating cream but this works just as good.” She pointed with her chin at my hands. “Give them a shake and bring them here.”

I wanted to ask her about Kate’s marriage plans, but when she took my hands in hers, I forgot the question. I’d never felt anything quite like it; the irritating scratch of the grit was offset by the sensual slide of our soapy fingers. Pleasure with just the right touch of pain—something I’d certainly be telling Sharifa about, if Sharifa and I were talking. My hands tingled for almost an hour afterward.

Noreen poured another bowl of water and I rinsed. “Why would getting married make Kate want to quit?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Something to do with her church?” Noreen patted me dry with a threadbare towel. “She went over to the Christers last year. Maybe Jesus don’t like married women giving backrubs. Or maybe she got seeded.” She gave a bitter laugh. “Everybody does eventually.”

I let that pass. “Tell me about Kate. What was she like to work with?”

“Average for the kind of help you get these sorry days.” Noreen pushed at my cuticles with an orangewood stick. “Showed up on time mostly; I could only afford to bring her in two days a week. No go-getter, but she could follow directions. Problem was she never really got close to the customers, always acting like this was just a pitstop. Kept to herself mostly, which was how I could tell she was excited about getting married. It wasn’t like her to babble.”

“And the bride?”

“Some Indian fluff—Rashy or something.”

“Rashmi Jones.”

She nodded. “Her I never met.”

“Did she go to school?”

“Must have done high school, but damned if I know where. Didn’t make much of an impression, I’d say. College, no way.” She opened a drawer where a flock of colored vials was nesting. “You want polish or clear coat on the nails?”

“No color. It’s bad for business.”

She leered at me. “Business is good?”

“You say she did massage for you?” I said. “Where did she pick that up?”

“Hold still now.” Noreen uncapped the vial; the milky liquid that clung to the brush smelled like super glue’s evil twin. “This is fast dry.” She painted the stuff onto my nails with short, confident strokes. “Kate claimed her mom taught her. Said she used to work at the health club at the Radisson before it closed down.”

“Did the mom have a name?”

“Yeah.” Noreen chewed her lower lip as she worked. “Mom. Give the other hand.”

I extended my arm. “So if Kate didn’t live here, where she did live?”

“Someplace. Was on her application.” She kept her head down until she’d finished. “You’re done. Wave them around a little—that’s it.”

After a moment, I let my arms drop to my side. We stared at each other. Then Noreen heaved herself off the stool and led me back out to the reception room.

“That’ll be eighty cents for the manicure, fluff.” She waved her desktop on. “You planning on leaving a tip?”

I pulled out the sidekick and beamed two dollars at the desk. Noreen opened the payment icon, grunted her approval and then opened another folder. “Says here she lives at 44 East Washington Avenue.”

I groaned.

“Something wrong?”

“I already have that address.”

“Got her call too? Kate@Washington.03284.”

“No, that’s good. Thanks.” I went to the door and paused. I don’t know why I needed to say anything else to her, but I did. “I help people, Noreen. Or at least I try. It’s a real job, something bots can’t do.”

She just stood there, kneading the bad hip with a big, dry hand.

I unchained my bike, pedaled around the block and then pulled over. I read Kate Vermeil’s call into my sidekick. Her sidekick picked up on the sixth chirp. There was no pix.

“You haven’t reached Kate yet, but your luck might change if you leave a message at the beep.” She put on the kind of low, smoky voice that doesn’t come out to play until dark. It was a nice act.

“Hi Kate,” I said. “My name is Fay Hardaway and I’m a friend of Rashmi Jones. She asked me to give you a message about yesterday so please give me a call at Fay@Market.03284.” I wasn’t really expecting her to respond, but it didn’t hurt to try.

I was on my way to 44 East Washington Avenue when my sidekick chirped in the pocket of my slacks. I picked up. Rashmi Jones’s mom, Najma, stared at me from the screen with eyes as deep as wells.

“The police came,” she said. “They said you were supposed to notify them first. They want to speak to you again.”

They would. So I’d called the law after I called the mom—they’d get over it. You don’t tell a mother that her daughter is dead and then ask her to act surprised when the cops come knocking. “I was working for you, not them.”

“I want to see you.”

“I understand.”

“I hired you to find my daughter.”

“I did,” I said. “Twice.” I was sorry as soon as I said it.

She glanced away; I could hear squeaky voices in the background. “I want to know everything,” she said. “I want to know how close you came.”

“I’ve started a report. Let me finish it and I’ll bring it by later. . . .”

“Now,” she said. “I’m at school. My lunch starts at eleven-fifty and I have recess duty at twelve-fifteen.” She clicked off.

I had nothing to feel guilty about, so why was I tempted to wriggle down a storm drain and find the deepest sewer in town? Because a mom believed that I hadn’t worked fast enough or smart enough to save her daughter? Someone needed to remind these people that I didn’t fix lost things, I just found them. But that someone wouldn’t be me. My play now was simply to stroll into her school and let her beat me about the head with her grief. I could take it. I ate old Bogart movies for breakfast and spit out bullets. And at the end of this cocked day, I could just forget about Najma Jones, because there would be no Sharifa reminding me how much it cost me to do my job. I took out my sidekick, linked to my desktop and downloaded everything I had in the Jones file. Then I swung back onto my bike.

The mom had left a message three days ago, asking that I come out to her place on Ashbury. She and her daughter rattled around in an old Victorian with gingerbread gables and a front porch the size of Cuba. The place had been in the family for four generations. Theirs had been a big family—once. The mom said that Rashmi hadn’t come home the previous night. She hadn’t called and didn’t answer messages. The mom had contacted the cops, but they weren’t all that interested. Not enough time would have passed for them. Too much time had passed for the mom.

The mom taught fifth grade at Reagan Elementary. Rashmi was a twenty-six year-old-grad student, six credits away from an MFA in Creative Writing. The mom trusted her to draw money from the family account, so at first I thought I might be able to find her by chasing debits. But there was no activity in the account we could attribute to the missing girl. When I suggested that she might be hiding out with friends, the mom went prickly on me. Turned out that Rashmi’s choice of friends was a cause of contention between them. Rashmi had dropped her old pals in the last few months and taken up with a new, religious crowd. Alix, Gratiana, Elaine, and Kate—the mom didn’t know their last names—were members of the Church of Christ the Man. I’d had trouble with Christers before and wasn’t all that eager to go up against them again, so instead I biked over to campus to see Rashmi’s advisor. Zelda Manotti was a dithering old granny who would have loved to help except she had all the focus of paint spatter. She did let me copy Rashmi’s novel-in-progress. And she did let me tag along to her advanced writing seminar, in case Rashmi showed up for it. She didn’t. I talked to the three other students after class, but they either didn’t know where she was or wouldn’t say. None of them was Gratiana, Alix, or Elaine.

That night I skimmed The Lost Heart, Rashmi’s novel. It was a nostalgic and sentimental weeper set back before the devils disappeared all the men. Young Brigit Bird was searching for her father, a famous architect who had been kidnapped by Colombian drug lords. If I was just a fluff doing a fantasy job in the pretend economy, then old Noreen would have crowned Rashmi Jones queen of fluffs.

I’d started day two back at the Joneses’ home. The mom watched as I went through Rashmi’s room. I think she was as worried about what I might find as she was that I would find nothing. Rashmi listened to the Creeps, had three different pairs of Kat sandals, owned everything Denise Pepper had ever written, preferred underwire bras and subscribed to News for the Confused. She had kicked about a week’s worth of dirty clothes under her bed. Her wallpaper mix cycled through koalas, the World’s Greatest Beaches, ruined castles, and Playgirl Centerfolds 2000-2010. She’d kept a handwritten diary starting in the sixth grade and ending in the eighth in which she often complained that her mother was strict and that school was boring. The only thing I found that rattled the mom was a Christer Bible tucked into the back of the bottom drawer of the nightstand. When I pulled it out, she flushed and stalked out of the room.

I found my lead on the Joneses’ home network. Rashmi was not particularly diligent about backing up her sidekick files, and the last one I found was almost six months old, which was just about when she’d gotten religion. She’d used simple encryption, which wouldn’t withstand a serious hack, but which would discourage the mom from snooping. I doglegged a key and opened the file. She had multiple calls. Her mother had been trying her at Rashmi@Ashbury.03284. But she also had an alternate: Brigitbird@Vincent.03284. I did a reverse lookup and that turned an address: The Church of Christ the Man, 348 Vincent Avenue. I wasn’t keen for a personal visit to the church, so I tried her call.

“Hello,” said a voice.

“Is this Rashmi Jones?”

The voice hesitated. “My name is Brigit. Leave me alone.”

“Your mother is worried about you, Rashmi. She hired me to find you.”

“I don’t want to be found.”

“I’m reading your novel, Rashmi.” It was just something to say; I wanted to keep her on the line. “I was wondering, does she find her father at the end?”

“No.” I could hear her breath caressing the microphone. “The devils come. That’s the whole point.”

Someone said something to her and she muted the speaker. But I knew she could still hear me. “That’s sad, Rashmi. But I guess that’s the way it had to be.”

Then she hung up.

The mom was relieved that Rashmi was all right, furious that she was with Christers. So what? I’d found the girl: case closed. Only Najma Jones begged me to help her connect with her daughter. She was already into me for twenty bucks plus expenses, but for another five I said I’d try to get her away from the church long enough for them to talk. I was on my way over when the searchlet I’d attached to the Jones account turned up the hit at Grayle’s Shoes. I was grateful for the reprieve, even more pleased when the salesbot identified Rashmi from her pix. As did the waitress at Maison Diana.

And the clerk at the Comfort Inn.